Grave Goods and Human Sacrifices: Social Differentiation in Sican Culture Reflected in Unique Burials
The Sican culture, also known as the Lambayeque culture for the region they once inhabited, was one of the many cultures that existed in Peru prior to the coming of the Incas. The Sicans inhabited the north coast of modern day Peru from about 750 to 1375 AD. Like many other civilizations, social differentiation and hierarchy was present in Sican society. These divisions are reflected in the funerary practices of the Sicans which included not only grave goods, but sometimes sacrifices.
Origins of the Sicans
The origin of the Sicans is unclear and some believe that they are the descendants of the Moche culture. According to legend, the founder of the Sican civilization was a man named Naymlap. Naymlap allegedly came from the south with a fleet of balsa boats, an entourage of warriors, and a green female stone idol. Various valleys in the region were conquered, and Naymlap began building temples and palaces near the sea in the Lambayeque Valley.
Twelve generations of leaders are said to have ruled the Sican culture, the last authority named Fempellec. According to the legend, Fempellec was tempted to move the idol, hence provoking a month of heavy rains and flooding that wiped out the Sicans.
Gold ceremonial mask, Sican culture, Lambayeque, Peru (Wikimedia Commons)
Burials of the ‘commoners’
The Sican culture has been divided into three major periods, however the majority of archaeological evidence for the funerary practices of this civilization are from the Middle Sican period. It was observed that during this period, commoners were found to have been buried in simple, shallow subfloor pits in residential or craft production sites. These pits are reported to have not exceeded 2 meters ( 6.5 feet) squared. It has been said that these commoner burials are inadequately documented and analyzed, and have been marginalized in terms of documentation, conservation and analysis.
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Funerary practices of the elites
Much more focus is placed on the funerary practices of the elites. It is through these elite burials that archaeologists have been able to identify changes from the preceding Moche culture. For instance, in earlier Moche burials, cane, log or adobe chambers or coffins were commonly found. On the other hand, archaeological evidence shows that during the Middle Sican period this practice was abandoned. Additionally, the Moche buried their dead in a lying position but the Sicans were interred in a sitting position. This may be an indication that there was a change in the way the afterlife was perceived.
Elite burials are also often laden with grave goods, another reason for the attention paid to them. At the Huaca del Loro East Tomb for instance, around 1.2 tons of diverse grave goods were discovered. The majority of these objects - more than 2/3 of the total weight, were made of arsenical copper, tumbaga, or high-karat gold alloy. It has been pointed out that arsenical copper was accessible to both commoners and elites. Therefore, the quantity of this metal in the burial is an indication of its owner’s status in society.
Representation of one burial at Huaca Loro, Sican National museum, Ferreñafe, Peru (Alicia McDermott)
Precious grave goods
The objects found amongst the grave goods of the elite at Huaca Loro include cast arsenical copper implements, ornaments and ritual paraphernalia made of gold, gold-silver and tumbaga, and two piles each of Spondylus princeps and Conus fergusoni shells. One of the most famous objects from this site, however, is the magnificent gold mask and headdress assemblage. This mask belonged to a seated male aged between 40 – 50 years old, who was buried in a 9 square meter (29.5 feet) tomb beneath an 11 meter (36 feet) shaft. This mask was painted red, and has ear spools and a gold three-dimensional bat's head on the forehead. The headdress has gold feathers and 15 suspended gold discs.
Representation of burial at East tomb, Huaca Loro. The inverted position may be due to a Sican belief in rebirth after death. Sican National Museum, Ferreñafe, Peru (Alicia McDermott)
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Another aspect of Sican funerary practice that has gained attention relatively recently is that of human sacrifice. At Huaca Loro, for instance, there are 24 burials of females between the ages of 18 and 25. It has been suggested that these females were sacrificed to accompany the elite males into the afterlife. Not everyone agrees with this interpretation, however, and factors such as differences in burial forms are used to disprove the interpretation.
Representation of female sacrifice in East tomb Huaca Loro, Sican National Museum, Ferreñafe, Peru (Alicia McDermott)
Another example of human sacrifices in the Sican graves can be found at the site of Huaca Las Ventanas. Unlike Huaca Loro, most of the bodies here belonged to adult males. Another difference between the Huaca Loro and Huaca Las Ventanas sites is that the bodies of the females in Huaca Loro were carefully placed around the elite burial but those in Huaca Las Ventanas have no pattern of placement. Interestingly, it has been suggested that the bodies buried at Huaca Las Ventanas belonged to volunteers who were engaged in a ritual that created life through the celebration of death.
The grave sites of the Sican culture provide great insight into the diversity of practices and social status in Northern Peru from 750 to 1375 AD.
Watch the video about the Sican National Museum and Sican artifacts and life here: (Youtube). **In Spanish only.**
Featured image: Funerary mask, Sican culture, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, USA (Wikimedia Commons)
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