Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Steve Bourget on Sacrifice, Violence, and Ideology Among the Moche

In a special precinct dedicated to ritual sacrifice at Huaca de la Luna on the north coast of Peru, about seventy-five men were killed and dismembered, their remains and body parts then carefully rearranged and left on the ground with numerous offerings. The discovery of 
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this large sacrificial site—one of the most important sites of this type in the Americas—raises fundamental questions. Why was human sacrifice so central to Moche ideology and religion? And why is sacrifice so intimately related to the notions of warfare and capture?

Steve Bourget is a world authority on the Moche and author of Sex, Death, and Sacrifice in Moche Religion and Visual Culture and coeditor of The Art and Archaeology of the Moche: An Ancient Andean Society of the Peruvian North Coast. He is currently a research associate in the Department of Anthropology at the Université de Montréal. We asked him some questions about his latest book, Sacrifice, Violence, and Ideology Among the Moche: The Rise of Social Complexity in Ancient Peru. His study uncovers some fascinating relationships, like how El Niño conditions influenced broader aspects of Moche religion and cosmology, how a concomitant relationship emerges between the practice of human sacrifice and the rise of social complexity across New World societies, and how uniting iconography with archaeology helps scholars deepen our understanding of the Moche people and their power structures.

Why was human sacrifice so central to Moche ideology and religion?

The practice of human sacrifice in any ancient society is a complex matter. Each situation must be approached with caution and understood within its own cultural context. In the Moche case, the archaeology and its visual culture have shown that this ritual practice was closely related to their power structure. In death, high-ranking individuals are regularly buried with retainers who appear to have been sacrificed, and in life, sophisticated sacrificial rituals were apparently carried out to celebrate the link between these individuals with the divine domain.

Remains of a pair of victims, precisely laid in opposite directions on the ground of the sacrificial site
Ritual violence and sacrifice clearly index the power of the ruler and separate its status from that of the Moche population in general. The most complex rituals depicted in the iconography, the remains of which have sometimes been detected in the archaeological record, often culminate with human sacrifice and the exchange of the blood of the victims between high-status individuals. In these contexts, the rulers possess, like divine beings, the power over life and death. The presence of the same individuals instigating the cycle of ritual violence in the scenes of ritual warfare leading to capture and, eventually, human sacrifice indicates that they oversee all the aspects of the ritual process. They are both the instigators of this violence and the recipients of the benefits of sacrifice.

Therefore, the use of ritual violence and human sacrifice is structurally associated with the development of Moche power and the nature of rulership. In addition to creating a fundamental difference between the rulers and the rest of the society, human sacrifice reinforces the sacred dimension of these individuals and that of their lineages.

Explain how the ritual ecology of El Niño conditions influenced broader aspects of Moche religion and cosmology.

Firstly, the term "ritual ecology" refers to the use of the natural environment in its broadest sense to anchor and validate ideological precepts and religious beliefs disseminated by Moche elite. Therefore, the animal species and the environmental conditions selected by the Moche systematically contributed to highlighting and reinforcing certain ideological aspects. El Niño conditions were embedded in this overall scheme to create a symbolic system of everything that was both ritually and ideologically significant for the exercise of power. By using such an elaborate metaphorical system centered around the impact of El Niño events in the north coast region, their objective was to provide a rationale for the exercise of power and rulership. During the humid conditions brought by El Niño, the land is drastically transformed, the desertic landscape is transformed, countless animal species thrive and multiply, both on the land, in the air and in the waters, and the limitless power of the gods become apparent in the physical world. Harnessing the power of this climatic event to serve their ideological needs has to be recognized as one of the most brilliant ideas ever devised by an Early State society.

By staging some of the most intricate and complex rituals, such as the sacrificial site from Huaca de la Luna, to coincide with these events, Moche high-ranking individuals intended to symbolically link themselves and their rulership to these conditions—or perhaps more aptly to the gods who created them. This is an apt metaphor for rulership and their power to affect and to maintain the balance of the world in their capacity as rulers imbued with a divine nature.

