Inca Weaving (2000 BCE+)

The year is 1450 CE. A messenger chewing coca leaves for energy is hurrying down a well-paved road in the Andes, delivering tribute and records from a distant corner of the Incan Empire to officials at the capital. Both the tribute and records are made of woven cloth. The tribute--a symbol of a provincial potentate's fealty to the emperor--consists of several intricate textiles that represent the cosmology of the Incas and the central role of the emperor with geometric patterns, colors, and animal symbols. Some of these cloths will adorn civil and military elites, others may be burnt as religious offerings, and many will be used to clothe the revered and mummified dead. The official records contain information on the quantities of various stored goods, the services provided, and tributes paid. All of this data is stored in bundles of knotted strings, known as khipus, that will be stored at the capital for future reference.

Weaving held (and continues to hold) an unparalleled degree of importance among the indigenous peoples of the Andes, who have woven cotton since 2000 BCE and camelid wool by 1000 BCE, and textiles have been integral to the societies of all four major Andean polities (the Recuay, Huari, Tuwanaku, and Inca). The thread that the Incas spun was finer than most machines can do today and the immense amount of labor required to make a single textile was almost as important to its value as the end product (Rodman and Cassman 1995).

As with most other aspects of pre-Columbian societies, the Spanish conquest did much to alter both how woven goods were made as well as what they symbolized to Andean Indians. Khipus like those seen in the sources were burned by the thousands and the intricacies of their "woven" language has been forgotten. According to Karen B. Graubart, a historian of Latin America, the Spanish conquest even reshaped how Andean societies divided labor between men and women. Due to Spanish assumptions about gender roles and new demands for labor and textiles, weaving, once the task of both sexes (and sometimes even exclusively male), became relegated to the distaff and associated with low social status (Graubart 2000).

Despite the changes brought by the Spanish, homemade cloth remains central to the rituals, cosmology, and identity of rural populations in the Andes. Animal symbols and patterns, though changing with contemporary fashions and synthetic dyes, continue to reflect the structure of the universe and the dualism (e.g. between light and dark) that is a recurring theme in the Andean worldview (as in the source "Feather and Cotton Shirt"). Anthropologist Katharine E. Seibold held that these modern textiles express nativism, pride in their Incan heritage and its spiritual beliefs. She argues that it does not matter whether or not modern weaving actually is Incan in origin; what is important is that in the contemporary sense it is considered Incan, a way to identifying themselves with indigenous, not western, traditions (Seibold 1992).

Similarly, khipus are still actively preserved in a few Peruvian villages, although their meaning remains largely unknown. The difficulty, according to anthropologist Frank Salomon, is that the khipus are written in an inscribed language, one that does not relate directly to any actual spoken language and is entirely self-referential. Although the numerical system of many Incan khipus (explained in more detail in the sources) has been decoded, the stories they might tell are unknown (Salomon 2004).

The textiles and khipus symbolically weave order from chaos, a central element of Andean cosmology. Although globalization and the (post) modern world threaten Andean weaving practices, the indigenous peoples who continue to create, admire, and preserve these beautiful and meaningful items consider themselves part of an ancient and vital tradition, one that both expresses and embodies the universe and their place within it.

Questions for further exploration:

1. Khipus have been the subject of much scrutiny and debate by recent anthropologists and historians, yet Spanish chroniclers in the sixteenth century made little effort to understand how they worked. What cultural assumptions led the Spanish of the early colonial era to disregard, indeed destroy, khipus? What cultural assumptions prompt modern scholars to scour them for meaning?

2. Weaving, a technology practiced for over 4000 years in the Andes, still expresses and reproduces Andean culture and cosmology and is a source of pride both as a symbol of identity and a technological achievement. Modern technologies and sciences, such as nuclear power, physiology, and biotechnology, are also sources of pride for many Latin American countries. How is the social significance of weaving similar and different to that of these modern practices? Use this topic's sources and specific examples.

3. What impact has modern technology, such as manufactured wool and synthetic dyes, had on textile culture in the Andes?

4. What has been (and will be) the impact of the tourist industry on Andean textiles, both in terms of production and imagery?

