Originally published 2007 in The Tattooing Arts of Tribal Women (Bennett & Bloom: London) by Lars Krutak, pp. 184-202. Revised July 2020.
TOP PHOTO: Tiwanaku culture mummy with avian tattoos on the forearm and other designs, possibly spiders, on the knuckles, 1000 A.D. Photograph courtesy of Dr. Marvin Allison, 2005.
This female mummy also has tattoos on its neck and legs, and was excavated near Ilo, Peru. Interestingly, some of the mummy’s tattoos resemble those worn by the Lady of Cao. Knuckle tattoos of the same form and type were also worn by peoples of the later Chiribaya culture of Peru (Reid 2001). She also bears probable therapeutic tattoos on her neck (see below).
Hidden in shifting sands along the coastal valleys of Peru, mummies by the hundreds have been discovered – some bearing intricate tattoos on their desiccated skins. Whether depicting stylized marine and terrestrial fauna, weapons used in war or in the hunt (harpoons, projectile points), highly abstract geometric designs representing features of the surrounding landscape (ocean waves and mountains), or anthropomorphic deities, the tattoos of the sacred dead perhaps served as magical mediators between this world and the next.
Of Peru’s many prehistoric cultures, the ancient Chimú (1100-1470 A.D.) were the most heavily and elaborately tattooed of all.1 The exquisite designs tattooed on living flesh, and carved into silver, gold, and wooden burial objects, suggests that the body’s integument was perceived as a kind of double-sided raiment that concealed and projected both personal power and identity across the plane of the living and the dead. Dressing oneself in a secondary skin of tattoos not only transformed the wearer visually; it established identity like a name and reconstructed personhood. And because the skin is what remained of the person after death, perhaps these markings were thought to work apotropaically in the afterlife by reinforcing the skin and its boundaries as long as the bodily envelope of mummified skin remained intact.2
Paleopathological studies of Chimú mummies indicate that the practice of tattooing was quite common among both males and females.3 In some coastal settlements, it has been estimated that at least thirty percent of the population may have been tattooed.4
Yet until recently, little was known of the tattoo pigments used by the Chimú themselves. Although it had been conjectured that the ink was a carbon-based product,5 no systematic study had been performed to extract, isolate, and then analyze the chemical composition of pigments. And were it not for the startling discovery made by a group of unsuspecting archaeologists, the identity of this organic material would have perhaps remained an enigma.
In the late 1980s, Peruvian archaeologists conducted a salvage operation approximately one-hundred miles north of Lima in the Huaura Valley and discovered a cache of mummies dating to the early Chimú period. This remarkable find, which has yet to be published, yielded numerous tattooed mummies dating to 1100 A.D.; each clutching the dried-up fruit of the genipap (genipa americana L.) in the palm of its outstretched hand.6 Juices of the green, immature fruits of the genipap have and continue to be used as black body paint and tattoo pigment by historic and contemporary Indigenes of South America.7 Among some groups, the coloring substance was highly esteemed because it was believed to repel incorporeal spirits.8 This was especially true of the headhunting Jívaro and Mundurucú who painted themselves and their trophy heads with genipap to protect the victor from the spirit of the deceased.9
Genipap is also the source of various medicinal products used to treat arthritis, venereal sores, corneal opacities, stomach ulcers, and uterine cancer in Amazonia.10 Sometimes it is used as an abortifacient.11 In Central America, the pulverized seeds, or a decoction of its flowers, are commonly given as a febrifuge,12 and in Guatemala, Indigenous peoples “carry the fruits in their hands in the belief that this will provide protection from disease and ill-fortune.”13 Perhaps the genipap symbolized something similar for the people of the Huaura Valley, a fundamental belief that the medicinal plant afforded a form of efficacious protection against evil influences encountered in life as well as in death.
Chimú tattooists applied their tattoo pigments with various types of fine needles (fishbone, parrot quill, spiny conch), each of which have been found in mummy burials.14 The technical application of tattooing was a form of hand-poking and/or skin-stitching similar to the “facial embroidery” of the Inuit,15 and it can be suggested that women were the primary tattoo artists. Their expert knowledge of working animal skins and hides would certainly have facilitated the need for precision when piercing the human epidermis with complex motifs.
