Textile with Monkeys, Chancay, Central Coast, Peru, 1000–1470 CE
Embroidered cotton, 52 x 24 inches (132.1 x 61 cm)
Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Early Americas, Exploration and Navigation, Miami Dade College, MDC PC 2022.1.120
This large, fringed textile with monkey designs demonstrates the technical skills of the famous Chancay weavers. Adept at a multitude of techniques that resulted in textiles ranging from simple utilitarian funeral wraps to fine weaving, lace-like cloths, and complex embroidery, the weavers are known for their use of a wide range of colors, sometimes as many as seventeen in a single textile. Weaving was done by women and the works of the Chancay weavers have become some of the most studied and respected textiles of the ancient Americas, both for the quantity and the quality of their creative production. Lightweight cloths could have moved from village to village, accompanying families and spreading the designs throughout the Chancay territory, then buried with the elite. Some may have been hung on temple walls and used in rituals, and others intended as emblems of heritage for ancestor worship and burial rites. Most of these textiles have been found in graves, preserved in the dry desert sands of this coastal culture area, known for its highly decorated tombs, pottery, and wall murals.
The techniques used by the Chancay artists include both intricate woven patterns and plain gauzes embroidered or painted with serial imagery, such as this one with monkeys repeated in alternating colors. The simple weave of this cloth was most likely produced on a backstrap loom, then embroidered with the creatures and a fringed band that also bears a pattern of repeating abstracted monkeys. The embroidered design, however, leaves revealed large swaths of the plain cloth of its base, adding complexity, interest, and beauty—for its original owner, as well as for us.
Simplified graphic interpretations of birds, animals, felines, fish, and deity figures were part of the symbolic vocabulary of Chancay culture, a pantheistic society with rituals that included animal and bird alter egos, perhaps for totemic familial associations important in the afterlife. Thus, the inclusion of such abstract motifs and patterns was undoubtedly significant to the owner and the burial offerings.
Monkeys were common in the Amazon basin and although the Amazon and coastal areas of Peru are separated by hundreds of miles and a massive cordillera, they were never worlds completely apart. The presence of monkeys, one of the most conspicuous inhabitants of the South American tropical forest, in the imagery of coastal cultures provides evidence of interaction among those regions. Because of their exotic nature and their role as trade goods, monkeys were revered creatures with their own mysterious mythological significance. As clever, amusing animals, they may have been seen as mediators to the spirit world or alter egos. Some may have been kept as pets of the elites, who could afford to import and then sacrifice them for company in the afterlife.
Photo by Lynton Gardiner. © Kislak Center at MDC.