The Andes & Textile Primacy
The Andes mountains are the largest mountain range in the world creating a continuous highland along South America’s west coast. The dominance and scale of the Andes formed the backbone of three distinctive ecological areas in the region. Moving eastward from the coast of the Pacific Ocean, arid deserts give way to snow capped mountains en route to tropical rainforests. It was in this region’s river valleys that one of the world’s oldest civilizations, the Norte Chico, independently arose on the coast of what is now northern Peru. The abundant Andean snowmelt gave the Norte Chico the opportunity to build irrigation canals which led to the development of agriculture. Cotton was also an important product of irrigation and it’s cultivation led to the production of knotted fishing nets which unlocked the bounty of the rivers and sea. These woven nets as well as early plant fiber basketry would lay the foundation for later textile evolution.
Textiles played a seminal role in the development of Andean civilization which is unparalleled by any other early human culture. In the early civilizations of Eurasia pottery was considered the earliest art form whereas Andean ceramics didn’t make an appearance until three thousand years ago. The region’s (and the world’s) oldest cotton woven cloth is six thousand years old. This cloth was discovered at the archaeological site of Huaca Prieta with thousands of other fragments including one featuring the first recorded use of Indigo dye. Another more sophisticated patterned textile from the site dates to circa 2,300 BCE and helps to showcase the progression of textile technology from cotton plain weave to patterned textiles all prior to the introduction of ceramics. Early domestication of llamas and alpacas provided meat and manure which was instrumental in further agricultural development. These camelids were also of the utmost importance in facilitating travel and later trade between the three ecological zones and their wool in the weaving of textiles suitable for the highlands.
Development of Religion, Culture and Art
It is the favorable conditions of the arid deserts which ensured the archaeological preservation of artifacts of which textiles were paramount. These records showcase that textiles were at the nexus of early Andean culture and had religious, economic, social and political function. They were part of daily life as well the integral component of most rituals and ceremonies. Discoveries of mummy bundles in necropolises dated to the Paracas (800BCE – 100BCE) highlight complex funeral rites. The mummies were wrapped in a coccon comprised of multiple layers of complex and high quality textiles. The textiles were made of both cotton and camelid fiber utilizing multiple colors and weaving techniques as well as early religious symbols.
Around the same time the Chavín (900BCE – 200BCE) developed as the first widespread religious and cultural movement in the Andes. The movement is named after the archeological site, Chavín de Huantar, which was its religious and political center. This site housed a series of temples used in ceremonies and rituals and was controlled by an elite priesthood who are thought to have ingested hallucinogenic cacti. It was here where the first recognizable Andean artistic style emerged with a distinctive iconography and innovative techniques. The site attracted pilgrims who spread the artistic style and intensified the religious cult of Chavín by transporting textiles, ceramics, and other objects throughout the region. It was instrumental in developing a visual legacy and is often referred to as South America’s “mother culture”. Art and architecture were utilized as tools both for enlightenment as well as exclusion. They were complex and purposefully difficult to interpret, many of the intricacies were only fully understood by the shamans themselves. Chavín art is characterized by a technique known as contour rivalry which creates imagery which can be interpreted multiple ways depending on how it is viewed. In addition to mystifying the images, the techniques also addressed concepts of reciprocity and duality like day and night, rainy and dry season or life and death.
The Wari (600CE – 1100CE) were the strongest pre-Inca society and first true state in Peru. From their base in Ayacucho they were successful in connecting a variety of autonomous communities spreading their religious cult, agricultural techniques and trade. They were also renowned for their complex tapestries and standardized weaving throughout their domain. The Wari were very hierarchical and the ordering and layout of the textiles they wore were an important marker of status and rank. The Wari elite wore fourcornered hats and finely woven tunics which often contained over seven miles of thread. Their state eventually collapsed but covered most of modern day Peru and provided the basis of the Inca state.