Although no studies have attempted to identify the work of individual Chimú tattooists from others, it is certain that skin artisans were highly skilled, probably full-time craftspeople who, working within the aesthetic canons of their art, enjoyed some degree of prestige in their communities. As in other Indigenous cultures, these “dermographers” likely received high wages for their artistry, wages that perhaps only affluent or aristocratic individuals could afford. In this context, tattooists were in a good position to acquire intimate knowledge of secular, political, and religious affairs over the course of tattooing their elite clients.
From another point of view, the tattoo artist – the maker of marks on the skin – was also a repository of ritual knowledge. Her occupation encompassed not only the inscription and patterning of supernatural or other figures on human skin, but also the ritual release and manipulation of human blood. In prehistoric South American cultures, human blood, the fertilizing essence of everything animate, was a highly revered sacred substance believed to appease spiritual powers that controlled the forces of nature.16
BLOOD SACRIFICE IN ANCIENT PERU
Ritual blood sacrifice has a long history in the coastal valleys of ancient Peru, and almost every major culture including Cupisnique (1200-200 B.C.), Chavín (900-200 B.C.), Paracas (700 B.C.–0), Nasca (0-700 A.D.), Moche (50-800 A.D.), Wari-Tiwanaku (600-1000 A.D.), Chimú (1100-1470 A.D.), and Inca (1450-1550 A.D.) practiced it: especially the tradition of taking human heads for ritual use.17 Among the Paracas and Nasca peoples, ritually prepared human heads were perceived as potent sources of power to be harnessed and tapped in order to promote agricultural fertility and relations with the ancestral dead and deities.18 Analogs drawn from historical headhunting cultures of Northeast India, Borneo, Luzon (Philippines), Taiwan, and Peru also support this model; because the ritual taking of human heads in these places was accomplished to ensure both biological and agricultural fertility.19
The Chimú and other prehistoric Peruvian cultures represented trophy heads in textiles, ceramics, and murals.20 And archaeological evidence at the Chimú capital Chan Chan has shown that mass burials of a sacrificial nature were conducted, the number of dead sometimes approaching several hundred individuals.21
The blood cult of the Chimú, however, paled in comparison to its Moche antecedent. Indeed, many facets of Chimú culture largely grew out of older Moche traditions, including artistic iconography, architecture, and technological innovations in ceramics and casting.22 But to the extent that we understand Chimú ritual behavior, human sacrifice appears to have been more important and widespread among the Moche. Indeed, scenes of Moche ritual sacrifice, torture, dismemberment, and decapitation are so varied and ubiquitous,23 that we must assume that these practices were not rare or isolated occurrences; they must have formed a significant component of secular and religious life.24 Moreover, archaeological evidence of Moche human sacrifice has been discovered at several sites, including the massive sacrificial precinct at Huaca de la Luna where the dismembered and decapitated remains of more than seventy male warriors were placed over the graves of two headless children.25
References to warfare, human sacrifice, and the drinking of human blood appear on Moche ceramics, textiles, and peculiar inlaid bone objects called “spatulas.” Of the eleven spatulas held in museum and private collections, each portrays similar design conventions including warriors with armaments, supernatural figures, animals, cacti, and sacrificial victims.26 The handles of the bone spatulas resemble human fists and in Moche art it is clear that the “half-fist” with protruding knuckle symbolizes a mountain scene, precisely because nature has modeled the back of the hand like five mountain peaks.27 The Moche, like the later Inca, held complex rituals on mountaintops often including human sacrifice. Although the function of these bone objects is not clear, they appear to have been used by shamans, priests, or priestesses to transfer liquids into the mouths of sacred individuals.28
