Visionary Journeys between Medicine and Magic

”The Ulluchu fruit: blood rituals and sacrificial practices among the Moche people of ancient Peru”

“Bird priest” (lower figure on the right, with wings, beak-like nose and foots to shape of a bird’s claws) in front of the Lord (taller figure on the left), on the motif of the presentation of the sacrificial blood of defeated and captive warriors, offered in a goblet. An Ulluchu fruit is at the feet of the Lord

Photo Credit: Francesco Sammarco

The elusive Ulluchu, War, Blood and Sacrifice among the Moche

The topics linked with the ritual use of the “Ulluchu” fruit among the Moche people of ancient Peru mostly speak of ritual combat, war, sacrificial practices, ritual bloodletting and – possibly – as we shall see, even of the shamanic, otherworldly, ecstatic visionary journeys of their warrior-priests.

The elusive Ulluchu has been previously associated to Carica candicans – a kind of wild papaya (Carica papaya L.) with anti-coagulant properties – by Italian archaeologist and anthropologist Mario Polia, and most recently convincingly identified by Rainer W. Bussman and Douglas Sharon as a group of species of the genus Guarea, belonging to the Meliacea family.

One of the first depictions of this rare fruit appears in the Moche culture [circa 1-750 CE] of Peru, in a banner associated to what has been called the “Ulluchu Man”, a figurine about 50 cm tall representing an odd-looking half-crab half-anthropomorphic deity, found in level 1 of the burial site of the “Lord of Sipán”. The Lord was a high-ranking shaman, or a priest, a warrior-priest, a spiritual leader, or a bit of this all, found in an impressive Moche burial ground, near Chiclayo, in Peru.

“Level 1″ was the level actually occupied by the burial of the “Old Lord of Sipán”, which predates the “Lord of Sipán” proper (found on level 6 of the same burial site) of about 200 years.

Iconographic representations of the Ulluchu fruit are also known from the Deity of the “Ulluchus” raffiguration, found on a quadrangular banner of golden copper where the Ulluchu motif frames all sides of the sacred image. Along with this, other depictions of the Ulluchu are found in one of the golden copper banners that come out as well from the first layer of the Lord of Sipan tomb.

Some scholars are prone to believe that the Moche people of ancient Peru maintained the idea of warfare to perform rituals and sacrifices. And, conversely, their sacrificial and ritual practices appeared to have been part of their idea of war: the final stages of a conflict – with the capture and parade of the prisoners – often appear to have ended with human sacrifices.

Iconographic representation of Moche ritual sacrifice. On the upper scene are the personages of higher investitures: the Lord or a high rank warrior priest (third from the left), a “bird priest” finally offering the cup with the sacrificial blood, a priestess and other figures. Ulluchu fruits are also shown at the feet of the taller figure on the right. Many of the ornaments of the Lord correspond to those encountered in the Tomb of the Lord of Sipán. In the lower scene (centre and right), ceremonial slaughter of two naked war prisoners (or warriors defeated in ritual combat).

Photo Credit: Francesco Sammarco

Ritual Combat, Not Warfare

However, as for most recent approaches, other scholars are now prone to believe that rather than ordinary warfare, where the vanquished were ritually sacrificed, their throats slit and their blood collected and drank by a high priest-warrior or divine ruler, it was more the case of ritual combats which concluded with the actual human sacrifice. After examining a collection of bones originating from a major Moche Huaca, archaeologist Steve Bourget discovered that all their bodies were systematically dismembered and bore a mark on the neck vertebrae, showing that their throats had effectively been slit. A clear proof that these weren’t only mythological representations, but actual ritual practices amid the Moche.

Propitiatory Sacrifices and Ulluchu

The most interesting discover was however, that many of these skeletons were deeply covered with mud, which pointed at the fact that the burials took place in the rain. Since this area of Peru is almost desertic, he supposed that there must have been a link between the ritual combat and the burials on one side, and the rain on the other. The conclusion he reached is that these were propitiatory sacrifices to either celebrate or encourage rain.

