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Moche sculptural stirrup spout bottle showing a man riding a shark

Temple Discovery in Peru Sheds Light on Life of Ancient Shark Hunters


Archaeologists in Peru have discovered a 3,500-year-old temple belonging to the first fishermen of Gramalote, a village of shark hunters on the sea near Huanchaquito, according to a report in Peru This Week. Until recently, it was believed that the villagers travelled for hours to get to their temples. However, the latest finding reveals that the fishermen had their own temple where they carried out ritual ceremonies.

Excavations of the temple, which is located in the highest area of the town, unearthed a central ceremonial patio with steps and what appears to be a platform. At the back of the temple are private areas connected by a long hallway. Post holes and remnants of totora reeds suggest that the centre of the plaza was given shade by a roof made from the reeds held up by posts. The bodies of three children were found in the post holes, most likely sacrifice victims.

In one half of the temple, researchers found male-associated artifacts, like fishing tools, while in the other half, they found female-associated objects, like tools for weaving.  “We think that, in this temple, in addition to being the setting for large celebrations, was a place where young people were brought together so they could be taught how to be a productive member of society,” said archaeologist Gabriel Prieto.

Until recently, it was believed that the townspeople of Gramalote, who spent their time hunting sharks, walked for hours to get to their temples.  For example, evidence suggests the fishing village specialised in the systematic production of marine food which was then imported to the ceremonial centre of Caballo Muerto, creating an economic interdependency between the two sites.  Gramalote may even have been a colony set up especially to ensure a continuous supply of marine products for the inland complex (Prieto, 2010). However, the latest finding indicates that, in addition to attending ceremonial centres inland, the villagers of Gramalote also carried out their own rituals at a temple located right in the village.

Previous research carried out by Prieto revealed that shark hunting played a central role in the culture of Gramalote (Prieto, 2010).  The remains of fish bones in dwellings has shown that the most abundant meat came from blue shark, sand shark, and stingray.  These three species are also the ones which are represented most frequently in ritual caches. For example, excavations uncovered a ritual offering of a sand shark placed upon a reed mat in one dwelling, and an offering of ground shells covered with a sea lion bone wrapped with a portion of sand shark vertebrae in another dwelling. Human burials have also been found with shark remains, as well as other marine offerings.

Sea lion femur and blue shark vertebrae

Left: Sea lion femur and blue shark vertebrae. Right: Shark tooth found with burial (Prieto, 2010)

Prieto has suggested that the reasons for using marine products as offerings could have been related to the need to maintain ocean productivity and to satisfy the gods who possibly ruled this productivity.

“I would like to suggest that early fishermen used their most valuable sources of food as offerings. It is also possible to argue that in fact, they considered sacred these marine species; probably as part of a marine cosmos which was exploited to satisfy their subsistence and spiritual necessities,” wrote Prieto in his paper published in 2010.

Moche IV ceramic bottle showing shark

Moche IV ceramic bottle showing a god fishing a shark. Courtesy of the Museo Arqueologico Rafael Larco Herrera, Lima, Peru

Prieto has suggested that the newly-discovered temple may also indicate a hierarchy-based society in which a priest or other authority was in charge of performing rights. Earlier discoveries showed that all of the adult men had a condition of the ear caused by spending a lot of time submerged in cold water. But human remains discovered in the temple do not have this feature. Prieto has hypothesized that Gramalote was entering a period of transition from a civilization in which everyone sustained themselves through fishing to a society in which some members had specialties, including those involving ceremony and ritual.

Featured image: Moche sculptural stirrup spout bottle showing a man riding a shark (100 – 800 AD). Credit: Museo Nacional de Arqueología Antropología e Historia del Perú


Prieto, G. (2010). Characterizing ritual activities in an early fishing village of the Peruvian North Coast. Paper presented to the 29 th Northeast Conference on Andean Archaeology and Ethnohistory. 

By April Holloway



Impressive isn't it?

angieblackmon's picture

the artwork that is really neat! i love the stingray in the second photo!

love, light and blessings


aprilholloway's picture


April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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