National Geographic : 1990 Jun
Masterworks of Art Reveal a Remarkable Pre-lnca World By CHRISTOPHER B. DONNAN DIRECTOR, MUSEUM OF CULTURAL HISTORY, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, LOS ANGELES Photographs by NATHAN BENN T HE NAKED PRISONER stands tied to a tree, his arms bent around its trunk, his mouth open in a cry of pain. His face has been peeled away, leaving no lips to cover his teeth and only cartilage where his nose had been. He strains to avoid a vulture that is pecking out his right eye. This event occurred about 1,500 years ago, but the prisoner stands frozen in the same stance today, a testimony to the skill of the Moche potter who immortalized his agony in clay (page 30). Though these early Peruvians had no written language, they left a vivid artis tic record of their life, culture, and mores in beautifully modeled and painted ceramics, exquisitely crafted objects of precious metals, and sumptuous textiles. During the first century A.D. when the Roman Empire was approaching full expanse, the Moche people were evolving one of the most remarkable civilizations of the ancient world. To sustain it, they harnessed rivers spilling from the gray-green Andean cordil lera, channeling them into a network of irriga tion canals that watered arid coastal valleys. Lush fields sprouted in the nearly rainless climate, producing crops of corn, beans, avocados, squash, chili peppers, and peanuts. From coastal waters cooled by the Peru, or Humboldt, Current, Moche fishermen har vested a rich catch of fish, shrimp, crabs, and mollusks. Llamas, guinea pigs, and Muscovy ducks varied the diet. With the leisure allowed by abundant food, Moche craftsmen invented new techniques to produce their artistic masterworks. Fifteen Simple lines and subtle modeling define the fea tures of a nearly life-size face that adorned a large clay jar. Probably a portrait of a noble who lived around A.D. 400, this masterpiece exhibits the engaging realism of the best Moche art. Sophisticated in working many materials, Moche craftsmen were probably the first in South Amer ica to produce pottery from molds. A two-piece mold for shaping the bell of a trumpet shows the back and front of a prisoner with his hands tied behind him (above). It isin the art of the Moche, a people who never developed writing, that we find a vivid record of their lives.