Roughly 1,000 years ago, the finishing touches were being made to a rectangular length of fabric. At first glance, the textile resembles a modern tablecloth, but a slit in the centre betrays that it was designed to be worn as a tunic. This was no ordinary work-a-day garment, though, as the once-vibrant painted decoration suggests some kind of ceremonial role. It would be easy to see the painted rectangles, circles, and waves as little more than pleasing abstract patterns, but the man or woman who added these motifs had a very particular aim in mind. The rectangles represent stylised feathers, while the circles are mountain lagoons, and the waves evoke the ocean. Far from being meaningless decoration, the imagery on the tunic presented a transect of about 100km across the Andes, running from the Amazon, with its exotic birds, to the roaring surf of the Pacific.
Our craftsman or -woman was a member of the Chancay, a group that lived on the central Peruvian coast and was destined to be absorbed by the expanding Inca Empire. The Chancay were not alone in taking a keen interest in the varied habitats that make up the central Andes. This region is home to one of the most complex environments on Earth, with the dramatic landscape incorporating rainforest, mountains that rise almost 7,000m above sea level, coastal desert, and the rich resources of the Pacific. While the tunic decoration reflects the connections that were woven through this terrain, the groups living there could also face particular challenges. One is the periodic impact of El Niño, when warming ocean waters create lengthy spells of increased rain, which can devastate crops. At the other end of the scale, a drier climate risked an expansion of desert.
Mastering such conditions required both ingenuity and a keen knowledge of how to draw maximum advantage from local resources. Success enabled a succession of dazzling cultures to flourish at different times and places in the central Andes, with at least some seemingly collapsing when the climate turned sour. Despite these periods of rise and fall, a thread can be traced all the way back to 1200 BC and a group known as the Chavín, through to the famous but short-lived Inca Empire of AD 1400-1532. Although the intervening societies all had their own styles, a fascinating new British Museum exhibition (see ‘Further information’ box) demonstrates how certain themes can be followed for more than 3,000 years. Indeed, one of the most intriguing features of these societies is their comparative isolation. While archaeologists working in Europe, Africa, and Asia delight in demonstrating how groups living on these continents could influence each other, the situation in the central Andes was unique. Its societies developed more or less independently of influences from the wider world, fashioning a way of life that came without currency, writing, or even a belief in the one-way flow of time. The results challenge common preconceptions about the basic building blocks required for a successful society.
Here today, here tomorrow
‘In the West, we often think of time as a line, where the past is behind us, we sit in the present, and the future stretches out ahead,’ says Jago Cooper, Head of the Americas at the British Museum and co-curator of the exhibition. ‘We know, from a mixture of anthropological work, archaeology, ethnohistorical sources, art, and linguistics, that among Andean societies, time was conceived completely differently. They believed that past, present, and future were all happening in the same moment. Because of this, the past isn’t fixed in stone and the future is not unwritten, both can be changed by activities in the present. This is a game-changing difference for how individuals made decisions, because believing that the past is still active and alive fundamentally alters your view of the world. It removes the basic concept of cause and effect, which is what underpins Western science. Without that, the whole structure of science changes. It means that you can create a web of relationships across time, allowing the present, future, and past to alter. That lack of a clear temporal order could create huge uncertainty, and all Andean cultures took steps to try to gain control of time.’
‘This interest in time is apparent in the archaeology of the Andes in various ways,’ says Cecilia Pardo, exhibition co-curator. ‘Of course, the details differ between cultures. But people knew that different states had existed there in the past, and they could make objects that referenced images created by those earlier groups. Another way that the past, present, and future were connected was through funerary practices. After bodies had been buried, we know that they could be taken out – so the past was brought into the present – and we can see that in one of my favourite pieces in the whole exhibition. It is an architectural model that seems to show a palace in Chan Chan, which is a city that developed in the Peruvian coastal desert. This model is interesting for many reasons, including its representation of people participating in a ceremony. Music is being played, maize beer prepared, and there are also three funerary bundles – that is, corpses buried in the foetal position and wrapped in textiles – who were placed on a stage to supervise and organise the ceremony. This brings us to the idea of ancestrals. Once a person dies, they become a guiding figure in the life of a community. In a way, they become alive again.’
