The stretch of desert along Peru’s southern coast is home to a curious menagerie: a larger-than-life hummingbird, a heron with a zig-zagging neck, spider, monkey, alligator, and even a killer whale reside here, immortalised on the dry plateaus. These huge forms, now known as the Nasca Lines, were created between 200 BC and AD 650 by the Nasca culture, who inhabited the desert region. But, despite the arid conditions, this was a landscape full of life, movement, and colour.
For the Nasca who created this array of giant beings, huge spirals, and geometric forms left behind brightly coloured ceramics and musical instruments too, as well as offerings, and even remains of structures at the geoglyphs, hints of the various ceremonies that surrounded them. They were not the first to use this desert as a canvas. The Paracas culture (900-200 BC) also made their mark with geoglyphs, though these were smaller and positioned on slopes so they were visible; the Nasca Lines tend to be positioned on flat plains in such a way that they cannot be discerned from ground level. Made by moving stones on the surface to expose a lighter colour below, the Nasca’s figurative desert drawings are composed of a single continuous line, with what appear to be an entrance and exit so that a group could walk through them, accompanied by a soundtrack that included panpipes, drums, and whistles shaped like birds and masked mythical beings. Examples of Nasca instruments, their bold pots, and their fragile textiles, preserved in the dry desert for some 2,000 years, are now on view – along with artefacts from other civilisations – at the British Museum in a new exhibition that presents the pre-Columbian societies of Peru in full colour.
A strikingly large drum – over 1m in height – offers a vibrant image of the Nasca worldview. Painted with a melange of mythical figures, the drum shows enemies defeated in ritual combat being captured; ancestor figures with feline masks hold them by their hair. The head of the defeated fighter is cut off and serves as a trophy and offering, and they too become an ancestor. These ancestor figures are vital in Nasca and Andean belief. They help secure water and fertility of the land for the communities who descended from them. Indeed, they are not long-dead figures, left behind in the past, but rather an active and living part of communities. Intricate models of ceremonies shed light on their roles. One example from the later Chimú culture (AD 900-1470) replicates the physical presence of ancestors in a ceremonial setting: wrapped up in funerary bundles with fine woven blankets, the bodies are brought out in a palace in Chan Chan to join in the activities along with musicians and people preparing maize beer (chicha).
‘An important thing about this exhibition is that Andean perceptions can often see the past as alive,’ Jago Cooper, co-curator of Peru: a journey in time, explains. ‘It’s not behind you, dead, it’s a living past, which is on parallel to a living future and a living present. Therefore, the past is dynamic and can be changed by events that are happening in the present, and that’s a really interesting, mind-bending thought. It’s relevant to the British Museum because we pretend we’re an institution where the past is set in stone and we’re an authority that interprets a known past, whereas in reality the place is a theatre. The past is very changeable and mutable.’
This concept of parallel time greatly influences how decisions get made. Cooper says, ‘When something happens you base your decision on your experience in the past, which is set in stone. You make the best-informed decision that you can and then what you decide will affect the future. But if ancestors are actually alive and the people who are in the future are alive as well, they’re part of that dialogue. So you’re not the best person to make the decision; you make the decision in conversation with others. There’s an understanding, a responsibility, and that plays into big concepts in society like climate change.’
Severed heads like those on the drum are a frequent motif in Nasca art, appearing in stylised or more realistic depictions with eyes and lips sealed with thorns, and sometimes with plants sprouting from them. They are not a dead body-part but a living entity with life-force that could be extracted to help keep cycles of life and death in balance. These heads are a key attribute of the ancestors, as are the masks they wear, which have transformative powers drawn from the landscape, as co-curator Cecilia Pardo explains. ‘Sometimes they wear these masks with feline fangs and sometimes they acquire the body of a cat or of a whale. In that sense, it tells you that this is not a person anymore, but they’re immersed in the landscape, acquiring powers or features of different elements of that landscape.’
Cat-like creatures are important, then, but they are by no means the sole animal of interest. Tom Cummins, project curator for the exhibition, says, ‘You also see the Andean pantheon in pots: the bird, the feline, the snake. The bird represents the sky, the feline the earth, and the snake underground. Hybridity is important too, and you get merging of different features from birds, felines, and snakes.’ As well as the sky, the bird is associated with the night and war, the feline and its fierce fangs with strength, while serpents, which can slither below the earth, can access the underworld and thus bring people closer to their ancestors. The prominence of these creatures is seen in their numerous depictions in different media. The hummingbird, for example, is preserved in the Nasca Lines and also in a fragment of textile, probably from a funerary blanket, embroidered with dyed hairs from camelids (the family that includes llama, alpaca, and vicuña).
