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For Love, War, and Tribute: Featherwork in the Early Americas

This is the second in series of guests posts by Giselle Aviles, the 2019 Archaeological Research Associate in the Geography and Map Division, where she is delving into the treasures of the William and Inger Ginsberg Collection of Pre-Columbian Textiles and the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the History and Archaeology of the Early Americas. Captivated by the nuances in sociocultural texts, she is undertaking an ethnographic analysis of Andean textiles and Mesoamerican ceramics, tracing and unfolding their stories. She is a former Research Fellow of the Quai Branly Museum-Martine Aublet Foundation in Paris, and has conducted fieldwork in Puerto Rico, Haiti, Algeria, France, and Spain. She has come to the Library through the Hispanic National Internship Program sponsored by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU).

From vivid reds, blues, oranges, yellows, to iridescent turquoise and purple, the feathers of birds resemble a perfectly designed suit delicately hand painted, with every detail evoking the sublime perfection of nature. It does not take much to imagine this kind of admiration for birds and their feathers many centuries ago in the early Americas, with objects like the ancient miniature tunic (shown below), part of the William and Inger Ginsberg Collection, looking, after many hundreds of years, as if it were made yesterday.

Miniature Tunic. Ica Valley, Peru, 1200-1350 CE. William and Inger Ginsberg Collection. Photo by Giselle Aviles, Archaeological Research Associate, Library of Congress.

Miniature Tunic. Ica Valley, Peru, 1200-1350 CE. William and Inger Ginsberg Collection, Geography and Map Division. Photo by Giselle Aviles, Archaeological Research Associate, Library of Congress.

Scholars believe that this miniature tunic (28.3 x 28.9 cm) comes from Ica Valley in Peru and that it dates from 1200-1350 CE. Its amazing preservation and small size, according to senior research associate at The Metropolitan Museum of Art Heidi King, suggests these tunics were made as offerings to the deceased or as a wak’a ( an object that represents something revered in Quechua), substituting for full-size garments. A close examination reveals that both sides have small openings for the arms, and that there was once an opening at the top, now sewn, presumably for the head. This amazing iridescent tunic gives us deep insight into the techniques and level of skilled manipulation of feathers and cotton that Andean artisans utilized so long ago. Contemplating the tunic forces one to reflect on the meticulous nature of this kind of craft,  weaving little by little all the feathers into place in this masterful work of art.

Tunics like this are composites, part woven textile and part natural feathers that can be difficult to trace by date. Many are attributed to the Nasca (1st BCE-7th CE), and Huari  (7th-10th CE) cultures because of their origin on the south coast of Peru. Although we do not have written documentation on feather workers from the Ica Valley of the 12-13th century CE, later sources of information can provide us some clues as to their techniques and origin.

Ultraviolet and Visible Light Microscopy of the Ica Tunic. Photos and microscopy by Tana Villafana, Senior Research Scientist and Giselle Aviles, Archaeological Research Fellow, Library of Congress.

Ultraviolet and Visible Light Microscopy of the Ica Tunic. Photos and microscopy by Tana Villafana, Senior Research Scientist and Giselle Aviles, Archaeological Research Fellow, Library of Congress.

Love for feathers is found throughout the cultures of the early Americas and there survives a rich historical documentation about them, mostly written from the point of view of post-conquest Spanish chroniclers. Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, for example, a Peruvian noble of Inca origin, in his book El Primer Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno Compuesto por Don Phelipe Guaman Poma de Aialas (The First New Chronicle and Good Government), from the 17th century, narrates stories of the costumes, traditions, and political structures from centuries past. Although the miniature tunic from the collection doesn’t belong to the historical period that Guaman Poma wrote, about  some of what he says helps to remediate the little information we have about it.

Guaman Poma tells us that “young boys hunted birds with slings; they kept the flesh for food and the feathers for use in the production of cloth.” Feathers were part of the patrimony of the richest nobles, which was also composed of precious stones, pearls, and necklaces. Rich Inca houses could have aviaries full of big and small macaws, parrots, parakeets, kestrels, doves, along other birds from across the continent. The Incas valued feathers for the burial of their beloved family members. Guaman Poma writes that for someone recently deceased, “they wash his body and dress him all with his clothes and feathers and silver or gold jewelry, and put him on some ‘andas’ and go to the procession. They sing, go jumping and crying as the costume says.”