Because it can be inferred that some of the iconography on these spatulas represents the transfer of blood between individuals, signalizing the primary dispersal and containment of a powerful sanguine substance, it could be argued that spatulas were used as the ritual vessel to accomplish these blood-transactions. To date, however, it is believed that none of the bone spatulas have been tested for blood residues.29
Interestingly, the deeply carved designs on bone spatulas correspond to the actual Moche practice of tattooing the wrists, forearms, and back of the hands. One rare, remarkable example of such tattooing was discovered on the mummified skin of an eighteen year-old woman from the ancient city of Pacatnamu.30 The figures, executed in pure Mochica style, depict some of the anthropomorphic creatures seen on the spatulas. Other examples of tattooed Moche mummies have been found in recent years at the archaeological site of El Brujo, Peru’s “Temple of Doom.”31 Here an elite Moche woman dubbed “The Lady of Cao” was unearthed with intricate tattoos of supernatural creatures (e.g., spiders and birds) and geometric designs covering much of her forearms, hands, and knuckles.32 Although similar tattoos have been found on mummies of the later Tiwanaku and Chimú cultures of Peru, scientists are perplexed by the context of this woman’s burial that dates to 450 A.D. Moche burials containing priestesses have been found before,33 but never has a woman’s burial been associated with weapons like war clubs and spear throwers – male symbols par excellence. This suggests that some Moche woman were perhaps revered for their martial abilities in combat or for their religious roles in warfare.
OF BIRDS, LIZARDS, SERPENTS, AND CENTIPEDES
In Moche iconography, especially in scenes of warfare, prisoners are typically shown stripped of their clothing and weapons which are hung on the victor’s war clubs. They are tethered to ropes placed around their necks which are held by the victor who leads them away from the field of battle.34 All too often, the eminent fate of the vanquished warriors is sealed; they will be processed, arraigned, and then ceremoniously sacrificed having their throats slit and their blood collected in goblets to be presented to an authority figure.35
In most cases, the depictions of naked and rope-bound prisoners are highly detailed, and occasionally the captives are covered with intricate, sometimes naturalistic markings on their torsos, arms, and legs that in all probability represent tattooing.36 An example from a Moche ceramic vessel depicts two male two male captives both wearing a series of “V-shaped” chest markings comprised of serpentine elements. One individual is smattered with lizard-like motifs adorning his legs and shins. Although body paint could account for these designs, it seems doubtful that captives would have ornamented their bodies in such a fashion, especially since these markings would have lain underneath one or more layers of cloth armor.
Some of the most popular tattoo emblems of historic headhunting cultures of Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific were comprised of V-shaped chest markings.37 Though puzzling in some respects, linguistic evidence supports an avian origin of this kind of body-marking, because many of the designs were called “hawks,” “frigate birds,” or “tropical birds.”38 We know that prowess in warfare or headhunting among the Iban, Kenyah, Kayan, and Lahanan of Borneo, Atayal and Paiwan of Taiwan, Mailu and Hula of Papua, and the Easter Islanders was associated with tattooing, and that many warriors in these cultures attempted to transform themselves into predatory birds via vestment and ritual adornment to ensure martial success. Of course, the headhunting Bontok, Ifugao, and Kalinga of Luzon (Philippines), Nagas of Northeast India, and Mentawei of Indonesia also tattooed V-shaped chest-markings.39 But in these cultures, as well as those of Taiwan,40 we find varying tattooed figures of sometimes headless “little men” (the victims) associated with the V-shaped markings.
