The beauty of Peru’s Pre-Columbian cultures
Peruvian textile production began more than 10,000 years ago as evidenced by artefacts recovered in the Guitarrero Cave of the Ancash region. The first inhabitants of the Andean region developed a vast and exquisite textile tradition to provide for personal warmth, as well as to pay tribute to their rulers and pay homage to their deities. Depending on its intended use, each piece was elaborated with a number of techniques, and the backstrap loom was exploited to its fullest, to create works of great aesthetic beauty. The refined tastes of both artisans and users can be discovered in these textiles.
The geography of Peru has effected the development of various cultures, each evolving its own level of organization, some of which were sufficiently complex to allow some of its members to specialize as craftsmen. To satisfy the needs of their respective societies, sophisticated textile techniques were developed in single-culture and pan-Andean contexts. The raw materials most utilized were native cotton (Gossypium barbadense L) produced in as many as eleven colors (cream, black, red, green, blue, grey, violet, beige, brown and their variants), fibers of Andean camelids with vicuña being the finest, and fibers extracted from various members of the agave family such as cabuya or maguey plants.
Peru’s first civilization was formed between 3000 and 2500 B.C. in the Supe Valle, with several communities established as urban centers which played a fundamental role in the distinct cultures that eventually emerged. Of some relevance is the recent discovery of a quipu, or group of knotted cords, used as a recording device by Peruvians some 5,000 years ago.
Many textile splendors were manifested in different eras and regions throughout history. The Chavin Culture (900 B.C. – 200 BCE) of the high Andean region produced cotton textiles illustrated with intricate personages which were also reproduced in stone sculptures. The colors of Chavin textiles bear some resemblance to sepia photos of the last century.
The Paracas Culture (700 B.C. – 200 BCE) demonstrated a command of dyeing techniques resulting in at least 79 different tonalities attained using by-products of various Andean plants and animals as dyestuffs. Robes have been discovered in grave goods which have maintained their original color, demonstrating (particularly in the embroideries of ancient Paracas) a still-unmatched chromatic richness. The symbolic language of these goods is rich with strange mythical creatures.
The Moche Culture (100 BCE – 700 CE) evolved on the northern coast, and its abundance of ceramic, metal and textile production is astounding. Feathers and small metal objects were incorporated into their clothing, resulting in original textures as well as a certain musical aspect.
The Tiahuanaco (200 ACE – 1000 CE) and Wari (500 CE -1000 CE), cultures of the high Andean plains and Ayacucho, respectively, are distinguished by the designs obtained through techniques similar to woven kilims. According to the research of Alan Sawyer, the Wari began with a traditional and conventional style inspired by Tiahuanaco textiles, but then moved on to incorporate geometric icons. Wari designs allowed a distortion of the icons to adapt them for use on fabric bands, eventually leading to increasing abstraction and colorplay. Wari textile design might be considered the most modern, with considerable bravura in spinning and weaving. The extraordinary quality of Wari fabrics is evidenced by a fragment with an unmatched density of 398 hand-spun threads per inch.
Textile production in the Chancay Culture (1100 CE – 1450 CE) surprises us with its diversity of backstrap loom techniques. Chancay weavers created a catalog of methods and designs to allow their customers to order goods to suit their personal tastes. Chancay weavers developed techniques which were applied to the production of various pieces: gauze, nettings, and flat-woven cotton cloths tie-dyed and assembled as patchwork. Some of the work is strikingly modern: the simplicity of repeated geometric patterns on a single piece coupled with bold color combinations have resulted in Chancay textiles being recognized as a source of inspiration for contemporary designers.
Incan textiles eventually dominated many of Peru’s regions. The elite enjoyed the service of female weavers kept in seclusion – said to be beautiful virgins. Woolen blankets, rugs and hangings were made across the Incan Empire for the palaces and temples. Woolen tunics were adorned with gold, precious stones and feathers. It is said that an Incan never wore the same outfit twice, which further demonstrates the importance that textiles held in the lives of Andean men and women.
Today, textiles continue to carry great importance in Andean life. From an early age, men and women learn to spin cotton, sheep’s wool and the lustrous fibers of Andean camelids. Though they’ve incorporated the use of the European pedal loom and have altered their designs in accordance with the diverse influences of colonialism and globalization, their distinct character has been maintained. One of the major additions to Andean textile customs has been the introduction of tailoring; previously, all the pieces were assembled from square or rectangle swatches taken directly from the loom.
It’s no coincidence that contemporary artisan clusters are found in the same areas where Pre-Columbian cultures developed. Regions with high rates of artisan production include Cajamarca, Ancash, Junín, Ayacucho, Puno and Cusco as well as in the northern coastal area now known as the Moche Route, which includes the provinces of La Libertad and Lambayeque. For present day Peruvians of these regions, globalization has presented an opportunity to contribute their talent and abilities to an ever-demanding and expanding economy. Deep and ancient cultural heritage is now an asset to be traded in the global marketplace.
Josefa Nolte is a Peruvian anthropologist who has worked in the craft development sector for 40 years. She is currently National Coordinator for the UN Joint Program for Inclusive Creative Industries in Peru.