The Moche Culture

A Beginner's Guide to the History and Archaeology

A cropped close-up of a Mochicha stirrup-spout vessel of a bald man wearing face-paint and earrings.
A Mochicha Stirrup-Spout Vessel from the 1st Century. C.M. Dixon / Print Collector / Getty Images

The Moche culture (ca. AD 100-750) was a South American society, with cities, temples, canals, and farmsteads located along the arid coast in a narrow strip between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountains of Peru. The Moche or Mochica are perhaps best known for their ceramic art: their pots include life-sized portrait heads of individuals and three-dimensional representations of animals and people. Many of these pots, looted long ago from Moche sites, can be found in museums throughout the world: not much more about the context from where they were stolen is known.

Moche art is also reflected in polychrome and/or three-dimensional murals made of plastered clay on their public buildings, some of which are open to visitors. These murals depict a wide range of figures and themes, including warriors and their prisoners, priests and supernatural beings. Studied in detail, the murals and decorated ceramics reveal much about the ritual behaviors of the Moche, such as the Warrior Narrative.

Moche Chronology

Scholars have come to recognize two autonomous geographic regions for the Moche, separated by the Paijan desert in Peru. They had separate rulers with the capital of the Northern Moche at Sipán, and that of the Southern Moche at the Huacas de Moche. The two regions have slightly different chronologies and have some variations in material culture.

  • Early Intermediate (AD 100-550) North: Early and Middle Moche; South: Moche Phase I-III
  • Middle Horizon (AD 550-950) N: Late Moche A, B, and C; S: Moche Phase IV-V, Pre-Chimu or Casma
  • Late Intermediate (AD 950-1200) N: Sican; S: Chimu

Moche Politics and Economy

The Moche were a stratified society with a powerful elite and an elaborate, well-codified ritual process. The political economy was based on the presence of large civic-ceremonial centers that produced a wide range of goods which were marketed to rural agrarian villages. The villages, in turn, supported the city centers by producing a wide range of cultivated crops. Prestige goods created in the urban centers were distributed to rural leaders to support their power and control over those parts of society.

During the Middle Moche period (ca AD 300-400), the Moche polity was split into two autonomous spheres divided by the Paijan Desert. The Northern Moche capital was at Sipan; the southern at the Huacas de Moche, where the Huaca de la Luna and Huaca del Sol are the anchor pyramids.

The ability to control water, particularly in the face of droughts and extreme rainfall and flooding resulting from the El Niño Southern Oscillation drove much of the Moche economics and political strategies. The Moche built an extensive network of canals to increase agricultural productivity in their regions. Corn, beans, squash, avocado, guavas, chili peppers, and beans were grown by the Moche people; they domesticated llamas, guinea pigs, and ducks. They also fished and hunted plants and animals in the region, and traded lapis lazuli and spondylus shell objects from long distances. The Moche were expert weavers, and metallurgists used lost wax casting and cold hammering techniques to work gold, silver, and copper.

While the Moche did not leave a written record (they may have used the quipu recording technique that we have yet to decipher), the Moche ritual contexts and their daily lives are known because of excavations and detailed study of their ceramic, sculptural and mural art.

Moche Architecture

In addition to the canals and aqueducts, architectural elements of Moche society included large monumental pyramid-shaped architecture called huacas which were apparently partly temples, palaces, administrative centers, and ritual meeting places. The huacas were large platform mounds, built of thousands of adobe bricks, and some of them towered hundreds of feet above the valley floor. On top of the tallest platforms were large patios, rooms and corridors, and a high bench for the seat of the ruler.

Most of the Moche centers had two huacas, one larger than the other. Between the two huacas could be found the Moche cities, including cemeteries, residential compounds, storage facilities and craft workshops. Some planning of the centers is evident, since the layout of the Moche centers are very similar, and organized along streets.

Ordinary people at Moche sites lived in rectangular adobe-brick compounds, where several families resided. Within the compounds were rooms used for living and sleeping, craft workshops, and storage facilities. Houses at Moche sites are generally made of well-standardized adobe brick. Some case of shaped stone foundations are known in hill slope locations: these shaped stone structures may be of higher status individuals, although more work needs to be completed.

Moche Burials

A wide range of burial types are evidenced in Moche society, roughly based on the social rank of the deceased. Several elite burials have been found at Moche sites, such as Sipán, San José de Moro, Dos Cabezas, La Mina and Ucupe in the Zana Valley. These elaborate burials include a considerable quantity of grave goods and are often highly stylized. Often copper artifacts are found in the mouth, hands and under the feet of the interred individual.

Generally, the corpse was prepared and placed in a coffin made of canes. The body is buried lying on its back in a fully-extended position, head to the south, upper limbs extended. Burial chambers range from an underground room made of adobe brick, a simple pit burial or a "boot tomb. Grave goods are always present, including personal artifacts.

Other mortuary practices include delayed burials, grave reopenings and secondary offerings of human remains.

Moche Violence

Evidence that violence was a significant part of Moche society was first identified in ceramic and mural art. Images of warriors in battle, ​decapitations, and sacrifices were originally believed to have been ritual enactments, at least in part, but recent archaeological investigations have revealed that some of the scenes were realistic portrayals of events in Moche society. In particular, bodies of victims have been found at Huaca de la Luna, some of which were dismembered or decapitated and some were clearly sacrificed during episodes of torrential rains. Genetic data support the identification of these individuals as enemy combatants.

History of Moche Archaeology

The Moche were first recognized as a distinct cultural phenomenon by archaeologist Max Uhle, who studied the site of Moche in the early decades of the 20th century. The Moche civilization is also associated with Rafael Larco Hoyle, the "father of Moche archaeology" who proposed the first relative chronology based on ceramics.


A photo essay on the recent excavations at Sipan has been constructed, which includes some detail concerning the ritual sacrifices and burials undertaken by the Moche.

Chapdelaine, Claude. "Recent Advances in Moche Archaeology." Journal of Archaeological Research, Volume 19, Issue 2, SpringerLink, June 2011.

Donnan CB. 2010. Moche State Religion: A Unifying Force in Moche Political Organization. In: Quilter J, and Castillo LJ, editors. New Perspectives on Moche Political Organization. Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks. p 47-49.

Donnan CB. 2004. Moche Portraits from Ancient Peru. University of Texas Press: Austin.

Huchet JB, and Greenberg B. 2010. Flies, Mochicas and burial practices: a case study from Huaca de la Luna, Peru. Journal of Archaeological Science 37(11):2846-2856.

Jackson MA. 2004. The Chimú Sculptures of Huacas Tacaynamo and El Dragon, Moche Valley, Peru. Latin American Antiquity 15(3):298-322.

Sutter RC, and Cortez RJ. 2005. The Nature of Moche Human Sacrifice: A Bio-Archaeological Perspective. Current Anthropology 46(4):521-550.

Sutter RC, and Verano JW. 2007. Biodistance analysis of the Moche sacrificial victims from Huaca de la Luna plaza 3C: Matrix method test of their origins. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 132(2):193-206.

Swenson E. 2011. Stagecraft and the Politics of Spectacle in Ancient Peru. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 21(02):283-313.

Weismantel M. 2004. Moche sex pots: Reproduction and temporality in ancient South America. American Anthropologist 106(3):495-505.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "The Moche Culture." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 25). The Moche Culture. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "The Moche Culture." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).