Double-chambered vessel with a monkey

Chimú artist(s)

Not on view

Elaborate and refined vessels of gold and silver were produced in the last centuries before the rise of the Inca Empire by metalsmiths in the kingdoms of Peru’s north coast. Most likely made to hold chicha, a maize beer, drinking such beverages was at the heart of ceremonial activities in the ancient Andes. This example is composed of two parts: a plain, round-shouldered beaker connected by a cylindrical tube to a figure in the shape of a seated monkey with legs drawn up and holding a fruit to its mouth. Created from twenty-four pieces of silver sheet of uniform thickness joined together both mechanically and with solder, the vessel is hollow throughout (see x-ray image below). This meant that when liquid was poured in and out of it, air would be forced out through a sphere inside the head, creating a whistle. The sound would emanate from holes pierced in the monkey’s mouth, nose, and eyes. Thus, as the vessel’s liquid contents were tilted to imbibe, and then set back down, the air in the vessel would be displaced, and the monkey would appear to make a noise.

This work was made by silversmiths in Chimor, a powerful Andean kingdom that thrived between around 1000 and 1470, when it was conquered by the Inca. This vessel is one of several dozen works in silver reportedly found together in a tomb or hoard, including other figural and plain vessels. Also known as the Chimú culture, Chimor dominated some 800 miles of Peru’s North Coast, from close to what is now the modern border with Ecuador to just north of Lima. Remains of its splendid capital, Chan Chan, which encompassed some 8 square miles (20 square kilometers) at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, still stand on the outskirts of the modern city of Trujillo. Chan Chan was famed for its artists, and a striking percentage of the population—perhaps twelve thousand in this city of forty thousand—was engaged with craft production (Topic 1990). Many, if not most, were highly specialized, and likely engaged in full-time service for Chimú lords.

On the North Coast of Peru, elaborate vessels such as this were closely associated with rulership: one sixteenth-century account describes a colonial administrator punishing a local lord by taking away four hundred head of cattle and fourteen silver vessels (Mundy 2008:148). Such vessels would have been used in ritual feasts that were at the heart of Andean statecraft, and would ultimately be interred with high-status individuals. A single tomb could contain dozens of beakers—a startling increase from earlier periods when even the most elaborate tombs rarely contained more than a few vessels (Pillsbury 2017). This shift in quantity speaks to an evolution in ritual practice in the late pre-Hispanic period in the Andes. We know from colonial-period sources that the Inca considered drinking rituals essential components of diplomacy, as well as key elements of ceremonies connected with agricultural fertility (Cummins 2002). For the Incas, drinking was closely associated with social cohesion, designed to strengthen ties between individuals. It was also a way to commune with divine forces.

Vessels in the shape of animals date from at least the first millennium B.C. in the Andes. The earliest examples were made of fired clay, but after 900, increasing numbers of vessels were made of gold or silver. Those of silver are less common than those made of other materials, in part because the metal does not survive well in the archaeological record—it can deteriorate when exposed to salts and other minerals in the soil when buried. The material itself likely carried meanings, for example, colonial-period accounts suggest that there were status and gender connotations with different metals. Antonio de la Calancha, an Augustinian priest who lived on Peru’s North Coast in the early seventeenth century, recounts an origin story in which humans were said to have descended from three eggs given by the solar deity: one, of gold, from which the kings and lords would come forth; another, of silver, to produce royal and noble women; and a third, of copper, to produce common men and their wives and children (1974–82 [1639], vol. 3, chapt. 19, 934).

The significance of the monkey itself is less clear, although the creature is often associated with vessels. Chimú ceramic bottles, for example, often feature a monkey modeled on the spout. One myth recorded by the sixteenth-century Spanish chronicler Juan Cristóbal de Estrella told the story of a primordial couple who were given a container of water by a creator god; they broke the vessel, and the gushing water became the sea. In punishment, the man was turned into a monkey, and the woman into a fox (1964 [1565–67]: vol. 4, 227–409). The species represented on this vessel may be a capuchin monkey, known for its clever behavior, including tool use and its resourcefulness in finding food, such as removing the tops of palm nuts to drink the juice.

The city of Chan Chan was a rich prize for the Inca when they conquered Chimor in the late fifteenth century—a scant two generations before they themselves were conquered by the Spanish. According to Pedro Cieza de León, a sixteenth-century Spanish chronicler, the Inca were quick to spot talent, and they captured Chimú gold- and silversmiths and pressed them into service in Cuzco, the Inca capital high in the Andes (1959[1553]:328). The Inca sent other Chimú metalworkers as far afield as the Lake Titicaca region, which straddles the modern border with Bolivia (Zori 2017). This Inca strategy of breaking up conquered polities was designed to diffuse the power and potential threat of Chimor. Their keen interest in metalworking in particular, however, reminds us also of the power and importance of such objects and their makers in Andean statecraft.

Joanne Pillsbury, Andrall E. Pearson Curator of the Arts of the Ancient Americas, 2017

Further Reading

Calancha, Antonio de la. Crónica moralizada, Ignacio Prado Pastor, ed. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, 6 vols. Crónicas del Perú, nos. 4–9., 1974–1982 [1639].

Calvete de Estrella, Juan Cristóbal. “Rebelión de Pizarro en el Perú, y vida de don Pedro Gasca.” In Crónicas del Perú, ed. Juan Pérez de Tudela Bueso. Biblioteca de Autores Españoles, nos. 164-68, 5 vols. Madrid: Ediciones Atlas, 1964 [1565–67].

Cieza de León, Pedro. The Incas. Translated by Harriet de Onis, edited, with an introduction by Victor Wolfgang von Hagen. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959 [1553].

Cummins, Thomas B.F. Toasts with the Inca; Andean Abstraction and Colonial Images on Quero Vessels. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002.

King, Heidi, Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, and Paloma Carcedo de Mufarech. Rain of the Moon: Silver in Ancient Peru. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.

Mundy, Barbara E. “Relaciones Geográficas.” In Guide to Documentary Sources for Andean Studies, 1530–1900, ed. Joanne Pillsbury, vol. 1, 144–59. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.

Pillsbury, Joanne. “Imperial Radiance: Luxury Arts of the Inca and their Predecessors.” In Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas, eds. Joanne Pillsbury, Timothy F. Potts, and Kim Richter, 33-43. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2017.

Topic, John R. “Craft Production in the Kingdom of Chimor.” In The Northern Dynasties: Kingship and Statecraft in Chimor, eds. Michael E. Moseley and Alana Cordy-Collins, 145–76. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1990.

Zori, Colleen. “Valuing the Local: Inka Metal Production in the Tarapacá Valley of Northern Chile.” In Making Value, Making Meaning: Techné in the Pre-Columbian World, ed. Cathy Lynne Costin, pp. 167–92. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2017.


The author wishes to thank Ellen Howe and Beth Edelstein, Department of Objects Conservation, for their insights into the construction of the vessel.

Double-chambered vessel with a monkey, Chimú artist(s), Silver, Chimú

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