It is under the Incas where a fuller picture of Andean culture begins to emerge. The Incas would unite and dominate the Andean people from the south of Columbia all the way to the North of Argentina. Their territory was the size of the Roman empire spanning nearly 800,000 square miles with a population of 12 million. The empire was divided into four sections with the capital of Cusco at it’s center. Much like the silk road of Asia, a massive road system begun under past civilizations would be unified with all of the major arteries leading to Cusco. In total, there were 25,000 miles of roadway which connected not only a vast territory but also the varied ecological zones and their distinctive resources. As the Incas exerted their authority over different areas they either incorporated or allowed their new subjects to retain their culture, much of their hierarchy and the unique skill sets they had developed. Traditional costume of conquered groups was maintained partly to identify and control them. It was a diverse society that allowed subjects to continue to use their distinct language but it was expected that everyone spoke Quechua as the primary language across the empire.
The empire was broken into variety of organizational units with the smallest and most important being the Ayllu, which was essentially a clan or extended family and kinship group. The Ayllus operated both internally and externally on a idea of reciprocity called Ayni which was a balance between the exchange of energy between humans, nature and the universe. Assistance given by one group was expected to be reciropcated at a future time. The Ayllus also interacted with the Inca state in a similar way with a tribute system called Mit’a. Communities would pool labor and resources to contibute to community projects, infrastructure and military service. This tribute was taxation with roughly 2/3 of production going to the state which operated much like a socialist welfare state. Textiles were one of the most important productions of the Mit’a and each Ayllu had an annual quota. The military and religuous establishments were the largest consumers and large imperial storehouse of textiles were maintained.As there was no written language, material culture was paramount to Inca institutions, solidarity rituals and signifying rank in the society. They were often distributed as awards or prizes at ceremonies. Textiles played an important role when the Incas both entered and later established themselves in new territory as gifts, objects of power and to realign obligations of reciprocity.
As pre-columbian Andean culture reached its zenith so did it’s material culture. Travel across much of the highlands was made possible by the world’s largest suspension bridges which were actually handwoven of plant fibers. The armies that traversed the roads wore woven armor and made use of woven slings as weapons. Fisherman used boats made of interlaced reed. Their fish from the coast could reach the highlands within a day through the use of an efficient messenger system. Messengers known as chasqui where stationed at every 3 – 6 miles and both items and messages could travel up to 150 miles per day. The most important duty of the chasqui was to carry and interpret a woven communication tool called the quipu.
The quipu may be one of the most important and least understood contributions of pre-hispanic culture. A quipu is a recording device which utilizes weaving. Each cord is imbued with information encoded in many variables including it’s length, directionally, color, plying, knotting and even the direction each fiber was spun.
The use of Quipu has been documented since ancient times but it is most well known and developed under the Inca. Very few quipus survive today but those that have been partially decoded are numeric in nature and used to large keep inventories and tax records among other things. One of world’s earliest census was decoded from a quipu listing humans first, followed by camelids, textiles and ceramics, all ahead of precious metals, gemstones, food and other important goods.
It is widely believed that other quipus were used as a communication system which developed in the place of the written word. During the colonial era, the Spanish initially discouraged their use and later actively burned many quipu, eradicting an extremely important repository of knowledge and information.
The Colonial Era
The Spanish first entered the western hemisphere in 1492 and within decades Spanish expeditions had grown exponentially. Bases were established and wealth began to be extracted. As news spread throughout Spain of the riches of “new world” groups of conquistadors left to find their fortune. Conquistadors had a loose association with Spanish crown and were more akin to a collective of freelancers than agents of the state. As they began exploring the edges of Inca territory around 1524 they brought novel diseases to the empire. Within a few years of their arrival, a smallpox pandemic broke out killing the lncan emperor and his eldest son and heir. This sparked a war of succession between his remaining two sons Huascar and Atahualpa dividing the empire. The war would be decided in the city of Cajamarca with Atahualpa defeating his brother in 1532. A few months later conquistador Francisco Pizzaro and a small group of less than 200 would enter Cajamarca while Atahualpa and his army of tens of thousands were still in the city. In a series of strategic and highly risky manuevers the Spaniards were able to ambush and capture Atahualpa later killing him and throwing the empire into further dissaray. The Incas mounted counterattacks and rebellions but due to internal strife, the superior weapons of the Spanish and infectious disease the conquest was complete within forty years. During the conquest the population would decline over 90% with up to 10 million lives lost primarily to a series of devastating pandemics. Spanish began to replace Quechua and within a generation much of the remaining population had been forceably converted to Christianity.
