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Nasca Trophy Heads and Agricultural Fertility

Donald Proulx University of Massachusetts 2006

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Nasca Trophy Heads and Agricultural Fertility

Donald Proulx University of Massachusetts In previous papers I have focused primarily on the nature of decapitation in Nasca society (warfare vs ritual battles) and on the preparation of trophy heads. The ritual use of trophy heads has also been discussed (Proulx 1971, 1989, 1999, 2001 and 2002). In this report I want to examine in more detail the role of trophy heads in Nasca religious beliefs, especially in respect to agricultural fertility. Decapitation and/or blood sacrifice was present in a number of ancient civilizations. It is useful to compare Nasca beliefs to those of similar societies in the New World such as the Aztecs, Maya and Moche. The Aztecs (or Mexica) of Central Mexico were established as an independent society circa 1325 A.D. (Fagan 1984:60). Shortly thereafter they settled on a small island in Lake Texcoco later to be known as Tenochtitlan, the present day Mexico City. Over the next two centuries their empire expanded to include the contiguous areas to their east and west. Along with the Incas, they formed one of the largest native empires in the Western Hemisphere. Their creation myths help us to understand the origins and rational for their practice of human sacrifice. The Aztecs believed that their world had passed through four successive ages called Suns, divided into 52-year cycles (Fagan 1984:224). Each of these four periods ended in catastrophes such as hurricanes, fires or floods, which the Aztecs believed would occur again in the future. The fifth Sun began in year 978 and ended with the conquest by Cortes and his army in 1519 following a series of foreboding portents visualized by the last Aztec emperor MoctezumaHistorically the Aztecs were known for their bloody human sacrifices, especially the removal of the heart from a living victim (Fig. 1). The Spanish were horrified at the sight of blood-covered priests and skull racks containing thousands of human skulls (Bernal Diez Fig. 1 del Castillo [1570] 1963:229). Many other forms of sacrifice were practiced including death by arrows, burning, beheading and auto-sacrifice (a form of blood offering involving the piercing a various body parts). In recent years there has been much controversy over whether the Aztecs practiced cannibalism (Harner 1977; Arens 1969). Spanish chroniclers describe scenes in which the bodies of sacrificed individuals were thrown down the steep steps of the temples in the center of Tenochtitlan (Fig. 2) and were dismembered by the waiting crowds (Sahagun [1369] 1950). Today most scholars agree that the Aztecs sometimes ate human flesh, but that the practice was

ritual in nature, much like some Christian sects take communion as symbolic of eating the flesh of Christ. The motivation for sacrifice was to appease the gods and thus prevent the end of their world, the fifth Sun. They believed that the rising of the sun each day was dependant on human sacrifice and the offering of blood, which was seen as food for the deities. The bones on the skull racks were not part of a decapitation ritual, but appear to be viewed as trophies. Fig. 2 The Maya were an earlier civilization in the Mesoamerican area whose origins may stretch back to between 1000 and 2000 B.C. (Hammond 1982). The pinnacle of their power was during the Classic Period (250-900 A.D.) during which time the majority of their settlements were located in the lowlands of Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras. After the collapse of the Classic Maya around 900 A.D., the population centers shifted to the Yucatan Peninsula during the Post Classic period (900-1530 A.D.) where the surviving culture was invaded by militaristic peoples from central Mexico, including the Toltec. Maya culture was greatly affected by this contact, and as a result they themselves became more militaristic. This included the importation of the heart sacrifice that we have seen was associated with the Aztec. Politically the Classic Maya lived in separate city-states, each with its own king, but sharing a common culture including religious beliefs. Some of these city-states, like Tikal, had over 50,000 inhabitants (Fig. 3). Like the other cultures mentioned above, the Maya also practiced human sacrifice, but by different methods and for different reasons than the Aztecs, Moche and Nasca. To the Maya, Fig. 3 blood was the ultimate ritual offering to the gods, the shedding of which allowed them to have visions of their deities (Schele 1984; Schele and Miller 1986). The city-states, led by their kings, were in constant

warfare with their neighbors, the purpose of which was to capture their leader and other elite members of that group, in order to sacrifice them. The victims were taken to the victorious city where they were tortured and then decapitated. Warfare is seldom depicted in their iconography, but a vivid murals from the site of Bonampak in the present state of Chiapas in Mexico, portray torture and decapitation (Schele 1984; Miller 1986) (Fig. 4). The object of the torture and decapitation was not to obtain trophy heads but rather to shed blood which, in the words of Michael Coe, was the mortar of ancient Maya life (Coe in Schele and Miller, 1986:1).

