Moche Civilization: Trade, Agriculture & Food

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the Moche civilization of ancient Peru. Specifically, we delve into the culture's agriculture, food, and the goods they traded.

What's for Dinner?

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they eat. Do they have fast food wrappers lying around their office all the time? Then it is possible they may have weight issues. Are they always drinking protein shakes and power bars? Then it is likely they work out a lot and are maybe even bodybuilders.

The same is true of ancient civilizations. What they ate, how they produced it, and what they did with it can be instrumental in understanding ancient civilizations. Unfortunately, historians often have far less evidence than you do when you are spying on your friends and colleagues.

This lesson will explore the food, trade, and agricultural techniques of the ancient, and still largely mysterious, Moche people of Peru.


The Moche people were a highly prosperous culture which flourished from roughly 100 C.E. through the 700s in what is today northern Peru. The Moche inhabited valleys in a harsh, desert-like region in between the Andes and the Pacific coast.

The Moche left no written records, which makes a historian's job even harder. What we know about the Moche comes from historians' interpretations of pottery, sculpture, and other artwork that depicts the rituals and daily life of the Moche people. Additionally, there are several large archaeological sites which have given more insight into Moche society. In fact, our name for the people themselves comes from one of the first and largest sites discovered in the Moche River Valley.

While we know a bit about how the Moche lived and how they organized their society, we know very little about why their society collapsed sometime near the end of the 8th century. Some have hypothesized that environmental disasters led to the breakup of the culture, while others contend internal unrest and dissatisfaction with the social order are to blame. Historians and archaeologists alike continue to hunt for clues to the culture's demise.


As any Arizonan will tell you, the biggest difficulty one faces when living in an arid environment is water. The valleys the Moche inhabited were better suited to human settlement than the mountains above, but in order to grow enough food to sustain a large, complex civilization, the Moche required far more water than what their environment provided.

To address this problem, the Moche built extensive and intricate irrigation systems, utilizing the meltwater from streams high in the Andes. The Moche built canals and channels to direct mountain streams down into their settlements, providing water both for crops and for drinking.

The Moche's irrigation systems even had an impact on the culture's political map; cities and settlements in the same valley that utilized the same canals and channels, often were under control of the same ruler. Rarely was more than one valley or group of settlements controlled by the same people.


Without the irrigation systems, Moche culture would likely not have been possible. They simply would not have been able to grow enough food to support a large population. But with it, the Moche flourished. They grew many crops typical to South America, including corn, beans, potatoes, yucca, and others.

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