Standing on an outer wall of the Huacas del Luna (The Temple of the Moon) outside the city of Trujillo on the dry coastal plain of northern Peru I had a distinct feeling that I was in an evil place. The tour guide was explaining that this high wall had been used by the Moche, predecessors of the Incas, to throw human sacrifices to their death on the rocks below.
A team of researchers excavated the plaza in 1995 and found 95 bodies of 16 to 25-year-old men who had been tortured then killed by having their throats cut or skulls bashed in. Breaks in their bones which had started to heal indicated they had been captured in battle about two weeks before the sacrifice. We were shown the murals on the walls and pottery which let us see details of the sacrifice. I shuddered finding the whole concept mind boggling and reminiscent of some things that have happened in the Balkans.
Much of what we know of the early people who lived around what are now the cities of Chiclayo and Trujillo in northern Peru we have learned from their graves and temples. Many of the kingdoms which arose in this area shared a ideology of power and used human sacrifice for various purposes.
We saw a further example of this when we visited the tomb where the Lord of Sipan was found. His coffin takes up a central position in a burial chamber that has niches on all sides. In those niches are six other bodies: a nine-year-old child, two robust men and three young women. The burial ritual also included the slaughtering of a dog and two llamas. When found the Lord of Sipan was in full regalia, with ornate necklaces, feather ornaments, silver and gold rattles, knives, golden death-masks and a scepter in his right hand. Fortunately this grave was found by professional archaeologists rather than grave robbers.
The sea level towns of Chiclayo and Trujillo lie on the dry coastal area about an hour's flight north of Lima and were home to the first settled communities in South America. The countryside of the north coast of Peru is studded with the skeletons of the vast pyramids built 2000 years ago. Their size is such that you can't tell until you get close whether you are seeing a small mountain or a large man-made pile of adobe blocks. Over the centuries the recurring El Ninos have eroded the pyramids so that long ditches spread fingers down their sides.
But it is not only the occasional El Nino shrinking the pyramids; other forces have been at work. The huaqueros, the Spanish word for grave robbers and looters, have been busy digging for royal burial sites and they have left gaping holes in the pyramids. Huaqueros are often poor peasants who must do their illegal work by stealth. This means their numbers can only be guessed at, but the collections of gold objects, pottery and textiles in the museums suggest there are many of them searching for sudden wealth by finding another unmarked royal grave.
In addition to rain and thieves adobe blocks have been taken from the pyramids by later cultures and used to build houses and public buildings. These in turn have been destroyed by El Ninos. But the destruction happens slowly, because most of the time the climate is extremely dry and only a few inches of rain fall a year. That means that for the most part that mud based adobe blocks work well in this area as building material.
The Diversity of Peru
Peru has some of the most diverse climatic and farming conditions of any country in the world. You can go from the dry desert on the Pacific coast, up the steepest mountains to the highlands where people live at elevations of 11,000 feet with a rainy season six months long, down the other side to thick Amazonian jungle. Each change of elevation and precipitation forces people to grow different crops, wear different clothes and face different hazards. The range of life styles in this South American country may be greater than that of any other country you are likely to visit.
Because of fortunate climatic conditions this coastal area of northern Peru gave rise around 1200 BC to the first complex civilization in the Americas. This was at a time when much of the rest of the world was still in the Stone Age. Despite its aridity the coast of Peru provided the best environment in the new world for the start of a high level civilization that could support more than a few scattered hunting and gathering tribes.
Part of its strength as a home for civilization lies in the system of rivers bringing the runoff from the high mountains and insuring a source of water for the many crops which were eventually grown in the former desert by a clever use of canals. The mild climate and ready availability of food from both the Pacific Ocean and irrigated land allowed for specialization of labor. While one person farmed another could make pottery, another weave textiles and still another beat gold and copper into beautiful forms. These products could then be exchanged between villages and accumulated.
Once there is a flourishing permanent center an area is ripe for the introduction of high priests, royal persons and the wealthy. Next there is a great public building project to show that mine is bigger than yours. Much of the labor that built these monuments was a labor tax; everyone was required to work two months a year for the state. Eventually this led to cluttering up the countryside with the vast pyramids and temples which are now a major tourist attraction of the area.
For over 3,000 years Peruvians have been using metal, making pottery, weaving cloth, building large edifices and conquering territory. There has been an interesting ebb and flow of kingdoms, small nations being combined into big ones which fall apart into small nations which again combine under strong leadership into a large nation.
A number of reasons may exist for the ebb and flow. The area is a highly volatile one geologically. The occasional volcano or earthquake would have destroyed their well built irrigation systems which would have led to the breakdown of a striving culture. Another factor was the erratic weather patterns caused by El Ninos and La Ninas which caused either flooding or long periods of drought with a corresponding breakdown in the ability to produce food.
Other Sights and Sites
But enough of temples and pyramids, there are other sights to see. There is a large covered market in Chiclayo with the usual collection of any and everything. The everything includes a section called the witches' market. Here you can buy the supplies you need for conducting your magic both black (Bruhas) and white (Curados). There are carved sticks of special woods that when rubbed over your body remove pain, fragrances to improve your love life, bark to cure impotence and prostate problems and candles for removing curses. Many people still prefer these methods to modern medicine for improving their lives and curing their ailments. Besides here in Peru they are more readily available.
Near Trujillo is also found the best ceramics collection in Peru. For 40 years a gas station owner has been buying perfect models from grave robbers. In the basement of his station he displays pots from all of the major pre-colonial cultures. After cleaning with water and lemon juice they look as if they were freshly taken from the kiln. As a sex educator I found the pornographic pots of special interest, but I passed up the copies in favor of ones more mundane.
Since the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) terrorists have been controlled Peru is becoming a major tourist attraction. At this time Machu Picchu and Cusco are the most popular destinations but I believe that in the next few years the northern coast of Peru will see a major increase in foreign visitors because of its many attractions.