The importance of human sacrifices – whether war prisoners, warriors or either of them defeated in ritual combats – in Moche culture seems to lend credit to the interpretation for which the Ulluchu fruit must have played an essential part in these ceremonies. The Ulluchu prevented the formation of clotting before a captive’s blood was consumed and the fruit often appears associated to a cup full of sacrificial blood to be offered to the Lord. Ritual drinking of the blood of vanquished warriors, the spreading of their blood on an altar, the motif of their capture and sacrifice, and the presence of the Ulluchu seem to point at a close relationship among these elements. The fruit would have granted the necessary fluidity to the blood from the moment of its collection during the sacrifice, to the moment of the final offering to the Lord.

Ritual use of the Ulluchu-Guarea seeds as inebriant/psychotropic substance in sacrifices

Bussman and Sharon, upon examining some Moche iconographic evidence contend that the grounded seeds of the Guarea, when inhaled, may have generated psychotropic effects. Specifically, a personage with dilated nostrils, carrying a gourd and a pestle, in one instance and winged runners and messengers – a possible metaphor for the ecstatic flight – are associated at times with floating Ulluchu seeds in other instances.

The inhaling of the powdered Ulluchu seeds, as recently hypothesised by these authors, may have induced in the Moche priests a psychotropic experience which – albeit mild in intensity and short in duration – would have been perfectly in tune with a possible religious and/or ritual requirement of communicating with their deity in a trance-like status. The warrior-priests may have been interceding (for instance) for a drought – or other similar phenomenon, affecting their harsh, coastal, desertic area – to end, and to favour and promote fertility. Ithyphallic sacrificial victims (whether prisoners of war – as they are seen by some scholars – or warriors defeated in ritual combat, as others contend) on Moche iconographic representations may point at the fact that we might be in presence of fertility rites. Conversely, we know (Bussman and Sharon) that the Guarea seeds when ingested in concentrated fashion may cause dilatation of the blood vessels and high blood pressure (which in turn may facilitate the extraction of sacrificial blood) and also produce erections. So, the Ulluchu-Guarea seeds might have played a multiple role in Moche ritual practices: being possibly at the same time a sacred vehicle of intoxication for the priests performing human sacrifices, a mean to facilitate blood collection from sacrificial victims and perhaps playing an important role in fertility rites (favouring ithyphallism in vanquished/sacrificial warriors defeated in either ritual combat or in warfare, and sacrificed during rainy days). The magical propitiation of rain through sacrificial practices must have played an extremely important role among the Moche people, when we consider the environmental devastation and terrible effects triggered by the El Niño phenomenon in the Moche and Lambayeque Valleys, which caused droughts lasting up to thirty years (562-594 CE; Otterbein, 140).

The Ulluchu fruit outside of the Moche culture

The Ulluchu has also been found outside of the context of the Moche culture. In the province of Huancabamba, the ”Italian Archaeological Mission” led by Mario Polia has found the ancient indigenous temple of the Huancapampas people, together with the ruins of the later Inka buildings. At the top of Cerro Tsaquir, nearby the “Templo de los Jaguares”, Prof. Polia discovered an archaic funerary complex, where were found a ”rainmaker” burial, two human sacrifices and a vast subterranean stone temple, with several offerings of rare Spondylus shells. Among the ritual offerings there was necklace made of hundreds of stone pearls and shells, with three representations of the Ulluchu fruit, in lapislazzuli. Testimonial – for the first time – of the fact that the ancient use of this mysterious fruit in ritual sacrifices spread outside the traditional boundaries of the Moche culture.


1) Carica candicans A. Gray (Family: Caricaceae; Genus: Carica), synonymous of Vasconcellea candicans (A. Gray) A. DC. , a plant common in Peru.


2) Cerro Tsaquir: note the similitude with the word Tzakiir which – in Jibaro tongue – means literally ”where water springs”. See MISSIONE “ANDE DEL NORD”, led by Prof. Polia:


Bourget, Steve: Sex, Death, and Sacrifice in Moche Religion and Visual Culture, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2006

Bourget, Steve, Kimberly L. Jones : The Art and Archaeology of the Moche: An Ancient Andean Society of the Peruvian North Coast (Editor)

Bussmann, Rainer W. and Sharon, Douglas: Naming a phantom – the quest to find the identity of Ulluchu, an unidentified ceremonial plant of the Moche culture in Northern Peru, Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, Vol. 5, 31 Mar 2009

Harder, Ben: Ancient Peru Torture Deaths: Sacrifices or War Crimes? National Geographic News, April 29, 2002

Otterbein, Keith F. How war began, Texas A&M University Press, 30 Nov 2004

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