A belief that time could pass in a less than rigid fashion was aided by consuming certain substances available in the region. ‘You get these powerful drugs that come from the San Pedro cactus, which also features a lot in the iconography,’ explains Jago. ‘Today we call it DMT, and it plays with your perception of time. Those who take it can’t tell how much time is passing, so they have no concept of whether three minutes or five hours has elapsed. It also produces out-of-body experiences, which plays well with concepts of being able to move between past, present, and future realms. Essentially, what we’re seeing here is a belief in the overlap between natural and supernatural states, which is a theme that bleeds through from one culture to another in the region.’
South America seems to have been first populated by humans in about 15,000 BC. By the time that the Chavín – the first of six cultures that the exhibition focuses on – rose in about 1200 BC, people were already living in permanent settlements and pursuing sophisticated agricultural strategies. Even so, a crucial development came with the establishment of a pilgrimage centre at Chavín de Huántar, at a height of 3,200m in the northern Peruvian highlands. This was once seen as the birthplace of Andean civilisation, and it was adorned with imagery that – alongside examples found elsewhere in the Chavín world – proved highly influential. Pilgrims who completed their journey were rewarded with a memorable experience in a setting that combined a large open plaza with labyrinthine narrow passageways. Streams were diverted into subterranean channels, allowing the roar of water to accompany proceedings, while images of the San Pedro cactus indicate that mind-altering drugs were part of the mix.
It was not just the pilgrims who received a change of state at Chavín de Huántar. The site also contained images of transformed beings – that is, people who took on animal attributes, such as feline fangs or bird wings. Such combinations were a common feature of Chavín art, and can be found on objects ranging from a stunning gold headdress to pottery. These last presented a particular advantage to societies without writing, as the surface of clay vessels offered a blank canvas where art could act as a memory aid for stories or other information. When it came to animal attributes, the Chavín focused on the features of three main creatures: felines, snakes, and birds. These animals symbolised different qualities, with the fangs or tail of a puma portraying power, while eagles represent war or darkness, and the slithering snake accessed the underworld of the ancestors. Once established, this Andean pantheon of creatures was picked up by later cultures, so that, even though the Chavín culture ultimately collapsed in around 200 BC, its legacy can be traced through the exhibition.
Animals could certainly feature prominently in the repertoire of the Paracas and Nasca societies, with the first group existing from about 900 BC to 200 BC, and the second spanning 200 BC to AD 650. Although it is the Nasca that have achieved fame for tracing extraordinary designs in the desert, both groups created impressive geoglyphs. Indeed, recent DNA studies have exposed the potentially misleading nature of modern labels like ‘Paracas’ and ‘Nasca’, by demonstrating that they were made up of the same people – in around 200 BC, the Paracas culture simply became the Nasca culture.
‘Those amazing drawings were made on an area of plain known as the pampas’, says Cecilia. ‘It covers about 500km and was created thousands of years ago when a landslide filled a valley. This is not a fertile place, so instead it was used as a sacred landscape. Although the Paracas images were often created on hill slopes where they were visible from the ground, this was not the case with the Nasca lines, which can only be appreciated from the air. Archaeology can give us a sense of how the Nasca designs were used, though, as the remains of post-holes show that roofed structures once existed in places. There are also signs of the passage of many feet, perhaps associated with processions or dancing. Indeed, images like the spider and the monkey have access points that seem to be intended to allow people to walk through them. When you do that, even if you can’t see the form of the animal, you can imagine it. It’s very performative, I think. And because the Nasca made vibrant textiles, we can imagine the dull desert being flooded with colour during ritual gatherings.’
‘There would have been sound, too. We find pan pipes, drums, and whistles, so we know the Nasca used a range of musical instruments, and there are representations of them being played on the ceramics. For example, you can see them alongside a shaman wearing a snake headdress and – once again – the San Pedro cactus. Another subject found on pots and textiles is figures with feline mouths, and the heads of defeated enemies that were taken in ritual combat. Although the Nasca became expert at sinking wells to find water, they were living in a changing world. Current archaeological research by a German mission has proved that a process of desertification was under way. Due to both climate change and the removal of vegetation, the Nasca had to move away from the lower parts of the region, towards areas where there was more water.’