Occasionally, these “little men” are replaced by lizards or other tattooed creatures that represent the prey of the predatory “birdman.”41 Lizards are frequently represented in Moche art, and one deity has been identified as a zoomorphic “Iguana God” usually on the basis of its vulture headdress.42 Vultures, subsisting on rotting fleshy remains, are naturally connected to the world of the dead and have been found buried with sacrificial victims at the Moche site of Pacatnamu.43 In this association, “we must remember that since the headhunter is himself identified with a bird of prey, it is only natural that his human victims should be represented alternatively as the animals [e.g., lizards] habitually preyed upon by the bird which he embodies.”44
Whether this form of tattoo symbolism conveyed inherent power to the Moche warriors who wore the V-shaped emblem can only be the source of conjecture. However, raptorial birds are oftentimes depicted in Moche combat scenes and are frequently shown accompanying warriors to the battlefield.45 Although this avian imagery has yet to be thoroughly analyzed, perhaps it seems logical that many of the birds depicted symbolize omens of victory for the conquerors and ones of death for the losers. Among the headhunters of Nagaland, Borneo, Luzon (Philippines), Taiwan, and Peru (Jívaro), omen birds were consulted to signal success in the human hunt, as they were considered messengers of the deities who ruled the cosmos.46 On the other hand, of those birds shown hovering above the enemy troops in Moche art, perhaps they portend the coming of death; since in many headhunting cultures it was believed that the souls of victims transmigrated into various species of large birds after having met their fate on the field of battle.47
Of course, it would be fallacious to suggest that the ritual motifs just identified were the end-all of Moche V-shaped chest markings; the thesis being constructed here is not designed to place different Indigenous manifestations of tattooing into “watertight compartments,” but only to indicate variations of symbolic emphasis within a comparative framework.48 In other words, our goal is to observe the beginnings of the conversion of the tattoo from an abstract sign into a living artifact worn upon the human skin.
But what can be said of serpents and centipedes? One of the least studied of iconographic elements in Moche art (and antecedent cultures) is the centipede.49 It occurs on ceramics, textiles, spatulas, and perhaps as a tattoo motif inked on human skin. More often than not, I think, the centipede is mistakenly glossed in the Moche literature as a “worm” or “snakelike” and “serpentine” creature having “scalloped” or “serrated” edges around its undulating body.50 Of course, the precise reference of a given design may vary according to the context of its use, so that a wavy line may indicate a snake in one context, a centipede in another.51 Yet in many instances, and especially in prehistoric Peruvian textiles preserved in burials, I see both serpents and centipedes combining to form independent and sometimes composite images.
Centipedes are widely distributed as tattoo motifs among headhunting cultures.52 And their resemblance to ramiforms of the stacked chevron variety – like a tree with many branches – is important because ramiforms are “by far the most common [genealogical] motif in tribal art, worldwide” especially in rock art;53 each branch representing successive generations of genealogical relationships with the original ancestor being comprised of not one body but many, like an assemblage of homunculi.54 No doubt, this symbolism is evident in the tattooed chest markings (bikking) of Kalinga headhunters of the Philippines, where the body of the centipede and its spine converges with its many individual legs to represent a cosmic ladder by which the ancestor spirits reach the heavens.55 But the centipede is also bulun, a helper (i.e., omen provider) and protective spirit that is tattooed on the skins of Kalinga men and women.56
Amongst Peru’s ancient cultures, however, there is particularly strong evidence supporting the choice of the centipede as a favored symbolic motif, since Peru is home to the world’s largest centipede; the red Scolopendra gigantea that reaches lengths of over one foot and possess fangs that may exceed ¾ of an inch. Centipedes are aggressive and poisonous creatures and are most frequently depicted in ancient Peruvian textiles with two heads. From an aesthetic standpoint, centipedes were represented in this manner for a reason; lacking a true front and back, a left and a right, the bicephalic centipede can only have a center – the fused spine from which it, and perhaps the ancestors, emerged. The combined gaze of its two sets of eyes encompasses the whole of space, and no part of its surroundings is inaccessible from the many scalloped and serrated sets of spiraling limbs. Under these circumstances, the centipede evokes power, multiplicity, and multiplication of the self, and when bound within the pattern of a burial textile, perhaps it reinforced the body of the deceased by preserving the integrity of the ego.
On yet another metaphysical level, the centipede was perhaps considered a liminal creature for its ability to travel into the earth as well as on its surfaces. Furthermore centipedes, like snakes, slough off old skins and regenerate new ones, similar to the analogy between the shedding of the scabs caused by tattooing, revealing a new skin beneath the old one. In this sense, the cyclical regeneration that occurs in the centipede’s world is transferred to human beings in their attempt at a magical ritual of transforming their identity; because the shedding of skin in tattooing is a metamorphosis that is both growth and death. Thus, centipedes would have been potent sources of power for the ancient Peruvians, symbolizing the transition from the world of the living to the world of the dead.
