Pictures from the Ancient Peruvian Past
By “Awake!” correspondent in Peru
THE Peruvian west coast was the chosen home of an extraordinary ancient race that altered its environment. Their civilization, which vanished long ago, may be compared to those of ancient Sumeria and Egypt. Archaeologists have given it the name Mochica-Chimu. The unlikely place where the Mochica-Chimu civilization developed is a narrow strip of land, from 10 to 50 miles (16 to 80 kilometers) in width and squeezed between the lofty Andes mountains and the deep-blue waters of the Pacific. The area is a dry, inhospitable desert extending for some 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers). Occasionally, thin ribbons of abundant green vegetation cross the vast stretches of barren rock and sand. Small rivers, having their source in the snow-clad mountains, feed these oases of life.
An examination of the green valleys reveals that the ancient inhabitants constructed long, well-engineered irrigation canals so that the water from rivers high up in the foothills could be distributed along the steep sides of the valley. This made it possible for the people to take advantage of every bit of available soil. Where valley sides proved to be too steep for cultivation, the ancient residents built stepped terraces, which are still in use after thousands of years. Also to be seen in this region are hundreds of mounds of crumbling adobe-brick constructions, including villages, cities, fortresses and step-tiered ziggurats or temples.
Who were the people inhabiting the west coast of Peru? Why did their culture, like that of so many others, disappear? It is not an easy task to answer these questions. The ravages of time have wasted away the remains of their mud buildings. Except for a few isolated words, their language has been forgotten. A series of conquests completely altered their customs and social order. First, the Incas subjugated the other Indian tribes and then, in the 16th century C.E., the Spaniards gained control over the area. Furthermore, the Indians left no written records. Apart from some brief accounts that were compiled at the time of the Spanish conquest, the principal record comes from a unique source that has been likened to a historical picture book. That source is the sculptured ceramic pottery left behind by the Mochica-Chimu civilization.
Why the Abundant Supply of Pottery?
Like the ancient Egyptians, the people of the Mochica-Chimu civilization believed that the spirits of the dead were immortal and, at death, passed on to another life. To assure the deceased of happiness and success in the next life, they were buried with their prized possessions, such as clothes, ornaments and weapons. The Spanish chronicler Cieza de Leon informs us that chieftains and other nobles of high rank had their favorite wives and servants buried alive with them in elaborate adobe-mud tombs called huacos. At the very least, people were buried with a plentiful supply of food and drink. Since every burial required pots and vases for storing food and drink, large quantities of pottery were mass produced.
In the dry climate of the desert, the mud tombs have survived very well. On being excavated, they have yielded mummies and many pieces of sculptured pottery. This pottery was the nearest thing to a written language that the Mochica-Chimu civilization had. So from these ceramic vases it is possible to reconstruct what otherwise would have been lost history.
Beginning some 300 years before our Common Era, the people of the Mochica-Chimu civilization gradually developed their pottery-making into a fine art. Without the aid of the potter’s wheel, they used terra-cotta—a fine potter’s clay—to mold delicate well-formed vases that combine the useful with the beautiful. Perhaps the most outstanding is the stirrup-handled vase. Twin clay tubes sweep up from the body of this vase to join together in the middle to form a single spout, thus combining the handle for carrying with the spout for pouring. The vase itself was decorated with painted designs and small figures in bas-relief. These ceramics became the artistic expression of the potter. With the skill of master craftsmen, the Indians molded their clay vases into likenesses of themselves and their surroundings. They were keen observers of creation and were able to form their vases into exact images of the fruits and vegetables that they cultivated, as well as the abundant creature life in the coastal area. However, not all their pottery was a literal representation of their surroundings. They also molded mythological gods and demons
Pictures of the People
The effigy pottery, with its sculptured heads, is the crowning accomplishment of the plastic art associated with the Mochica-Chimu civilization. Without a doubt, the potters, thought to have been women, must have molded their lifelike head portraits with particular persons in mind. The vases, sitting in rows on the shelves of present-day museums, picture the ancient Peruvian of the coast as having had features very similar to those of their present-day descendants. They were round-faced, had prominent curved noses that were pierced for rings, had large mouths with thick lips, and had eyes that were slightly almond-shaped. These facial features indicate that the people were of Asiatic origin. Also, all the men had their ears pierced and used wooden ear plugs, similar to the custom of some African tribes that employ wooden lip plugs. On special festive occasions, the wooden plugs were replaced with those made of copper and gold. Most of the men painted their faces with decorative designs. The men tended to be short and stocky.
