An archaeologist working at a site along the north coast of Peru recently discovered a cooking pot carefully buried under a house floor. The simple, well-used pot contained portions of a llama’s face as well as a mishmash of other ingredients that may have been chosen for what they represented rather than how they tasted.
The pot was discovered at Wasi Huachuma, a site dating to between 600-850 AD. This period of history involved increased urbanization, irrigation, and other changes to the Moche culture in Peru. By the end of the era, environmental and political instability had led to interpersonal conflict. Wasi Huachuma was positioned just a few kilometers from three different centers of power in this unstable environment, and itself had seven distinct sectors. The most complex part of the site included residential structures, terraces, and a cemetery.
Underneath one house floor in this complex sector was a standard cooking pot, “on its side, with the mouth opening to the east and splash zone of botanical and faunal materials surrounding it,” found by archaeologist Guy Duke of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, who published his analysis in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal. Its shape, he noticed, was similar to those found elsewhere in this time period in Peru, often used for boiling and brewing chicha (corn beer) and stews.
The pot was not a new one; Duke saw evidence of burning on the outside and inside that suggested it had been used before. And the contents of the pot were surprising. Duke reports that he found bones from domestic animals in the pot, including guinea pig and llama that had been raised locally. Additionally, maize, common beans, squash, potato, and chili pepper were found, along with crabs, flathead mullet, and the plant coca.
“While the method of cooking was simple – add ingredients plus water to the pot, heat to boil,” Duke says, “understanding how and whether to apply particular knowledge was dependent on the material.” For example, butchering the llama to extract the jaw piece requires different skills than cleaning a deep sea fish or preparing potatoes and squash. Even more importantly, most of the stew’s ingredients had ritual significance based on what archaeologists know about the Moche culture. Camelids like llamas produced wool, were eaten, and were also ritually important; maize or corn figures into Moche iconography; fish were sometimes burial offerings.
All of these ingredients, while commonly eaten, did not add up to any known Moche stew recipe. Because the stew pot was buried underneath a house, purposefully marked by a stone, Duke surmises that “the vessel and its contents were a dedicatory offering of some sort.” He explains that “this deposit, in this location, was purposeful, intentional, and laden with meaning. Each element of it was chosen from an array of materials available, some from the local fields and seas, some from much further afield, though not necessarily any less familiar. The materials assembled in this dedicatory deposit neatly bundle together the various geographic and environmental regions accessed by the Moche.”
Zooarchaeologist Tanya Peres of Florida State University is impressed by Duke’s work, telling me that his research “is critical in teaching us about the nuanced ways in which food items, cookware, and culinary tools, when analyzed contextually, lend us information about foodways, social and ceremonial meanings.” Peres is particularly intrigued by what the pot may have meant to the person or people who put it there. “Were the animal and plant remains placed in the vessel at different points in the Moche calendars? Might this be evidence of an older generation maintaining the old customs? Or a younger generation adopting new ways of practicing Moche culture?”
Duke essentially sees the pot and its stew as an “amalgam of products with a variety of social significances, from the practical to the supernatural, all of which were part of the everyday lived experience of a Moche person.” Peres agrees and notes that “the way Duke tells the story of the pot, the entirety of Moche culinary knowledge is wrapped up in this one vessel. It is a compelling, evidence-based foodways story.”
While the discovery of the stew pot and its contents is unique in ancient Peru, Duke believes that “the convergences of these foods, these practices, at this obscure site highlight the intricate interconnectedness of the surrounding area and the regions beyond. This singular deposit encapsulates the role of the everyday in the special and, perhaps even more importantly, the special in the everyday.”