Moche Build the Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna

The Moche built the temples of the Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna, the largest adobe structures in the Americas.

Summary of Event

During the Early Intermediate, or Upper Formative, period from 300 b.c.e. to 100 c.e., the Paracas, early Tiwanaku, and Moche cultures arose. In the following Florescent, or Classic, period from 100 to 700 c.e., the Nasca, Moche, and middle Tiwanaku cultures built various monuments on the Isles of the Sun and the Moon, at Sipan, and at Tiwanaku.

The Moche, as with most cultures of this region, moved from the western coastal lowlands eastward up the valleys and into the high mountains and altiplano. Originally their subsistence was based on offshore fisheries, but as they moved inland and upcountry, they developed large-scale agriculture. Once established in the mountains, they created distinctive raised-bed agriculture systems that included irrigation, made extensive use of domesticated animals, and engaged in agreements with surrounding groups that allowed them to make use of environments outside their home zones. They produced a distinctive red-on-cream pottery in figurative shapes and displaying various scenes. By linking all productive areas to form a chain of economic “islands,” the Moche were able to make, or trade for, goods from all areas.

The Moche built the Huaca del Sol (temple of the Sun) and Huaca de la Luna (temple of the Moon) on the left bank of the Moche River on the plain below the Cerro Blanco. It is not known for certain what the structures represented or how they were used. Possibly, the Huacas were used for various spiritual or political functions. The Huaca de la Luna sits at the foot of the Cerro Blanco; across the valley is the Huaca del Sol. Scholars believe that the Huaca de la Luna was placed closer to the center of population because the Moche used a lunar calendar and believed the Moon to be more concerned with people and their doings; the Huaca del Sol’s placement across the valley may be because the Moche viewed the Sun as remote and concerned with heavenly things. The city and towns spread down the valley, between the monument at its lower end and toward the sea from which the Moche ancestors came. The temple complex grew for hundreds of years. The Huacas were decorated with many abstract geometric designs and painted with bright colors.

The Huaca del Sol consists of several terraced structures built on a slight incline. Long causeways and passages connect buildings, platforms, and patios of various sizes. Erosion and the diversion of the Moche River by treasure hunters in colonial times reduced the Huaca in size. The complex is believed to have originally been larger, measuring about 380 by 175 yards (345 by 160 meters) and reaching as high as 33 yards (30 meters) above the surrounding farmland. The Moche used more than 140 million molded adobe bricks, often arranged in columnar segments, to create this complex, the largest adobe structure in the Americas.

The Huaca de la Luna has three major platforms connected to four secondary plazas located at different levels. The largest platform is on the southwestern corner, and two smaller ones are located on the southeastern and northeastern corners. The plazas they connect to are of varying heights and sizes, the largest measuring 198 by 110 yards (180 by 100 meters) on the northern side of the major platform (probably leading to a main entrance). A rock outcrop incorporated into the third plaza probably had a ceremonial function. All platforms and plazas were surrounded by very high, thick adobe walls. The perimeter wall on the southern side of the complex was notable for forming a long corridor, 198 by 20 yards (180 by 18 meters), facing east toward Cerro Blanco. The whole complex sits as much as 35 yards (32 meters) above the plain between the two Huacas. As this huge adobe monument was built, added onto, and rebuilt, the bones of previous generations were buried within and incorporated into the structure.

In the Huaca de la Luna are small enclosed patios characterized by gabled high windows without lintels and doors that have high thresholds. Roofs were also gabled and painted white. Human faces, bird heads, and fish are represented in relief on the outer walls. Some rooms higher up had projections similar to a balcony that overlooked the plain below. Decorated walls were sealed and painted over so that some have been preserved. Geometric designs alternated with animal and human motifs in the reliefs found on four specific walls. Yellow, red, black, and white paints were used to accentuate the carvings. Some humanlike faces are similar to the faces of gods such as the Winged Decapitator and the Demon with Prominent Eyebrows. These gods are also seen among the Vicus in Piura and the Sipan in Lambayeque. Rooms and residences were well finished with flagstone floors.


The complex was built in many phases over several centuries. Uses of and relationships between sections of the monument remain unclear. Some tombs found within the fill appear to be those of officials, attesting to the sacred nature of the site. The construction of some rooms suggests they may have been used in rituals related to human sacrifice.

The Huaca de la Luna shows little evidence for any kind of domestic activity, unlike the Huaca del Sol. The Temple of the Moon was the center for rites and ceremonies guaranteed to renew political power for the Moche and natural control over the irrigation and canals that channeled the waters from Heaven to Earth and kept the civilization strong. Life and death were one, so the dead were venerated and the gods given their due. However, even though the site has been researched by dozens of prominent authorities, specific cultural practices remain to this day unclear.

Further Reading

  • Bawden, Garth. The Moche. Cambridge, England: Blackwell, 1996. An examination of the culture that built the Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna.
  • Donnan, Christopher B. Moche Occupation of the Santa Valley, Peru. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. A study of the Moche culture.
  • Moseley, M. The Maritime Foundations of Andean Civilization. Menlo Park, Calif.: Cummings, 1975. Considers the ways in which the ocean-based economy influenced the development of the highly evolved civilizations that built the temples.
  • Richardson, James B. People of the Andes. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 1994. Describes many historical and cultural details about the peoples of the Andes, including the Moche.