The use of beakers in various materials predates the Tiwanaku culture (400–1000) in Peru. The Inca (1450–1532) introduced stylistic elements and religious ceremonial uses that persisted into the colonial era. Sometime before 1570, the use of pigmented resin inlays to augment the earlier incised decoration became fairly common.
Keros were traditionally made in pairs for the ritual exchange of chicha, a fermented beverage made from corn. During this exchange, the presenters would hold the vessels at the waist and bottom, partially obscuring the images in those areas. Traditionally, only the uppermost register would thus have been completely visible.
The religious elements involved in their design and use had made kero cups frequent targets of early Spanish drives to destroy “pagan” rites. But it would appear that much decoration after 1570 was acceptable to Spanish sensibilities, as is attested by the praise that Spanish chroniclers lavished on it.
Keros continued to be produced and used well into the nineteenth century, although scholarship is still evolving regarding the chronology of these remarkable artifacts. All of the kero cups shown here are believed to date from after the Spanish Conquest, but their strong identification with indigenous culture prompted their acquisition by the Museum’s Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas—which collects and exhibits objects of Precolumbian art.