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Moche Decapitator mural at Huaca de la Luna

Exploring the Cupisnique Civilization: First Amongst the Supernatural Decapitators?


The Cupisnique culture (1500 BC-200 BC) is considered one of the most definitive and influential societies that existed in the Jequetepeque Valley of Peru. Their influence reached Cajamarca, Chavin, and the northern highlands of the area and included the continued cult of supernatural decapitators among the iconography. The Cupisnique archaeological sites include several settlements in Puemape on the coast, Limoncarro in the middle valley, Montegrande and Tembladera in the Upper Valley, and Kuntur Wasi in San Pablo.

Cupisnique was considered a pre-metallurgical culture, though evidence reveals the Cupisnique to be excellent goldsmiths. In later years, the Cupisnique and Chavin (900 BC- 200 BC) would merge to become one culture and then both would disappear. There is not much evidence to account for why this happened; however, there has been speculation that natural disasters might have been responsible.

The Jaguar Crown found in the Andean highlands of Peru; evidence reflects the Cupisnique were goldsmiths

The Jaguar Crown found in the Andean highlands of Peru; evidence reflects the Cupisnique were goldsmiths. (A.Davey / CC BY-SA 2.0)

A Defining Moment for the Cupisnique

Their discovery is first credited to Rafael Larco Hoyle who, in 1926, identified the significant difference that the Cupisnique artistry included. Before this distinction was made, most northern coastal Peruvian cultures were assumed to be Chavin.

Most of the information that exists about the Cupisnique culture comes from cemeteries that were excavated by Larco Hoyle and others. Larco Hoyle discovered that most of the Cupisnique people buried their dead in irregular sub soil oval pits.

They were usually adorned with carved bone rings, shell ornaments, and high-quality anthracite mirrors. Other items were pottery vessels, stirrup-spouted bottles, and carved bone tablets or spatulas possibly used for the ingestion of hallucinogens during ceremonial rituals.

The main Cupisnique distinctive style was in the adobe clay used in their architectural designs as well as their religious symbols. One of their most iconic designs is the black stirrup-handled Cupisnique ceramic vase with the symbol of a feline face. This artifact dated to 1250 BC. It is now believed that the Cupisnique art and religion was the primary influence of the Chavin culture.

Example of a stirrup-spout vessel, Cupisnique culture, Peru north coast, Early Horizon, c. 900-200 BC, ceramic - Dallas Museum of Art

Example of a stirrup-spout vessel, Cupisnique culture, Peru north coast, Early Horizon, c. 900-200 BC, ceramic - Dallas Museum of Art. (Daderot, Public Domain)

Cupisnique Supernatural Decapitators

The Cupisnique artistic motifs carried symbols which are known as the Cupisnique Supernatural Decapitators. There are five distinctive characters: The Human, the Monster, the Bird, the Fish, and the Spider. Their depictions resemble the common theme of cyclical rebirth from the beheading of individual figures.

Cupisnique artistic motifs carried symbols such as the Spider

Cupisnique artistic motifs carried symbols such as the Spider. (Leevclarke / CC BY-SA 3.0)

This theme remains common with people of that region. The later Inca, to some degree, also incorporated supernatural decapitators and decapitations. In the case of the Inca, the supernatural decapitators were the Spanish, and the victim was the Inkarri. (See Inkarri and Paititi). The Cupisnique culture may have been a primary influence for the beliefs and rituals of the Andean culture itself.

However, other than the mentioned finds above, there is not very much known about the Cupisnique. In fact, for the longest time, both the Cupisnique and the Chavin were considered interchangeable due to their approximation and similarity in their cultural art. To some degree, the Cupisnique and the Moche were deemed to be interchangeable as well, leaving much open for debate as to who the Cupisnique culture was.

"Shaman" - ceramic (about 1000 AD) - from Peru, Chavìn-Cupisnique culture - "The World that wasn't there / Pre-Columbian art in the Ligabue Collections" - Temporary Exhibition, up October 30, 2017 - Naples, Archaeological Museum

"Shaman" - ceramic (about 1000 AD) - from Peru, Chavìn-Cupisnique culture - "The World that wasn't there / Pre-Columbian art in the Ligabue Collections" - Temporary Exhibition, up October 30, 2017 - Naples, Archaeological Museum. (Carlo Raso / Public Domain)

Comparing the Decapitators Between the Moche and Cupisnique

Though there is a time gap of 200-400 years between the end of the Cupisnique and the beginning of the Moche, both cultures thrived in the same areas in the northern coast of Peru. Both cultures were known for their extraordinary art. Though distinct enough to be identified separately, they still carried many similarities.

A great deal more is known about the Moche society than the Cupisnique. Most Moche sites have remained consistent in how their culture was run. Moche society was highly stratified.

