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Bringing Back Moche Badminton

How reviving an ancient ritual game gave an archaeologist new insight into the lives of ancient Peruvians

May/June 2019

Moche Badminton Illustration


When Christopher Donnan began studying the art created by Peru’s Moche culture more than 50 years ago, he wasn’t sure how much it reflected ancient reality. From about A.D. 200 to 850, the Moche lived in the arid valleys of Peru’s northern coast, where they practiced intensive irrigation agriculture and built vast ceremonial complexes. Moche artists created murals and decorated pottery with vivid images of fantastic rituals featuring participants who were part animal and part human. They also painted scenes of figures, some wearing elaborate clothing that indicated their elite status, engaged in a mysterious spear-throwing activity scholars dubbed “ceremonial badminton” due to the use of a feathered object that looks somewhat like a shuttlecock.


Moche Badminton VesselEarly in his career, Donnan wondered whether the images might depict mythical figures operating on a supernatural plane rather than real people enacting ceremonies on Earth. The rituals certainly seemed to stretch the limits of reality. Chief among them was the sacrifice ceremony, in which attendants slit prisoners’ throats and collected their blood in goblets, which were then presented to the presiding priest. The beings participating in the sacrifice ceremony took human form, but had body parts such as fangs, jaguar heads, and bird beaks. There were also depictions of ceremonial badminton contests that showed groups of figures armed with a type of spear-thrower called an atlatl, which is essentially a stick with a handle on one end and a hook or socket that attaches to a spear on the other. Participants seemed to use their atlatls to hurl spears with feathered objects attached to them. Like the sacrifice ceremony, ceremonial badminton could have been an actual event or a supernatural contest that occurred largely in the Moche mythological realm. “When I looked at these rituals I often wondered if the activities were real. Did they really do that?” says Donnan.


Now, building on decades of archaeological discoveries and his own extensive experience analyzing depictions of Moche rituals, Donnan, an archaeologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, has re-created ceremonial badminton. In bringing to life a contest that for more than 1,000 years was confined to painted scenes on ancient pottery, he has been able to get a glimpse into the lived experience of the Moche that artifacts rarely afford.


The question of whether or not Moche art depicts real events was settled in 1987, when Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva excavated the tomb of a Moche nobleman now known as the Lord of Sipan. This nobleman had been buried in northern Peru’s Lambayeque Valley along with the bodies of six attendants. The lord wore an elaborate costume that closely resembled the artistic representations of the sacrifice ceremony’s participants. In a nearby tomb, archaeologists discovered the burial of a man who wore a large owl headdress that mimicked how a figure known as the Bird Priest appears in Moche art. Alva and his team even found goblets that had once held the victims’ blood. “That really changed everything,” recalls Donnan, who analyzed Alva’s discoveries and confirmed their parallels to the art he knew so well. “This made clear that what you see in Moche art is real.”

Playing Moche Toss



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