Moche Civilization: Government, Economy & Social Classes

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

The Moche Civilization was one of the most important native tribes of all South America. Learn more about this highly advanced culture, their government, social structure, and economy.

The Moche Civilization

Have you ever heard of the famous tomb of the warrior priest? It's one of the most important archaeological discoveries in all South America.

The Moche Civilization was an Andean people that thrived on the coast of Peru from the 1st through the 8th century CE. The warrior priest tomb is one of the huge monuments that came to characterize their culture. Everything about the Moche Civilization was based on conquest, and building super structures really showed it.

Their massive empire ranged from the Chicama and Trujillo Valleys, but after conquering other tribes also included the northern Piura Valley through the southern Huarmey Valley. They built splendid cities like Moche (from where the tribe derived their name), Pampa Grande, and Sipán.

In order to fight wars of conquest, build huge cities, and erect massive monuments, the Moche needed a developed and organized economy, government, and social structure. Let's discuss their organization and see how they were able to become one of the most important native cultures of the Americas.

The Moche Government and Social Structure

The Moche government and social structure were hierarchical and very organized. It was split between the northern and southern regions of their lands.

The Warrior priests

The top class of the government and Moche society were the warrior priests who controlled both warfare and the Moche religion as holy men. As the empire expanded and other tribes were defeated, the Moche warrior priests were given high praise and veneration for their military success. They could advance through Moche government to places of high power and influence, and could also join the royal family.

Conquest and the Moche religion were connected to each other in other ways as well. Their religion relied on human or blood sacrifice, and those taken in battle were often used for this purpose. Those at the bottom of Moche society were used for this purpose as well.

Warrior priests needed to obtain humans in order to please their gods in religious rituals, so conquests were used to not only expand their empire but to prove their fealty to their deities like the Decapitator God. The Decapitator God had the head of a jaguar and the body of a man who removed the heads of his religious offerings using his 'tumi' knife.

The royal families lived apart from everyone else in the pyramids and massive courtyards that surrounded them, but the warrior priests did most of the governing in the Moche civilization.

Other Societal Roles

There was also a class of governing officials whom were among the upper echelon of Moche society called the kuraka. The kuraka were in charge of all government building projects especially pyramids. The Huaca del Sol (Temple of the Sun) and the Huaca del Luna (Temple of the Moon) were both built under the supervision of the kuraka.

Remains of the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon

Lower down in Moche society were the artisans, builders, and farmers. Farmers were highly important as they farmed the corn and beans the civilization depended on in one of the driest places on earth (southern region). The farmers used reservoirs and the canals to irrigate their fields that suffered from drought periodically.

Builders constructed the huge monuments for which the Moche are known. All of the colored adobe bricks used to create the pyramids were created by hand, and each one contained the mark of the builder who made it. To put this into perspective, the Huaca del Sol was over 160 ft high and used over 140 million adobe bricks to create.

Moche Economy

The Moche economy was a well-oiled machine. The Moche presided over an empire that was extremely rich in natural resources. Their artisan class thrived due to the mineral wealth the civilization enjoyed, and these artisans created works of art that rival any of the native tribes of South America. Artisans may have been on the bottom of the social structure, but they were the most important cog of the Moche economic powerhouse.

Moche head sculpture
Moche Head

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