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The Mysterious Moche Icon of the Iguana, Companion to the Sky God Wrinkle Face

The Mysterious Moche Icon of the Iguana, Companion to the Sky God Wrinkle Face

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The iguana was an important animal in the mythology of the powerful Moche civilization. This creature is often depicted as a companion of a figure known as Wrinkle Face, who is sometimes thought to be a deity of the Moche culture. Wrinkle Face and the iguana are said to be major figures in Moche art, and they are often found to have been depicted together on scenes drawn onto ceramic vessels.

Mysterious Moche 

The Moche were a mysterious civilization who ruled the northern coast of Peru, specifically the Chicama and Trujillo Valleys, beginning two thousand years ago. They built huge pyramids made of millions of mud bricks and created an extensive network of aqueducts. They were also pioneers of metal working techniques like gilding and soldering, which enabled them to created extraordinarily intricate jewelry and artifacts. Due to the lack of a written language, little was known about the Moche civilization until the 1980s when archaeologists began uncovering monuments and tombs containing detailed murals, and incredible ceramics that depicted detailed scenes of hunting, fighting, sacrifice, ceremonies, and explicit sexual encounters.

During its early stage, the religion and art of the Moche was influenced by the earlier Chavin culture. Later on, however, the Chimú culture came to exert an influence over these aspects.

The Chicama valley is located at north of Valley of Moche.

The Chicama valley is located at north of Valley of Moche. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Little is known about the Moche pantheon. Nevertheless, it is known that one of the deities worshipped by the Moche was a god by the name of Ai apace, which worshipped as a creator or sky god.

Ai apace and Wrinkle Face 

In Moche art, Ai apaec is often portrayed as an individual with ferocious fangs, wearing a jaguar headdress on his head, and with snakes for earrings. Ai apaec is thought to live in the mountains, and human sacrifices were offered to appease him.

Some have identified Ai apaec as Wrinkle Face, due to the similarities between the two. Like Ai apaec, Wrinkle Face is also said to have been represented with long fangs and a jaguar / feline headdress. Yet, the distinct features of Wrinkle Face are the lines on his face that look like wrinkles, hence his name.

Ai apaec in a wall in the Huaca de la Luna.

Ai apaec in a wall in the Huaca de la Luna. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This particular figure has also been found to have round, rather than almond shape eyes that are not contiguous to his headdress. Additionally, Wrinkle Face is normally drawn wearing a short-sleeved shirt with a step design on the front. A ‘snake-fox’ belt is used to secure Wrinkle Face’s garment at the waist.

Iguana, Companion of Wrinkle Face

The green iguana, known also as the common iguana or American iguana, and scientifically as Iguana, is a native creature of South America, including parts of Peru. In Moche art and mythology, an anthropomorphic iguana is shown to be the companion of Wrinkle Face. According to one source, the iguana is depicted wearing a vulture headdress, is always shown watching Wrinkle Face, and appears to be applauding him. Unlike Wrinkle Face, the iguana is drawn with almond-shaped eyes. Additionally, this figure is identified by its long pointed tail with serrations along the upper edge, as well as its sash-like bag tied over its shoulder or around its waist.

Wrinkle Face and iguana.

Wrinkle Face and iguana. (precolombiano.col)

According to one interpretation, Wrinkle Face represents the power of the earth, whilst the iguana that of the sea. Other interpretations may be found in the activities that these two figures are shown doing. For example, in a decoration found on a ceramic vessel, Wrinkle Face and the iguana are depicted as participating in the burial of someone. In this scene, Wrinkle Face and the iguana are shown lowering a coffin into a grave shaft, perhaps indicating that the two figures are somehow connected with the funerary practices of the Moche people.

In addition to assisting in burials, Wrinkle Face and the iguana have also been depicted in other scenes associated with death. In one of these scenes, for instance, the iguana is shown holding a llama with a rope. In some drawings, Wrinkle Face too holds a llama. It has been suggested that the llamas were used to transport the coffin / grave goods / both to the place of burial. Alternatively, it has been proposed that the llamas were due to be sacrificed.


Iguana (precolombiano.col)

Wrinkle Face and the iguana have also been shown in certain scenes to be flanking a sacrificial victim, thus suggesting an association with the ritual of human sacrifice. Based on such artistic expressions, it is likely that Wrinkle Face and the iguana were figures, perhaps deities, which were believed by the Moche to have control over funerary activities and the ritual of human sacrifice.

Top image: Wrinkle Face and iguana. Photo source: Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino.

By Wu Mingren


Benson, E. P., 1997. Birds and Beasts of Ancient Latin America. Gainesville, Fla.: University Press of Florida.

Bourget, S., 2016. Sacrifice, Violence, and Ideology Among the Moche: The Rise of Social Complexity in Ancient Peru. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press.

Donnan, C. B. & McClelland, D., 1979. The Burial Theme in Moche Iconography. [Online]
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Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, 2016. “Wrinkle Face” and “Iguana”. [Online]
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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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