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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Capac Hucha as an Inca Assemblage

Andean communities revere certain points in the landscape and may refer to them, along with rocks and representations of humans or animals, as huacas, a Quechua and Aymara term for “sacred being.” These huacas can be the sites or components of ritualized offerings. Spanish colonists wrote about one ceremony involving such offerings that was performed by the Incas (ca. 1400–1533) throughout the Andes. This ceremony, known as capac hucha, also spelled as capac cocha or qhapaq hucha, or “royal obligation” in Quechua, reportedly occurred to mark natural events like a drought or the accession or death of an Inca ruler. The spatial aspect of this ceremony helped to mark the limits of the empire while also bringing the “ancestral power of the landscape” into the fabric of the Inca regime (Jacob and Liebowicz 2014). The performance began in Cuzco, the Inca capital, with the marriage of juveniles selected by Inca nobility. The juveniles, wearing a range of ornaments, were taken on processions to different locations, where they were killed and buried with varied materials, including metals.

In recent decades, excavation teams have recovered human bodies deposited in bundles with artifacts and have correlated these finds with those of the capac hucha ceremony as described by Spanish chroniclers. These depositions, some of which lack human remains but include common capac hucha artifacts, have been identified on or near mountaintops, in lowland areas, or on the coast; they may be found in association with a natural resource, such as water (Lake Titicaca) and ores (Cerro Esmeralda). In the case of depositions associated with mountains, or apus, the Quechua term for the mountains as beings, the capac hucha finds may be embedded in wider high-altitude Inca settlements that involved pre-Inca occupations.

At Cerro Aconcagua in Argentina, at 5,300 m.a.s.l., well below the summit of the mountain, archaeologists recovered the remains of a seven-year-old boy dressed in uncus (tunics) of wool. The tunics are similar to several objects owned by The Met (1979.206.954; 2005.288). They also discovered a yaqolla (mantle) of wool and cotton, sandals of vegetable fiber, and a featherwork headdress. Evaluation of the textile adornments has led investigators to identify an influence from coastal Peru, while pollen remains on the funerary bundle suggest that it was prepared below 3,700 m.a.s.l. Along with these items, archaeologists found small figurines of metal and Spondylus depicting human males and camelids. The human figurines were dressed in textiles, having their own miniature uncus, yaqollas, and chuspas, or bags for coca, which resemble works in the Museum (1994.35.1141994.35.177; 1994.35.88). Based on radiocarbon dating of the human remains, they propose that the boy died between 1480 and 1533, noting that Inca hegemony in this area of Argentina emerged around 1475.

At Choquepujio (or Choquepukio) (3,138 m.a.s.l.) in Peru, within an Inca building centered among several pre-Inca structures, archaeologists uncovered the remains of seven male and female juveniles, adorned with textiles and accompanied by dressed figurines. They also found Inca ceramics, including pairs of plates similar to works at The Met (66.30.9; 66.30.10), ollas, or cooking vessels (not unlike 66.30.12), and chicha (maize beer) containers often described as having an aryballos form (66.30.11; 1978.412.68 are comparable objects at the Museum). Tupus, or metal pins, were found with the remains of the female children, and miniature versions of these pins were recovered with female figurines. (Comparable works at The Met include [64.228.702; 64.228.703; 1987.394.620].) Much like the tupus worn by Andean women today, these pins were used to fasten the textiles around the human body or, as miniatures, around the metal or shell figurine. While tupus tend to be found in burials of women, the indicated sex of figurines does not always correlate with that of the associated human remains. At Choquepujio, a male camelid figurine (similar to 1974.271.36) was associated with a female human burial, and two female camelid figurines with a male human burial.

The metal figurines, while occasionally made by casting, were typically fabricated by hammering pieces of sheet and joining them through techniques such as soldering. The figurines tend to be made of copper, silver, or gold, separately or as alloys, and usually fall into three height groups (approximately 5–7, 13–15, and 22–24 cm). This item is a hallmark of individuals who are “Incas by privilege,” a status ascribed as an Inca strategy to bring members of local communities into the Inca ranks as their empire expanded. Another feature of these figurines (1974.271.7; 1987.394.417) is their extended earlobes, which could have accommodated earplugs, as worn by Inca nobility. The male figurines, in metal or shell, may show a cord wrapped around the head. In other contexts, such cords may be made of woven camelid fiber and tied around the head of human bodies in burial (cf. 1994.35.783 as a possible headband). The female figurines (1974.271.8; 1979.206.336; 1979.206.1058; 1995.481.5) typically show an individual with arms and hands pulled close to the chest and hair tied back in two tresses. The general shape and decoration of the metal figurines is also seen on the shell figurines but usually in less detail.

The question of what materials constitute a capac hucha deposition is not resolved. At Huaca de la Luna, a primarily Moche site in Peru, a dressed Spondylus figurine similar to those from Choquepujio and other sites was recovered but in the absence of human remains. At Cuzco, in the main plaza, or Haukaypata, excavators encountered a line of metal and shell camelid figurines also without human remains or other components typically associated with capac hucha sites. Indeed, the capac hucha depositions may be seen as part of a larger universe of Andean material offerings and dedications of sacred space. The origins of the children or of the fabricated materials that accompanied them in these depositions are also questions under consideration. Still, the incorporation of shell in mountaintop depositions or of metal in coastal or lowland offerings suggests that the ritualized production of capac hucha assemblages yielded a web of relatively distant human actors, who, with the materials they fabricated, became linked to a particular sacred space, or huaca.

While figurines in metal and shell, dressed with textiles, featherwork, and tupus, along with ceramic vessels are frequent components of these assemblages, other artifacts were occasionally included, such as a large stone ax (Isla de la Plata off the coast of Ecuador), turquoise beads (Guacolda in Chile), and copper rings (Salinas Grandes in Argentina). Wood keros, or drinking vessels, have been excavated in Ampato in Peru and at Llullaillaco, an apu in northwestern Argentina, and are similar to Museum objects (1996.225; 2004.212). These works in varied media, along with the human remains and the place of their deposition (including the soil and the climate), comprise “assemblages”: it is the interactions of these different components, rather than the individual entities, that produce the assemblage. They cover, fasten, or tie each other, hiding or obscuring some of the other components from an external viewer. The figurines and other artifacts have their own camay, a Quechua term that suggests an “energizing power.” They do not represent; rather, they act, interact, and produce. Thus, their unwrapping, separation, and accession into collections likely have altered how they work together as social actors.

The extraction of these assemblages has had a long history. In 1891–92, on assignment for the World’s Columbian Exposition, George Dorsey, who at one time was arrested for desecrating native burials on the Northwest Coast, worked with the Ecuadorian army to excavate a capac hucha deposition at Isla de la Plata. In 1999, North American–led teams, with the assistance of the Argentine army, extracted the deposition at Llullaillaco. The archaeological project at Llullaillaco and other recent excavations have been conducted with little collaboration with local archaeologists or with descendant communities. Los Airampos, a community of Kollas, who identify as descendants of the Incas, has objected to the excavation and exhibition of materials from Llullaillaco because the site is sacred to them.