Further information can be taken from the 1770 Cartas de relación, which is a later edition of letters to King Charles V from the conquistador Hernán Cortes that also includes in its covers other images and notes by Archbishop of Mexico Francisco Antonio Lorenzana. The first pages of the book show an image of Cortes offering the king a globe, symbol of the New World, and right next to him indigenous Nahua, dressed in a customary feathered skirt. The bow and arrow on the ground remind us that the violent swords of the Spaniards have defeated them.

Archbishop Lorenzana explains in the prologue “that his [Cortes’] obligation, imposed by the Royal Councils and Laws, was to love them tenderly and care for the Indians as minors, giving them an abundant spiritual covenant, breaking bread in small parts and the livelihood provided for their capacity and complexion”. Despite this paternalistic statement, Lorenzana adds that the Aztecs were very ingenious in the arts, “so much that having sent to Rome a garment of the high priest of them, Achcauhquitlenamacani, the Court was marveled, and having seen the silversmiths of Madrid some pieces and bracelets of gold that Hernan Cortés had sent to King Charles V, they confessed that they were inimitable in Europe”.

Title page from the 1770 edition of Cortes Letter to Charles V showing indigenous Nahua in feathered costume. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress.

Title page from the 1770 edition of Cortes Letter to Charles V showing indigenous Nahua in feathered costume. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress.

In a section of the book entitled, “The people, which before the conquest paid tribute to Emperor Moctezuma, and in what species and quantity,” it graphically details the Aztec’s tax obligations. Feathers served as tributos since people from different towns had to pay taxes to Emperor Moctezuma with the different objects they manufactured. This precious document attests the network of exchanges, collection, and production of feathers and cloth. Cortés explains that these tributos had to be paid every year and included military adornments, dresses, blankets, huipiles (traditional garments) for the women, and dresses with feathers, among other objects.

Page from the Historia de Nueva-España / escrita por su esclarecido conquistador Hernán Cortés ; aumentada con otros documentos, y notas, por el ilustrisimo Señor Don Francisco Antonio Lorenzana, Arzobispo de Mexico. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress.

Page from the Historia de Nueva-España / escrita por su esclarecido conquistador Hernán Cortés ; aumentada con otros documentos, y notas, por el ilustrisimo Señor Don Francisco Antonio Lorenzana, Arzobispo de Mexico. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress.

Finally, an interesting manuscript from the Kislak Collection contains the reflections of  the first Viceroy of New Spain, Arturo de Mendoza y Pacheco, Relación de las Ceremonias y Ritos y Población y Gobernación de los Indios de la Provincia de Michoacán, that reads almost like modern ethnography. Like Cortes, he recounts the trade of the Aztecs, and also how the Purépechas, rivals of Aztecs, divided their artisans into featherworkers, stonecutters, fishermen, painters, those who made bows, hunters, merchants, shoemakers, those who go up to the high places, and many other crafts.

The uscuarecuri, Mendoza tells us, were the craftsman who worked  feathers for the dresses of their gods and made plumajes for the dances. The uscuarecuri brought many large red papagayos and other parrots for their feathers, and people brought to them feathers of herons, and other birds.

Page from the Relacion de las ceremonias ... de los Indios de la provencia de Mechoacan, 18th century. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress.

Page from the Relacion de las ceremonias … de los Indios de la provencia de Mechoacan, 18th century. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress.

Later Mendoza goes into detail how they prepared for war against other pueblos, and he recounts that for the Hiquándiro feast the priests wore adornments in their heads from, “the feathers of white herons, feathers of eagles, and feathers of red parrots”. The warriors also wore feathered shields of many birds, some white ones from herons, that were of the God Curicaveri, other feathers from colored of parrots, and golden and green feathers from other birds.

It is obvious that Mendoza, Cortés, and Guaman Poma write about different cultures and across long broad sweeps of time. Even though it is hard to draw detailed generalizations from their different perspectives, a certain continuity is traceable in their work and in the archaeological record. Through them, in a small tunic we can see, not only the value of feathers in the Ica Valley, but also the panorama of love, war, and beauty that they represent across the ancient Americas.

 

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