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Remembering the Shark Hunters

Unique burials show how ancient Peruvians celebrated dangerous deep-sea expeditions

March/April 2020

Peru Fisherchiefs Shark TeethExploring the beliefs of complex cultures that flourished before the advent of writing challenges archaeologists to imagine how the buildings and artifacts those people left behind express long-vanished belief systems. On the Moche River, six miles inland from the arid northern coast of Peru, loom structures that were central to a people who left behind abundant evidence of their worldview. These buildings, the 15-story adobe-brick Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, are among the largest built by the Moche, who thrived in northern Peru from about A.D. 200 to 800. Moche artisans produced a rich array of murals, pottery, and other artifacts depicting humans engaged in ceremonies and interacting with mythic creatures. Thanks to these vivid depictions and the lavish burials of priests and nobles, archaeologists can reconstruct how the Moche may have conducted rituals at major sites such as the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon. But what of the people who lived in smaller settlements far from the major Moche centers? What religious traditions did they follow and what beliefs did they rely on to make sense of the world around them?

 

In an effort to answer these questions, University of Florida archaeologist Gabriel Prieto has spent years excavating ancient fishing villages north of where the Moche River flows into the Pacific Ocean. In the summer of 2019, he and his team excavated a stone-and-mudbrick platform on a bluff overlooking the Pacific coast at a site known as Pampa la Cruz. Such platforms, which served as temples, were often built by ancient Peruvians, including the Moche, to be used by priests and other important members of the community as stages on which to perform religious rites. Prieto soon discovered that this particular platform, rising a modest six feet high, was decorated with a typical Moche painting that depicts three warriors leading two naked captives. It also concealed evidence of a unique ritual event. Beneath the platform, Prieto unearthed the burials of more than a dozen deep-sea creatures, including nine sharks. The skeletons of two sunfish and two yellowfin tuna, uncommon species on the Peruvian coast, were also identified, as well as two Kogia whales, which are some of the rarest toothed whales in the world. All the animals seemed to have been purposely buried by the people of Pampa la Cruz, who constructed the platform sometime between A.D. 500 and 750. “We were very surprised,” says Prieto. “Perhaps there were offerings of sea animals elsewhere in South America, but we haven’t found them yet.”

 

Peru Fisherchiefs MapThe only comparable discovery in the New World was made more than 2,000 miles north, in Mexico City, where the Mexicas, or Aztecs, buried marine species as well as land animals in and around the ritual site of Templo Mayor. “The Aztecs were later than the Moche,” says Harvard University archaeologist Jeffrey Quilter, who visited Pampa la Cruz when the burials were being unearthed. “But both examples reflect the widely shared appreciation by indigenous Americans of animals as important, powerful creatures.” He notes that different animals were sometimes believed to be masters of different planes of reality, including the underworld, which was often imagined as an aquatic realm. “The Pampa la Cruz case is interesting because the animals are oceanic,” says Quilter. “So it seems that the temple had a special role as an intercessor or expression of the forces of the deep.”

 

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