Rise of the Moche

Frieze of the “Decapitator God” at Huaca Cao Viejo, El Brujo Archaeological Complex, Chicama Valley. Photo by J. Quilter

Moche’s origins are obscure. Earlier cultures preceded or overlapped its development and influenced it. By the first century a.d., Moche began to take its distinct form in the Moche and Chicama valleys, the heartland of Moche culture.

The Moche expanded ancient irrigation fields to increase agriculture and used llama caravans to bring goods from other valleys and the highlands. A ruling class of warriors and priests rose to preside over artisans and agricultural laborers, expending wealth and labor in the creation of elaborate art and towns and brilliantly decorated temples of mud bricks (adobes).

At its height, Moche influence extended from the edge of the Sechura Desert in the north to the Nepeña Valley in the south. There were two subareas of Moche culture: Northern Moche in the valleys north of the Pampa de Paiján and Southern Moche to the south of it. The Southern Moche were likely under the influence of a large powerful center in the Moche Valley, while the Northern Moche consisted of independent centers.

Moche political history was complex, and the fortunes of different regions likely varied over the course of the seven centuries of Moche’s existence. Some peoples may have been forced by Moche armies to yield to new lifeways, while others may have willingly converted to Moche beliefs and practices. To the east in the highlands, the Recuay culture preserved its own traditions despite clashing with Moche at various times. Southwards, the Lima and Nasca cultures had little contact with the Moche and maintained their independence.