The Vulture in Pre-Columbian Incan Art of the Moche Culture Part 3

Motifs of the Mochica included geometric designs, but geometric patterns as such were unknown to them. These took shape from the world of their experience. Most appear to represent parts of the human body or the bodies of animals, the simplification, and modification having gone o far to make the original pattern unrecognizable. These occur in the pottery and fabrics alone or in conjunction with animals, realistic or stylized. The main elements of Mochica life were the sea, desert sand, vegetation of the valleys, and the mountains. The products and creatures reflected in their art also often come from ritual, with associated positive and negative elements. There is evidence they were a warlike people. They fought not only the sea, the desert, and mountains but they fought for a new land to cultivate. These conquests are reflected in weapons: clubs, shields, spears, slings as well as knives. Their use of metals was proficient. They made objects of gold, copper, and silver, often carving figures and implements of wood and inlaying them with metals, turquoise, and shell. Small objects were carved from various stones as well and were decorative, functional and symbolic. These were often inlaid (Benson 1972:109). The shell inlay on the object in question is in the common usage, whether or not it was for the use of a commoner or for the elite.

Warriors were carved with wings of the hawk or other birds, and beans and potatoes carved with legs and faces. There is an indication this was done for magic (Benson 1972: 20-22). Benson concurs that the duality themes is woven through Mochica art. animals, usually, the familiars, are anthropomorphized. The hawk and owl were often warriors. The hummingbird most frequently was a messenger, while the owl was never a messenger. Most deities were double fanged. (1972:34-52).


The conclusion of the paper involves clarifying the object in light of the collection of facts. Because the culture and the condor are both used in Mochica art, the object could be either one. However, because the condor is a member of the vulture family, either will suffice.

It has been shown that, although objects were carved of wood and stone, the Moche were proficient in the casting of bronze. However, because of the distinctive green color on the plate, it is more likely it is cast of copper. Many objects were inlaid with shell and precious stone as turquoise, and even gilded. It seems most likely that this object was inlaid with turquoise and shell.

It has been shown that many knives and other small cast objects have been found in graves as well as homes. It has been shown that the elite had the majority of those found, and because this object has also been inlaid, it is likely it was owned by someone of prestige. The vulture was used but not the most common of birds and this also indicates an elite purpose. There is also indication because the condor itself lived high in the mountains, it would be more rare of sight for the Moche people, and as a rarity would also concur that the elite would be in possession of its image.

A large head on the vulture can indicate an office, and it can also indicate a stylized form. This is not clearly enough evidence to declare either way, although both are possible. With much of the art reduced to a stylized form, even to a seemingly geometric form, the size of the head could be simply a similar style.

Whether or not mythology is part of the purpose in the usage of a vulture is a deeper question. There is too little supporting evidence of any specific myth in Moche even though there is some in South American culture in general. It is possible, but this paper will assume it is not likely.

If it is not a myth, would it be simply a decorative object? What is considered art today was not done to be decorative in the day of the Moche. There was purpose or what was done, whether for the dead, or for the living. Art was to communicate with the living or with the spirit world (Lujan: personal communication). A knife handle with a carved image on it therefore would indicate a purpose for its being there. And if mythology is not a likely purpose, it must come from tradition and superstition.


The Vulture in Pre-Columbian Incan Art of the Moche Culture Part 2

Vultures do appear on Moche pottery, in drawings and carvings. They also appear in other cultures both preceding and after the Moche. They show up in the rock engravings, apparently once having a symbolism, according to Bierhorst (1988:260) who states there can be little doubt as to the significance of certain figures as mask dancers. In the real mask dances the masks are believed to conjure the demons they represent; similarly, the painted figures are believed to permanently act as charms against the spirits. A common idea is that death brings a demon, and it must be dealt with. The belief that the departed reincarnate themselves in certain birds as well as other animals, is extremely common. The myths themselves being similar across the continent suggests contact among the peoples, even if very limited. The Moche had some contact with others around them (Reichert 1982:279).

Bierhorst continues (1988:200-213) that the people, living as they did by hunting, would take from the animal world as they were in intimate contact with them. most ornaments were purely practical charms against evil spirits and the occurrence of animal figures as ornaments is due to the common belief that the spirits assume the shape of animals. Primitive magic, namely the magic of names and the magic of images was common in animal dances with and without masks.

He continues that in animal dances not only images of fish and birds and lizards were used, but the birds were fashioned of wood and painted. They represented hummingbirds, swallows and the caracari vulture as well as the urubu vulture. Jones (1964:68) adds the Mochinca used symbols to show the properties of various creatures, often combining them to form a mythical entity. Here we find the jaguar, the cayman, the serpent, and the condor. The resulting compositions are hybrids which may be read in many different ways. It is one thing to show from what concrete patterns certain diagrammatic ornaments have been derived, another to assign the reason why they have been applied to different objects; to weapons, and implements, and to vessels (Karsten 1988:198).

Benson concurs that Mochica art was related to that of other northern coast groups, and several styles have been found; the pure early Mochica style is very creative, indicating an interaction among the groups in motifs as well as mythology (1972:15, 16).

In this forbidding land of rocky desolation, the Mochica artist applied his keen observation to all the animals that inhabited his world. Von Hagen continues that their art was unrivaled in all of the Americas. (1965:3).

Few other people in the history of the world have told us as much about themselves with their pottery as have the Mochica of Peru. They covered their pyramids and buildings with murals giving much insight into their lives: their ceremony, irrigation practices, metallurgy, musical instruments. They show realistic representations of battle, of sacrifice, the hunt, wildlife and plants and simply daily lives. (Benson 1972: book cover). Is it any wonder then that we can read through these their idea of the culture and what it meant to them.

The dry air preserved much of the Moche culture, leaving a rich legacy of artifacts. Stierlin observes the potters must have felt a keen interest in the animal world (1983:76), for their repertory includes serpents, birds and felines which served their environment, and served in some cases as their commons. He shows in plate 61 the same image of a vulture as the object in question. It is made of pottery in the form of a stirrup vessel; its body is a bit fuller; it lacks the inlay, but it is the same image. In Plate 61 is illustrated a stirrup-spouted vessel with a condor (Stierlin 1983:76). Another condor vessel is shown in Lapiner’s plate 266.

Although pottery constitutes the bulk of the Moche legacy, other objects are not uncommon. The Mochica were prolific with pottery, especially at the end of their era, giving a spirit of mass-produced quality. But they were also skilled in metals, both working in gold and in casting. Metal seemed to indicate status, as more has been found in elite homes than in those of the commoners, indicating use of metal was probably a status symbol (Earle 1987:98). In von Hagen’s work, he indicates that sheer masses of bronze knives, wedges, cutting tools and tupu pins that have been found in Moche and Chimu graves give testimony to the amazing amounts that were in use. He feels here again that the vast numbers indicate mass production. These include cast pieces as large as crowbars, and delicate small pieces the size of a thumbnail. (1965:83-4).

Carved bone has been found in the area; beautifully carved with small animals and figures on the handle tops of snuff spoons. Wooden staffs and agricultural implements are carved also with figures and animals on top (Docksteder 1967:plate 183, and Jones 1964:49,50). It is therefore not unusual at all to find the object in question carved so well and placed on the top of a knife.


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).