Writing was never developed in the central Andes. Nothing was known of the Moche culture until the end of the last century when archaeological exploration and material remains revealed Moche’s existence. Until that time, the great adobe monuments known today as the Huaca del Sol y de la Luna were described by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish chroniclers as “the works of the gentiles” (indigenous peoples) a term they used to refer to the descendants of native peoples in the New World.
Between 1898 and 1899 German archaeologist Max Uhle excavated at the Huacas del Sol y de la Luna. He found dozens of tombs buried sequentially, one on top of the other. Based on objects from the tombs, Uhle identified three great cultures: the Inca, the Chimú and an earlier one which he dubbed proto-Chimú.
In the late 1920s a disciple of Uhle’s, North American archaeologist Alfred Kroeber of the University of California at Berkeley, studied the objects in the Uhle collection and renamed Uhle’s «proto-Chimú» Early Chimú. At the same time, Peruvian archaeologist Julio C. Tello, who also excavated on the north coast, suggested that this culture be called Moche or Mochica, referring to Muchik, one of the ancient languages spoken on the north coast. This name is still used today.
Around the same time, Rafael Larco Hoyle, the pioneer of north coast archaeology and to whom we owe much of our understanding of Moche, began his studies. Based on hundreds of tombs that he excavated in the Chicama, Moche and Virú valleys, Larco established a chronological sequence for the north coast, much more comprehensive than the sequences proposed by his predecessors. It included the early hunters of large, extinct fauna whom he called the Paiján,
followed by Cupisnique, Chavín (or its influence on the coast), Salinar, Gallinazo, Moche, Huari Epigonal, Chimú and Inca.
Based on the stylistic variations he observed in characteristic Moche stirrup spout ceramic vessels, Larco divided the sequence into five cultural phases. Ceramics from the first two phases (first century B.C. to first century A.D.) are very similar to the forms of earlier ceramic vessels —especially those of Cupisnique— and mark the establishment of the Moche culture. According to Larco this early phase included the Moche and Chicama valleys, which he considered the birthplace of the Moche culture. He believed that phases III and IV (second to fifth centuries A.D.) corresponded to Moche military expansion, first in the valleys to the south of Moche and then in the valleys to the north.
At this time Moche reached its greatest territorial expanse, from Piura in the north to Huarmey in the south. Moche urban settlements in the south, however, have only been recognized as far as the Nepeña valley (Pañamarca). Larco viewed phase V (sixth to seventh centuries A.D.) as Moche’s decadent phase, marking the end of this culture and the arrival of influences from other societies in the highlands and the central coast. At this time, control shifted north of Moche proper. The old capital at the Huacas of Moche lost power and a new, smaller center was built at Galindo, located at the neck of the Moche valley.
Many of Larco’s interpretations were borne out during the 1940s by the work of North American archaeologist Gordon Willey and other members of the Virú Valley Project. In effect, the Moche presence in the Virú valley appears in phase III. Before this time the Gallinazo culture dominated the valley. The discovery of the tomb of a warrior priest at Huaca La Cruz became one of the most oft-cited lines of evidence to support the notion that Moche was a theocratic state. Little, however, was known of Moche urbanism. North American archaeologist Richard Schaedel suggested that Moche temples were not surrounded by urban settlements. Instead, he called them «empty ceremonial centers» and proposed that they were only occupied during certain times of the year, during pilgrimages. It was not until the work of Theresa Lange-Topic in the early 1970s that this scenario was revised.
Studies of Moche occupation sites have been complemented by research based on material remains. The discovery, for instance, of multicolored murals sheds light on Moche ceremonial activities and the functions of these sites. Studies by Kroeber, José Garrido, Carol Mackey, and Ricardo Morales at the Huaca de la Luna are especially revealing, as are those at Pañamarca in Nepeña by Schaedel and Duccio Bonavia and more recently at the El Brujo complex, in the Chicama valley (by Régulo Franco, César Gálvez, Segundo Vásquez and Morales) and at La Mina in the Jequetepeque valley (by Alfredo Narváez).
Most of what we know about the daily life of the Moche people, however, comes from their ceramics, renowned for their technical and pictorial virtuosity. Studies of Moche iconography have contributed substantially to our understanding, offering insight into Moche ideology and ritual. They have also revealed much about Moche social structure and even economic activities. Research by scholars such as Gerd Kutscher, Elizabeth Benson, Annemarie Hocquenghem, Christopher Donnan, Steve Bourget, and Luis Jaime Castillo, among others, offers a reading of Moche society based on the «narrative» scenes drawn on ceramics. These complement those depicted on multicolored murals as well as those portrayed in textiles and works in metal.
Based on recent studies, scholars have established that these narrative scenes portray activities that actually took place and that the individuals shown in them also existed. The people depicted in the scenes formed Moche’s ruling elite, who were given divine attributes. Examples include the discoveries at the tombs of Sipán in the Lambayeque valley, San José de Moro in Jequetepeque, Huaca La Cruz in Virú, and the recently excavated tombs at the Huaca de la Luna in the Moche valley.
Since 1991 excavations by the National University of La Libertad-Trujillo have focused on one of the most important and complex Moche sites: the Huacas del Sol y de la Luna. The University team is interested in defining the architecture of the larger buildings, their construction histories and their functions, as well as the study of the urban center that surrounded the Huacas. At the same time, discoveries made by archaeologists are being conserved and efforts are continually underway to display these remains of Peru’s ancient history to visitors in the most informative way possible.