- Allison (1996), 127; Allison et al. (1981), 220. Archaeological evidence indicates that one of the earliest forms of tattooing was cosmetic. Around 3,800 years ago, at least one man of the Chinchorro culture of Chile was tattooed with what looks like a small mustache on his upper lip (see Deter-Wolf et al. 2016).
- cf. Anzieu (1989), 50.
- Allison et al. (1981).
- Allison (1996), 127.
- Allison et al. (1981), 221.
- Knol (1990). Genipap is also known as jagua or huito in Spanish-speaking areas.
- Karsten (1926), 13, 39, 192; Levi-Strauss (1970), 166; Steward (1946), (1948); von den Steinen (1899), 32-33.
- Karsten (1926), 13, 39, 63, 232.
- Horton (1948), 278; Karsten (1923a), 18, 25, 38-39, 43-48; Rivet (1907-08), 248.
- Castner et al. (1998), 55; Morton (1987), 443.
- Duke and Vasquez (1994), 79.
- Castner et al. (1998), 55; Morton (1987), 443.
- Morton (1987), 443.
- Allison et al. (1981), 221.
- Alva and Donnan (1994); Cordry-Collins (2001); Proulx (1996); Silverman and Proulx (2002).
- Proulx (2001), 121.
- Proulx (1996), 110-112; Silverman and Proulx (2002), 229.
- Franck (1924), 227; Freeman (197); Jacobs (1990), 121; Jenks (1905), 174; Karsten (1923a), 89, (1926), 66.
- Alva and Donnan (1994), 127-141; Kolata (1993); Paul (1990), (1996), 429-430; Proulx (1996), 111-115; Verano (2001), 115-116.
- Benson (2001), 9; Rowe (1995), 30.
- Cordry-Collins (1996), 190.
- Alva and Donnan (1994); Bourget (2001a,b); Verano (2001).
- Bourget (2001a), 106.
- Bourget (2001b), 100-102; Verano (2001), 116.
- Donnan (1996), 137-139; Joyce (1908), 17-18.
- Donnan (1996), 137.
- Ibid., 139.
- Donnan (2004), personal communication.
- Ubbelohde-Doering (1967).
- Gwin (2004).
- Williams (2006).
- Alva and Donnan (1994).
- Verano (2001), 114.
- Alva and Donnan (1994), 127-141; Verano (2001), 114.
- Donnan and McClelland (1999).
- Schuster (1952).
- Barton (1918); Schuster (1939), (1952), 102-103.
- Barton (1949), 238; Furness (1902b), 455; Godden (1898), 21; Jenks (1905), 188; Loeb (1935), 186; Salvador (2004); Vanoverbergh (1929), 203; Volz (1905); Worchester (1912), 879-893.
- Ho (1960), 23, pl. 10.
- Schuster (1952), 103-104.
- Benson (1997), 104; Berezkin (1980), 3.
- Rea (1986), cited in Benson (1997), 88.
- Schuster (1952), 104.
- Bourget (2001a), 93.
- Jenks (1905), 214-215; Karsten (1923a), 24; McGovern (1922), 145-146; Richards (1972), 74; Smith (1925), 95.
- cf. Barton (1918), 74; Gomes (1911), 140; Hutton (1921), 208; Karsten (1923a), 45; Smith (1925), 95.
- cf. Gell (1993), 307.
- Bourget (2004), personal communication.
- Paul (1982), (1990), (1996), 356; Proulx (2004), personal communication; Schindler (2000), 35, 41; Seler (1923), 206-210; Wolfe (1981).
- cf. Allen (1981), 45.
- Barton (1918), 28, 77; Schuster and Carpenter (1986), 469; Vanoverbergh (1929), 204.
- cf. Gell (1998), 139-141.
- Schuster and Carpenter (1996), 59.
- Ikin Salvador (2003), personal communication.
- Krutak (2010), 98, 116.
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