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THE MOCHE LIMA BEANS RECORDING SYSTEM, REVISITED
Tomi S. Melka
Abstract: One matter that has raised sufficient uncertainties among scholars in the study of the Old Moche culture is a system that comprises patterned Lima beans. The marked beans, plus various associated effigies, appear painted by and large with a mixture of realism and symbolism on the surface of ceramic bottles and jugs, withmany of them showing an unparalleled artistry in the great area of the South American subcontinent. A range of accounts has been offered as to what the real meaning of these items is: starting from a recreational and/or a gambling game, to a divination scheme, to amulets, to an application for determining the length and order of funerary rites, to a device close to an accountancy and data storagemedium, ending up with an ‘ideographic’, or even a ‘pre-alphabetic’ system. The investigation brings together structural, iconographic and cultural aspects, and indicates that we might be dealing with an original form of mnemotechnology, contrived to solve the problems of medium and long-distance communication among the once thriving Moche principalities. Likewise, by reviewing the literature, bysearching for new material, and exploring the structure and combinatory properties of the marked Lima beans, as well as by placing emphasis on joint scholarly efforts, may enhance the studies. Key words: ceramic vessels, communicative system, data storage and transmission, fine-line drawings, iconography, ‘messengers’, painted/incised Lima beans, patterns, pre-Inca Moche culture, ‘ritual runners’,tokens

“Como resultado de la falta de testimonios claros, todas las explicaciones sobre este asunto parecen inútiles; divierten a la curiosidad sin satisfacer a la razón.” [Due to a lack of clear evidence, all explanations on this issue would seem useless; they entertain the curiosity without satisfying the reason] von Hagen (1966: 157). INTRODUCTION The Spanish Jesuit missionary José de Acosta(1940 [1590]) quoted by Rafael Larco Hoyle (1944: 59), Ann P. Rowe & John H. Rowe (1996: 463), and numerous modern authors (Larco Hoyle 1942: 93–94; von Hagen 1966: 157; Donnan 1978: 2; 1992: 11; Zuidema 1991: 151; Bawden 1996: 143; Phipps 1996: 154;

Folklore 45

http://www.folklore.ee/folklore/vol45/melka.pdf 89

Tomi S. Melka

Kaulicke Roermann 2000: 45; Salomon 2004: 23; Brokaw 2005:572; Pillsbury 2005: 9;1 Bourget 2006: 1), have drawn attention to the fact that no true writing system, i.e. basically phonetic in content, was found among the pre-Conquest ethnic groups dwelling in what corresponds today to the Peruvian state. The northern coastal valley areas of Perú, witness to the emergence, development and fall of the Moche, Lambayeque (Sicán) and Chimú cultures (see vonHagen 1966: 39; Banks 1980: 8; del Busto Duthurburu 1983: 141; Berezkin 1983: 7; Bawden 1983: 215; Benson 1992: 303–304; Shimada 1994: 1; Donnan 1996: 123, 2005: 128; Cordy-Collins 1996: 223; Moseley 2001: 172; Valle Álvarez 2004: 11; Pillsbury 2005: 11; Kaulicke 2006: 85; Bourget 2006: 4, Castillo Butters & Uceda Castillo 2008: 707–708), are geographically part of this defined territory. Thesalvage of a good number of earthenware vessels – mainly shaped in a distinctive globular form – in the course of archaeological diggings, or as a result of chaotic looting across sites and acquisitions by different private collectors or museums of the world, has provided scholarship among other things, with examples of patterned drawings and incisions. Without doubt, undecorated and plain vessels existand must have existed (Donnan 1992: 11); however, since they are short of elements that constitute evidence for our study, they will be discounted. At first glance, the illustrated vessels of the Moche appear to have had some artistic function, related to a commemorative and display function (see Banks 1980: 51). Yet, the fact that they might have been in some way utilitarian is not entirely...
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