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Common Meals, Noble Feasts: An Archaeological Investigation of Moche Food and Cuisine in the Jequetepeque Valley, Peru, AD 600-800


What did it mean to be Moche? To experience Moche life? To eat “Moche”? The Moche people(s) constituted a highly differentiated and complex political organization that stretched up and down the northern Peruvian coast from AD 100-800. Famed for their unique artistic style, fine ceramic wares, monumental temple mounds, and refined metallurgical techniques, the Moche, as we know them today, are largely conceived as an elite material culture. In this dissertation, I seek to enliven the past by unveiling the intimate actions of people. Using the remnants of meals, I investigate and shed light on the lived experiences of Moche individuals occupying two very distinct contexts during the Late Moche period (AD 600-800) to arrive at perceptions of self. Given the close relationship between food and identity, I rely on the concept of cuisine to aid in my interpretation of the data, viewing cuisine as more than a mere set of cooking traditions related to a group or groups of people through space and time. Instead, I define cuisine as a cultural construct that incorporates the meanings surrounding food ingredients; the preparation, cooking, and combination of flavors; and the setting of the meal. In other words, through cuisine, a range of foods is tied to a way of being.

The two archaeological sites at the center of my dissertation, despite being located a short distance away from one another, are diametrically opposed. On one side of the spectrum is a feast preparation area at the site of San José de Moro, a ceremonial center and burial ground known for its intense association with ritual activity revolving around the dead. At the other extreme is a humble, commoner household located in the fortified, hillside settlement of Cerro Chepén. A comparison of the two roughly contemporaneous case studies allows for a study of broad differences in both status (i.e., rich vs. poor) and the types of eating event (i.e., feast vs. daily meal) during a particularly tumultuous time in Moche history—the Late Moche period. Spanning two centuries, this time period is associated with heightened political tensions and conflict stemming from a number of severe episodes of prolonged drought. In my research, I consider the possible gastropolitical role that food may have played in exacerbating preexisting disparities, thereby contributing to greater social unrest.

To construct a microhistorical narrative that contributes an alternative and complementary perspective to the dominant discourse on the materialization of power, elite ritual practice, and statecraft, I adopt a microscale approach developed out of household archaeology that integrates various lines of evidence (with particular emphasis on the archaeobotanical material). In an effort to visualize the data, I utilize various digital technologies including Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and 3D-modeling software to comprehend the spatial patterning of food-related remains across both sites. My data reveal profound differences between the types of foods eaten in extraordinary (feast) and ordinary (daily meal) settings as well as status-based distinctions in food access. Furthermore, using the microscale approach, I am able to discern manifestations of stress and insecurity in the consumption practices of both the haves and the have-nots, suggesting that the people at both sites were not immune to the effects of political, economic, and social turmoil. By illustrating the powerful, interpretive potential of the “small things forgotten” to re-people the past, this research is applicable not only to those interested in the Moche, but also to scholarly communities invested in the study of food, households, social inequality, and identity.

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