There is strong evidence that matriarchal cultures populated South America for a long time before being taken over by more patriarchal minded peoples and that the legendary Amazon women or Icamiabas (women without husbands) of the upper tributaries of the Rio Amazon were a response to this incoming patriarchal paradigm even before the arrival of the Europeans to the continent. We must mention as well that there are still matriarchal peoples on the South America continent.
See two previous post on this subjects:
Icamiabas: Amazon Warrior Women in Precontact Americas
The Lure of the Amazon by Eduardo Barros Prado: Further Information on the Amazon Women or Icamiabas of Brazil
But what about women leaders within patriarchal cultures in pre-contact Americas? In the Moche culture, a pre-Incan peoples on the North Coast of Peru (100-800 CE), we find burials of female leaders and priestesses of high rank.
At a temple complex called El Brujo (wizard or shaman) on the north coast of Peru was found a woman of such caliber. Though locals call her “La Señora de Cao,” I personally like to call her “The Moche Mama.”
Discovered in an archaeological dig in 2006, dating from the year 450 CE , the 1,600 year old remains of a warrior woman and leader arise from the earth in Northern Peru.
A Supreme She
She was found buried inside a ceremonial enclosure or huaca, Huaca Cao Viejo, about 60 km north of the modern city of Trujillo, whose walls were decorated with images of local deities, jaguars, snakes, and geometric patterns common in other Moche art forms including pottery and clothing.
Initially dubbed a “mummy queen,” she is a desiccated corpse with tattoos of snakes and spiders yet visible on the skin of her arms. She has been called a warrior woman, a priestess, an oracle, a leader, a queen, a healer, a noble woman, a supreme ruler.
Buried with the clubs, spear throwers and a tumi knife used especially for human sacrifice, I also like to call her “badass”.
Also found in her tomb were diadems adorned with fierce, snarling, jaguar faces, nose rings in half silver/half gold, copper ear plugs, gold and copper necklaces, one made of multiple sea lion faces. Near her body were copper and gold needles and very thin spindles used to produce fine cotton thread.
The two war clubs were covered with gilded copper. The 24 spear throwers, the largest ever found, also covered with gilded copper, bear anthropomorphized animals on their tips. They were spread out underneath her body held in a large cloth bundle composed of a series of bundles, with 26 layers of wrapping.
Three human “companions” were buried with her—sacrificed victims—strangled, one with a rope still around their neck.
There were hundreds of objects wrapped inside the 26 layer bundle. It took months to unwrap her.
Who were the Moche?
The Moche (Mochica) culture, named after the valley from whence they originated, spanned the years 100-700 CE, and was a series of loosely affiliated city states along the north coast of Peru. There were separate centers of power, all united in cosmology and probably by trade and association. These centers were overseen by what seem to be temple centers, containing huacas: temples or pyramids built with mud bricks, some for ceremonial purposes and others administrative. The culture was stratified into class, the “royals” possessing riches of metals, jewelry, fine pottery and clothing, held positions of power, probably both religious and secular.
The royalty were buried in the huacas, making them power places for the royal family and the community at large. Often one layer was built over the remains of an older, previous one, including tomb spaces. This served as a form of ancestor worship, interring a body above one of the ancestors, layering power through time. The powerful ancestors continued to watch over and participate in the community of the present from their place in the ancestral realm; the bodies yet offering protection, nurture and advice.
Many of the huacas show signs of extended ritual use for generations after a body had been interred and even into the present day. It is common for indigenous people to tend to the bodies and memories of important ancestors as a way to ensure continuation and protection in the present. The royal ancestors could rise to positions as semi gods or even gods and goddesses through time. Often the bones were disinterred and moved into another tomb or carried into a current ritual space, to offer their wisdom and support.
“The Andean dead expect to be remembered, feted and even fed; in return, they take care of their descendants by looking after the well-being of the entire living community—people, herds, and crops. The living actively seek this involvement from the dead, and often keep their remains in close proximity so they can visit them—and especially so they can drink with them. Throughout the ancient Andes, this focus on ancestors was so intense, and so deeply a part of social and religious life, that it is often described as “ancestor worship”(Weismantel 9).
