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."

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