Temples Of Doom – human sacrifice – includes related article on meaning of human sacrifice
Human sacrifice has long been one of history’s unprovable secrets. Then Steve Bourget began digging at the Pyramid of the Moon in Peru
Few things so unnerved the Spanish conquerors of the New World as the prospect of death on a sacrificial stone. On one summer afternoon in 1521, while laying siege to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, what is now Mexico City, Hernan Cortes and his army watched in horrified silence as Aztec priests on the opposite lakeshore struggled up the stairs of a temple with 66 Spanish captives. Stretching them one at a time across a narrow stone, the priests carved out their beating hearts, then swiftly butchered their bodies so their flesh could be eaten ritually. Four decades later, one of Cortes’s lieutenants wrote: “We were not far away from them, yet we could render them no help, and could only pray to God to guard us from such a death.”
For the Aztecs, human sacrifices were ironically the stuff of life. Only human blood, they later told Spanish priests, could give the sun strength for its daily climb from the underworld. Other societies shared their belief in the power of the human heart. As Spanish armies ventured into the small Mayan villages of the Guatemalan rain forests and marched over the paved Incan roads of the Andes, they returned with tales of similar terrifying bloodbaths.
But for all the grisly accounts of the early Spanish chroniclers, archeologists have exhumed surprisingly little evidence of these rituals. Even in excavations at Templo Mayor, the most important temple in Tenochtitlan and the place where, according to the Aztecs’ own books, some 20,000 war captives were sacrificed in a single ceremony in 1487, archeologists have yet to turn up any mass graves or any of the massive skull racks constructed by Aztec priests from the craniums of their victims. One reason, says John Verano, a physical anthropologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, is that the racks were simply “broken up, burned probably, and thrown out.” As a result, scientists have failed to gather even basic data on the origins and practice of human sacrifice in the Americas.
But now, thanks to a series of stunning archeological discoveries, researchers are gaining a clearer glimpse of these ancient rituals. The picture comes not from the most famous civilizations encountered by the Spanish armies but from a much earlier and lesser known Andean people–the Moche (pronounced MO-chay) of Peru’s northern coastal desert. A sophisticated society of farmers and fishers, the Moche flourished from A.D. 100 to 800 in the narrow river valleys that slice down from the Andes to the Pacific near the modern city of Trujillo. The Moche so prospered from their irrigated cornfields and the cold, nutrient-rich waters of the nearby Pacific that they had time to raise ten-story pyramids, rub shoulders in settlements of 50,000 people, and nurture great artists.
For decades, archeologists puzzled over the paintings on Moche pots. Many portrayed knife-wielding gods holding human heads, and owl-headed priests presiding over human sacrifices, but few researchers believed they reflected actual practices. Over the past five years, however, researchers have uncovered startling forensic evidence of human sacrifice–from mass graves of ritually slaughtered and dismembered victims to giant wall murals incorporating butchered human bones. By comparing skeletal remains with painted scenes, they are now assembling what is arguably the most detailed portrait of sacrifice yet to emerge in the ancient world.
The grim finds promise to shed new light on many aspects of Moche culture, from religion to warfare to politics. Although the clearest evidence of human sacrifice had come from a crumbling temple pyramid in what many suggest was the Moche capital, Verano and others have now found tantalizing hints of similar sacrifices at another important Moche center, suggesting that several rifling houses, perhaps each governing a major river valley, could have held sway over the Moche.
The new discoveries raise a host of questions, not the least of which is why the Moche performed human sacrifices. Experts such as Elizabeth Benson turn for answers to the Andean peoples’ religious beliefs and their abiding concern with the fertility of the land. “Blood was like rain; it was like water,” says Benson, an independent scholar living in Maryland and the author of several books on the Moche. “It made things grow. It nourished the earth.” Other researchers disagree, pointing out that religious beliefs only justified actions taken for other reasons.
The ecology and politics of human sacrifice were a long way from most researchers’ minds when a little-known Canadian archeologist, Steve Bourget, began searching five years ago for sites where the Moche performed their slaughter. Bourget, who now teaches at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, had just finished his Ph.D. dissertation on Moche art and sacred geography at the University of Montreal. During his studies he had found several depictions of mountaintop rituals in which priests seemed to fling humans to their death down steep slopes. Such scenes, he knew, fit with ancient beliefs in the region: the Incas had regarded mountain peaks as sacred. If the Moche pots showed real events, reasoned Bourget, then the sacrifices could have taken place very near several major Moche temples that stood at the feet of small mountains.