Shamans harness the powers of animals like serpents, but also make use of chemical assistance from plants. On one Nasca vessel, a shaman wearing a headdress in the form of a snake prepares for his travels into the world of the ancestors. With him are musicians and a cactus seen elsewhere in Andean art. ‘The San Pedro cactus is often in the iconography’, says Cooper, ‘and that is a very, very powerful DMT-based hallucinogen that plays with your sense of time. It’s a powerful distortion of time and space, and that’s why it’s popular in different situations. It plays into that idea of breaking liminality, breaking space, breaking consciousness.’
Water was in short supply in the middle Rio Grande de Nasca valleys, where the Nasca grew crops like maize, potatoes, and squash, and cotton for their textiles. The Nasca Lines and the ceremonies carried out in the desert with music and hallucinogenic cacti may be associated with securing this essential resource. Artists and agriculturalists, the Nasca were also impressive engineers who made use of underground channels to transport water to the surface, where it was stored in ponds and reservoirs. Some of these innovative systems, now with added concrete, are still in use today.
Eventually increased desertification forced the Nasca to move from these lowlands to higher altitudes, and, by around AD 650, the Nasca civilisation had come to an end. In its final phase, certain subjects became more prevalent in its imagery. Cummins points out, ‘We also get women in Nasca pottery, which are thought to be linked to ideas about fertility and water. They’re a desert society so water is always important.’ Women, particularly those with rounded forms, become much more frequent in pottery from around AD 400, and are sometimes depicted naked or with their genitals exposed, heightening the fertility symbolism. Warriors, too, proliferate from around AD 350-400, perhaps reflecting the rise of military leaders and their control of secular tasks in Nasca society. By AD 600, the Wari culture, with its militaristic outlook, arose in the southern highlands and set its sights on old Nasca lands, where there were deposits of gold, copper, and semi-precious stones to be taken advantage of. Around this time, a ‘Nasca-Wari’ style emerged from the southern highlands, distinguished by its stylised motifs on ceramics and textiles.
Peru’s varied landscape encompasses Andean heights, where the Inca emperor Pachacuti founded Machu Picchu around AD 1420 (recent analysis of human remains has led to this new date, earlier than the 1440s given in historical accounts), the Nasca desert, more fertile plains, and the Pacific coast with its bountiful waters. The inhabitants learned to flourish in challenging, though spectacular, terrain. For the Nasca and other pre-Columbian societies, the landscape was a living entity and the relationship with Pachamama (Mother Earth) was one to be carefully maintained.
‘The materiality and the landscape itself is an animate thing,’ says Cooper. ‘The stones are alive, the hills are alive; they’re actually living entities. You can transmorph between materialities. People can morph into stones, and that changes the basis of the relationship with the environment. Because if it’s a living environment and you’re part of a living ecology, then your relationship is based on a reciprocal nature of sustainability, sustaining life. So you’re trying to sustain the environment that sustains you.’
Mountain spirits, or apus, appear in ceramics, as do maize, yucca, and many animals, which are made into living objects, crafted as they are from materials that come from the living environment. The range of materials used, not just clay, but also camelid fibres, cotton, large feathers from the Amazon, and spiny Spondylus shells from the warmer Ecuadorian waters of the Pacific coast highlight the all-pervading influence and value of the natural world.
The Nasca were not alone in their view of the living landscape, the prominence of the feline, bird, and snake, their musical rituals, and more, so where did such ideas come from? Long before the Nasca or the Paracas cultures drew on the desert ground, the monumental complex of Chavín de Huántar arose at a height of 3,200m in the northern highlands. Between 1200 and 400 BC, the site developed and attracted pilgrims wanting to confer with the oracle about weather and fertility. Chavín was not the only society around this time: there was also the Cupisnique culture, for example, that flourished between 1250 and 500 BC further north. But Chavín de Huántar was, as Pardo explains, ‘one of the earliest ceremonial centres, from where a religion or system of beliefs was spread across the Andes in a very short span of time’.
‘You see different representations based on the main elements of the Andean pantheon, which is the serpent, the feline, and the bird,’ Pardo adds, ‘and you see these elements in pictures of different deities.’
As well as these three creatures and beings with hybrid features, other common threads found in Chavín include the importance of soundscapes, with water gushing through underground channels and the blowing of pututos (conch-shell trumpets). The San Pedro cactus, too, appears in carvings on the site’s stone walls, carried, along with prized Spondylus shells, by human figures and transformed beings, who borrow features from other animals.
These strands can be followed in the culture of the Moche, as well. Overlapping temporally with the Nasca civilisation, the Moche culture occupied the costal valleys further north between around AD 100 and 800. The Moche were not a single group under one power, but rather separate territories that shared beliefs and a visual culture, distinguished by its remarkable red ceramics.
