Communities, Cultural Identity, and Social Recognition: The Moche Communities of the North Coast of Peru

Past and Present landscape in Túcume, Lambayeque (Photo: Luis Muro Ynoñán)

By Luis Muro Ynoñán

The discovery of complex and lavish tombs belonging to the kings of ancient Pre-Columbian civilizations has captivated archaeologists working in the New World. 

Beginning in the 1990s, the spectacular wealth contained, for instance, in the royal mausoleums of Maya kings in Palenque, Copán, and Tikal, and those of Moche political leaders in Sipán, Úcupe, and Cao led to the rapid increase of scientific explorations in Latin-American countries. 

These discoveries also contributed to the development of national discourses based upon the idea of a shared Pre-Hispanic glorious past.

Along the north coast of Peru, the 1987 discovery of Sipán’s royal mausoleums, the richest tombs ever found in the Pre-Columbian Americas, resulted in the investment of large amounts of government money in new archaeological explorations, large-scale excavations, and the development of dozens of cultural heritage sites for tourism.

The shift to neo-liberal policies in several Latin-American countries created suitable conditions for the rapid growth of a tourism industry in the region. It is in this setting, and against the backdrop of failed state models of agricultural land redistribution, that archaeology and tourism became in the 1990s a new hope to alleviate poverty and inequality. Over the last 25 years, millions of dollars, both from private and public funds, as well as national and international institutions, have been invested in archaeological and heritage development in the region. Nonetheless, nearly three decades since the Sipán discovery, there has been little to no critical analysis of the long-term effects of archaeology and global tourism on local communities in this region.

How much has tourism contributed to the economic and social development of local communities of the north coast of Peru? Has archaeology helped to restore the dignity of people who still lack basic conditions of living? Have historically marginalized populations benefitted from the acknowledgement of traditional cultural identities through tourism? In a context where the global economic development of Latin America seems opposed to the social restitution of subaltern groups, how do archaeology, cultural identity, and heritage intersect with social justice and human rights?

Since 2012, in addition to my excavation of an ancient Moche temple (AD 600) in the Jequetepeque valley, I have been conducting ethnographic work in the Lambayeque region of northern Peru, within the communities of Pómac, Túcume, and Mórrope. My work explores the conceptual disjunctions that exist between archaeological preservation, cultural identity, and the Institutionalized Heritage Discourse (IHD) promulgated by governmental agencies in this region. In promoting tourism, new programs of cultural revitalization have been fostered by state agencies. Government heritage professionals and archaeologists in this region are thus actively participating in the process of making and negotiating identities that are imposed on, and then re-created by, local communities who produce and use Moche-like material expressions. Ultimately, my work reveals new forms of social and economic oppression on the impoverished local communities of the north coast of Peru, legitimized by the IHD, archaeologists, and the rhetoric of economic development endorsed by the Peruvian State.


Image top left: past and present landscape in Túcume, Lambayeque; right: geographic map indicating the location of the Lambayeque Region on the north coast of Peru. All photos Luis Muro Ynoñán, used with permission. 


Entangled Past and Present

Lambayeque possesses not only the greatest number of Moche sites (AD 200–900) scientifically identified and excavated but also the greatest number of contemporary communities that maintain a so-called “Moche identity.” This identity has been defined based on the classification of specific cultural features that have been interpreted as a direct inheritance from the ancient Moche. For instance, the settlement near algarrobo forest and desert environments, the use of wattle and daub constructions and traditional techniques of agricultural irrigation, and, as some have argued, the recognition of a “Moche physical prototype” (Narváez 2015). These populations are also settled near Pre-Hispanic constructions by which historical connections are seen as direct and evident.

Archaeological remains are not the only legacy that these groups have inherited from the past. Traditional inhabitants from the ancient valley of Lambayeque have historically been oppressed and displaced, not only during Colonial and Early Republican times, but also, and more severely, after the Agrarian Reform promulgated by the Peruvian State in the 1970s (Narváez 2015). The unintended effects of the reform further undermined the living conditions of the former hacienda workers who became “unprotected individuals” in need of State intervention.

The discovery of Moche royal mausoleums at the small northern town of Sipán fostered large investment in the region. Public investment in Lambayeque came along with the implementation of multiple programs of cultural revitalization that aimed to “rescue and reinforce” a shared pre-Hispanic identity: Moche. State efforts crystallized in the decades of the 1990´s in the launch of “The Naylamp Program ” (“Unidad Ejecutora Naylamp”), an integral governmental plan of action intended to scientifically study and touristically develop heritage sites in the region. As part of the program, six site and national museums were opened in the region making Lambayeque the second region in Peru with the largest public investment for heritage investigation and preservation.


Archaeologists as Messiahs and Imposed Identities

Lambayeque is the only region where archaeologists are playing a critical role in the decision-making process around heritage investigation and protection. The opening of a significant numbers of museums, in comparison to other regions in Peru, has given archaeologists a particularly important role in decisions concerning the study of the past but also in how past sites should affect communities both in the present and future.