Further Reading:

Brokaw, Galen. "The Poetics of Khipu Historiography: Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala's Nueva coronica and the Relacion de los quipucamayos." Latin American Research Review. 38: 3 (October 2003): 111-147. 

Graubart, Karen B. "Weaving and Construction of a Gender Division of Labor in Early Colonial Peru." American Indian Quarterly. 24: 4 (Autumn 2000): 537-561.

Heckman, Andrea M. Woven Stories: Andean Textiles and Rituals. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003.

Rodman, Amy Oakland and Vicki Cassman. "Andean Tapestry: Structure Informs the Surface." Art Journal. 54: 2, Conservation and Art History (Summer 1995): 33-39.

Salomon, Frank. The Cord Keepers: Khipus and Cultural Life in a Peruvian Village. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

Seibold, Katharine E. "Textiles and Cosmology in Choquecancha, Cuzco, Peru." In Andean Cosmologies Through Time: Persistence and Emergence. Eds. Robert V.H. Dover, Katharine E. Seibold, and John H. McDowell. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Urton, Gary. "From Knots to Narratives: Reconstructing the Art of Historical Record Keeping in the Andes from Spanish Transcriptions of Inca Khipus." Ethnohistory. 45: 3 (Summer 1998): 409-438.

Andean Tapestry

Date: 1400
Owner: Art Resource
Source Type: Artifacts

 

Like many textiles produced by indigenous Andeans, this patterned piece contains a variety of colors and repeated animal motifs. Animal symbols represented divinities of the earth, sky, and water, and the animals depicted tend to be ones that existed in between two of these conceptual zones, such as condors (like those seen here) and toads. Textiles that include such powerful symbols are sometimes known as llikllas and have traditionally been used by Quechua shamans to send prayers into the spirit world. The visual linking of symbols for the earth, sky, and water are considered to be conducive to producing rain, an effect also attributed to shamanistic sacrifices of alpacas and llamas (Seibold 1992).

Yet the design represents only part of the value of a piece such as this; the sheer amount of highly skilled work that went into each and every textile was extraordinary. A typical tunic, for example, had about eighty-two wefts (threads woven back an forth by the weaver) of extremely fine handspun cloth in a single centimeter and was woven together as a single unbroken piece of cloth (the arm holes were made by including gaps in the warp) (Rodman and Cassman 1995). The end product is thus valuable as art, craft, clothing, and culture.

Reference:

Rodman, Amy Oakland and Vicki Cassman. "Andean Tapestry: Structure Informs the Surface." In Art Journal, Vol. 54, no. 2, Conservation and Art History (Summer, 1995), p. 33-39.

Seibold, Katharine E. "Textiles and Cosmology in Choquecancha, Cuzco, Peru." In Andean Cosmologies Through Time: Persistence and Emergence. Eds. Robert V.H. Dover, Katharine E. Seibold, and John H. McDowell. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

CITATION: Tapestry from Chancay Culture, Peru. Museo Amano, Lima, Peru. Jorge Provenza / Art Resource, NY. ID: ART130931.

DIGITAL ID: 12931

 

Arpillera

Date: 2003
Owner: Unknown Owner
Source Type: Images

 

Like textiles that reproduce and perpetuate traditional Andean iconography, this modern example of an arpillera, a textile made by stitching leftover cloth onto a cotton backing, is also a visual medium for representing indigenous culture. The patchwork design shows protestors outside of the ministry of education holding banners promoting a huelga, a term for popular social protest. This is a strike scene, replete with police violence, women fainting, and solidarity amongst the citizenry (Heckman 2003).

Although this piece is far from subtle in its political message, Andean groups have been known to include subversive clues within textiles, a code--like that of khipus-- that can only be "read" by those in the know. For example, "four-part" designs are associated with the drawing and quartering of the leader of a rebellion against the Spanish in 1781, Tupac Amaru II. As one of the results of the rebellion, the Spanish banned Andean Indians from weaving traditional patterns into their textiles.