Around and between the huacas were villages and fields of cultivated crops including cotton and maize, that were irrigated with sophisticated series of channels moving water from the mountains, rivers and river valleys to the east into the coastal plains which are a desert.
The mountains were honored as celestial beings throughout Peruvian history and continue to be to this day as Apu. The huacas may have been built in imitation of them, honoring them and bringing their power closer.
With irrigation the Moche were able to farm. They also hunted deer, sea lions and sharks. The culture was very wealthy and successful but the weather system of the coast is extremely affected by cyclical El Niño, more specifically ENSO, El Niño Southern Oscillation patterns that may have been a cause of cyclic disaster which created the the belief in the need for intense cyclical human sacrifice rituals portrayed on their ceramics.
Moche had no written language so anthropologists and archaeologists have had to rely heavily on the pictorial representations left behind on the widespread and sophisticated pottery and other artwork of the culture.
The ocean and its life forms were essential and very important to the Moche culture. They fill their artwork with sea lions, octopi, catfish, seahorse, manta rays, and though not imaged as often, the spondylus shell was one of their most prized sea creatures. The Lady of Cao is immersed in this world.
In Playing with Things: Engaging the Moche Sex Pots Mary Weismantel, writes
“The tomb and its contents . . . immerse the Lady in a vibrant multispecies world. Scorpions and spiders are tattooed onto hands, arms, and feet; gold and silver adornments are shaped as serpents and shellfish; the abstracted forms of manta rays and fish form the brightly colored geometric reliefs on the pyramid walls. It is tempting to dismiss these images as merely decorative, but from a less anthropocentric, more Indigenous perspective, we might see this proliferation of animal and aquatic life as bringing an expansive Moche social world into the temple and onto the body—a world that included humans and nonhumans alike”(7).
Indeed it wasn’t only sea life that the Moche were in deep relationship with. There are also owls, bats, snakes, dragonflies, spiders and more.
El Niño and Sacrifice
Archaeologist and scholar Steve Bourget’s work focuses on the Huacas in the Moche Valley, Huaca de La Luna and Huaca del Sol. The pyramid’s names were given to them by researchers. We do not know what the Moche called them. The huacas are six kilometers from the ocean. He considers the Huacas de Moche, which include these two, the most important ceremonial site of the Moche people.
In Sacrifice, Violence, and Ideology among the Moche: The Rise of Social Complexity in Ancient Peru, Bourget proposes that the sacrifice rituals depicted on the pottery took place in El Niño years to appease the elemental forces.
Remains in the Huaca de La Luna confirm the presence of human sacrifice and seem to affirm the imagery of the scenes depicted on some of the pots as actual events rather than mythological tales. Bourget also comes to the conclusion that the people carrying out the rituals are ones we have found buried in royal tombs, and they were probably roles passed down in the royal line. He also believes both priests and priestesses held the high functional roles and carried out the sacrifice. Sacrifices were carried out by throat cutting, decapitation and impact to skulls. Blood was collected and possibly consumed. Most definitely offered.
Some read the distinct personalities portrayed on the ritual sacrifice scene called The Presentation Theme or Sacrifice Ceremony as 1) a male ruler 2) a female ruler 3)an owl priest or priestess and 4) a moon priestess. Though these may have been powerful roles within the Moche communities passed on generation after generation, we cannot be sure that the bodies that have been recovered with similar adornments actually participated in this ritual.
Human sacrifice does seem to have been practiced through all the levels of Moche habitation. But it is difficult to know on what scale and who was sacrificed. There is a lot of debate in the community of scholars and researchers of the Moche peoples about the extent of their warfare and sacrifice rituals.
Bourget posits that local residents could see El Niño coming by the appearance of new ocean dwellers along their shorelines including sharks, rays, swimming crabs, leatherback turtles, puffer fish, octopi, catfish while, simultaneously indigenous sea life —sea lions, sea birds and penguin—suffered. Land animals not typical to the location who arrived and benefitted in El Niño cycles were dragonflies, spiders, owl, rodents, fox, condor.