At a sprawling site just a few miles southeast of Trujillo, he spent days clambering up and down the steep, rocky flanks of Cerro Blanco, a small mountain directly above one of the most important Moche temples, called the Pyramid of the Moon. But while Bourget found a likely prominence for sacrifices, he could not find bones or other evidence of such rites. The same disappointment awaited him at a second Moche settlement, Huancaco.
Back home, Bourget began poring over Moche depictions of a different sacrifice ritual, one that had been studied in detail in the 1970s and 1980s by Christopher Donnan, an archeologist at UCLA. The gruesome ritual, which Donnan called the warrior narrative, was a favorite theme of Moche artists, appearing on ancient pots and wall murals. “It starts with Moche warriors going off to combat,” says Donnan. “Then there’s the combat itself, and some of the warriors are captured. All their weapons, ornaments, and clothing are taken from them. What follows is a stage where the captors make them bleed–very deliberately, I think. They slap their faces and they tear the warriors’ nose ornaments out. They put ropes around their necks and parade them. The sacrifice follows.” Under the watchful eyes of ritualists–three high priests and a high priestess, each in distinctive ritual finery–attendants slit the captives’ throats and catch their blood in ceremonial goblets. Later they dismember the bodies.
Donnan, like other Moche experts, assumed that the warrior narrative owed more to fiction than fact. But in 1987, while excavating a tomb at the site of Sipan, Peruvian archeologist Walter Alva and his colleagues exhumed the body of a great Moche lord, dressed sumptuously for death and dating to approximately A.D. 300. The man wore large circular earspools and an immense gold headdress, a nose ornament, and a back flap, all crescent-shaped like the blade of a sacrificial knife. By his side lay a scepter with a bladelike handle. These were the insignia of the warrior priest. “I never imagined that we would find this stuff,” says Donnan. “I didn’t even mention it to the [research] team for a few days, because I thought the probabilities were so remote that I must be losing my grip.” Further excavations uncovered the tombs of two high priestesses.
But if the sacrifices were actual events, where were all the victims? Back in England, Bourget studied depictions of the warrior narrative for clues. In a few, the ancient artists had painted lines of captured prisoners being led to pyramid-shaped temples. Were they slaughtered there? The more Bourget thought about it, the more likely it seemed. And he even had a hunch about where to look in the rambling temple complexes. At the Pyramid of the Moon, he had noticed a plaza about the size of four tennis courts surrounded by a high adobe wall, built around 500: in one corner of the plaza rose a large outcrop of rock–a mini-mountain. “I extrapolated that if there was a human sacrifice practice in the mountains, and if rocks are a symbolic extension of the mountains themselves, the sacrifices might have been performed in front of these rock altars,” he says.
In 1995, Bourget put together a small team of researchers and began excavating the plaza. Peeling back layers of sediment, he was soon surrounded by whitened human skeletons. Splayed and tangled like a truckful of rag dolls tossed into a pit, the dead bore little resemblance to most Moche cadavers, which were laid out neatly on their backs. Near some were fragments of smashed clay figurines of naked men bound about the neck with a rope. Bourget was jubilant. “We’d never found a real sacrificial site before,” he says. “We had iconographic representations of sacrificial practices. We had indirect evidence from funerary contexts and some evidence of decapitation. But we never had a real sacrificial site. For the first time, we could really see how the Moche performed human sacrifice.”
Such a rare and complex burial site called for a specialist: a physical anthropologist who had studied the Moche and would approach the tangled bodies with all the fastidiousness of a modern crime investigator. John Verano fit the bill perfectly. An osteologist occasionally called in to assist with present-day forensic cases in the United States, Verano had worked with archeological teams on Peru’s north coast since the mid-1980s. He set up an impromptu morgue in the Archeology Museum at the University of Trujillo.
As Bourget trucked in box after box of human remains from the dig over the next two field seasons, Verano and two assistants examined the collections for indicators of age and sex, then pored over each bone, recording all traces of injury, violence, or illness. Nothing could be taken for granted. While some skulls were separated from their bodies, for example, it was entirely possible that gravity had tugged them down a slight slope in the plaza floor as the skeletons decomposed. Only a clear pattern of cut marks could be accepted as evidence of decapitation. “You don’t want to accuse anyone of murder if it’s an accidental death,” says Verano. “And you don’t want to accuse someone of mutilating a body if it’s just decomposition.”