The ultimate blood sacrifice was made by the king himself, who pierced his tongue and genitals with a stingray spine, dripping his blood onto a piece of paper that was then burned (Fig. 5). Queens also practiced auto-sacrifice by threading a rope covered with thorns through their tongues (Fig. 6). The smoke allowed the participants visualize the gods, aided by hallucinogenic drugs (Fig. 7).

Fig. 5

Fig. 6

Although human heart sacrifice was not unknown among the Classic Maya (Robicsek and Hales 1984:50), the Toltec invasion [of Yucatan during the Post Classic period] brought about an infusion of foreign customs including the worship of blood- thirsty alien gods. This changed the timing, and the location of the ritual as well as the socio-political content, the techniques, and the paraphernalia (ibid. 50). At late sites such as Chichen Itza, Priests extracted human hearts, flayed the skins of the victims, and even ritually ate their fleshidentical to the rites performed in Central Mexico by the Aztecs and Toltecs but using the Chacmool as the sacrificial altar (Fig. 8).

Fig. 7

Fig. 8 Turning next to the Andean region, the Moche of the North Coast of Peru are also noted for human sacrifice. The Moche (100 to 800 A.D.) expanded their authority over a wide area of coastal Peru, from the Huarmay Valley in the south to the Piura Valley in the north. Politically their realm was divided into two entities, a northern and a southern kingdom separated by the pampa paijn (Alva 1990:20). The core area was less than 250 miles long, from the Lambayeque Valley in the north to the Nepea Valley in the south (Donnan 1990:18-20). The Moche worshiped a multitude of gods, many in anthropomorphic forms combining human traits with those of felines, sea creatures and birds. One of the most notable of these is a fanged creature known as the decapitator since he holds a metal tumi (or knife) in his hand (Fig. 9). Representations of this Fig. 9 deity can be seen in the murals at the Huaca de la Luna in the Moche Valley and at Dos Cabezas in the Jequetepeque Valley (Fig. 10).

Fig. 10 Like the Maya, the supreme offering to the Moche gods was human blood. Moche ceramic iconography depicts what Christopher Donnan calls the Presentation Scene or the Sacrifice Ceremony (Donnan 1978: chapter 7). On these vessels are depicted naked prisoners being paraded before an elaborately dressed figure. The jugular veins of the prisoners are then slashed and the blood collected in a cup, which is then offered to the principal figure by several lower ranking people, including a priestess (Fig. 11). This priest-king, with features resembling the decapitator, then drinks the blood of the victims. The prisoners were then decapitated, their bodies dismembered, and thrown into a common grave.

Fig. 11

Recent discoveries at Sipn have revealed that the priest-king was an actual person, not just a mythological creature. Several Lords, representing different generations of leaders in the Lambayeque Valley, were buried in the platform mound, accompanied by golden treasures with iconography identical to that on the pottery and murals (Alva 7

1990; Alva and Donnan 1993) (Fig. 12). A few years after the Sipn discoveries, Donnan discovered the tomb of a Moche priestess at San Jos de Moro in the Lower Jequetepeque Valley (Donnan and Castillo 1992). This female was found with a goblet identical to the one held by the priestess depicted in the Sacrifice Ceremony. Mass graves of dismembered Moche prisoners have been found at Pacatnam in the Jequetepeque Valley (Fig. 13) and at the foot of the Huaca de la Luna in the Moche Valley (Verano 1986).All this proves that religious rituals of the Moche were real and that the blood of captives was the ultimate offering to their gods. Fig. 12

Fig. 13

The Nasca culture, the main focus of this paper, was centered on the south coast of Peru in the Ro Grande de Nasca drainage and in the Ica Valley, although its influence was much wider (Fig. 14). Contemporary with the Moche, Nasca dates between 100 B.C. and 600 A.D. The Nasca heartland is geographically a sub-tropical desiccated desert sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andean mountains to the east. Agricultural land was quite limited, much like a series of oases, fed by rivers with their sources high in the Andes. Rainfall in this desert environment was nonexistent, and the rivers lacked water most of the year except during the summer months (December to March). Even then there were years of drought when little if any water flowed from the highlands. During these periods of extreme deprivation, the people were forced to rely on springs or other sources of underground water. The main form of subsistence for the Nasca was irrigation agriculture, supplemented by limited amounts of fishing and hunting. Thus it is not surprising that water and the fertility of the crops became the main focus of

Fig. 14

their religious beliefs. The vast majority of their ceramic iconography had some connection with these essential needs. Many of the supernatural creatures painted or modeled on their pottery are clutching plants in their hands or paws, have plants incorporated into their bodies, or have water flowing from their mouths (Figs. 15, 16 and 17). Another group of these Mythical Beings are associated with trophy heads and blood. Indeed trophy heads are also a common theme in the preceding Paracas Culture from which the Nasca developed. In this culture the representations are woven on textiles rather than ceramics. Preserved trophy heads have been found in a number of Nasca and Paracas sites (Fig. 18).

