Roger Thayer Stone Center For Latin American Studies

Tulane University

Professor John W. Verano's Summer Field Work in Peru

September 27th, 2012

Since 1983, Professor John W. Verano has collaborated with several major archaeological projects on the north coast of Peru, excavating and analyzing human remains from cemeteries and sacrificial sites. In fall of 2011, two major discoveries of human remains were made at Verano’s Moche dig site. The excavations were halted and covered until summer of 2012 when Verano came to Peru on a Travel Grant from the Stone Center to supervise their removal and study. He was accompanied by three graduate students from Tulane, Ximena Chávez Balderas, Brittany Dement, and Linda Potter.

Verano’s new discoveries offer intriguing evidence about Moche human sacrificial and burial practices. The first find of skeletal remains was associated with a platform mound (Platform III, known as the “New Temple”) near the Pyramid of Moon. The second, of more than 100 burials, was uncovered at a large adobe platform located just north of the Pyramid.

The New Temple

The excavations at the New Temple, co-directed by Verano and archaeologist Nadia Gamarra of the Huaca de la Luna Project, offered compelling new evidence regarding Moche sacrificial practices. The team began their research by photographing and removing the skeletal material that had been found in the previous field season, and then continued excavating the sediment in which bones were found. They dug down to the occupational floor on which the temple had been built.

Over the course of the excavation, the team recovered a number of partial skeletons as well as hundreds of isolated human bones along the western face of the temple. Laboratory analysis of the remains revealed cut marks and fractures on many of the bones. The marks confirmed that the bones were the remains of sacrificed individuals. The patterning of cut marks was similar to that seen on the bones of sacrificial victims excavated from earlier deposits found at the nearby Pyramid of the Moon, indicating that the Moche decapitated and dismembered victims in a similar manner at the two sites.

Verano’s excavations at the New Temple this past summer marked the completion of a project begun more than fifteen years earlier, documenting the sacrifice of captives at the Pyramid of the Moon. Human sacrifices were once believed to be practiced by the Moche only in rare events associated with environmental disasters such as El Niño rains. This latest discovery at the New Temple demonstrates that they were in fact practiced for over six hundred years, from the time of the first construction of ceremonial architecture at the site (c. AD 200) until its final abandonment by the Moche, c. AD 850. Uncovering the history of sacrificial practices at the Pyramid of the Moon is an important element in ongoing scholarly debates about Moche warfare, political organization, and ritual practices. The team is currently working to complete statistical analyses of the sample and are preparing a report to be published by the Huaca de la Luna Project.

Burials at the Adobe Platform

The team completed excavations at the New Temple relatively early in the field season. They then shifted their focus to the more than 100 tombs found in the adobe platform north of the Pyramid of the Moon. In what remained of the summer field season, they were able to excavate and complete lab analysis on nine burials from the adobe platform. They also excavated and analyzed six burials encountered in two other excavations at the site. Some of these dated to the Moche occupation, others to later Chimú and Inca occupations. The burials varied in tomb form, body position, and types of grave goods.

The burials the team excavated in the second half of the field season have the potential to provide important information about the collapse of Moche society and post-Moche occupation of the site. The burials in the platform date to what is now known as the “Transitional Period,” a time immediately following the collapse of the Moche civilization, but prior to the rise of later complex societies on the north coast of Peru. As Verano notes, “They comprise the largest known sample of interments from this time period, and will provide important data on changing mortuary patterns and ceramic styles during this poorly-understood time. Study of the skeletal remains should reveal additional information on health, demography, and genetic relationships between the Moche and post-Moche inhabitants of the site.”

Andes + People
Fernando Rivera-Díaz
Associate Professor - Spanish & Portuguese