Discovering Andean lifestyles at Chile’s Museum of Pre-Columbian Art

Garments, hairdresses, belts, ceremonial outfits, and artifacts used on a daily basis before the arrival of Colombus to South America are among objects on display at the museum. The exhibition tells tales about the traditions of men and women who lived and died in the desert-dry regions of the Andes, as long as 3,000 years ago.

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A woven figurine of two women stands out from other objects on show in the Andean textile room at the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art in Santiago. Sitting on a hand-made rug facing each other as though in conversation, they are weaving garments.

The piece of art’s three-dimensional form makes the women look alive, as though we are there, re-living the ancient moment with them. If they were real and we could hear them talking, we might find out more about who we are, the way we live and what we believe.

It is these stories of identity, spirituality and working life which are conveyed to us by the exhibitions’ beautifully woven clothes and objects, all available to see for the price of CP 3,000 (USD 6).

Elite art

Ancient Andean culture was a civilisation based on weaving. Using textiles in all spheres of their existence, they wove clothes, fishing nets, decorative art and instruments of accounting.

Santiago’s Museum of Pre-Colombian Art consists of a collection of pieces that showed status or was made to honor the gods and the dead. In other words, this is elite art, designed for the high society of the period.

Speaking of the emblematic three-dimensional piece, Sinclair discusses how it could have been a funerary offering, buried along with a weaver who was much respected in her community. It may also have been a symbol to represent the act of weaving itself, she says.

These were, indeed, highly valued pieces of a much appreciated form of art that played an important role in specific rituals. “Everything has a meaning in ancient societies. This art serves a purpose, either because a piece is required for a ritual or to communicate something important in a particular ceremony,” explained Carole Sinclaire during an interview with ThisisChile.

A thousand-year-long tradition

The tradition of weaving has been around for about 10,000 years – much longer than any South American empire. The museum offers a glimpse of the evolution of this ancient craft.

Weaving began as fishing and hunter-gatherer societies developed skills to bind plant fibers. Andean cultures cultivated cotton before they grew food crops, made pottery or lived in villages. Most experts believe that weaving was the main motivation for the domestication of the llamas, as the cultures began to incorporate camelid wool into their fibres.

The tunics on display show the evolution in weaving techniques, evident between plain painted textiles and the additions of embroidery. Feathers since expanded the pallet of colors to create magnificent funerary attire.

But like any other cloth, the ones fabricated by the Inca tribes, Nasca, Chavín, or Parakas wore out, and what was left of them rotted and decayed.

“It is truly a miracle when we find materials in a good state of conservation because they communicate many things – not only remarkable beauty, but also they represent a sense of humanity.”

The Museum of Pre-Columbian art holds but a few examples of vestiges from past cultures that move us deeply and manage to convey a sense of connectedness with people, who at a second glance were so much like us.

For art lovers, the museum’s store offers a few books on the inheritance of Andean textile techniques. A guide to the textile room with additional information and high quality pictures can be purchased for US$6 ($3,000 Chilean pesos).

This post is also available in Spanish