The extraordinary embroidered figures of Paracas culture (600 BCE to 200 CE)

The ancient societies of South America (present day Peru and Bolivia) developed a rich and varied artistic tradition. Andean people, apart from fishermen and farmers were also high skilled craftspeople, able to produce artifacts from stone, gourd, obsidian, bone, shells, mud, feathers, fibers, gold etc. However and in contrast to other cultures of the world, Andean societies created monumental architecture and textiles long before the development of ceramics and intensive agriculture. Especially the processes of textile making and decoration were high developed crafts requiring skilled weavers, sewers, embroiderers, etc and an organized system with high technological and aesthetic standards. Even today, these colorful and richly embroidered textiles provoke much admiration among experts and artists.

Chavin de Huantar was one of the first cultures that flourished in the highlands and influenced deeply the surrounding areas. Despite, the central role of the Chavin culture, in different valleys they were developed distinctive art styles and cultures. For example, Paracas culture, flourished from about 600 BCE to 200 CE, overlapping the Chavin period. Until the first archaeological excavations in 1925 by Dr. Julio C. Tello, nothing had been known about this society. At first, the many archaeological findings were associated with Nazca culture, due to their similarity to the polychrome weaving and ceramics founded in the Nazca region. 

Paracas was one of the earliest known complex societies in South America. Paracas and other contemporary communities laid the foundations for the later societies of the Andes, including the Inca. Paracas people depended mostly on fish although they knew how to cultivate beans, maize, red peppers, yuca and peanuts. They were also skilled craftspeople. 
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Supernatural, flying figure perhaps representing shamanic flight. 
Image source: Illustration from an original photo published in the book "Textiles of Ancient Peru" by Roberto Gheller Doig.

Textile Arts: 
Paracas culture is known for its dazzling textiles with the contrasting colors decorated with embroidered figures and patterns. All fabric pieces were found inside tombs because they were protected from sun light and other environmental influences. Moreover, the dry climate of the southern coast of Peru allowed the preservation of the organic materials in an excellent condition. 

These textiles were used as wrappings around the bodies of the dead. Some bodies were even wrapped with as many as 200 pieces of cloth. Apart from the burial role, cloths were indicating status and authority among people and were also valued as a means for sharing religious knowledge and beliefs. It is assumed, that the rank enjoyed in life by the deceased was reflected in the richness and variety of the items of clothing contained within their funerary bundle. Some textiles were over 34 meters long. Certainly, the making of such artifacts would have required a complex organization and large number of high skilled technicians and labourers, such as people for rearing animals, grewing cotton, gathering dyes, spinning, weaving, dyeing, embroidering, etc. After all, Paracas was a high structured society with hierarchy. 

Cultural periods and textiles:
From the tombs of Cerro Colorado and Cabeza Larga, they were unearthed more than 400 hundred funerary bundles. From these tombs, the researchers concluded that the Paracas culture went through two successive periods: Paracas Caverns and Paracas Necropolis. 
  • During the Caverns period the predominant primary material was cotton, from which a rich variety of textiles was produced (weaves, painted and dyed fabrics, gauzes, tapestries, embroideries, etc). These pieces fulfilled a number of functions, ranging from mantles, skirts, cummerbunds and wrapping cloths. 
  • In the subsequent, Necropolis phase there were no major changes on the iconographic motifs represented during the Caverns period. What was new was the use of two types of fibers- cotton and wool- and the level of excellence achieved in embroidery over a fabric base. Cotton was used in both its natural white and brown varieties. The animal fibers used were taken from the Andean camelids (vicuna, llama and alpaca). The camelids live in high grasslands and have served for thousands of years as beasts of burden and as source of wool and meat. The Great Paracas Necropolis is a vast communal burial site holding 420 bodies, which dates to around 300-200 BC.
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Richly-attired embroidered figures holding symbolic objects. The figures are repeated in alternating colors. 
Image source: The drawing is based on an authentic shouldered poncho decoration published in textiles of ancient Peru by Roberto Gheller Doig)

Embroidered iconography over a plain weave.  
The iconographic representations on the embroidered textiles mostly featured anthropomorphic, serpent and feline figures, composite creatures such as bird-people, warriors, dancers, etc. Most of these mythological beings are richly attired, wear masks or facial and feather headdresses and carry scepters as symbols of their power, as well as knives and trophy heads. From their mouths emerge appendages with serpent motifs within which seeds and fruits can be seen, In addition other figures represent ocelots, foxes, monkeys, condors, otters, vicunas and alpacas. 

The embroidered figure was repeated either in a checkerboard pattern or in horizontal or vertical bands with the colors of its detail alternating. In some of the funerary bundles, the burial garments were comprising a collection of mantle, skirt, turban, cape, all having the same iconographic design.

The mantles were produced over a plain weave, usually made from wool, which was then embroidered with the design. Embroiderers used tiny overlapping stitches to create colorful, curvilinear patterns, sometimes using as many as 22 different colors within a single figure, but only one simple stitch.

The dying was made using natural dyes. Natural dyes don’t always last when exposed to light or moisture so the survival of these textiles in such vibrant conditions for over 2,000 years is extraordinary. This survival is likely to be due to the dry conditions of the unlit underground burial chambers in which they were found.
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Embroidered human figure, holding a small basket containing a child.
Image source: Illustration from an original photo published in the book "Textiles of Ancient Peru" by Roberto Gheller Doig.



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