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The Manipulation of Human Remains in Moche Society: Delayed Burials, Grave Reopening, and Secondary Offerings of Human Bones on the Peruvian North Coast

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Jean-François Millaire*
Affiliation:
Department of Anthropology, McGill University, Stephen Leacock Building, 855 Sherbrooke Street West, Montréal, Québec, H3A 2T7, Canada. (jean-francois.millaire@mail.mcgill.ca)

Abstract

A careful reexamination of funerary contexts suggests that Moche (ca. A.D. 100–800) graves were not simply spaces for the disposal of decaying corpses, but contexts periodically revisited by certain members of Moche society. The dynamic nature of funerary practices is documented through an examination of delayed burials. It is argued that these were the product of two distinct ritual processes, one of which involved the storage of corpses to be used as retainers in subsequent rituals. The practice of grave reopening is also explored, leading to the identification of different types of rituals. At least some graves were reopened to remove skeletal parts of possible potent ancestors. Related ideology is addressed by examining cases of bone destruction and the more common secondary offerings of human remains. This study highlights the dynamic nature of Moche mortuary activity while stressing the important role of those in charge of manipulating ancestors’ remains. Finally, it is argued that the Moche shared with their highland neighbors a common vision of the eternal character of human remains, comparable ritual practices involving the human body, and a similar belief in the capacity of the living to influence the course of their destiny through periodic manipulation of ancestors’ remains.

Un examen detallado de los contextos funerarios sugiere que los sepulcros Moche (ca. 100–800 d.C.) no fueran simplemente espacios para la disposición de cadáveres, pero también lugares periódicamente visitados. La naturaleza dinámica de las prácticas funerarias Moche se documenta primero a través de una reexaminación de entierros diferidos. Se discute que éstos eran un producto de dos procesos rituales distintos, uno de los cuales implicó el almacenaje de cadáveres que se utilizarán como acompañantes en rituales subsecuentes. La práctica de reabrir los sepulcros también se explora, permitiendo la distinción de diferentes tipos de rituales. Por lo menos, sepulcros fueron reabiertos con fin de exhumar partes de esqueletos de antepasados potentes potenciales. Esto nos conduce a examinar el destino de los restos exhumados. Esta presentación destaca la naturaleza dinámica de la actividad mortuoria, y muestra la importancia de los encargados de manipular los restos de los antepasados. Finalmente, se discute que los Moches compartían con sus vecinos del Altiplano una visión común del carácter perenne de los restos humanos, un sistema comparable de prácticas rituales, y una creencia similar en la capacidad de los vivos de influenciar el curso de sus destinos con interacciones periódicas con los restos de los ancestros.

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Articles
Copyright
Copyright © 2004 by the Society for American Archaeology.

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