Peru became Spain’s principal source of wealth and power in South America with newly established Lima at it’s center. Mining precious metals became the most important colonial industry. Much of the mit’a system which was traditionally utilized for public works and operated on concepts of reciprocity was retrofitted to provide labor for mining. Textiles maintained their importance as the second most important industry after mining. The Spanish brought new technology and materials to the region altering garment forms and techniques. The most impactful were sheep’s wool, carders, spinning wheels and the treadle loom. Centralized workshops utlizing traditional weaving prowess and European technology were established which provided cloth primarily for domestic consumption. The fabrics used by Spanish were also reproduced by local weavers and came to dominate the domestic style. A interesting symbiosis called Andean Baroque occurred in some ateliers where indigenous and European imagery were mixed and even incorporated elements from oriental rugs. In the most remote towns where colonial control did not reach, they continued to weave textiles with less adultered indigenous iconography helping the collective textile memory to persist.
Colonial Legacies and Safeguarding Ancestral Knowledge
After nearly three centuries of colonialism, Peru would gain independence from Spain following the Battle of Ayacucho in 1824. Indepence was followed by border wars and alternating periods of democracy and military rule. Ayucucho was the birthplace of both the modern Peruvian state as well as the infamous movement called Sendero Luminoso or Shining Path. Shining Path was a maoist revolutionary group who initiated a brutal and devasting internal conflict in Peru throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Initially the movement received a lot of support in the indigineous Quechua speaking population who were poorer and neglected. The colonial legacy had stigmatized anything that was native, indigineous and Andean and glorified anything seen as white, European and foreign. As the violence escalated the movement lost much of its support and the indigenous were caught between a rock and hard place. Both the Peruvian military and the Shining Path were guilty of massacres, kidnapping, rape and torture that swept the country but particularly savaged Ayucucho. Of the 70,000 lives lost almost half were in Ayucucho and three quarters were Quechua speakers.
Our featured tapestry was woven in Ayacucho during this era and against this backdrop. A period when Peru’s economy was crippled and broader weaving culture suffered. The same time Peruvian society was turned upside down a generation of master weavers emerged and innovated. This generation was composed of artisans who weave not only as an economic activity but a means of creative expression. They came from multi generational weaving families with deep roots in the traditions of the community. Their family names such as Sulca, Salma, Quispe, Laura and Oncebay are all well known in the region. As children they coexisted with the world of weaving and assisted all aspects of preparation and production from spinning and dyeing the wool to warping the loom. These artisans are guardians of the ancestral knowledge and have been responsible for modulating and moderating the evolution in technique, theme or approach to the rest of society. Saturnino Oncebay is one of these weavers who with other “children of this order” Edwin Sulca and Maximo Laura have studied and revitalized ancient techniques and iconograpy. These artists have played with abrastraction and dimensionality to create optical illusions in their work much like their ancestors explored complex concepts like contour rivalry. They have managed to pay homage to the past while finding innovative and contemporary forms of expression that find broader parallels in the way humanity interacts with the natural and supernatural world.
We sourced our information from: Traditional Textiles of the Andes by Lynn A. Meisch, The Colonial Andes: Tapestry & Silverwork 1530 – 1830 by Elena Phipps, Johanna Hecht and Cristina Esteras Martin, Representation of Nature in Andean Textiles by Catherine Joslyn, Chavin: Art, Architecture & Culture by William J. Conklin and Jeffrey Quilter, Art of the Andes: From Chavin to Inca by Rebecca Stone-Miller, To Weave for the Sun by Rebecca Stone-Miller, Shamans, Supernaturals & Animal Spirits by Vanessa Drake Moraga Tapis de Ayacucho Peruvian Ministry of Tourism, Talking Knots in the Incan Kingdom of Fibers on the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast, Latin American History podcast, Voices of Ayucucho (film) by Tony Pap and Hali Magazine
*Peru map & weaving timeline illustrated by Lynn Hunter