Huaca del Sol ‘Temple of the Sun’, Moche cultural capital, south of the modern city of Trujillo

Huaca del Sol ‘Temple of the Sun’, Moche cultural capital, south of the modern city of Trujillo. (S23678 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

It incorporated farmers and fishermen, as well as a developed middle class consisting of merchants and skilled artisans. It also contained a wealthy elite population.

Even though there was a definite material culture distinction between the Moche and the northern coast, the similarities lived in the religious icons. Religious icons which no doubt were influenced by the Cupisnique.

The Moche might have seen the art of the Cupisnique as awe-inspiring and proceeded to carry it on as a form of tribute to the past. In most instances, both the Cupisnique and the Moche used the same cast of characters consisting of the Fish, the Monster, the Human, the Bird, and the Spider.
One style that was most popular was the icons of decapitations. The main commonality among the decapitators of the Cupisnique and the Moche are that their supernatural beings all wield a crescent-bladed knife for the act of decapitation.

A reproduction of a Moche decapitator statue on display at the Army Museum in Stockholm

A reproduction of a Moche decapitator statue on display at the Army Museum in Stockholm. (Peter Osotalo / Public Domain)

Of all the decapitators, the human decapitator seems to be the most striking. Whether this was a supernatural fable, or whether the supernatural human decapitator was an actual person who existed remains to unknown. The fact remains that in the Cupisnique depictions, the human decapitator remains the most colorful and the most versatile in the representations.

The supernatural human decapitator is depicted more flamboyantly than the other depictions and appears in more of their art. The human decapitator appears on vases fighting the supernatural monster decapitator. Other supernatural decapitators have not shown such epic battles.
The art of the supernatural decapitations was seen in all the bone and stone ornaments and engraved into stone vases and bowls. These same supernatural decapitations were shown in Moche metal and ceramic ornaments.

Moche Nariguera depicting the decapitator, art influenced by the Cupisnique

Moche Nariguera depicting the decapitator, art influenced by the Cupisnique. (Manuel González Olaechea / CC BY-SA 3.0)

However, unlike the Cupisnique, the Moche carry two more supernatural decapitators known as the Scorpion and the Crab. They may have either been additional variations of the Spider Decapitator or were incorporated later to represent other regions which the Moche may have visited.

The concept of decapitation, though bloody to some, might be symbolic to the cycle of life and rebirth. The idea of severing the head is revealed as an act of labor in order to grow anew.
Much like what has been seen with the Inca and their myths, the concept of death is only the beginning for it is sometimes depicted that bodies would regrow from the severed heads. This depiction questions if the heads are heads at all, but tubers such as yams, potatoes, and other crops which can be reproduced by splitting in two.

As other scholars such as Alana Cordy Collins state “…The severing of heads was…something to be harvested. This suggestion is reinforced by examples of Cupisnique modeled ceramic tubers incised with human heads. It is also intriguing that only in the Spider Decapitator representations are the severed heads in webs or bags…”.

Everything that has been created by the Cupisnique has always been rooted with the supernatural, and almost nothing reveals simple natural depictions. All other forms of Cupisnique art are lacking in commonplace representations.

Moche art was heavily influenced in the original old Cupisnique tradition of depicting head takers. Both cultures occupied the same areas, however how the Moche came to adopt the Cupisnique religion and iconography may forever remain a mystery.

Given the large period gap between the two, scholars have suggested that Moche artists may have not only been inspired by their artforms but were firm believers in their religions. With this in mind, could the Cupisnique culture be seen more like a religious movement rather than a separate culture entirely?

The Archaeological Evidence

There have been considerable excavations going on since 2007, led by Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva, which have given much insight to the cultures that have habituated that area. However, more is still yet to be fully understood.

In 2008, three temples were discovered in the Lambayeque valley. The sites were called "Collud," "Ventarron," and "Zarpan". These Cupisnique adobe temples gave insight into the connection between the Chavin and the Cupisnique due to their iconic and religious similarities.

Ventarron site with painted murals was inhabited by the early Cupisnique culture

Ventarron site with painted murals was inhabited by the early Cupisnique culture. (Enrique Jara / CC BY-SA 4.0)

All three temples are close in proximity and form a single archaeological area. All three elements also contain shared motifs such as the Spider creator god with his net. All temples are dated to be 4,000 years old.

The icons of the decapitators have also played a significant role in archaeology. Most of these have been used to help identify artifacts made from metal, gold, silver, copper, and alloys formed with the elements. Two items were excavated at the site of Sipan in the Lambayeque Valley.

Alva made the discovery of Ventarron. Its location was excavated in Peru near Chiclayo in 2007, is 4,500 years old. Vantarron contained painted murals. The Ventarron site appeared to be inhabited by the Cupisnique, the Chavin, and finally the Moche.