Fig. 15

Fig. 16

Fig. 17

Fig. 18

From the earliest Nasca phases, several varieties of the Anthropomorphic Mythical Being are depicted holding bloody clubs and clutching trophy heads (Figs. 19 and 20). Anthropomorphic killer whales with decapitating knives in their hands bare bloody teeth, sometime clutching a human victim (Fig. 21). A later version of this creature consists of a head with a gaping mouth filled with blood (Fig. 22). A falcon-like bird with human characteristics is portrayed eating a human trophy head Fig. 23). Late Nasca effigy vessels show individuals wearing clothing decorated with symbols of the foramen magnum (base of the skull) surrounded by a circle of blood (Fig. 24). All of these supernatural creatures share a common thread: trophy heads and blood.


Fig. 19

Fig. 20

Fig. 21

Fig. 22

Fig. 23

Fig. 24


The ritual use of trophy heads and the importance of blood in Nasca religious beliefs are more difficult to interpret than in the other pre-Columbian cultures described earlier. At first glance it would appear that the purpose of decapitation was for the display of war trophies (thus the name applied to them by earlier scholars). In fact, there are a few rare scenes on the pottery portraying trophy heads hanging from poles by the ropes threaded through their foreheads Fig. 25). The use of carrying ropes indicates that the prepared heads were displayed in some manner including by shamans in ceremonies such as in burial rituals. Fig. 25 On the other hand, there is both iconographic as well as physical evidence that trophy heads were buried in caches accompanied by elaborate ceremonies. Two unique vessels depict trophy heads entombed under mounds while shamans conduct rituals that include masks, cups (presumably filled with an hallucinogenic drink), batons, and animals (Figs. 26 and 27 ).

Fig. 26


Fig. 27 Archaeological discoveries supporting the ceramic iconography include a large cache of trophy heads buried at Cerro Carapo in the Palpa Valley (Fig. 28). A total of 48 heads were found, ritually buried together as a group (Brown, Silverman and Garcia 1993). An analysis of the skulls by physical anthropologist John Verano, revealed that all of the skulls were males between the ages of 20 and 45 years (Verano 1995:213). A second cache of trophy heads was excavated by Alfred

Fig. 28

Kroeber at Cahuachi (Carmichael 1988:482-483). A third cache of eleven trophy heads was discovered by Mximo Neira and Vera Coelho at Chavia in the Acar Valley (Neira and Coelho 1972; Coelho 1972). Others undoubtedly exist, but their contexts have been destroyed by huaqueros looting the sites.


Returning to the iconography, there are a number of vessels depicting trophy heads with agricultural plants sprouting from their mouths suggesting that the burial of trophy heads was intimately connected fertility (Figs. 29, 30 and 31).

Fig. 29

Fig. 30

Fig. 31

Others emanate from a single trophy head, usually positioned near the bottom of the vessel (Fig. 32).

Fig .32


There are also examples of decapitated corpses assuming the form of a plant, in the case illustrated here, a stalk of corn (Fig. 33).

Fig. 33 In other cases some plants are cleverly morphed into the form of trophy heads. The tip of a corn cob may be drawn with dots representing the eyes and mouth of a trophy head (Figs. 34 and 35).

Fig. 34

Fig. 35

Beans may also be painted to resemble trophy heads (Fig. 36) as is the lucuma fruit (Fig. 37). These are just another example of the connection of trophy heads with agriculture. 15

Fig. 36

Fig. 37

In conclusion, the evidence suggests human sacrifice by decapitation in the Nasca culture had a quite different purpose than that described for the Aztec, Maya and Moche societies. Blood had much less significance to the Nasca than was the case with the Maya and Moche, or the excision of hearts or the flaying of skin as practiced by the Aztecs. The dismemberment of the bodies of captives as practiced by the Moche was unknown to the Nasca. Decapitation and the careful preparation of trophy heads were most important to the members of this culture. The heads were first used in shamanistic ceremonies, like this burial scene, and then buried in caches located under small pyramids or mounds (Fig. 38). The evidence suggests that the Nasca believed that the trophy heads were transformed into plants, and that agricultural fertility depended on the burial of these heads, symbolically representing the planting of seeds. This is somewhat analogous to the Aztec practice of offering hearts to the gods to insure the continuation of their universe. Nasca iconography is replete with images of trophy heads associated with a wide variety of supernatural creatures. While the debate continues as to whether the Fig. 38 trophy heads were obtained through warfare motivated by the need for new agricultural land or resources, or whether decapitation was the result of ritual battles, the end result was the same. Decapitation and the burial of trophy heads were necessary for the propagation and future fertility of their plants.


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