Sex, Mayhem, and Snacks in Lima’s Pre-Colombian Museo Larco
By Mike Gasparovic
Lima, Peru. It’s a quiet weekday morning at the Museo Larco, in the peaceful historic district of Pueblo Libre. Warm sunlight glints on the white manorial façade. In the café, a waiter is laying tablecloths for lunch, while off the deserted courtyard, purple and red azaleas nod in the pre-noon languor.
Meanwhile, oblivious to all this placidity, I’m sitting inside, engrossed by figures resembling squawking waterfowls who are decapitating each other with shovels.
Actually, they’re not shovels: they’re tumi knives, ornate spade-shaped implements used by the ancient Moche people for ritual sacrifices way back in the 500s, and the larger avian figures aren’t birds but priests, decked out in animal suits for just such an occasion. But the decapitations portrayed on the Moche ceramics I’m looking at, well, they’re real, and vividly rendered. It’s all part of a ceremony of ritual combat the Moche engaged in, with the losers ending up bound and served up to the insane homicidal deities that presided over it all.
Pre-Colombian mayhem and dismemberment, at their most over-the-top.
Surfeited with bloodletting, I head to the museum’s trellised café for a double cappuccino with lucuma ice cream. To work off the trauma.
At the Larco Museum, disconnects like this between exhibit content and tranquil context are typical. On the one hand, to house the collection, a reconstructed 18th-century villa that’s a paragon of sunny elegance. On the other, numerous displays centered around themes that are, er, less than sunny—to wit, blood sacrifice, shamanistic transformation under the influence of mind-altering hallucinogens, creepy mummies, death cults, death shrouds, death ceremonies, and sex with non-human entities, principally (what else?) death.
It’s a mix that, make no mistake, renders the museum deathly fascinating for anyone digging into the subsoil of Peru’s pre-Hispanic past.
Here’s a preview for when you visit.
Beating the Tomb Raiders
The man responsible for Lima’s best museum was surprisingly multifaceted. Born into a wealthy, hacienda-owning family on Peru’s north coast in 1901, Raphael Larco Hoyle was sent for his education to the U.S., where he studied agriculture at Cornell and engineering and business at NYU. The plan was that he’d take over the administration of the family sugar farm from his dad, Raphael Larco Herrera, and modernize its operations.
Larco did that. But he also did much more. Having inherited his father’s deep love of Peruvian archaeology, as well as artifacts the elder Larco had spent years amassing, he also went on to revolutionize the scholarship on ancient Peru the same way he’d revolutionized the sugar plantation.
The emphasis here is on “ancient.” Long before a single stone was laid at Cuzco, when Machu Picchu was just a jumble of half-buried rocks somewhere on an Andean mountaintop, Peru was home to great civilizations such as the Moche, Nazca, and Chimú. Over some 4,000 years, those civilizations had left rich deposits of fine-line pottery, rainbow-colored textiles, and glittering metalwork that frequently blow away anything made by the better-known (but much shorter-lived) Incas. It was these cultures that Larco sought to unearth and understand.
To do so, however, he needed to beat the tomb raiders, who were busily making off with his country’s treasures at alarming rates.
What he did was to start digging, rapidly and on a massive scale. From the Peru-Ecuador border to the lands south of his native Trujillo, his excavations proliferated outward. He also used his family wealth to start buying. By 1949, when he decided to move to Lima, he’d acquired some 45,000 pieces, which he promptly installed in the museum visitors enjoy today.
Messages to the Other World
The silver cup I’m looking at is a little beat up. But then, so would you be, if you spent your time shuttling between here and the afterlife.
“These vessels weren’t just ceremonial props,” Melissa, my guide, explains. “They were transmitters of messages to the other world. Kind of like envelopes to the gods.”
All around us, those metal and ceramic envelopes show an incredible degree of craftsmanship. Red-on-gold line drawings on Moche bottles, intricate silverwork on Chimú bowls: the artists who made these vessels were masters. One basin is made of fused gold and silver, representing the ancient duality of sun/moon, male/female. Another Moche piece, showing the “Presentation of the Cup,” a ceremony of blood sacrifice, is among the greatest pre-Inca masterpieces in South America.
And the messages conveyed to the deities?
“Those messages were frequently in the form of fluids. Blood, yes, but also chicha,” Melissa says, referring to the fermented maize liquor still drunk by Peruvians today. For ancient Peruvians, the exchange of fluids was vital for the continuity of life: rain from the skies to fertilize the crops, blood or chicha from below. All necessary to keep the gods appeased.
More piquant examples of this fluid swapping are on display in the museum’s most notorious gallery, the erotic-pottery wing. There, judging by what would appear to be a series of comic and animalistic figures, the sexual ingenuity of the ancient Peruvians was pretty much infinite. Procreative sex, recreational, none of the above: if human beings have done it, it’s here on these pots.
Other galleries in the museum contain further surprises. There are, for example, gorgeous textiles from the Paracas culture on Peru’s southern coast that were used to wrap mummies in one of South America’s largest necropolises (cities of the dead); also a series of quipus, the system of knotted cords used for record-keeping by the Incas.
The museum also features an excellent café, where exhausted visitors can recharge with Peruvian snacks after immersing themselves in the craziness of pre-Hispanic history. A perfect capstone to an afternoon at Lima’s best museum.
Mike Gasparovic is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. He devotes his free time to studying the history, art, and literature of the Spanish-speaking world and learning about its people. He currently lives in Lima. He currently lives in Lima and wrote this article on behalf of Aracari Travel, specialists in providing the best in cultural experiences in Lima and all over Peru.
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