Worth a thousand words
The art of ceramic production reached new highs following the rise of the Moche around AD 100, in the northern coastal valleys of Peru. Once again, the modern label can be misleading, although in this case it is because the Moche were a group of independent states with similar visual styles and beliefs, rather than a single, centralised society. Pottery provides a tantalising glimpse of Moche legends by portraying the travels – and trials – of a mythological hero called upon to fight, exchange goods, make sacrifices, work miracles, copulate, and wander the vast ocean. Once again, felines and serpents feature, while some full-size accessories found in tombs probably acted as props for ritual re-enactments of this hero’s escapades. Perhaps even more powerful, though, are a collection of vessels that eschew mythological adventuring in favour of gritty reality. ‘The Moche created portrait vessels of individuals,’ says Jago. ‘I love them, because they bring these people to life. These are not esteemed and generic versions of aesthetic beauty, they are actual individuals with distinctive features. You get people with different headdresses, hairstyles, and tattoos, while some might have a slight squint or scars where they had been bashed with a club. It’s really interesting, because the Moche are the only pre-Columbian Andean society to use realism in this way.’
Another class of Moche pottery vessels shows the final journey of warriors defeated in ritual battle. Some of these captives were taken from the mainland in boats to be sacrificed. Islands would be a particularly suitable venue for this, as surviving Moche artwork indicates that they were associated with night and the transition to the underworld. Although the site where these sacrifices were conducted has never been found, a strong pointer probably comes from some extraordinary objects found on the Macabi Islands – which lie opposite Moche territory – in the 19th century. ‘These are remarkable,’ Cecilia says. ‘The British Museum acquired about 30 objects towards the end of the 19th century. They were found by British mining companies extracting guano to use as fertiliser. After arriving at the Museum, the objects remained in stores for more than a century. They include ceramics and shells, but most interesting are a set of wooden sculptures that show naked prisoners with ropes around their necks, presumably awaiting sacrifice. The use of wood is striking, because it does not survive elsewhere in Moche territory, which is very humid. So, while we think of the Moche as masters of pottery-making, now we know that the kind of scenes that survive as ceramic vessels could also be carved from wood.’
‘What this touches on is concepts of death and sacrifice,’ adds Jago. ‘As soon as you mention the phrase “human sacrifice”, everyone imagines it is the most vile and horrible thing imaginable. But it’s important to view this through the lens of how a society deals with death. For the Moche, who fought their ritual battles with weapons designed to injure rather than kill outright, the idea of European warfare would have been abhorrent: people riding in with bits of metal and hacking at each other, with the wounded left to die on the battlefield. That isn’t valuing life, it’s just discarding it as though those people don’t matter. By definition, though, killing people as a sacrifice puts a huge value on life. So, ironically, I think that human sacrifice should not be seen as casually throwing lives away: it’s a statement about how precious they are.’
Life from death
The value of life may have been on display, too, during a troubling time for the Chimú culture, which ran from AD 900 to 1470. At its height, this group controlled at least 850km of the Pacific coast in northern Peru, including the area once home to the Moche. A spectacular mud-brick city was founded at Chan Chan, the architecture of which seems to have inspired the model of a ceremony presided over by three deceased ancestors, described earlier. The Chimú grew prosperous in part by controlling the trade in Spondylus shells, which Andean societies considered sacred and linked with fertility and rainfall. To them, these shells could be more valuable than gold. There are harrowing hints, though, that rainfall also came to pose a threat to the Chimú.
‘We know that there were various El Niño events over time,’ Cecilia points out. ‘One that occurred in AD 1100 is interesting for giving a sense of the scale of the impact that they could have. I remember that when I was excavating at a Moche site, reaching the tombs involved getting a spade and digging through a massive layer of soil that was deposited during that El Niño event. It was very hard work. The collapse of a lot of Andean societies has been related to the effects of El Niño.’
‘At a site just outside Chan Chan, sacrifices have been found on top of an El Niño layer’, says Jago. ‘We have a colleague, Gabriel Prieto, who contributed to the exhibition book. He has excavated a whole series of children who were sacrificed at the site. I visited while the excavations were under way, and, even though I’ve worked on big cemetery sites in the past, this went beyond anything I’d experienced before. The kids were there, with skin intact and hair in place, and they were still wearing cotton tunics with ochre and feathers. You could see that they were brought to the site alive. And there were hundreds of them, all aged between 9 and 12. Gabriel links it to a doubting of power structures brought about by El Niño. The people in power were in trouble because they couldn’t stop the rains. As the children seem to be high-status, Gabriel argues that the elite turned to their own children for the ultimate public display of sacrifice. If so, the elite were effectively saying “I am giving up my most precious thing in order to save us”.’
