Origins of the Moche

The Castillo, or “New Temple,” at Chavín de Huantar in the highlands of Peru. Photo by J. Quilter, 1976.
The Castillo, or “New Temple,” at Chavín de Huantar in the highlands of Peru. Photo by J. Quilter, 1976

The prehistory of Peru stretches back to at least 10,000 b.c., the time of the first hunter-gatherers who exploited the great variety of environmental zones in the mountains and coast. The rich resources of the Pacific Ocean stimulated one of the earliest maritime traditions in the world as early agriculture was combined with intensive fishing by 4000 b.c.

As communities grew in size, large ceremonial centers developed, attracting pilgrims and serving as places for the distribution of goods. By 1500 b.c., ceramics and textiles were widely employed as media for the expression of religious, social, and artistic ideas.

Around 900 b.c. the various religious traditions of regional ceremonial centers were synthesized at the highland architectural center of Chavín de Huantar. The Chavín cult drew upon tropical forest, highland, and coastal symbols to create a new religious system and express it in a distinct, baroque art style.

The Chavín cult spread far and wide during a period of relative peace and prosperity, including to northern Peru. It eventually collapsed, however, perhaps partly because of environmental disasters induced by the El Niño phenomenon, in which the cold waters of the Humboldt Current are overridden by northern warm waters, producing disastrous torrential rains on the coast and drought in the highlands.

While the exact causes of Chavín’s collapse are not known, it is certain that a period of great social and political instability followed in its wake. After two or three centuries of unrest, new cultural forms emerged from the chaos. One such culture was that of the Moche of northern Peru.