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South America

The Ancient World and Fashion > People of the Americas
A Chavin figurine of a wild cat
A Chavin figurine of a wild cat
This Paracas burial cloak and headdress
This Paracas burial cloak and headdress
A Paracas llama wool
A Paracas llama wool
This stirrup vase
This stirrup vase

People of Peru

People began to settle on the rocky coast of Peru around 12,000 BCE. At first, they survived by catching shellfish and crabs and gathering nuts and berries, but by about 2000 BCE they had learned to grow crops. The Peruvian farmers grew maize, squash, beans, and potatoes, and also cotton for spinning and weaving. They kept llamas, alpacas,and guinea pigs for their meat and wool, which was used to weave blankets and cloaks. Between 1800 and 900 BCE the Chavin people created the first civilization in South America. They were skilled stoneworkers who built huge temples filled with carvings of their fierce animal gods. The Chavin people settled in the long coastal strip which is present-day Peru and influenced the culture of the whole area. Chavin culture disappeared around 200 BCE, but other groups grew up, including the Paracas cultures in the south, and the Moche in the north.

Chavin Gold

Little evidence remains of Chavin clothing, but they were the first people in the Americas to work gold. Chavin goldsmiths made intricate figurines and pendants covered with expressive carving. These ornaments show a range of animal spirits, including jaguars, eagles, alligators, crabs, and shellfish. In addition to the figurines, wide gold collars and pectorals have also been found in Chavin temples. All of these splendid ornaments were probably worn by Chavin rulers and priests.

Paracas Cloth

The Paracas people, who flourished in the southern Andes from around 600 BCE to 400 CE, are famous for their weaving and embroidery. Weavers used fine alpaca wool to make spectacular cloaks and burial cloths in a range of vivid colors. Some surviving Paracas cloth has geometric figures and motifs woven into it, while some is decorated with embroidered designs. The cloth is brightly colored with dyes, including turquoise, scarlet, and jade green. Designs include a range of animal motifs, such as alpacas, birds of prey, jaguars, and snakes. Sometimes weavers combined the forms of several creatures into a complex intertwined design. Semi-human deities are also shown, displaying a mixtureof human and animal features. One surviving Paracas textile has a recurrent design of flying figures, apparently wearing ceremonial dress.  The figures wear short, decorated kilts with elaborately patterned belts. Around their ankles are feathered leg bands, and hanging around their necks are square, woven bags. Each figure carries a baton and a fan, and wears a simple headdress of two horizontal bands topped by a design of an animal’s face.

Moche Lords

Between 200 and 800 CE, the Moche lords ruled over a coastal kingdom in northern Peru. Most of the Moche people lived in small farming or fishing villages clustered around tall pyramids where the lords had their palaces. The Moche lords conducted solemn ceremonies and led their warriors into battle. They also supervised the work of skilled craftspeople who worked in clay, textiles, and metals.

Moche Jewelry

Metalworkers smelted gold,silver, and copper in small furnaces and used stone hammers to flatten the metal into thin sheets. From these they fashioned gleaming headdresses, face masks, nose rings, earrings, pectorals, and pendants. Moche jewelry was often covered with fine engravings and sometimes inlaid with turquoise, shell, and lapis lazuli.

Portraits in Clay

Moche lords commissioned skilled potters to make bowls, pots, and vases, painted with designs in red, white, and earth colors. Many of the pots feature painted figures and scenes, while some “stirrup vases” take the form of human figures. Moche pottery reveals a fantastic range of costumes: lords adorned with face paint and wearing feathered headdresses, warriors in patterned battle tunics and headdresses, and ordinary people in cotton tunics and caps. One surviving pot even shows a man washing his hair with coca leaves.

Sacred Gold

All the ancient people of the Andes worshiped the sun god, and gold was especially prized because it was associated with the sun god’s life-giving power. For their special ceremonies, Moche lords were festooned with golden jewelry and also wore a cotton cloak covered with gilded plates. When a Moche lord appeared on the top of his pyramid, glittering in all his finery, he personified the god of the sun.

Backstrap Looms

Portraits of weavers on ancient Moche pots reveal that the people of the Andes used a simple backstrap loom to weave their patterned cloth. The warp strings of the loom were attached at one end to a high post. At the other end the strings were tied to a strap that went around the weaver’s back. Whenever the weavers wanted to tighten their threads, they simply leaned back against the strap. These portable looms could be set up anywhere and are still used today in Peru.

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