Child sacrifices are a well-known feature of the Inca Empire, which rose in AD 1400 – when the capital, Cusco, was founded in the southern Peruvian highlands – before being extinguished by Pizarro and his conquistadors in 1532. ‘The main sacrificial offering made by the Incas was known as the capacocha,’ says Cecilia, ‘which took place in the mountains, normally snowy mountains. And this was a single sacrifice, so you gave up one girl or boy, probably high-status, when you either conquered a new territory or were celebrating something. So this wasn’t mass killing. Only about eight or ten capacocha offerings have been found in total. We have some textiles and figurines in the exhibition that are related to the type of offerings found in capacocha rituals.’
‘What’s also interesting’, says Jago, ‘is that strontium analysis of hair has shown that those people destined to be capacocha offerings went on really long journeys. So it looks like they were publicly displayed for about a year, while they travelled through all of the Inca territories, eating really high-status and exotic foods, before being led up a mountain and sacrificed. But the twist back for me is that, because of this connection between past, present, and future in Andean time, death was not seen as a terminal end point.’
Continuity from change
Alongside the elements of continuity between Andean societies, innovations could occur. One celebrated example is the means of record-keeping using strings and knots known as a khipu. ‘This has been the subject of lots of recent research,’ says Cecilia. ‘Basically, it is mostly an accounting device, which was introduced by the culture that preceded the Inca, who are known as the Wari. What the Incas did with the khipu was introduce a decimal positioning system of knots. So you had a knot for each of the numbers from one to nine, and then a knot for ten, 100, and another for 1,000. In my opinion, using the khipu was one of the main reasons why the Incas could expand and control such a massive population in less than a century. Of course, not everyone could read or make a khipu, so people had to be trained to do it. But this was how information from the Inca provinces could be passed up the hierarchy. Current research indicates that information not only came from the knots, but also from colours, as well as how the different strings were attached, and the gaps between knots and strings. About 80% of the khipu recorded quantitative information – such as population sizes, goods in storage, crops, numbers of deaths, numbers of births, and so on – but around 20% covered narrative information: stories, poems, or songs.’
‘This raises an interesting point about how ways of remembering information are passed down,’ notes Jago. ‘Although you don’t get writing systems in Andean societies, knowledge was being shared all of the time. As we’ve seen, there were systems for remembering and communicating information and stories, like the narrative scenes on the vases. The khipus are taking that exact same idea and carrying it to the next level. This brings us back to that wider theme of the question of continuity with earlier Andean societies. What studying them together shows is that, while aspects do live on throughout the different cultures, they also change, because people take these ideas and keep them going in a way that is meaningful to them.’
‘We may even see the effect of using khipus reflected in Inca ceramics’, adds Cecilia. ‘Unlike the Nasca, the Moche, and even the Wari, the Incas took abstract geometric decoration to the extreme. They generally don’t have naturalistic or figurative elements, so the tradition of creating narrative scenes completely disappears. Rather than conveying information with images, the Incas were apparently sharing information orally and using the khipus as a memory aid instead. What is also incredible about the khipus is that they survived the conquest – mostly up in the highlands – and two communities still make them to this day. So, when we think of that tradition of Andean time, we can trace our thread connecting Andean societies all the way from the ancient past of the Chavín down to the present, and surely into the future as well.’
FURTHER INFORMATION The exhibition Peru: a journey in time runs from 11 November 2021 until 20 February 2022 at the British Museum. For more details, including ticket prices, see www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/peru-journey-time. A beautifully written exhibition publication packed with fascinating material is also available: C Pardo and J Cooper (eds) Peru: a journey in time (The British Museum, ISBN 978-0714124919, £30). The exhibition is supported by PROMPERU and organised with the Museo de Arte de Lima, Peru.
CWA is grateful to Cecilia Pardo, Jago Cooper, and Maxwell Blowfield.