WEAVING FOR THEIR ANCESTORS
Archaeology|November/December 2020
For 1,000 years, the Paracas people of Peru expressed their vivid conception of life and death through textiles
Roger Atwood

DRY, DESOLATE, AND NEARLY uninhabited, the Paracas Peninsula juts into the Pacific Ocean on Peru’s south coast. Since at least the nineteenth century, the peninsula has been known as the site of ancient tombs, and looters would pillage its graves and sell the dusty textiles they unearthed to antiquities dealers. But when Peruvian archaeologist Julio C. Tello began excavations there in 1925, he was nevertheless astonished by what he found. Digging in places the looters had missed, in an area known as Cerro Colorado, Tello turned up two huge groups of graves. One group, which he called Cavernas because its long underground passageways resembled caves, contained mummies wrapped in earth-colored weavings surrounded by hundreds of ceramic jars decorated with animal forms. In the other, located about a mile away, which he called the Necropolis, there were few ceramics, but hundreds of vibrantly colored weavings made of vicuña and llama wool, cotton, tropical bird feathers, and human hair. Some textiles featured flying humanoids clutching knives, grinning as snakes crawled out of their mouths. Others depicted bird and fish deities, flowers, and bold, abstract patterns, or men in fanciful headdresses and tunics holding decapitated heads by their hair. A few were as large as dining room tables.

Although Tello usually wrote dispassionately about his finds, he marveled that the Necropolis textiles he had unearthed had “the most beautiful and complicated mythological figures…and constitute the most magnificent examples” of ancient South American weaving. When unwrapped, the mummy bundles were found to contain the bones and leathery, desiccated flesh of men and women whose skin had been preserved by the desert air of Paracas, a Quechua word meaning “sandstorm.” Some were so well preserved that Tello thought he could make out their facial expressions. Most were high-status priests or dignitaries, he concluded, although there were also some more humble burials he speculated might have been those of their attendants in the afterlife.

Tello believed that the Necropolis textiles dated to the late first millennium B.C., while the Cavernas ceramics were a few centuries older. Radiocarbon tests conducted decades later roughly confirmed his estimates and showed that the finest textiles date from about 200 B.C. to A.D. 100, a time when, wrote Tello, people along the southern coast developed weaving “to an extraordinary degree.” He noted, too, that the peninsula had no fresh A Paracas text water or arable land. The graves contained plentiful offerings of food for the dead, including gourds and corn, but he could locate no land suitable for farming for at least 10 miles. “There is a marked contrast between the presence of highly developed cultures and the absolute absence of the basic elements of life,” he wrote.

Since their discovery, the Paracas tombs have been celebrated for their textiles, 429 of which Tello and his team excavated and sent to Lima’s National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology, and History of Peru (MNAAHP), where most remain today. The mystery of where the people who created them actually lived made them the subject of intense fascination. In the decades after Tello worked in Paracas, archaeologists searched dozens of sites up and down the south coast, unearthing ceramics that bear stylistic similarities to those from the Paracas burials, but the relatively few textiles they found were far humbler than the Necropolis’ galaxies of color. None of the sites they excavated seemed to offer definitive evidence of a place for the living, only for the dead.

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