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The Vulture in Pre-Columbian Incan Art of the Moche Culture Part 1

Research paper investigating the uncommon icon of a vulture in the Moche area of Peru.

The vulture is rarer in Moche iconography than in the Peruvian countryside in general. Considering the fact that many animals and birds are commonly depicted in Moche art, and considering the fact that the Michigan people have told us so much about their lives through their imagery, the rarity of one species gives reason to pursue the question of why this is too. Was it only because the Moche people lived in coastal valleys, and the condor and vulture lived mostly in the highlands?

For the purpose of the question this paper will include the condor along with the vultures of the area, the condor being a type of vulture. A brief overview of the vulture family and its habits seems to be necessary before arriving at any conclusion as to why the Moche used their representation at all, and perhaps why they did so limitedly.

According to Store and Usinger (1970:257) the birds nest in the side of a cliff, far out of the common view of the people. They are seen soaring overhead with large wings, tilted upward. Whenever the air is warm they circle and spiral on upwelling currents with little change in the set of wings or tail. Individuals are spaced out, perhaps one per square mile, scanning the ground for dead animals. When one sees food, it glides down, rocking sideways while descending: a signal to others who soon converge. Vultures are seen in a hunched posture in the morning and evening. The more obvious feature of the birds is the fact that they eat the dead.

References to the fact this was indeed noticed across the region by both Bierhorst (1988:305) and Karsten (1936:284) and many groups had the vulture in their mythology dating from ancient times. Almost every quadruped, bird or fish is regarded as the temporary or permanent abode of a disembodied human soul. When anyone would die, and people saw a bird flying, some would say it was the soul of the deceased. The Xingu, for instance, say the blacks become black urubu vultures upon dying (Karsten 1926:377).

The vulture appears in myths such as “The Theft of Fire From the Vulture”, and “The Vulture Wife.” The Vulture Wife concerns the stealing away of humans by animals and the only way they can return to the human world is by the intervention of a shaman. The intriguing side to the story is, even though dangerous, marriage with the animal world brings the chance to acquire power. Comparisons with other lore reveal significant characteristics of the Central Andean mythology and its strong relationship with other South American mythologies (Bierhorst 1988:71, 207). Although there is little evidence to indicate the Moche themselves had a defined mythology of their own.

Throughout South America, the largest birds of prey are often looked upon as evil demons, especially if they feed on men or domestic animals (Bierhorst 1988:286). The tenet seems to follow that all animals have once been men, or that all men were once animals, but Karsten adheres that among most of the tribes of the Montana mythology is not as strongly organized as elsewhere in the region (1988:213).