This complex covered 1.6 miles (2,500 meters) overall. The structure was constructed from bricks made from river sediment and was considered a unique design for the region. Much of the area around the site was looted in 1990, then again in 1992. However, the temple itself remained undiscovered until Alva.

According to Alva, its murals’ creation was dated to 2,000 BC, making Ventarron one of the oldest temples ever discovered in the Americas. The primary colors used were red and white. One side depicted a deer tangled in a net and the other side was an abstract supernatural design.

Other artifacts that were discovered may have been ceremonial offerings. These included parrots and a monkey which most likely originated from Peru's jungle regions. Shells originating from coastal Ecuador were also found.

Chavin artifact. Incised Strombus-Shell Trumpet, 400-200 BC

Chavin artifact. Incised Strombus-Shell Trumpet, 400-200 BC. (Kaitlyn153 / Public Domain)

These findings were important to potentially reveal a form of trade with these regions. Alva believes that the temple was intentionally buried after the people were done with its purpose. What that purpose was is still unknown.

Another site which was also discovered by Alva is the Temple of Collud, (also known as the ‘Spider Temple’). Collud is the only temple which stands to be used by both Cupisnique and Chavin due to the shared iconography. It was discovered in the Lambayeque Valley near the archaeological site of Ventarron.

This temple used adobe blocks in its construction, a technique which is more common than the bricks that were found in the Ventarron site. The temple that was constructed adjacent to Collud was known as Zarpan and it is currently still being studied.

There has been little direct evidence of Cupisnique architecture and art. The few remains that do exist reveal that their structures were not made haphazardly but rather that there was a systematic design.

Such temples as the Ventarron, Collud, and Zarpan would need a complex organization consisting of a social development comprised of architects, artisans, manual laborers, farmers, fishermen, hunters, and merchants in order to create what was presented at these sites. However, the actual evidence is still minimal. Hopefully, further information will be learned about the mysterious Cupisnique and the influence they had over the Chavin and the Moche.

The Demise of the Cupisnique

After 500 BC, the northern coast of Peru became integrated into the Chavin culture, and the Cupisnique was absorbed into the Chavin sphere of influence. After this time, both the Chavin and the Cupisnique essentially became one. By 200 BC, both the Chavin and the Cupisnique culture became phased out by the cultural movement known as the Salinar.

Scholars believe that the decline of the Cupisnique societies was due to climate change. From the archaeological excavations from Puemape, there is evidence of harsh storms and tsunamis which profoundly impacted the shoreline.

These disasters probably devastated and displaced the Cupisnique populations which existed near the coast, crippling the significant economy of fishing and farming in that region. Eventually, most of the Cupisnique may have had no choice but to move inland and take refuge with any other group which would take them.

Closing Thoughts on the Cupisnique Culture

With only a few shards from the past, that can be found, how could an entire civilization be identified and characterized to be as such? Most of what is known is from funerary pots and the remains of settlements adorning faint traces of the art.

Stirrup-handled Cupisnique ceramic vase 1250 BC

Stirrup-handled Cupisnique ceramic vase 1250 BC. (Patrick.charpiat / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Is it safe to assume that an artform can dictate the presence of a dominant culture, or could it be a religious movement, or nothing more than a material art style? What assumptions can genuinely be made when in archaeology, researchers are considered blessed when given only two percent of the past?

In the thousands of years to come, would future researchers ask if the blue threads with the Latin words ‘Jordache’ be considered a completely different culture to those who were found buried with ‘Levis and Strauss’ blue threads? Would then people of the future assume that these two religious cultures went to war and that Levis teamed with Strauss to survive?

In the end, all that survives the tests of time are fragments. The rest must be reconstructed through myths and comparative methods in order to completely define them. Perhaps this is the fate of all elements of the past, to be only a percentage of the big picture left for academics to define.

Top image: Moche Decapitator mural at Huaca de la Luna. Source: schame87/ Adobe Stock

By B. B. Wagner


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Cordy-Collins, A. 1992. Archaism or Tradition: The Decapitation theme in Cupisnique and Moche Iconography. Latin American Antiquity.

Jones, K. 2010. Cupisnique culture: the development of ideology in the ancient Andes. University of Texas at Austin - University of Texas Libraries. [Online] Available at:

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Thank you for a most interesting article. I’ve never heard of the Cupisnique civilization so I will be doing some research. Thank you for excellent references to help me.

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B. B.

B.B. Wagner is currently working on a master’s degree in Anthropology with a focus in Pre-contact America. Wagner is a storyteller, a sword fighter, and a fan of humanity’s past. He is also knowledgeable about topics on Ice Age America... Read More

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