A U.S.-led team of archeologists announced Thursday it had uncovered three treasure-filled tombs of the ancient Moche culture in northern Peru, shedding new light on the civilization that vanished about 700 years before the Inca people reached their peak.

The tombs were found in a 105-foot-high pyramid on the Peruvian coast, south of a site known as Sipan where royal tombs were uncovered in the late 1980s.

“What makes these new tombs so special is that we have never seen the quality and quantity of ceramics, textiles and metalwork,” said lead archeologist Christopher Donnan of the University of California in Los Angeles.

Graves of Desert Farmers

“I think these are very important tombs and are among the richest that have ever been found, second only to the royal tombs found in the late 1980s at Sipan in Peru,” added Donnan in a telephone interview.

The tombs’ discovery is the result of a three-year excavation by Donnan and his team, who were supported by the National Geographic Society.

The Moche were farmers whose civilization flourished in the desert plain between the Andes and the Pacific from A.D. 100 to 800. They diverted rivers into a network of irrigation canals, growing corn, beans, chili peppers, potatoes and squash.

The Moche laid their noblest dead in huge monuments they built with sun-dried bricks. Gold, silver and copper objects decorated with scenes of hunting, fishing, combat, punishment, sexual encounters and elaborate ceremonies were buried along with them.

Less than 15 of the 350 Moche burials ever discovered contained gold or silver and Donnan said all three of the latest had both with the second tomb containing large amounts.

The new site is known as Dos Cabezas (two heads) and is the first big settlement discovered from the Moche I period, the earliest in the Moche culture, Donnan said.

In addition to the ornate ceramics and other treasures, Donnan said each of the three tombs contained the three tallest people he believed had been excavated in South America.

“They were up to 6 feet tall. The average Moche male is between 4 feet 9 inches and 5 feet 6 inches tall and so they were way out of the range,” he said. “We were astonished at the height of these individuals,” he added.

Donnan, whose discovery is being made public for the first time in National Geographic Magazine’s March edition, said he believed all three men may have suffered from a disease similar to Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes thin, elongated bones.


Although the Moche people had no writing system, they left behind a vivid artistic record on their beliefs in beautifully sculpted and painted ceramic vessels, colorful wall murals and textiles.

“The quality of the ceramics and metalwork is astonishing,” Donnan said.

Donnan, who has been excavating the remains of the Moche culture for 35 years, said more than 350 Moche burials had been excavated by archeologists in the past and none of them compared with the latest discovery.

Unlike other Moche burials discovered in the past, Donnan said they found a miniature tomb outside each burial chamber in the pyramid that mimicked the bigger tomb containing the remains.

“These miniature tombs each contained a copper figure that is meant to represent the deceased in the big tomb. That figure is lying on its back with its head toward the south, just as in the big one,” he said.

Donnan said one of the three tombs was particularly ornate, suggesting that its occupant was a person of enormous power. A large copper bowl was placed upside down over the dead man’s face and beneath it was a gold and copper funerary mask.

In addition, five gold objects were found in the man’s mouth and sculptures of clay, coper and gold lined his tomb. The ornate tomb also preserved 18 headdresses and a collection of the finest weapons of the day—war clubs, spears and gold-plated shields.

The dead nobleman was accompanied by a young woman’s body, possibly sacrificed to accompany him in the tomb, as well as the body of a llama.

Donnan said all the treasures had been taken out of the tombs and were being stored in a museum in Peru. A selection of them will be on display in a gallery in Florence, Italy, in May, he said.

He suspected there might be more tombs of the same caliber but said it would be hard to find them. The three tombs were located close to the surface and he said it would be hard to dig deeper.