Arpilleras took on new significance in the late twentieth century when military dictators waged brutal "dirty wars" against their own populations. Women in Chile and Peru known as arpilleristas used this medium to express their outrage with the governments that "disappeared" thousands of people while the quilting circles themselves were a social support network in which women could organize their protests and assuage each other's losses. Their quilts are often a stark juxtaposition of dark, brutal scenes portrayed with brilliant colors--the eventual triumph of hope over oppression (Agossin 1996).

Reference:Agosin, Marjorie. Tapestries of Hope, Threads of Love: The Arpillera Movement in Chile, 1974-1994. Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

Heckman, Andrea M. Woven Stories: Andean Textiles and Rituals. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003.

CITATION: Photograph by Jon Hedlund

DIGITAL ID: 12926

 

Feather and Cotton Shirt

Date: 1500
Owner: Granger Collection, The
Source Type: Artifacts

 

This tabbard, a kind of sleeveless shirt, is one of several decorative articles of clothing, headwear, pillows, and bags made by pre-Columbian Andean proples from the feathers of South American birds. The Chimu, a people of northern Peru who were conquered by the Inca shortly before the Spanish conquest, created especially notable featherwork, much of which has been preserved in near perfect condition by arid tombs. Although the Chimu probably kept caged birds from which they harvested a steady supply of feathers, the colors seem to have had greater significance to their artists than the species because similarly colored feathers of different birds are used together in a single-hued area (Rowe 1984).

The fact that the coastal Chimu worked almost exclusively with feathers from the Amazon region to their east demonstrates just how interconnected regions were in pre-conquest South America. The reason for the preference of Amazonian feathers is unknown, but historical ornithologist John P. O'Neill suggests that the featherwork of the Amazon region was famous in surrounding areas, thus the birds they used were valued higher (Rowe 1984). Another theory might be that since tropical birds are often more colorful, unlike most mountain birds of the Andes, and since and color was so valued by the weavers and feather workers, that birds were sought out from those regions.  The inclusion of feathers into their textiles gave Andean weavers another option with which to express their cosmological views (feathers are from the sky) and their culture. The fact that the material came from renowned designers in a distant land--like wearing Italian styles today--added to their appeal.

This tabbard also has a repeating pattern of anthropomorphic gods. The coloring differs from god to god, however, where some have different parts done in the contrasting dark and light tones. According to anthropologist Katherine E. Seibold, the interplay of colors between the background and foreground is meant to signify duality, a central aspect of Andean cosmology. Dualism, reciprocity, and symmetry are all key to the worldviews of Andean groups and thus they find expression in their textiles, their most important means of two-dimensional representation.

This emphasis on dualism also accounts for the prevalence of sun and moon symbols on traditional clothing. The sun decorates men's clothing while the moon is found on women's, yet these two astronomical bodies are of equal importance to Andeans and complement each other.

Reference: 

Rowe, Ann Pollard. Costumes and Featherwork of the Lords of Chimor: Textiles from Peru's North Coast. With feather identification by John P. O'Neill. Washington D.C.: The Textile Museum, 1984.

Seibold, Katharine E. "Textiles and Cosmology in Choquecancha, Cuzco, Peru." In Andean Cosmologies Through Time: Persistence and Emergence. Eds. Robert V.H. Dover, Katharine E. Seibold, and John H. McDowell. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

CITATION: Peruvian Tabbard, c. 1500. The Granger Collection, New York. 0035524.

DIGITAL ID: 12938

 

Inca Khipu

Date: c. 1500
Owner: Granger Collection, The
Source Type: Artifacts

 

This antique khipu shows clearly the nuances of a fully spread Incan message-cord. Many different methods were used within a single khipu to convey a variety of messages, though their precise meanings are still conjectural at best. They are created by attaching smaller strings to a central cord--anywhere from three to two thousand strings can be part of a single khipu. Most of these are pendant cords, meaning they run down from the main cord, while a few--known as top cords--run crosswise. The direction of the strings is integral to their meaning. Furthermore, each pendant or top cord can contain up to eighteen subsidiary cords that can be positioned at up to ten levels.

