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.