Paracas Culture Develops a Sophisticated Textile Tradition Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Paracas culture, known for the production of spectacular textiles and complex mortuary rites, was an eight-hundred-year tradition in which social institutions adapted to a coastal maritime environment.

Summary of Event

The term “Paracas” refers to a specific archaeological site, an art style, and an archaeological culture. The culture is found along the south coast of Peru, through six major river valleys, and in the coastal desert region of the Paracas Peninsula.

Collections of Paracas cultural material began to be amassed in the 1870’s and progressed through the early twentieth century. Wilhelm Gretzer, a collector, and Max Uhle, an early archaeologist, recognized the distinctive and sophisticated nature of Paracas textiles and ceramics. A number of dilettantes, grave robbers, and professional archaeologists, including Alfred Kroeber, were involved with Paracas material culture during the early decades of the twentieth century.

It was not, however, until 1925 that the Peruvian archaeologist Julio Tello named the culture and designated a specific chronological framework emanating from his peninsular excavations. With assistant Toribio Mejia Xesspe, he began excavation in a cemetery known as the Paracas Cavernas. In 1927, yet another Paracas cemetery, the Necropolis, was excavated by Mejia, revealing more than four hundred burials, which had been interred in subterranean chambers. During the 1950’s, significant advancement was made in understanding the chronology, spatial distribution, and cultural variability of Paracas by the American archaeologists John Howland Rowe, William Duncan Strong, Donald Lathrap, Edward Lanning, and Dwight Wallace. Much remains to be learned as well as resolved about the Paracas cultural experience.

The settlement pattern is imperfectly understood, as are the dynamics of political organization and social structure. The harsh, arid peninsular environment suggests that Paracas farmers faced severe problems of adaptation. Dietary remains recovered from sites suggest a wide range of marine foodstuffs, rich in protein, as well as vegetal remains, among them maize, peanuts, beans, and chili peppers. Modern archaeologists have neither resolved nor agreed upon the dynamics of the Paracas productive economy.

The two most enduring Paracas legacies are textiles and ceramics. Textile recovery has been the result of twentieth century grave robbing and scientific archaeology. Two types of burials have been recognized from the Paracas Peninsula. In the Cavernas-type burials, the dead were placed in bottle-shaped chambers constructed by digging through the sand and cutting into the underlying rock formations. Necropolis burials consist of masses of bundles, sometimes up to forty, placed in subterranean vaults. Modern archaeologists have assumed these groupings of bundles in single mortuary vaults suggest kinship affiliation. Both sexes and a wide range of ages are represented in both forms. In the burial ceremony, the unattired corpse was positioned in a flexed, or sitting, position with the knees placed against the chest and tightly wrapped with cords. The body was then wrapped in numerous layers of textiles and placed within a large basket. Grave offerings were deposited in the basket: slings, pottery, jewelry, food remains, tools, and other cultural artifacts. The entire funerary bundle was then wrapped in layers of cotton cloth. The bodies were not prepared prior to interment: The arid environment alone was responsible for their extraordinary preservation.

Certain individuals, presumably because of their elevated social status, were buried with larger quantities of grave goods than others, and also were swathed in increased layers of textiles. The textiles that were wrapped around the corpses are among the most sophisticated and complex manufactured in the prehistoric world.

Textiles were manufactured from a wide variety of fibers, including cotton, llama, and alpaca. Presumably certain yarns, such as alpaca, were imported into the arid region. The spectacular textiles were composed of a number of primary colors and many hues. Green, blue, black, red, brown, and orange were among the basic colors. Studies on dyes have been inconclusive. Chemicals and substances found in Paracas yarns include phosphorus, sulfur, sodium, indigo, and calcium. The dyeing technology remains unknown. Weaving was accomplished through twining procedures, as well as the back-strap and heddle loom.