Color and knotting are also part of the inscriptive (or "lexigraphic") code of the khipus. Some scholars believe that color was used to differentiate messages within a single khipu and knots were used to connote digits. The three types of knots--single, long, and figure 8--stood for a digit and each cluster of string for a power of 10. Empty spaces stood for zero, itself an advanced mathematical concept, one seen throughout pre-Columbian Latin America, but rarely in other parts of the world. With so many variables and no translational text such as the Rosetta stone, it is no wonder that the meaning of khipus remains shrouded in uncertainty.

CITATION: Peruvian Khipu for Counting. 0018965. Courtesy of The Granger Collection, NY.

DIGITAL ID: 12525

 

Incan Khipu and Storehouses

Date: 1615
Owner: Royal Library of Denmark, Copenhagen
Source Type: Images

 

The Incan bureacrat on the right-hand side of this picture is showing a khipu inscribed with the quantity of various goods in these storehouses to a superior official. Khipus are believed to have recorded the amount of commodities being produced, traded, or stored--potatoes, for example--as well as acting as a readable text for those who knew its symbolism, translators known as khipukamayuqs. Colonial records suggest that khipus communicated the type of item being cataloged, the quantity of each item, and the value or price of each item. Khipus may have even contained verbs denoting the actions involved with these goods, such as their transfer, sale, or inheritance (Urton 1998).

Most historians consider khipus to have been the primary medium for organizing and centralizing the vast Incan territory around the person of the emperor (known as "The Inca"), who was the ritual and actual locus of power. Spanish chroniclers suggested that khipus fulfilled all the data needs of the empire: census, calendars, inventories of weapons and goods, tribute records, genealogies, criminal trials, herd records, and simple postal messages (Salomon 2004). In the traditional literature relating to the Black Legend of the Spanish conquest, the conquerors destroyed thousands of khipus as demonic. Yet the fact that they recognized the many practical aspects of these woven records suggests that they were destroyed to undermine the communication of the Incas.

References:

Urton, Gary. "From Knots to Narratives: Reconstructing the Art of Historical Record Keeping in the Andes from Spanish Transcriptions of Inca Khipus." In Ethnohistory, Vol. 45, no. 3 (Summer, 1998), p. 409-438.

Salomon, Frank. The Cord Keepers: Khipus and Cultural Life in a Peruvian Village. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

CITATION: Drawing 132, Storehouses of the Inka. In Guaman Poma, Felipe. Nueva Coronica y Buen Gobierno. 1615. Courtesy of the Royal Library of Denmark.

DIGITAL ID: 12116

 

Monk Forcing Woman to Weave

Date: 1615
Owner: Royal Library of Denmark, Copenhagen
Source Type: Images

 

CITATION: Drawing 257. Wrathful, arrogant Dominicans force native women to weave for them. In Guaman Poma, Felipe. Nueva Coronica y Buen Gobierno. 1615. Courtesy of the Royal Library of Denmark.

DIGITAL ID: 12928

 

Mummy Dressed in Fine Textiles

Date: 200 BCE
Owner: Art Resource
Source Type: Artifacts

 

The various Andean civilizations had mummified their deceased elites for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans, and mummies were important to Incan family and state rituals well into the seventeenth century. Andean Indians believed in an afterlife in which the dead would continue to exist in much the same way they had during the tenure of their flesh. Thus, once embalmed, they were given food, company, and clothing to supply them with the necessities of life in the next world. Food offerings included cuts of meat and vegetables but sacrificial rituals (usually involving llamas) were conducted at the funeral and the perennial memorial ceremonies. Political elites, especially emperors, were provided with the servants, family, and friends that had attended them in life--these people would commit suicide or be killed before being buried on the ruler's land.

The mummies were also dressed in fine clothes and adorned with jewelry. For the Incas, it was customary to be enshrouded with colorful wool, dressed in a long sleeveless garment called a cusma, and have a cloth mantle as a headdress. The gold jewelry bedecking this man indicates that he was a person of significant status. Clothing also was crucial to the yearly ceremonies in which the dead were put on public display. Each November, the remains of ancestors would be removed from their tombs and dressed in the best finery his/her family could afford. The bones or mummy was placed in a seated position on a sedan chair, given a new shirt, and paraded about town to receive offerings of food, coca, and clothing. Such rituals were considered an active communion between the living and dead, a way in which Incas created a sense of history even after the Spanish conquest.

