Ancient Peru: who are you, stranger?

Jim spent time in Peru during the 1960s as part of a team of physicians learning about healthcare delivery systems across the Americas. It was a cultural exchange project, meant to open the mind to new ideas. Amid the meetings and tours, Jim (of course) found the time and mental energy to be curious about Peru’s ancient history and its arts. His free time was spent in Lima antique shops. He came home with a box of 500-year-old pots and heavily oxidized copper and copper-alloy tools.*

Last week’s project involved sorting through this box — which items will become family heirlooms and which items can be sold, to fuel the curiosity of a new generation of young collectors?

Among the many plain tumis (ceremonial mushroom-shaped blades) was this three-inch axe shape (image above). It had a picture on it. Someone hand-engraved a figure: head, torso, arms… I’m curious now. The tumis are all labeled from the Chimu culture, which flourished along a coastal desert strip in northeastern Peru, 10th-15th-century CE. But what about this one?

You can see why people get excited about “evidence” of alien visitors. Who is this guy with big ears, three eyes, and four fingers on each hand??? Or is it a girl? The earthen patina covers all but a hint of the genitalia.

I tried to trace what I thought were the deliberately carved lines, but couldn’t always tell them from the extraneous marks.

3" precolumbian tool from Peru, with incised figure traced in purple
3″ precolumbian tool from Peru, with incised figure traced in purple

I’ve been flipping through Jim’s books and online images to place the glyph. No luck.

Larco Museum ceramic, ca. 300 CE. [By Pattych – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

But this morning I came upon a graphic that looks related. Could our drawing be a crude depiction of the Moche spider god? The Moche culture flourished in the same area as the Chimu, but much earlier–100-700 CE.

Ai apaec… was the chief deity of the Mochica culture. The most feared and adored of all punitive gods, it was also referred to as the ‘headsman’. Ai Apaec was worshipped as the creator god, protector of the Moche, a provider of water, food and military triumphs. Aiapaec means ‘maker’ in the Mochica language. […] Ai apaec was represented in several ways, depending on the period, place, and medium used. In metallurgy, for example, Ai apaec is often seen as a spider with eight legs and an anthropomorphic face with jaguar fangs…” [Wikipedia]

An intriguing clue, isn’t it? In any event, this amateur sleuth can only say the following: In ancient times, along the dry Pacific coast of Peru, someone had a tough job to do and really, really needed her small copper axe to work some magic. She took a sharp tool (bronze?) and incised a figure of the most powerful deity for the task. Impossible to tell if the deity, thus invoked, blessed her work. All we know is that the tool itself, bearing the deity’s likeness, survived hundreds of years of burial till the 20th century, then mingled in sacks with other grave-robber loot, found its way through middlemen to a shop in Lima, and finally landed among the treasures of the inquisitive Dr. Z.

And it is here today on my desk, sparking my curiosity and toying with my imagination. Isn’t that small miracle enough?

*In 1970, with the approval of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, such casual exports by fascinated collectors became forbidden.

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