When we think of traditional indigenous cultures that practice body modification, there are a range of beautiful, unique cultures many of us may picture from around the world. For me, it is the Moche of Peru who stand out in my mind. The Moche were an indigenous civilization that thrived between 100-700 AD along the costal region of northern Peru. They were know to practice various forms of body modifications, including ear stretching, body piercing, and scarification. They were a culture of skilled artisans, creating intricate metalwork, large multi tiered pyramids with many access ramps and connecting structures, and built large and sprawling city centers. They built sprawling systems of aqueducts and irrigation for vast farm land, and water was at the center of much of their culture. The Moche were another civilization in a long line of brilliant, advanced civilizations that flourished in south america for centuries.
Perhaps the most interesting facet of Moche culture, for me, was the intersection of religion and body modification. They were a culture who worshipped water and bodily fluids- blood, spit, semen, breast milk, urine- all fluids had their place. Blood in particular was used in many religious rites, and human sacrifice was a common theme. Their war god, known as the Decapitator god- half man, half jaguar, sometimes depicted as a spider ready to drain enemies of their blood, was worshipped with- well, Blood. Sacred blood letting, scarification, piercing, and even human sacrifice, often including decapitation. Many pots are also found depicting various sexual acts- and the fluids that come along with it. Like other cultures in the Andean region, sexual fluids were all viewed as not only a means of reproduction but nurturing. The very life force of people came from semen, and then breast milk, passing from father to mother, mother to child. The Moche believed in celebrating the sacred power of life that was stored in these fluids. They are perhaps most well known for their pottery- featuring detailed depictions and portraits of tribe members- often including large stretched lobes and septum piercings. These pots also depict graphic scenes of sex and sexuality. Gorgeous, and intricate stone and gold plugs have been found as well.
“What we're looking at here are earflares that used turquoise, sodalite, spondylus shell, gold, and mother of pearl to create this incredibly beautiful object. In fact, we're surrounded by cases with exceptional gold work and other examples of ear spools. Now, if this was 25 years ago, I would probably have to explain what an ear spool was. But, I think most people now know that this are basically studs for a piercing in the ear, that is much larger than a typical piercing. The idea was that the bigger the ear spool, the more important of a person you were, and vice versa. And so this particular ones have a diameter that's about a centimeter and a half which is pretty hefty. But to make it much more extreme, the display side is much larger, and must be quite heavy because not only do we have a significant amount of gold, but we also have inlaid stone. They are very heavy, and they would have been counterbalanced partially by the fact that the shaft in the back is so long. It is also possible that most of these were somehow fastened to head dresses or otherwise attached to clothing to help take some of the weight off of the ear itself, which would have been exceptionally stretched out by these objects. So, it's safe to say this was not for everyday wear, this was probably for ceremonial use. But we do find wear marks on these kinds of objects, so we do have an indication that these were not only used for burial. These do seem to have been worn in life, the question is whether they were worn by one generation or possibly multiple generations. It is quite possible that if you were a very high ranking person with lots of responsibilities you may end up wearing these quite a bit more than you might think.” (1)
Beyond that, other piercings are depicted in their cultural rites. While often mayan and aztec cultures are attributed to tongue piercings, there have been discoveries of depictions of female priestess in Moche culture piercing their tongues with bones and thorns, and collecting the blood as a ritual offering to the gods. It’s believed some priests and priestesses may have worn larger stretched tongue piercings that they reopened for ritual uses. The concept was the blood and saliva letting that happened during piercing honored the gods but also allowed them to enter the priestess and communicate through her.
Scarification was also ritually used, both as a torturous form of human sacrifice, and as a process of bloodletting in worship to their god. As a culture who worshiped blood and fluids, it seems to be less about the scars left on the skin, and more about the process of cutting the skin and bleeding. This is an interesting take on scarification, which is usually more about the end result than the process in many other cultures. We know from depictions on pottery and temple walls that warriors would have their noses cut and arms and back cut to bleed for ritual purposes. Blood was often collected in a goblet and drank by priests dressed as gods.
Body Modification is for many about the end result- the final piercing or the final tattoo. For the Moche, it’s all about the process of modification. About the pain or sensation of it, about the blood, about the ritual. So much more time and investment went into ritual tools, ritual garb, and celebration of the ritual, and having a piercing or scar was a nice side effect. Anyone deeply enmeshed in the modern modification community can tell you about the power of these modifications. Even today we discuss experiencing trance states, out of body experiences, and deeply cathartic emotional moments while undergoing piercings, suspensions, and scarifications. For some in the community, we continue to celebrate the process and act of getting these things as much as the final result.
This mentality is so removed from modern piercing and tattooing today. Now, it is entirely about the end result and we do everything possible to minimize the process of actually getting a piercing. We just want to leave with a pretty piece of jewelry magically in our bodies. And I understand this shift. But I also understand the mentality of the Moche. I have been fascinated by the practice of play piercings since before I became a piercer- where the process of getting pierced is the focus of the experience, not the end result. The same can be said of body suspension. As an industry we often tend to focus on a few limited historical groups who wore piercings often for a strictly adornment purpose. But I think there is much to be learned from groups like the Moche. We can learn and be reminded to spend as much time enjoying the process of getting work as we do enjoying the end result. And we can be reminded of the strength of the human body and mind, and the transformative experience of pain. There is an inherent magic that lies in the act of being pierced, tattooed, or cut, mores than the result, and the Moche knew this.
If you enjoyed this blog and want to support indigenous groups currently working to secure rights and preserve their history please consider donating to IWGIA - The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs which helps a number of groups, including in Latin America, fight for their rights and land.
To learn more about the Moche please see the following resources:
Weismantel, M. (2004). "Moche sex pots: Reproduction and temporality in ancient South America" (PDF). American Anthropologist. 106 (3): 495–496. doi:10.1525/aa.2004.106.3.495.
(1)"Pair of Earflares, Winged Messengers (Moche Culture, Peru)". Smarthistory. Retrieved April 30, 2016.
Bawden, G. (2004). "The Art of Moche Politics". In Silverman, H. (ed.). Andean Archaeology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.