Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles in Daily Life: Proceedings of the Third Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–26, 1992 (Earleville, MD: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1993).


Copyright © 1992 by the author(s).


Beginning in the second century and continuing until the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century, the inhabitants of the large cluster of oases known as San Pedro in the Atacama desert of northern Chile buried their dead in the desert, in areas adjacent to shaded habitation sites and irrigated agricultural fields (Figure 1). The scarce oasis lands have been reused over the millennium and little former architectural evidence survives, however the cemeteries and the people themselves have been preserved. The arid Atacama desert has allowed the uncommon preservation of a vast quantity of prehistoric textiles and other usually perishable materials. Complete funeral bundles dating between the sixth and the tenth centuries have been uncovered in Coyo Oriental, the ancient eastern cemetery of the Coyo oasis. Not all bundles have been preserved equally, but remaining evidence suggests that a bundle included multiple layers of tunics, mantles and headdresses tied with strong camelid fiber ropes often surrounded by tools, weapons, food remains, bags, baskets and ceramics.

Most reconstructions of Atacama prehistory discuss the ceramic component and identify a single indigenous population residing in the oases of San Pedro (Berenguer et. al. 1986,1988; Le Paige 1964; Tarrago 1968). But ceramics are not always present as burial offerings and, within the Southern Andes, ceramics could hardly be expected to provide the same intimate definition of personal identity as an analysis of the textiles could provide. Modern weaving in indigenous communities of the Southern Andes is known for its brilliant and intricate color and patterning which is ethnic-specific. In this area textiles are one of the most important aspects of material culture maintained by indigenous populations to define ethnic identity (Medlin 1991; Seibold 1992; Zorn 1990). There is nothing in the archaeological record to suggest that prehistoric Andean weaving was different. The multiple clothing styles represented in the ancient Coyo Oriental cemetery describe not a single homogenous culture, but multiethnic burials and possible multiethnic communities within the original Coyo oasis.

Style and Place
At least two separate groups of men, women, and children were buried in the Coyo Oriental cemetery and undoubtedly originally shared the Coyo oasis during the sixth to the tenth centuries A.D. One group was probably local deriving from an earlier San Pedro tradition, and the other highland, connected with the Bolivian altiplano and the cultural, political and economic center of Tiwanaku (A.D. 300- 1000) whose preeminence in the southern Andes parallels the Coyo occupation.

Tiwanaku artifacts in San Pedro de Atacama have originally been described as exchanged items connected within a circulating llama caravan traffic (Browman 1980; Nunez and Dillehay 1979). But foreign textiles and artifacts might alternatively be considered as imported objects directly associated with original foreign populations. The present analysis supports just this hypothesis. Elaborate Tiwanaku tapestry tunics and mantles uncovered in Coyo, which I described in an earlier paper (Oakland 1986), were all connected with a specific set of warp-faced garments. These textiles are quite distinct from the local garment style evident not only in Coyo, but also in a variety of additional oases locations suggesting a much wider spread local style.

The concept of style has recently generated a wealth of anthropological discussion (Conkey and Hastorf 1990; Sackett 1982,1990 among others). My own addition to the literature (Oakland Rodman n.d.) based in textile analysis from the Coyo Oriental cemetery, suggests that specifically designed and executed textile style was maintained by prehistoric ethnic groups as the principal emblem of group identification, similar to its use in contemporary indigenous Andean communities.

For the purposes of the present paper in attempting to specify and visualize the past, the clothing and associated artifacts recovered with the highland "woman with the red mantle" (a woman buried with a red Tiwanaku tapestry mantle) will be used as a contrast to the weaving styles of "two local sisters" (a hypothetical familialtie: two women sharing the same tomb with closely related textiles). The separate styles were used in Coyo synchronically as ceramic associations and radiocarbon determinations suggest (600-900 A.D.). Groups were originally identified through a variety of other criteria, especially the male headdress form which is shared by men within groups but is distinctive between groups. The headdress center is particularly diagnostic: locals loop spiral designs and highlanders knot checked or diamond designs. Status differentiation is difficult to determine between groups. The highland woman's burial was equipped with more textiles than the local women, but her female companion buried in the same tomb had very few textile associations. Within the larger collection, the non-textile artifacts do perhaps suggest a greater status afforded the highland group in Coyo. But the textiles illuminate the distinctiveness and technical expertise apparent in both groups.