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Radiance from the Rain Forest: Featherwork in Ancient Peru

February 26–September 1, 2008

Featherworking Techniques in Ancient Peru

Featherworking was a widespread and ancient tradition in Peru in Precolumbian times. Considered a luxury material by peoples along the Pacific coast and in the Andean mountains, feathers were used in rituals as well as to embellish festive and ceremonial garments and ornaments of persons of high rank. Particularly sought after were the brilliantly colored feathers of rain-forest birds that inhabit the eastern slopes of the Andes and the vast Amazonian basin.

Examination of feathered pieces in museum collections has shown that the feathers from less than two percent of all bird species in the region were used. The most common were macawsóblue and yellow, scarlet, and red and greenóand parrots, followed by Muscovy Ducks, curassows, flamingos, and egrets. Smaller birds included various types of cotingas, honeycreepers, and tanagers, especially the spectacular Paradise Tanager of five different colors. Birds of the coastal and highland regions of Peru—seabirds such as pelicans and cormorants and birds of prey, including hawks, eagles, and condors—are generally muted in color, and their feathers were seldom used decoratively.

The dazzling feathers employed in the manufacture of plush feathered cloth had to be carried westward from the rain forest across the Andes to the coast, where the finished products were made. Spanish conquerors reported that during early-sixteenth-century Inka times, large quantities of plucked feathers as well as birds, both dead and alive, were brought to the coast. Parrots, macaws, and Muscovy Ducks—all easily tamed—are also thought to have been kept as pets.

The highly specialized craft of featherworking used different techniques to surface garments and objects with feathers. Textiles covered with feathers were usually made by sewing strings of feathers—mostly the small body feathers or larger wing feathers of birds—to the fabric. Other smaller objects such as crowns or headbands of leather or ear ornaments of light wood were decorated with mosaics of tiny feathers—often of the Paradise Tanager—glued to the surface.

The ancient context of feathered textiles is only rarely known, leaving iconography, style, and technology to determine approximate dates and cultural attribution. In recent years, however, archaeological investigations and technological studies have shown that most surviving feather pieces were made during the last five hundred years prior to the arrival of the Spaniards in Peru or during the early colonial period in the sixteenth century.

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