Among the characteristic Moche pots in the exhibition is a coquero, an officer in charge of chewing coca leaves together with lime powder to harness the drug’s stimulant and hunger-suppressing properties. It is a practice that has precedent in Moche myth. On his travels, the main hero Ai-Apaec (‘the maker’) takes part in a coca-chewing (chacchado) ceremony in the lands east of the Andes. During proceedings, he notices a two-headed serpent in the sky, which he places around his waist giving him the ability to conjure up rain. Accessories for coca-chewing related to Ai-Apaec have been found in elite Moche graves, including a lime container (a similar one is held by the pottery coquero) and a glorious cape with shimmering discs of copper, feathers, and a fearsome three-dimensional head of a feline bearing its fangs. Both objects are like those Ai-Apaec is said to have been given for his ceremony. The coca leaf is not unique to the Moche: brightly coloured bags for carrying coca leaves survive from the Inca empire (AD 1400-1532) and from the Nasca-Wari period, with zoomorphic figures woven out of camelid fibres, and the practice of chacchado is still carried out by Andean communities today.
Other Moche vessels only focus on one part of the body: the head. These stirrup vessels (so-called as the spout resembles a stirrup, a form that is found in early Andean cultures like Cupisnique) depict high-ranking figures in society, with head-dresses, earpieces, and face-paint. The contours of the face are carefully sculpted in clay, and they seem to be portraits of real individuals. Rather than simply being generic ‘types’, they have distinguishing features such as a cleft palate and a missing eye, probably a loss from ritual combat. Recent studies have even identified that some portraits are of the same individuals as they age, as faces with the same features appear multiple times.
Like the Nasca who showed ancestors with the severed heads of those defeated in ritual conflict, the Moche put great stock in their ritual battles. As Pardo explains, ‘It’s the main narrative that the Moche developed in ceramics and in murals. They were one-on-one confrontations. The defeated warrior was taken as a prisoner and then eventually sacrificed. They take the blood and offer it to the gods. It’s part of a ritual, a ceremony in which life was very much valued.’
There are plenty of prisoners in Moche art. They are depicted after the conflict, when they have been stripped of their clothes, a rope tied around their necks. Sometimes, they are shown presented to a priest or officer, or bound up on a boat. On one intricately carved piece of bone, a half-human, half-owl god supervises the sacrifice of a naked prisoner. Shaped like an arm ending in a fist and inlaid with turquoise, this spatula was possibly used in the preparation and consumption of ritual powders.
The origins the ritual battle and killing of captives lie with the gods. The first sacrifices, honouring the owl-god who presided over night, were carried out by the moon goddess, who, accompanied by a sea god, took captives to an island by boat. It was also to an island that Ai-Apaec headed in order to gain access to the land of the dead, where the sun was imprisoned during a period of chaos. As meeting points of life and death, islands were imbued with symbolic meaning.
While the dry deserts have preserved delicate Nasca textiles, organic materials have fared less well in the Moche terrains. There are, however, some remarkable survivals from the Macabi Islands: a group of wooden sculptures including models of prisoners with ropes around their necks, officers in architectural structures, and a humanised owl playing pan-pipes. Pardo remarks, ‘This set of objects is one of the highlights of the exhibition because nobody really knows about them. They were taken out from the guano islands, where British companies were extracting guano, when it was used worldwide as a fertiliser in the mid 19th century. So these objects were found in a striking state of conservation in a very humid area, which is not usual for wooden objects.
‘They’re really amazing objects. They are like the Rosetta Stone for the Moche. They show the Moche always had a special relationship with the ocean. The Moche portray ceremonies in boats where they take the prisoners to be sacrificed in the islands, but these islands themselves have never been studied, so we don’t know if sacrifices were actually performed there. These objects tell us about what might have happened there.’
The wooden objects from the Macabi Islands are hidden treasures, kept out of sight in the British Museum’s stores for many years. Some were donated to the Museum in the 1870s by curator Augustus Wollaston Franks. In Franks’ day, many artefacts from the Americas were relegated to the basement, of which he said in 1860, ‘I do not think it any great loss that they are not better placed than they are’. While the exhibition is not just made up of artefacts from the British Museum’s collections (it also features material from museums across Peru and elsewhere, including some striking textiles from Germany), it places these little-known artefacts and the cultures who made them firmly in the spotlight.
Peru: a journey in time runs at the British Museum until 20 February 2022. Visit www.britishmuseum.org/peru for details. The exhibition is organised with the Museo de Arte de Lima, Peru, and supported by PROMPERU. An abundantly illustrated volume, edited by curators Cecilia Pardo and Jago Cooper, has been published by the British Museum Press (ISBN 978-0714124919, price £30).