By Susan Bergh, Curator of Pre-Columbian and Native North American Art and Amanda Mikolic, Curatorial Assistant
In 2012, Dr. Paúl Velazco, a Peruvian mammologist who serves as a visiting assistant professor at Arcadia University and research associate at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, collected two bats of a previously undescribed species on Peru’s north coast, a desert that is home to unique bat populations. He had nearly completed an important study of the species in 2021 when he and his wife — a native of Kent, Ohio — visited the CMA’s ancient Americas galleries, where a bat-shaped vessel from Peru caught his eye (figs. 1–3).
The bats Dr. Velazco collected belong to the genus Histiotus, one of the least studied within a larger family of bats (Vespertilionidae) because individuals of the genus are rarely captured in the field. Thus, they are poorly represented in scientific collections. The genus previously included ten species that, like other members of the family, lack a noseleaf and have relatively small eyes and long tails but are distinguished in part by very large ears connected by a ridge of membrane that runs across the forehead. This characteristic, along with their color, gives them their more common name — big-eared brown bats. The “new” species stands apart from others in the genus in having wider inner-ear lobes, a more pronounced connecting membrane, and certain subtleties in the color of its silky fur, among other things (fig. 4). The species has been confirmed by gene sequences and many other comparisons among the 151 specimens Dr. Velazco and his collaborators have identified in museum collections in the Americas and Europe.
The CMA’s bat vessel has traits of the species Dr. Velazco studied. Made on Peru’s north coast by an artist of the ancient Moche or Mochica culture (moe-chay, moe-cheek-ah) (AD 200–850), the vessel inspired him to name the species Histiotus mochica or, colloquially, the Moche leaf-eared bat. He did so to recognize the knowledge of Indigenous peoples and to honor the Moche and their connection to the natural world. Indeed, as he notes in a publication about the species, the bat vessel is so accurately depicted that it allowed precise identification of an animal previously unknown to science and thus stands as a testament to the Moche’s observational skills and profound interest in nature.
Such interest guided many of the exquisitely crafted and highly realistic animal representations the Moche left behind in ceramic vessels, personal ornaments made of precious metals, and objects in many other media (figs. 5–6). These and other images suggest that, unlike today in much of the world, the Moche did not conceive of nature as something from which humankind stands apart. Rather, Moche art often comingles the features of animals and humans in complex ways, implying a belief in the permeability of the boundary between the two realms.
One example in the museum’s collection is an effigy vessel shaped like a figure with a human body but the head of a stag, its tongue lolling to one side (fig. 7). The figure seems to be engaged in a ritual that involves chewing coca leaves — a small bag that holds the leaves hangs from one of the figure’s wrists, and in its hands the figure holds a container for the powdered lime, made of ground seashell, that is one of the ritual’s key ingredients. (Today, Andean people chew coca leaf, a mild stimulant, to establish communion with cosmic forces but also socially and for the practical purposes of suppressing fatigue and hunger.) It is difficult to know the realm to which such images belong — myth, ceremony, or something else — and, therefore, how they should be interpreted.
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