At least 70 corpses had once littered the ground of the temple plaza. All who could be identified belonged to a select demographic group: young, healthy, physically active males. Indeed, the mean age at death was just 23. Many, it turned out, were old hands at combat. One in every four bore healed rib, arm, leg, and skull fractures.
In addition, many of the men had fractures just beginning to knit at the time of death. These confirmed the story. Some of the dead, for example, had broken their arms in a specific spot, the mi&haft of the ulna as if from parrying a blow. Others exhibited tiny fractures radiating from their nasal apertures:
these corresponded eerily to scenes from the warrior narrative. “In Moche art,” Verano says, “the artists often show prisoners being smacked on the nose so their noses will bleed, and that’s often done at the time of capture.”
Judging from the healing of wounds, the battered men survived for nearly two weeks after their capture, their last weeks mired in misery. Some endured torture in the form of deeply slashed fingers and toes, others suffered worse. “I had someone who had something inserted between the toes up into the arch of his feet and repeatedly pushed back and forth,” says Verano, “so it was like a grooved injury.”
Death, when it finally arrived, came swiftly. Among the men whose cervical spines were still intact, most bore cut marks that slashed across the front and sides of the neck vertebrae. Someone had slit their throats with a sharp knife. Others had perished from massive skull injuries; it looked as if someone armed with a heavy blunt weapon–perhaps a Moche war club–had bashed in their craniums.
Executioners abandoned most of the corpses to the elements. The soil surrounding the bodies, says Verano, was strewn with the Rice Krispie-like pupa shells of insects that feed on carrion and are incapable of digging for their dinners. This brutal treatment, he suggests, could have been intended to send a message to others. “Proper burial was very important in the Andes for people in the Inca period,” says Verano. “One of the worst punishments that you could face was to be denied proper burial.”
A few of the victims were set aside for a different fate. In a small enclosure next to the temple plaza, Bourget and his team exhumed the scattered remains of seven men. Cut marks striped their bones, often just where muscles once attached. “People were clearly taking the muscle off the bones for some reason,” says Verano. “I think it’s as good an argument for cannibalism as you’d find anywhere.”
Taken together, Verano’s data suggest that the bodies at the Pyramid of the Moon belonged to Moche warriors wounded and captured on the field of battle. It is entirely possible, he says, that the ancient desert dwellers, like the Aztecs, fought at least some battles specifically to capture young males for sacrifice. Little evidence of European-style warfare, which often leaves razed settlements and ruined defensive works in its wake, has ever surfaced in Moche territory. And most war scenes from Moche paintings show pairs of nobles dueling until one warrior is defeated.
What happened after capture is still unclear, but Verano suspects prisoners were marched back to the victors’ home villages, where some were tortured, perhaps to prove them worthy of the ritual ahead. Like the Aztecs, notes Verano, the Moche may have considered death on the sacrificial stone an honorable way to go. “And you can see that surviving torture and proving that you were brave throughout the whole episode would have been crucial. You can imagine that it would be critical right up to the point of the sacrifice, because if you are screaming and being dragged up to have your throat slit, you won’t look very honorable.”
The sacrifice itself was cloaked in high pageantry. Dressed in full regalia, the ritualists watched as the captives were brought forward, naked but for the ropes. As the prisoners perished, the high priestess collected their blood in a goblet and passed it to the warrior priest–with a small addition. In many depictions, Moche artists portrayed a small wineskin-shaped fruit known as the ullucu. Native to the Amazon, the ullucu contains an anticoagulant agent, “which gives you a spooky idea that perhaps its juice was added to keep the blood from coagulating,” Verano says.
Just how often the Moche conducted sacrifices and how many lives they took has yet to be determined. Only a small portion of the Pyramid of the Moon has been excavated, and Verano and others now believe that similar sacrifices took place in other Moche settlements. At El Brujo, a Moche community just 40 miles northwest of the Pyramid of the Moon, excavators from the University of Trujillo recently found what appears to be another mass grave. And last summer, Verano discovered something strange about an enormous mural on the site.
