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A tattooed skull in one of the newly unearthed Moche burials. Source: CEN/Proyecto Especial Naylamp Lambayeque

Bizarre Moche Burials Include Mutilation and Skull Tattoos


Eleven 1000-year-old graves containing skeletons from the Moche civilization have been found in Peru. Some have been mutilated with their feet removed and tattoos imprinted on their skulls.

Two children buried at the site were found with curious symbols illustrated on the fronts of their skulls and one person was buried with a scepter. Another high-standing individual was entombed inside a high-ceilinged room and is thought to have been a priest. The tattoos found on the two children’s skulls are believed to have been made either by tattoos that had been made on their skin or maybe markings that got under the skin and blemished the underlying bones. The majority of the skeletons also had their feet removed.

Priests of High Social Standing

The pre-Inca Moche civilization flourished in northern Peru with their capital city located near present-day Moche in Trujillo and archaeologists studying the culture's iconography and architecture think the civilization was an autonomous polity that shared a common culture.

The discovery was made at the Huaca Santa Rosa de Pucala archaeological site in the district of Pucala in the north-western Peruvian region of Chiclayo. The entire region is considered a ceremonial hub. This is why archaeologists think the person buried with the scepter and the other found placed in a high-roofed chamber were people of high social standing and may have been priests of the Moche people.

A Moche grave discovered at Pucala, Peru. (Ministerio de Cultura)

A Moche grave discovered at Pucala, Peru. (Ministerio de Cultura)

The Richest Moche Burials Ever Found

According to a report in The Daily Mail, project director Edgar Bracamonte from the National University of Trujillo in Peru said that it remains unclear whether the people’s feet had been were mutilated while they were still alive, but further testing will reveal whether their feet had been lopped-off before or after they had been buried.

Excavators also found ceramics and porcelain objects at the site and the scientists hope the discoveries will shed more light on the people who lived there. It is located only a few miles from Huaca Rajada, also known as Sipan, famed for its ancient tomb of the Lord of Sipan. Huaca Rajada is an ancient city dating back to between 50 and 700 AD, which is known as the Moche Period in the region.

Recently unearthed Moche tombs. (Ministerio de Cultura)

Recently unearthed Moche tombs. (Ministerio de Cultura)

In February 2001 a New York Times report detailed the work of a team of U.S. archaeologists exploring at Sipan where royal tombs were uncovered in the late 1980s. They uncovered “three treasure-filled tombs in a 105-foot-high pyramid” and lead archaeologist Christopher Donnan of the University of California in Los Angeles said these tombs “are among the richest that have ever been found.”

The excavation site. (Ministerio de Cultura)

The excavation site. (Ministerio de Cultura)

Military Leaders and High Priests were Buried with Treasures

It was the same team of archaeological researchers that discovered an ancient temple built between 800 and 850 AD that belonged to the Wari culture who flourished in the south-central Andes and coastal area of modern-day Peru from about 500 to 1000 AD. In the temple's cemetery archaeologists ´found camel bones, carved objects, bottles, and metal items that may have been used as offerings.´

Furthermore, in February this year I wrote an Ancient Origins news piece about a team of archaeologists digging at the Ucupe archaeological site in the north-western Peruvian region of Lambayeque who discovered Moche civilization graves dating back 1,400 years. According to a news report in RPP the archaeologists discovered “ceremonial chambers,” and according to Archaeology News Network , the first grave may have belonged to a ´military leader´ as weapons and a crown were found with the remains.

Changes in Human Sacrifice Reveal the Collapse of a Culture

According to a research paper titled The Moche of Northern Perú, by scholars Luis Jaime Castillo Butters and Santiago Uceda CastilloIn, in 1899 and 1900 archaeologist Max Uhle excavated the first Moche site known as ‘Huaca de la Luna’. This is where the architectural complex called  Huacas de Moche (Pyramids of Moche) is located in the Moche Valley and the name of this particular architectural site is where the name of the Moche culture came from.

And it was the excavations at Huaca de la Luna that revealed how the Mochica civilization began to collapse around 800 AD, at which time there was an increase in the performance of the human sacrifice ceremony, which caused multiple transformations of the Huaca de la Luna monument. In spite of the collapse of the political institutions and elite class on the north coast of Peru, things remained greatly unchanged after they were gone, which is evident in the remaining field irrigation systems and the development of advanced technologies, such as their ability to make copper appear like gold.

These newly discovered bodies will further illustrate how the priesthoods held social control over the Moche people, of which so much is currently being revealed.

Top Image: A tattooed skull in one of the newly unearthed Moche burials. Source: CEN/Proyecto Especial Naylamp Lambayeque

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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