Bourget believes this is reflected in the artwork.
Weismantel’s cogent writing and scholarship helps us understand that Moche rituals were not carried out solely for the well being of the human realm. All members of the ecosystem were included in their world view and ritual purpose. In the case of the ritual portrayed in The Presentation Theme or Sacrifice Ceremony, the intention would have been to have an effect on the natural forces in order to mitigate some of the consequences of the vast sea change: to collaborate with the sea and land animals, as well as natural forces and elements in order to maintain or restore balance.
Moche art reveals that the Moche were deeply embedded in their local ecosystem: the ocean and its inhabitants were important and sentient, and as large a part of the ecosystem as the humans. The culture had a transpermeable relationship with their ecosystem, meaning the boundaries of consciousness between what we moderns think of as other and non living were vastly different.
The amount of animals and anthropomorphized images in the graves and on the artwork show that the consciousness was not viewed as localized to the individual human brain, rather it was spread out and shared among the ecosystem as one. The ecosystem and its forces were the supreme deities, the mountain were the rulers. In this kind of cosmology, the wind, rain and ocean can be interacted with collaboratively.
With transpermeability, the boundaries of consciousness between all life forms are penetrated and shared. The ecosystem exists as one mind.
As ruler, La Señora de Cao was the true embodiment of this. Thus the costumes she was interred with, which upon wearing would transform her into a multispecies being.
These conclusions are not arrived at from studying La Señora de Cao alone. At San Jose de Moro further up the coast some 300 years later, a center of important female leaders was found, women whom many call Moon Priestesses, overseeing a center believed to be ritual in function as well as oracular. I see the presence of transpermeable consciousness arising out of what I call “moon mind” and will write more about this in future posts.
Weismantel warns that the Sacrifice Ritual is overemphasized and only makes up for a very small percentage of the scenes depicted in the ceramics. She urges us not to “globalize” it outside the the Huaca de La Luna.
We cannot assume La Señora de Cao or the priestesses of San Jose de Moro participated in such events. There were many other ceremonies portrayed on the ceramics including coca ceremonies and many chicha (corn beer) rituals, as well as an event called “The Revolt of the Objects.”
Weismantel and other scholars believe that the sacrifice rituals were not public ceremonies but private among the elite of the culture. The elite of the culture assumed the attire of the gods and goddesses and carried out the sacrifices within the temple walls after a race or ritual competition choosing who would have the honor of being sacrificed.
No matter what the nuance of her role was, it is absolutely clear that La Señora de Cao held high position and status and ruled what is now called the Chicama valley of Northern Peru, albeit for a short time.
She died in childbirth
La Señora de Cao was around 25 years old when she died. Her body was coated in cinnabar, a red mineral associated with the life force and sacred blood. She died in childbirth. Since not buried with her, the baby is assumed to have lived. She had also previously borne another child. What happened to these children? Did they go on to assume her role?
Several layers of the cloth she was buried in had a face embroidered onto it where it covered her face. To me this speaks of an intimacy and care that goes beyond her power and status. It speaks to me of the work of someone who held her dear. And the lowest layer, above her face, had a copper bowl with another face image carved into it. A robe of copper foils was closest to her body. Perhaps a garment or robe she wore often and was intimate with as well, or indeed a garment indicating status.
It is important to note that there were many more Moche burials along the coast of Peru which have been looted for centuries meaning that at this date we really cannot draw out firm conclusions about the male/female power ratio in the culture at large. But there have indeed been many women of high status uncovered, indicating that both males and females held leadership roles in ancient Peru among the Moche.
As of 2021 only 5% of the El Brujo complex had been excavated, a site with human occupation back 14,000 years. We will see who else emerges from the sand.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2023
Bourget, Steve. Sacrifice, Violence, and Ideology Among the Moche: The Rise of Social Complexity in Ancient Peru. Austin. The University of Texas Press. 2016.
Weismantel, Mary. Playing With Things: Engaging the Moche Sex Pots. Austin, The University of Texas Press. 2021.