The pre-Columbian equivalent of a billboard, the mural was once visible for miles across the valley. Painted in brilliant crimson and electric yellow, it shows a row of Moche nobles dancing hand in hand above the heads of war captives stripped naked and bound with ropes around the necks. While studying the mural, researchers found a fallen chunk of mud plaster from one of the dancer’s feet. A piece of bone protruded from one end. Examining it carefully, Verano could see that it was the rounded end of a human femur. It had been chopped from a cadaver, stripped of flesh, and incorporated into the giant mural. “The dancers are stepping on the bones of their enemies,” he says, “or they’re dancing on the bones of their victims.”
While new evidence explains much about how sacrifices were performed, it falls far short of answering why. The dead have little to say on this score, and for clues, most Moche researchers have turned to early Spanish accounts of Incan religion. In the manuscripts of priests living among the Incas, researchers such as Elizabeth Benson have traced an intimate link between the offering of human lives and agricultural fertility. “I think that in the past, people thought they could change the world by ritual,” says Benson. “We think we can change it with technology, so we’ve lost a lot of the sense of the importance of ritual. But in the past, people thought that this was how you controlled the world, how you had enough food for your people. And a human being was the most important offering you could make.”
For all their importance, the men at the Pyramid of the Moon knew little kindness in their final moments. Only now, a millennium and a half later, concludes Verano, have they received the respect due to the dead. “When I was brushing them off and cleaning the bones and putting them in boxes, I thought, ‘The last time anybody touched you, they were cutting your throat or sticking sticks up your feet.’ I treated them kindly, but it was a little late.”
EXCAVATING THE EVIDENCE
Archeologists digging at the Pyramid of the Moon (above) uncovered a plaza surrounded by a high adobe wall, with a rocky hill in one corner. At least 70 corpses littered the ground at the foot of this rock altar. These victims of ritual sacrifice had been captured in battle. tortured, brained, or decapitated and left to rot unburied. Their brutal treatment may have been meant to intimidate the Moche’s enemies.
Many skulls at the site show gaping holes where they were smashed with large, heavy objects. Nearby, in the tomb of a priest, researchers found a wooden club covered with human blood.
Archeologist Steve Bourget found broken ceramic figurines intermingled with the bones of victims at the Pyramid of the Moon. These portrayed naked men bound with ropes around their necks. Priests threw the statuettes from the plaza wall, shattering them among the victims’ bodies.
Slash marks across neck bones give mute but enduring evidence that many of the victims at the Pyramid of the Moon had their throats slit with a sharp knife.
An ulna, or forearm bone, shows a partly healed “parry fracture.” The victim probably received this wound when blocking a blow in battle, before being captured and brought’ to the Pyramid of the Moon for his ritual sacrifice.
RELATED ARTICLE: Why Did the Gods Demand Blood?
“To the people who say the Moche or the Aztecs did sacrifices because their gods demanded it, I would say, Why did their gods demand it and other peoples’ gods did not?” observes Michael Winkelman, an anthropologist at Arizona State University in Tempe. “I think there are good ecological, social, and political reasons people end up in these practices and predicaments.”
In the 1980s, Winkelman delved through thousands of pages of published scientific accounts of 45 societies around the world, searching for human sacrifice. He came up with seven sacrifice-performing societies, from the Marquesans of the South Pacific to the Romans. Other research teams had ranked the groups for a multitude of variables, from risk of famine to the adequacy of food-storage systems. By correlating the rankings with human sacrifice, Winkelman detected several traits that distinguished the societies.
While all seven groups were agricultural, only one suffered a high risk of famine and none were notably short of meat protein. But nearly all suffered from relatively high population densities, exceeding 26 people per square mile. And all fought wars over land and scarce resources. “So even if these societies have a very good food availability, the large population creates a lot of pressure because it places them all at risk if something happens to the food supply. So people are sacrificing each other partly to reduce the impact on existing food supplies,” says Winkelman.
Moreover, all seven of the sacrificing societies were ruled locally by a leader from a powerful family and regionally by one lord who successfully wooed the support of local leaders. In such a system, treachery and betrayal were constant threats. To intimidate those contemplating betrayal, Winkelman says, leaders naturally gravitated toward human sacrifice.
Although some Moche experts call Winkelman’s work thought provoking, few are ready to accept that his analyses apply to the Moche, because not enough is known about their population density or political organization. Still, Verano says of the tortured and executed Pyramid of the Moon warriors: “1 could imagine that it would solidify the power of the leaders by terrifying the population. No one really saw what was happening, but they heard screams and the men never came back.”
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