How do the Moche notions of warfare and capture relate to the practice of sacrifice?

As revealed in the visual culture and in the reconstitution of their rituals, ritualized violence is undoubtedly the most important and central aspects of Moche ideology. This staged violence, dictated by the State, is not only inscribed in a mythological discourse but in a series of ritual actions that entail five and sometimes up to six distinct and consecutive stages : 1) the ceremonial combat, 2) the defeat of one of the combatants, 3) the capture of the vanquished opponent, 4) the transformation of the captive into a sacrificial victim, 5) the sacrifice and, in some cases, 6) the exchange of the blood of the victims between high-ranking individuals. Archaeological evidence detected at most Moche ceremonial centers, including the Huaca de la Luna sacrificial site, indicate that these activities really existed.

I suggest that most of these battles were staged in the vicinity of the temples and were meant to be witnessed by the local Moche population. In addition to providing for an impressive display and intense charismatic event, these battles would have validated the selection of the sacrificial victims. The victims would not have been randomly or arbitrarily chosen by the rulers or the sacrificers but by the gods themselves. It appears that the Mesoamerican ballgame of the Maya would have served the same purpose 
at times. The proper selection of the victim is as important as the sacrificial ritual itself, perhaps even more so. Without it, it becomes solely a random act of violence tantamount to an unjustified murder. Sacrifice, like power, rests on consensus.

How does your book deepen our understanding of the Moche people and power structures?

Perhaps the main contributions of this book were to define the roles of ritual violence in the development of Moche rulership and to introduce for the first time a sense historical depth in the development of this Early State society. Even with the fragmentary nature of the data collected so far, all the main Moche ceremonial centers presently under investigation possess two distinguishable but inter-related sets of information: the visual culture that depicts State ideology and the archaeological evidence of ritual actions. These shared traditions of practices and symbolic systems would have led to the establishment of common ideological systems and rulership structures throughout the Moche ceremonial centers of the north coast. Therefore, the iconographies, disseminated by the elites residing at these ceremonial centers, are only artifacts—indexes—of a more complex system of political actions and ideological values. In this study, we were able to map for the first time the diverse relationships between Moche visual culture, ritual practices, and political institutions, and begin to understand the transformations in these structures during this part of Moche history. By uniting the iconography with the archaeology, the aim is to offer some views regarding the nature of the rituals and political configurations created and maintained by the Moche from the late 3rd to the late 8th century.

The consistency with which other major ceremonial and urban sites other than the Huacas de Moche adopted the symbolism associated with activities that include ritualized violence, capture, and sacrifice suggests that they jointly participated in these actions. These rituals were shared ideologies, and demonstrate that these sites were participating in interwoven social and political systems.

What other cultures of the Americas have practiced human sacrifice and what makes the Moche system of belief different?

Sacrificial rituals, and most particularly human sacrifice, play an intricate role in the politics and religions of most complex societies of the New World. There seems to be a concomitant relationship between the practice of sacrifice and the rise of social complexity. The superficial similarities between different sacrificial practices in many regions of the Americas are probably based more on our ignorance of their specificity and complexity than from a supposedly common origin leading to an all encompassing theory not only of sacrifice but of human culture and social formation. I therefore think that sacrifice cannot be defined cross-culturally and that the word is at best a device which refers to a cluster of phenomena and rituals.

How could we fit in a simple and all encompassing theory of the practice of bloodletting and the ballgame of the Maya, the skinning of the victim during the xipe-totec ritual of the Aztec, or the offering of children to the mountain Gods of the Inca? Some of these rituals are dedicated to the environment: mountain, wind, water, sea, and others to natural phenomena: rainfalls, thunder, lightning, earthquakes, and then some are politically motivated: war between two city-states, accession to the throne, or triggered by social events like certain rite de passage: childbirth, adulthood, death, etc. Moreover, I believe that sacrificial practices cannot be defined independently from the whole religious and social context where they were executed. Sacrifice is only part of a much wider situation which gives it its specificity.

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