Ancient Peru Torture Deaths: Sacrifices or War Crimes?

Ben Harder
for National Geographic News
April 29, 2002
Forensic anthropologist John Verano of Tulane University in New Orleans has been investigating a series of grisly executions in the arid valleys of lowland Peru. Evidence from the skeletal remains shows that the victims, who lived during the Moche civilization nearly two thousand years ago, suffered shockingly brutal deaths.

Some were apparently skinned alive. Others were drained of blood, decapitated, or bound tightly and left to be eaten by vultures. But who were they, and why were they killed so viciously?

The motives behind the brutal acts remain obscure. But thanks to painstaking analysis by Verano and his colleagues, scientists are moving closer to solving the mystery.

National Geographic filmmakers follow Verano's work in an EXPLORER program, "Moche Murder Mysteries," which airs in the United States, May 4 [see details below].

When the graves at a Moche temple complex in northern Peru were uncovered, the human remains showed many clear marks of violence. Various theories arose to explain it. One proposes that the Moche sacrificed some of their own people to appease the gods and improve the fertility of their land. Another suggests that the victims were enemies of the Moche executioners—losers of fierce power struggles between competing prehistoric city-states—who were ritually murdered.

Verano's team employs cutting-edge forensic science to carefully decipher the many clues left behind.

So far, the scientists have unearthed more than 100 skeletons buried at different sites between about A.D. 150 and A.D. 650. "This is a tradition that went on for hundreds of years," Verano said.

Culture of Bloodshed

The grim events revealed by the archaeological findings have long been familiar to scholars from finely rendered pottery and murals of the Moche people. Scenes embellished with abundant bloodshed show victims being humiliated, abused, and executed.

Some people have interpreted these frightening scenes as exaggerated fictions concocted by the Moche to scare enemies. The recent analysis, however, suggests that the events depicted were horrifyingly real and not figments of artists' imagination.

The revelation of gruesome forms of torture is puzzling in part because the Moche developed a vibrant and highly advanced culture. These pre-Inca Peruvians were renowned builders, artists, and warriors. Their technological advances included, for example, techniques of irrigation that made their valleys even more productive than the same land is today, according to Verano.

Combat was a prevalent theme of Moche art. The detailed scenes on pottery and murals form what UCLA anthropologist Christopher B. Donnan calls a rich "warrior narrative."

Donnan has been studying Moche art for 35 years, and his interpretation of the disturbing executions is that they were part of ritual combat among Moche elites. "From all the artistic depictions we have, these are Moche against Moche, not warfare with some other group," he said.

In the Moche scenes of battle, each combatant wore a loincloth, patterned tunic, and conical helmet, and hung a trapezoidal metal flap from the back of his belt. Along with their other accessories, the warriors' elaborate dress suggests that they brought both wealth and pageantry to combat, which Donnan likens to medieval jousts.

Various panels show warriors squaring off, locked in combat, or in the aftermath of battle.

"A few [panels] show a warrior triumphing over another, but not striking the loser on the ground"—a sign that battles were not fought to the death, said Donnan.

Instead, the art suggests that a victorious warrior took the weapons and belongings of the loser, tied a rope around the vanquished fighter's neck, and led him away naked.

The captives were subsequently sacrificed in a bloody ritual, and their bodies—or parts of them—scattered.

"We have scenes of the killer of the captive and priests and priestesses drinking his blood," Donnan said. Other scenes show the loser's dismembered limbs being used as trophies.

The significance of this practice isn't known, but it may have been part of a ritual associated with agricultural productivity. Even today, some people in the Andes associate the spilling of blood with the fertility of Earth, and staged—but not lethal—fights still occur in parts of the region.

War Crimes?

But why were the bodies of the losers so mutilated and cast aside in prehistoric times?

As a possible explanation, Donnan suggested said the suffering of the losers may have had a ritualistic meaning in Moche society much as the pain of Christ does in Christianity. "Christians don't think of the Crucifixion of Christ as being demeaning," he pointed out. "Rather, we're in awe about the suffering this individual went through."

Verano's latest finds, however, undermine the notion that these scenes were merely a part of ritual combat. Some of the recently unearthed skeletons, the researchers say, show marks indicating that the bones were stripped of flesh with even greater care than would have been characteristic of cannibalism.

Such practices of defleshing victims don't appear in Moche art, said Donnan. "This makes it extremely enigmatic," he said. "It's hard to fit it into the warrior narrative."

"These people were clearly denied proper burial," and were instead left in open pits to be preyed on by vultures and flies, Verano said. "They were desecrated. The closest analogy would be war crimes today."

He thinks the victims were war prisoners, not losers of ritual combat among the elite of a particular city. "They may be Moche," he said, "but from other valleys."

One clue is that some of their wounds had time to heal before they died, perhaps an indication that they were rounded up after battle and marched back to the city where they were ultimately killed.

Other clues also hint that the victims hailed from diferent regions. Variations in the shape of the victims' teeth also indicate that they were from different population groups.

By analyzing the chemical composition of the victims' hair, Verano and his colleagues determined that some of the dead had a diet rich in seafood, indicating that they lived along the coast, while others appeared to have lived at higher elevations.

Variations in the shape of the victims' teeth also indicate that they were from different population groups. Both those clues suggest that the victims hailed from different regions.

The victims were buried individually or in small groups, not in true mass graves. To Verano, this suggests that the victims represent "a few principal captives from each episode" of conflict between the city and its enemies.

Verano hopes that more evidence will help answer the questions that remain. So far, he said, "we've only poked around in certain areas. There may be other mass graves we haven't found yet."

While the reason for the ancient wars may be lost in the mists of time, the fierceness of the bloodshed is no longer in doubt.

The National Geographic Television Special "Moche Murder Mysteries" premiered in the United States on Saturday, May 4, 2002, at 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT on MSNBC.

For programming information and updates for National Geographic EXPLORER, please log on to the EXPLORER Web site.

National Geographic Resources on Ancient American Civilizations:

News Stories:

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Machu Picchu Re-Created on Geographic Map

City Occupied by Inca Discovered on Andean Peak in Peru

Fall of Ancient Peruvian Societies Linked With El Niño

Pilgrimage Route Uncovered at South America's Lake Titicaca

Excavations Challenge Views of Maya Development in Yucatán

Ancient Peruvian Metropolis Predates Other Known Cities

Oldest Intact Maya Mural Found in Guatemala

Tomb of "Giants" Unearthed in Peru

Related National Geographic Web sites:

National Geographic Inca Homepage (interactive feature, photo galleries, and more): Inca Mummies: Secrets of a Lost World

National Geographic Magazine: Moche Burials Uncovered

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