Thursday, September 13, 2012

Inconvenient Arrogance, part 3 -- Moche

Around twelve-hundred years ago, in the northern part of Peru along the coastline between the Pacific ocean and the Andes mountains, there lived a very highly developed civilization that we call the “Moche” or “Mochica” today.  They are famous for their ceramic art which include life-sized portrait heads of people, 3-D reliefs of people and animals on walls and their incredible platform-style pyramid temples that towered hundreds of feet above the valley floor built with adobe bricks.
According to climate research, from the time of Christ until around 500 a.d. the climate of the world was moderately warmer than normal, similar to now.  Winds would push moisture from the ocean over the Andes mountains where snow melt and rain storms would fill the rivers flowing down through the valleys back to the ocean.   This time coincides with the Middle Moche period, (ca AD 300-400) when the Moche culture began to flourish.   In the spring, rivers would overflow depositing fertile silt for planting.  They built an extensive network of canals which greatly increased their production of corn, beans, squash, avocado, guavas, and chili peppers. Llamas, guinea pigs and ducks were domesticated.   Great cities were built to store and manage the surpluses.   They became expert weavers, potters, and metallurgists and traded for precious stones and shells with cultures far away. 

Moche Sacrificial Ceremony
The Drinking of Blood
A large, powerful aristocracy developed to manage the ever increasing abundance and wealth of the culture.  The priesthood, largely responsible for determining when to plant and when to harvest, also grew ever more powerful.  Times were good and we see the evidence of how masterfully the aristocracy planned and managed their culture in the meticulously planned cities.  Two large pyramid-temples sat on either side of the well-organized cities complete with residential zones, cemeteries, storage facilities, and craftsmen’s workshops.  The pyramid-temples served as palaces, administrative centers, ritual meeting places topped by platforms with large patios, chambers and hallways, and the throne(s) of the ruler(s).

Then it happened!  The climate changed dramatically starting in 536 A.D.!   An event so catastrophic that it was recorded around the world by many different cultures!  Procopius, a Byzantine historian, wrote, “during this year a most dread portent took place.  For the sun gave forth its light without brightness … and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear.”  The event is also borne out in tree rings from Sweden, Finland, Chile, and in the U.S. Sierra Nevadas.  And also ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica show evidence of extensive acidic dust.  Theorists propose that perhaps a massive volcanic eruption or a meteorite collision with earth could have deposited the acidic dust into the atmosphere causing a sudden and worldwide cool-down that would last for another two-hundred years and coincided with the Dark Ages in Europe.
The Moche people were reaching their peak.  They were living in a time when the climate was mild, rainfall was plentiful, and times were good.  The priests and the kings took the credit for the good times and they rose to unprecedented power and wealth.  The Moche built enormous temples rivaling the Temple of Hepshetsut in Egypt.  Hundreds of these massive pyramid/mound temples are now being unearthed in Peru.  But when the climate suddenly and dramatically changed, the Moche were devastated by massive flooding.  According to Lonnie Thompson, “Nothing in the last 500 years compares to the size of that El Nino”!  It lasted for forty years and was followed by years of drought!
After that, the Moche culture turned ever more violent!   The brutality reached incredible and shocking proportions including sacrificing captured warriors, slicing the jugular of the defeated warriors and draining their blood.  The priests even tried drinking the blood.  But the more severe their sacrifices the more severe the weather!  It was relentless.  Eventually, the people lost confidence in their leaders and priests and destroyed them.  They moved out of the great cities and temples and left them to ruin.  The Moche have never tried to rebuild their great empire.
(Detailed descriptions of the Moche blood ritual are found on pottery and in murials known as the “Warrior Narrative”)
The Moche people and their leaders had fallen into the belief that their actions could somehow influence the climate.  That inconvenient arrogance drove them to extraordinary lengths and eventually, I believe, brought down their culture!

Continue to Part 4
Courtney Miller

Also read my article  in "Inside Peru"

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