Ancient Moche burials provided insects with banquet


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Peru's ancient Moche exposed their dead to corpse-eating bugs as an act of veneration, archeologists report.

In the current Journal of Archeological Science, J.B. Hucheta of France's Université Bordeaux and Bernard Greenberg of the University of Illinois at Chicago, describe a burial at the "Huacas de Moche" Pyramid of the Moon archeological site in Peru. In 2006, a team excavated about 45 graves from the site.


"The Mochica (or Moche) culture is one of the pre-Columbian civilisations in Peru. It flourished from about AD 100 to 750 on a narrow desert coastal strip of northern Peru, between the Andes and the Pacific," note the authors. The Moche are renowned for their brightly-colored pottery and murals.

In the journal, the team reports on the burial of a man in his twenties, found with four pots, five copper ornaments in his mouth and his skull streaked with red cinnabar. Study revealed, "the skeleton was incomplete and had been disturbed prior to excavation: the left forearm and lower legs were entirely missing; and the right humerus had been put back on the wrong side. In all likelihood, these disturbances were caused by the Moche reopening the grave, and not by tomb plunderers (Huaqueros) who would have removed the grave goods to sell, and not bothered with the skeleton."

Insect remains littered the grave, including the shells of at least 200 blowflies, alongside corpse beetles and other flesh-eating bugs. Moche art at the site contains numerous depictions of such insects, the team notes, surrounding sleletons and war captives, who were likely sacrificed at the pyramid. "Flies and death in Mochica iconography are dramatically depicted on Moche ceramics," say the authors.

Weighing the numbers of insect remains, which would not have reached a body buried at least three feet deep, the archeologists estimate the man's corpse was exposed for at least a week prior to burial. Unlike the ancient Egyptians and other ancient cultures, the Moche may have venerated corpse-eating insects, they conclude:

There is a major difference between the Moche view of flies and that of the ancient Near East, typified by the Egyptians. The latter did everything in their power to prevent flies from destroying the corpse, including enclosing written prayers with the body and embalming. The Egyptians hoped the ka would accompany the body of the deceased into eternity, whereas the Moche deliberately exposed the body to the flies with the hope that the anima or spirit of the deceased would be carried from the maggots into adult flies and through close contact with people, complete the human cycle.

The archeologists hope that other scholars can borrow forensic investigation techniques of using insect remains to estimate death conditions for similar "funerary archaeoentomology" efforts.