Surprisingly, the vases show scenes that very well could have been taken from our day. One shows two sober-faced men supporting a companion in a drunken stupor. A vase with a laughing face reveals that the people must have been keen observers. Two very small holes punctured at the corners of the eyes permitted tiny drops of water to form. This indicates that the ancient potter understood that, if a person laughs too much, he begins to cry. Another vase depicts a woman kneeling over a large basin of water and washing her hair.
On a vase portraying childbirth, the mother is seated (the traditional position for mothers giving birth in most ancient cultures). From behind her, a midwife reaches around from both sides and presses on the woman’s stomach to help her to give birth. Another woman kneels in front to receive the baby, whose head is pictured appearing at the moment of birth. Thus, on one small clay pot, the artist captured a scene that has been reenacted for thousands of years.
Other vases portray sicknesses and diseases. Modern-day doctors, by studying these vases, have identified sculptures of people that suffered from tumors of the eyes, neck and brain. Other pots depict cases of syphilis, malignant ulcers and verruga peruana (a dreaded disease of the Andes). On one vase we see a blind man seated and playing his reed pipes, and on others are seen cripples and deformed persons, including a hunchback.
The vases tell about the ancient medicine men that were called oquetlupuc. On one vase, the medicine man places his hands on the sick person laid out in front of him. On another, he is seen blowing into the patient’s mouth, and, on still another, he is shown placing his lips on the body of the patient, as if he were sucking out the illness.
The Spanish chroniclers tell us that herbs were widely used and were of proven curative power. (Many of our modern-day drugs come from Peruvian herbs.) Also, the Spaniards said that the king of Spain, on being informed of this, sent a special envoy to compile a book describing the many different herbs used by the Indians. The medicine man had a vested interest in curing his patient because, if the ailing person died due to his negligence, the would-be curer was tied on top of the patient’s corpse and left out where the carrion birds could kill him by picking out his eyes and entrails.
The vases show that the Mochica-Chimu people wore practical clothes well suited for the coastal climate. The women, who were master weavers, fashioned colorful, fine-woven cotton and llama-wool garments that had bright-hued geometric designs. The basic garment was a loin cloth pulled up between the legs and tied around the waist. Over this the men used a sleeveless shirt for the upper part of the body, and a short skirt covered the lower part. This skirt was held in place by a large belt, usually decorated with rattles. Men also used ample capes, with large wheel collars. On their heads, they wore small caps as a base for forming turbans that were wound from narrow strips of cloth. The head covering was held in place by a broad cloth running diagonally over the top of the head and being fastened under the chin. This flamboyant dress, as the Spanish chroniclers noted, gave the Indians the appearance of Gypsies. During the day this apparel protected them from the burning tropical sun and, at night, provided the warmth needed to combat the cool damp wind blowing inland from the cold ocean current off the coast of Peru.
Agriculture and Fishing
A whole series of vases molded into the likeness of the principal products of the land reveal that the Mochica-Chimu people cultivated a wider variety of vegetables and fruits than their European counterparts. Their ceramics remind us that many crops now cultivated world wide originated in Peru, such as the white potato, of which some 30 varieties are still cultivated, and the pallar, or lima bean. Other crops were sweet potatoes, yuca (manioc), corn, squash, red peppers, peanuts, many types of beans and popcorn, for which the potters invented a special popping pot.
Around their house, which they called an, the Indians raised turkeys, ducks and a type of mute dog. They kept cuyes (guinea pigs) in the dark corners of their dwellings and used them for food, something still done by many modern-day Peruvians.
These Indians took advantage of another abundant source of food—fish. The vases show Mochica-Chimu fishermen busy fishing with nets and hooks from small totorareed boats. They caught fish, octopuses, lobsters and a variety of shellfish, all of which are faithfully represented in their pottery.
War and Religion
The Mochica-Chimu civilization apparently was divided up into many local kingdoms, which constantly fought one another. And captives of such warfare were sacrificed to the gods.
These Indians practiced a degrading form of worship, as is evident from pottery that explicitly portrays many unnatural sex acts. The pottery also depicts many gods and demons with human traits combined with those of animals and plants.
Truly, the pottery found on the coast of Peru presents a picture of the way life really was among the people of Mochica-Chimu. Though not expressed in words, the testimony is unmistakable in pointing to the existence of an ancient civilization that was well advanced in many ways, although it was steeped in false religion.