Archaeologists have actively participated in constructing an authorized narrative about the past as well as a rhetoric of social and economic development grounded in the mantra “our glorious past.” This fact has ironically resulted in a deliberate imposition of cultural identities over the impoverished populations settled close to heritage sites. Cultural identities in this region are constantly created through archaeological discourse and recreated by local communities through the manipulation and reproduction of material expressions.

A group of women weaving handicraft products at Chotuna, Lambayeque to be sold in the tourist market of the region (Photo: Luis Muro Ynoñán).


Perhaps the most remarkable example of this is the production of Moche-like handicrafts. Dozens of craft workshops have been built and implemented adjacent to the most important archaeological sites and museums in the region. Craft workshops, far from being spaces of free creativity, are sites where artisans are encouraged to adapt their production to the requirements of the market; namely, to the production of replicas of Pre-Hispanic objects. The artisans, who in many cases are immigrants from the highlands, participate in the unconscious adoption of an alien identity — the Moche identity. This process is further institutionalized in museums, where artisans are encouraged to display their products as part of legacy that has been passed on from generation to generation. They thus become implicated in a larger narrative about a “living Moche heritage”.

The public plazas and schools of small northern towns near heritage sites are decorated with Moche designs and icons (Saucedo-Segami 2011, 2014), thus furthering the idea of a shared Moche past. Once again, the narrative is validated by heritage professionals and archaeologists. Museums also display and tell a unique and uni-vocal history grounded in the admiration of "a Moche past.” The IHD in the north coast of Peru thus supports an imaginary “pre-colonial era,” reinforcing a nostalgic feeling about the indigenous past and emphasizing the need for its restoration and preservation (Benavides 2007).

In this sense, discourses designed and displayed for tourism undermine local people’s individual histories as well as their intimate relationships to their own material culture. Paradoxically, the obsessive focus on material culture has, as Byrne points out, eclipsed real people’s experiences, thus producing an unfeeling heritage (Byrne 2009a:229). Both archaeology and the Western discourse of heritage preservation have unconsciously participated in a process of dehumanization not only of the past but also the present (Byrne 2009a, 2009b). The deliberate imposition of cultural identities has led communities to be objectified and, therefore, displayed as an ancient or fossilized culture. Thus, while present people maneuver around the material past in the course of their everyday lives, they have been impeded in making their own histories, renewing their emotional attachments with heritage, and consolidating their own experiences as a group. The redemptive and messianic image of archaeology in this region needs to be critically assessed to understand the extent to which the pervasive notions of development and cultural identity are heightening, rather than reducing, inequality and social injustice, and also undermining local people’s histories, experiences, and emotions.



While the recreation of “a Moche-based identity” aims to give dignity to the populations in the region, communities have been systematically deprived of participating in decision-making about their heritage. There are no platforms for communities to voice their concerns regarding participation in the tourism industry in the region. Nor do they have opportunities to consolidate, at a domestic scale, their own links (if any) with social agents and sacred landscapes. The over-emphasis on cultural identity has hampered the possibility of building social-status based models that enable populations to become first-class citizens, participating in equal conditions—as archaeologists and heritage professionals do—towards heritage preservation, cultural revitalization, and introduction to the tourism market.

It is clear that a re-assessment of “a Moche identity,” if it existed any time, needs to go beyond nationalism and the discourse of a “pan-Andean” heritage. As Benavides has insightfully argued, understanding the relationship between heritage, development, and the politics of identity in Latin America involves overcoming the ideological limitations of the Western heritage discourse. The challenge is “not to regress to a utopian period that never existed but hopefully to provide some level of agency within the restricted structure of modern capital and postmodern forms of identity production” (Benavides 2007:140).



As a prehistoric archaeologist, my research has focused on understanding the conditions under which social complexity emerged in this region of the world 3,000 years ago. But as a Peruvian, I also look to explore how the management of the physical remnants of the past affects present people’s lives. Paradoxically, while the material expressions of pre-Hispanic grandeur are ubiquitous in the modern landscape of Lambayeque, so too are poverty and underdevelopment remarkably present. This fact has forced Peruvian archaeologists to become more conscious of the impact of their work on local communities. Many efforts have been made by archaeologists and heritage professionals to incorporate communities into the benefits of the tourism market. However, these are often aimed to “rescue” ancient, and sometimes imaginary, cultural identities that are ultimately recreated by locals as a necessity to obtain revenues from tourism. Little to nothing has been done by Peruvian archaeologists to critically examine the secondary effects of cultural identity-based models.

Although it is clear that archaeology and tourism have a pivotal role in generating economic resources in Lambayeque, it is also apparent that the effects of globalized tourism in the region are exerting new forms of social and economic oppression on local populations, which are, contradictorily, legitimized by the IHD promoted by state agencies. In this context, it is worth reflecting on how cultural heritage could instead provide communities with the means for their social recognition and empowerment.

The astonishing archaeological richness present in this region, along with the drive for its protection, makes this a useful case study to explore, on the one hand, the ethical implications of archaeological work, and on the other, how cultural heritage can contribute to a more just and equitable society in a country that still struggles to overcome the pervasive legacy of the colonial regime.



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Luis Muro Ynoñán is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University, and an IPinCH Associate.