A wide range of textile types was created by Paracas textile workers: loincloths, mantles, headbands, turbans, ponchos, and hangings and cloths of various sizes. The embroidered motifs on the fabrics represent both animals and plants found in the Peruvian coastal environment. These included marine life such as killer whales and sharks, fish, sea lions and seals; various birds, of which the condor and falcon were the most representative; mammals such as foxes, monkeys, and rodents, as well as feline images. Other images included spiders and reptiles such as the boa constrictor. Many images are fantastic and exotic: curved-fin fish, creatures with fishlike appendages, and some with birdlike features. Embroidered figures occasionally are depicted carrying human trophy heads. Plants and vegetal products are occasionally depicted on textiles: beans or complex plant/animal figures. Another prominent image is known as the Oculate Being, a figure found in various forms but always with large eyes. Cultural influence from the highland center of Chavín de Huantár is apparent in the representations of the Staff God found on cotton textiles. The Staff God is depicted as a humanlike figure with claws and a three-point mouth. Other motifs include supernatural figures and geometric designs. Scholars have suggested that the Paracas textiles provide a window into understanding the early Peruvian calendrical system. Solar and lunar cycles, and the movements of stars and constellations have been interpreted on an embroidered mantle.

The Paracas ceramic tradition includes both polychrome and monochrome examples. Polychrome wares, particularly libation vessels, were short with single and double spouts. Bowls were constructed into varied shapes without the benefit of a potter’s wheel. Designs on monochrome ware were incised; after firing they were painted with brightly pigmented colors. Ceramic motifs included felines, birds, geometric design, dots, and vertical stripes.

Paracas architecture, both domestic and civic or religious, remains imperfectly understood. Mound structures of adobe mud brick, with courts and walls, have been recognized in the Chincha Valley. Artifacts retrieved from Paracas sites include items of daily use such as shells, stone tools, food remains, bone needles, wood and bone panpipes, and fragments of pottery.

Significance

The Necropolis burials reflect social stratification within Paracas society. These were high-status individuals who were entombed with spectacular textiles. The leadership pattern that evolved on the Peruvian south coast remains unknown. It may have been a highly developed regional chiefdom or the early stages of a formative state. It has been suggested that Paracas burials were transported to the coast for interment from an inland locale. These were a sophisticated people who practiced skull deformation, presumably to provide visible recognition of elevated status. Skull trepanation to alleviate internal pressure or pain was also practiced and testifies to the culture’s level of medical knowledge. The textiles, however, are an enduring memorial to a highly complex and somewhat mysterious archaeological culture.

A major dilemma since the 1930’s has been tomb looting for textiles, which are then sold to collectors in Peru and elsewhere. This is enormously detrimental to modern archaeology. The irreversible destruction of the archaeological record in an effort to retrieve only the high-quality textiles retards the progress of cultural reconstruction.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Atwood, Roger. “Guardians of the Dead.” Archaeology 56, no. 1 (2003): 42-49. Discusses the ways in which modern Peruvians are protecting their archaeological heritage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burger, Richard L. Chavín and the Origins of Andean Civilization. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995. An important study of archaeological culture which influenced Paracas development. Appendix and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gundrum, Darrell S. “Fabric of Time.” Archaeology 53, no. 2 (2000): 46-51. A compelling discussion which offers evidence on the evolution of Peruvian calendrics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moseley, Michael E. The Incas and Their Ancestors: The Archaeology of Peru. Rev. ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001. A modern reconstruction of Peruvian prehistory, which places the Paracas within an overall cultural and chronological context. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paul, Anne. Paracas Ritual Attire: Symbols of Authority in Ancient Peru. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990. An in-depth analysis which suggests that the Paracas textiles convey information on the social, religious and political institutions, in addition to Paracas cosmology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paul, Anne. “The Use of Color in Paracas Necropolis Fabrics: What Does It Reveal About the Organization of Dyeing and Designing?” National Geographic Research 6, no. 2 (1990): 7-21. Discusses various aspects of the technology which produced the Paracas textiles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paul, Anne, ed. Paracas Art and Architecture: Object and Context in South Coastal Peru. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991. A collection of nine articles on what is known and controversial on Paracas culture. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paul, Anne, and Solveig Turpin. “The Ecstatic Shaman Theme of Paracas Textiles.” Archaeology 39, no. 5 (1986): 20-27. Discusses the embroidered image of the shaman on textiles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wallace, Dwight T. “The Process of Weaving Development on the Peruvian South Coast.” In The Junius B. Bird Pre-Columbian Textile Conference, 1979, edited by Ann Pollard Rowe, E. P. Benson, and A. L. Schaffer. Washington, D.C.: Textile Museum and Dumbarton Oaks. A discussion of the evolution of Paracas weaving techniques.

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