Reference: Ramirez, Susan Elizabeth. To Feed and Be Fed: The Cosmological Bases of Authority and Identity in the Andes. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005.


CITATION: Mummy adorned with gold jewelry, Paracas civilization, c. 200 BCE. Museo Nacional de Antropologia y Arqueologia, Lima, Peru. Giraudon/ Art Resource, NY. ART21243.

DIGITAL ID: 13093

 

Source References

Web Sites

Indigenous Mathematics of Central and South America- Mathematics and the Liberal Arts (Truman State University): Bibliography and accompanying descriptions of books and articles related to the history of mathematics in Latin America.


The Quipucamayu (Sweet Briar College- Department of Spanish): Description of the Inca Quipu and its importance in Inca law, government, and mathematics.


Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco (CTTC)


Conservation and Technical Study of a Colonial Andean Tapestry (Metropolitan Museum of Art)


Mathematics of the Incas (University of St. Andrews, Scotland)

Publications

Ascher, Marcia and Robert Ascher. Mathematics of the Incas: Code of the Quipu. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1997.


Closs, Michael P. Native American Mathematics. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.


Graubart, Karen B. "Weaving and Construction of a Gender Division of Labor in Early Colonial Peru." American Indian Quarterly. 24: 4 (Autumn 2000): 537-561.


Heckman, Andrea M. Woven Stories: Andean Textiles and Rituals. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003.


Phipps, Elena. The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530-1830. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004.


Quilter, Jeffrey. Narrative Threads: Accounting and Recounting in Andean Khipu. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.


Rodman, Amy Oakland and Vicki Cassman. "Andean Tapestry: Structure Informs the Surface." Art Journal. 54: 2, Conservation and Art History (Summer 1995): 33-39.


Salomon, Frank. The Cord Keepers: Khipus and Cultural Life in a Peruvian Village. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

Seibold, Katharine E. "Textiles and Cosmology in Choquecancha, Cuzco, Peru." In Andean Cosmologies Through Time: Persistence and Emergence. Eds. Robert V.H. Dover, Katharine E. Seibold, and John H. McDowell. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1

Thompson, Angela. Textiles of Central and South America. Marlborough, Wiltshire: Crowood Press, 2006.

Urton, Gary. "From Knots to Narratives: Reconstructing the Art of Historical Record Keeping in the Andes from Spanish Transcriptions of Inka Khipus."  Ethnohistory. 45: 3 (Summer 1998): 409-438.

Urton, Gary. Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

Urton, Gary. Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. 

Films and Videos

Ancient Inca  (Schlessinger Media, 1998)

In the Shadow of the Incas (Films for the Humanities and Social Sciences, 1993)

Inca: Secrets of the Ancestors (Time-Life Video & Television, 1995)

Peruvian Weaving (Berkeley Media LLC, 1980)

Qeros: The Shape of Survival (Berkeley Media LLC, 1979)

Women Making Dye

Date: 2008
Owner: Kristian Golding
Source Type: Images

 

These women are working to produce dyes that will color homespun thread. The thread will then be woven into textiles using a backstrap loom, a type that has been used in the Andes for thousands of years and is still common among indigenous peoples throughout Latin America. Their minimal frames make them easy to build and repair and allow women to erect and disassemble them for daily transport and storage. Although modern manufactured dyes have become common in handmade Andean textiles, the cloth is still usually spun by hand using a traditional drop spindle, a portable tool that can spin fine cloth while a woman goes about her daily routine. The shuttles and picks are also similar to those employed in the pre-Columbian era and are made mostly of bone or wood. Like the traditional designs they weave, the ancient techniques of Andean textile making help to perpetuate the warp and the weft of Incan identity while also producing beautiful cloths like the one in the background of this photograph.

These women are from Cha'ri, a town about 150 miles from Cuzco. They work as part of the 200 member Inkakunaq Ruwaynin organization, a collective of South Andean weavers. The organization promotes fair trade policies in an effort to prevent the demands of the global market from destroying their traditional crafts.

CITATION: Kristian Golding. "Dye how-to in Cusco, Peru." October, 2008.

DIGITAL ID: 12927