Question: What ancient Peruvian relic was so valuable that it was literally worth more than gold?
At the pinnacle of the Inca Empire, their capital city Cusco was a place of unimaginable opulence and wealth. Their temples dripped from floor to ceiling in sheets of glittering gold and were filled with precious metals; however, unlike the rest of the world, gold was not their most treasured asset. Instead, their textiles were far more valuable to them, crafted by generations of talented weavers and made from the ultra-soft fleece of their native llamas and vicunas.
To the Incas, gold was merely a decoration, but their clothing, rugs, and tapestries were used as currency throughout the empire. The garments symbolized the wealth and status of a person wearing it—for example, clothing woven from vicuna wool was so highly prized that only members of the royal family were allowed to wear it. Inca weavers were also the most technically accomplished that the Americas have ever seen.
By the year 1553, the Spanish got wind of the Inca cities filled with inconceivable amounts of gold. They rode into Cusco and discovered that the legends were true. When they arrived, the Inca Emperor wanted to show off his empire’s wealth and power by giving the Spanish intruders what they thought was their most valuable gift to the world. Not gold as the Spanish wanted, but their prized fabrics.
Unfortunately, the Spanish conquistadors would not stop until they got the coveted gold. The Spaniards killed the Inca leader, subjugated the masses, and stole all of the precious metals and gems. Almost all of the gold and silver work of the Incan empire was melted down by the conquistadors, and shipped back to Spain. And while they were so obsessed with gold, they failed to recognize the value of the Inca weaving and their skilled husbandry traditions of alpacas and vicunas. As the society gradually collapsed, they also lost many of the weaving and breeding secrets.
Despite this, strong traditions of textile creation continue to live on in the high altitudes of Peru—at 14,000 feet above sea level, it’s not surprising that they put great effort into making thick blankets and clothing. Today’s alpaca fleece may be of lesser quality than that of the Inca but it is still one of the most desirable wools in the entire world. Many locals practice weaving just as their ancestors have done for thousands upon thousands of years and the tradition will continue to be passed on for future generations.
Weaving in Peru: Then & Now:
- Peru has the longest continuous history of textile production in the world, dating back almost 10,000 years. It’s considered the first art form in the region.
- Both men and women created textiles, but it was a skill that women of all social classes were expected to be accomplished at. The best women weavers from across the empire were relocated to Cuzco and worked in the Acllawasi or “House of the Chosen Women”. Here, they produced clothing for the nobility and the army.
- Ancient Peruvian textiles were very complicated and often incorporated several techniques. They used simple backstrap looms, which were usually attached to a tree, or a basic frame loom.
- The main colors of the fabrics were black, white, green, yellow, orange, purple, and red.
- The language of Quechua in the Andes was not a written language so woven textiles were also used as a means of communication between people. With fabrics, they could record knowledge, local history, and pass on stories.
- Intricate textiles were as important to the living as they were to the dead. People were buried in “sacred fabrics” of elaborately woven and embroidered garments meant to accompany the wearer to the next world.
- Still to this day every small detail—like the stitch, pattern, and placement—has deep meaning. They use bright colors with various patterns and pictograms of animals and geometric symbols.
- Today, Cusco and the villages surrounding the former Inca capital are the epicenter of Peru’s textile industry.
Meet with local women weavers in the small village of Chinchero, Peru to learn more about the ancient tradition during our Machu Picchu & the Galápagos Small Ship Adventure.