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The Ulluchu fruit, blood rituals and sacrificial practices among the Moche of ancient Peru


"Bird priest" (lower figure on the right, with wings, beak-like nose and foots to shape of a bird's claws) in front of the Lord (taller figure on the left), on the motif of the presentation of the sacrificial blood of defeated and captive warriors, offered in a cup.  An Ulluchu fruit is at the feet of the Lord

The elusive Ulluchu, War, Blood and Sacrifice among the Moche


The elusive "Ulluchu" fruit - identified with Carica candicans, by the Italian archaeologist and anthropologist Mario Polia - is a kind of wild papaya with anti-coagulant properties: the topics associated to its use in pre-Columbian cultures are, as we shall see, among the most astounding and mysterious ones.


One of the first depictions of this rare fruit  appears in the Moche culture [circa 1-750 CE] of Peru, in a banner associated to what has been called the "Ulluchu Man", a figurine about 50 cm tall representing an odd-looking half-crab half-anthropomorphic deity,  found in level 1 of the burial site of the "Lord of Sipán". The Lord was a high-ranking shaman, or a priest, a warrior-priest, a spiritual leader, or a bit of this all, found in an impressive Moche burial ground, near Chiclayo, in Peru.


"Level 1" was the level actually occupied by the burial of the "Old Lord of Sipán", which predates the "Lord of Sipán" proper (found on level 6 of the same burial site) of about 200 years.


Iconographic representations of the Ulluchu fruit are also known from the Deity of the "Ulluchus" raffiguration, found on a quadrangular banner of golden copper where the Ulluchu motif frames all sides of the sacred image. Along with this, other depictions of the Ulluchu are  found in one of the golden copper banners that come out as well from the first layer of the Lord of Sipan tomb.

Some scholars are prone to believe that the Moche people of ancient Peru maintained the idea of warfare to perform rituals and sacrifices, and - conversely - their sacrificial and ritual practices appeared to have been part of their idea of war: the final stages of a conflict - with the capture and parade of the prisoners -often appear to have ended with human sacrifices.


Iconographic representation of Moche ritual sacrifice. On the upper scene are the personages of higher investitures: the Lord or a high rank warrior priest (third from the left), a "bird priest" finally offering the cup with the sacrificial blood, a priestess and other figures. Ulluchu fruits are also shown at the feet of the taller figure on the right. Many of the ornaments of the Lord correspond to those encountered in the Tomb of the Lord of Sipán. In the lower scene (centre and right),  ceremonial slaughter of two naked war prisoners (or warriors defeated in ritual combat).



Click on picture to enlarge


Ritual Combat, Not Warfare


However, as for most recent approaches, other scholars are now prone to believe that rather than ordinary warfare, where the vanquished were ritually sacrificed, their throats cut and their blood collected and drank by a high priest-warrior or divine ruler, it was more the case of ritual combats which concluded with the actual human sacrifice. After examining a collection of bones originating from a major Moche Huaca, archaeologist Steve Bourget discovered that all their bodies were systematically dismembered and bore a mark on the neck vertebrae, showing that  their throats had effectively been cut. A clear proof that these weren't only mythological representations, but actual ritual practices of the Moche.


Propitiatory Sacrifices and Ulluchu


The most interesting discover was however, that many of these skeletons were deeply covered with mud, which pointed at the fact that the burials took place in the rain. Since this area of Peru is almost desertic, he supposed that there must have been a link between the ritual combat and the burials on one side, and the rain on the other. The conclusion he reached is that these were propitiatory sacrifices to either celebrate or encourage rain.


The importance of human sacrifices - whether war prisoners or warriors defeated in ritual combats - in Moche culture seems to lend credit to the interpretation for which the Ulluchu fruit must have played an essential part in these ceremonies. The Ulluchu prevented the formation of clotting before a captive's blood was consumed and the fruit often appears associated to a cup full of sacrificial blood to be offered to the Lord. Ritual drinking of the blood of vanquished warriors, the spreading of their blood on an altar, the motif of their capture and sacrifice, and the presence of the Ulluchu seem to point at a close relationship among these elements. The fruit would have granted the necessary fluidity to the blood from the moment of its collection during the sacrifice to the moment of the final offering to the Lord.


The Ulluchu fruit outside of the Moche culture

The Ulluchu has also been found outside of the context of the Moche culture. In the province of Huancabamba Mario Polia has found the ancient indigenous temple of the Huancapampas people, together with the ruins of the later Inka buildings. At the top of Cerro Tsaquir, nearby the "Templo de los Jaguares", they discovered a funerary complex dedicated to priests, and among other things they found a necklace with lapislazzuli representing the Hulluchu fruit. Testimonial - for the first time - of the fact that the use of the fruit in ritual sacrifices spread outside the boundaries of the Moche culture, confirming what we already know from Garcilaso Inca de la Vega about this practice.




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