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Moche Cauldron Contained Llama Face Death Stew, With A Mild Chili Crab Bisque!

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An archaeologist excavating at a Moche culture site in northern Peru dating to between 600-850 AD discovered a cooking pot containing a selection of bizarre ingredients including part of a “llama's face” - it is thought it was chosen for what it represented symbolically, more than how it might have tasted.

The Moche people ruled northern Peru from around 2000 years ago and by clearing dense jungles they constructed vast pyramids using millions of mud bricks and managed extensive aqueducts and agricultural irrigation systems.

Famous Moche Pottery

A 2015 Ancient Origins article describes discoveries made inside Moche tombs which contain highly detailed murals and ceramics depicting fighting, hunting and sacrificial ceremonies, not to mention some of the most explicit sexual imagery ever found, testimony to their obsession over the apparent magic of ‘fertility'.

Moche sex pottery. (CC BY SA 3.0)

Moche sex pottery. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

The stew pot was unearthed by archaeologist Guy Duke of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley at an archaeological site which included residential structures, terraces, and a cemetery. Duke published his dig analysis in the  Cambridge Archaeological Journal detailing his excavation beneath the floor of a house, where he found “a standard cooking pot lying on its side.” Indicating a ritual aspect , he noted that the pot’s mouth faced east towards the rising sun and he discovered “a splash zone of botanical and faunal materials surrounding it.”

The cauldron was discovered on its side at Wasi Huachuma. (Guy S. Duke)

The cauldron was discovered on its side at Wasi Huachuma. ( Guy S. Duke )

Examining the Moche Cauldron

Duke knew that these types of pots were most often used for brewing  chicha (corn beer). Corn was considered a sacred crop and chicha was considered a high status beverage. It was consumed in large quantities during and after the work of harvesting. It encouraged singing, dancing, and joking around, but chicha was also offered to gods and ancestor spirits. Might the stew found in a chicha pot also have ritual significance?

Duke found “domestic animal bones" inside the pot, including guinea pig and llama, which were mixed with food items such as; maize, beans, squash, potato, chili pepper, crabs, flathead mullet, and coca,” according to the paper. Duke believes that this meal “contains and is contained by” local as well as worldly and supernaturally relevant ingredients.

A guinea pig. (Public Domain)

A guinea pig. ( Public Domain )

Further establishing the stew’s ritual importance, the pot was “purposefully" marked by a stone, which Duke said, “in this location,” the offering was “purposeful, intentional, and laden with meaning.” What Duke recovered can be likened to a witches’ cauldron, as he told reporters , “Most of the stew's ingredients had ritual significance”, for example “llamas produced wool, were eaten, and were also ritually important; maize or corn figures into Moche iconography; fish were sometimes burial offerings.”

The Ritual Significance of Food

Llamas played an important role in both Moche and Inca economies where they served as pack animals and as cultural icons. They were revered in various spiritual and fertility rites of which this stew may have belonged.

Llamas played an important role in both Moche and Inca economies. (Pixabay License)

Llamas played an important role in both Moche and Inca economies. ( Pixabay License )

Each ingredient was carefully selected and a diverse range of plant and animal materials associated with the sea, coastal plains, the highlands and the jungle, brought together the different “geographic and environmental regions” controlled by the Moche people .

The pot’s contents and placement, according to Duke, “embodies the ways in which the domestic world of exchange and interaction was deeply entangled with the spiritual and political. All at once, this meal was utilitarian, domestic, industrial, ritually charged and politically embedded.”

Stew pot from Wasi Huachuma, Peru. (Guy Duke, UTRGV)

Stew pot from Wasi Huachuma, Peru. ( Guy Duke, UTRGV )

Moche People and the Importance of Llamas

The spiritual significance attributed to llamas was highlighted in another study released March 6, 2019 in journal  PLOS ONE  by Gabriel Prieto of the National University of Trujillo, Peru. This team discovered evidence of a “mass sacrifice” that saw the ritual killing “of over 140 children and over 200 llamas” which the scientists called “the largest known mass sacrifice of children - and of llamas - in the New World.”

Human and animal sacrifices were performed as funerary rites, to establish new architecture, and were perceived as enhancing spiritual fertility rituals. This excavation revealed hundreds of bodies buried in an area of approximately 700 square meters.

A light-brown camelid laying on top of a human body. (© 2019 Gabriel Prieto et al / Plos ONE )

A light-brown camelid laying on top of a human body. (© 2019 Gabriel Prieto et al / Plos ONE )

The anatomical and genetic evidence indicated the children, who were aged between 5 and 14 years old had “cut marks transecting the sternums and displaced ribs,” which suggested both the children and llamas may have had their chests cut open for the ritual removal of their hearts.

If this stew pot contained a pre-sacrifice meal, symbolic of the soon to be deceased's taking parts of the Moche world to the afterlife on the back of a llama, we will never know, but it sure looks like it.

Top Image: A black llama. Source: CC0

By Ashley Cowie

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