George F. Lau

Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, University of East Anglia, Norwich, United Kingdom


Les lamas et l’engagement seigneurial : un contexte d’offrandes et l’imagerie Recuay des camélidés à Pashash (ca. 200-600 apr. J.-C.), Ancash, Pérou

Cet essai s’intéresse à un ancien système de relations sociales dans lequel les animaux étaient considérés non seulement comme de la nourriture, mais aussi comme des êtres intervenants de façon mutuelle dans la vie sociale. Pour examiner l’intégration graduelle des camélidés dans la vie sociale et politique andine, la culture recuay de l’ancien Pérou constitue une excellente étude de cas. Des enquêtes récentes sur le site de Pashash (Ancash) ont mis au jour une offrande comprenant des objets en terre cuite en forme de camélidés, incluant des pendentifs, un vase effigie et des petites figurines. Ces items et leur contexte apportent des éléments de preuves importants sur de nouveaux engagements physiques et conceptuels avec les camélidés pendant l’occupation recuay (ca. 200-600 apr. J.-C.). En particulier, ces représentations sont l’une des premières expressions d’un « engagement » seigneurial envers les camélidés en tant que capital. Leur matérialisation en supports portatifs est liée à leur utilisation cérémonielle et publique lors de festivals et d’offrandes sacrificielles. Ces objets indiquent que les camélidés d’élevage deviennent des ressources identitaires et politiques cruciales pour l’autorité des nobles dans le nord du Pérou et, de fait, de plus en plus considérés comme essentiels au bien-être de la communauté et à la reproduction sociale.

Mots-clés : Andes, économie morale, animaux dans l’art, Précolombien, sacrifice.


This study and the PIARP project were generously supported by an AHRC-NSF Two-Way Lead Agency Grant [AH/R013845/1 (NSF/SBE-RCUK), awarded to the author and David Chicoine]. Many thanks are owed to the Ministerio de Cultura, especially the offices in Lima and Huaraz, which advised in and oversaw the field activities. I am grateful for the input and effort of Milton Luján (Fieldwork Co-Director), Jacob Bongers, David Chicoine, Flor Valderrama, Marcela Olivas, David and Fredy Diestra, Andrés Shiguekawa, Steve Wegner, Kevin Lane, and all the members of the PIARP 2019 fieldwork and labwork team. I am also thankful for the comments of the peer reviewers and the editorial support at Americae. Any errors remain my own.

More than a century ago, the great Peruvianist Julio C. Tello made a grand and audacious entrance onto the stage of world archaeology. In a series of brief synthetic works, Tello (1920, 1922a, 1922b, 1929) proclaimed that the rise of Andean civilization owed largely to cultural developments of Peru’s mountainous highlands. In particular, he highlighted the unique adaptation of traditional Andean culture and economic lifeways: segmentary social organization, nucleated villages, and vertical subsistence practices tailored to the rich resources of high-altitude environments, such as tubers and camelids. His beliefs were regarded by the scholarly establishment of the time as both precocious and groundbreaking, not to mention irreverent. Until Tello, most had focused on coastal developments and foreign origins, and effectively discounted the highlands outside of Inca Cuzco and Titicaca as cultural backwaters. Tello’s upbringing had been in the rural highlands of Lima. And as the first “indigenous archaeologist,” his scholarly agenda challenged the opinions of armchair scholars and wealthy-landed intelligentsia based in coastal, lettered cities like Lima and Trujillo (Burger [ed.] 2009; Daggett 2012).[1] Crucially, his early publications identified how highland patterns of civilization had flourished long before the Inca. Along with Chavín, Recuay played a central role to justify his claims. Together the two formed cases of “megalithic” and “archaic Andean” culture, the time for the first “irradiations” or spreads of Peruvian civilization. To make up for the lack of direct evidence for village life, burials, or economic practices at Chavín de Huántar, Tello turned to what was unambiguous evidence of these in Recuay culture. His reasoning relied on major Recuay tradition sites, like Yayno, Jekosh, Roko Amá, and Wilkawaín. And he attributed these settlements, all situated above 3000 masl, to communities based on high-altitude agriculture and camelid stockraising. Evidence of their success included monumental architecture, stone sculpture, fancy pottery, and so forth; they flourished despite their remote, “inhospitable” locations (Tello 1929: 29). These patterns of highland life essentially furnished the economic basis for “Archaic” period developments (e.g., Chavín). Recuay images of camelids constituted unequivocal proof (Figure 1): they signaled an early, pre-Inca lifeway resulting from highland peoples and cultures.

Figure 1 – Human-camelid effigy vessel from the highland Ancash (adapted from Tello 1929: fig. 57). Much archaeology since Tello’s death in 1947 has historicized and refined his models and their objectives (see Burger [ed.] 2009). Yet it remains impossible not to admire his bold intuitions. Tello had no absolute dating available to him nor did he research Recuay exhaustively. But it is clear now that Recuay was one of the earliest regional societies to fully commit to an agro-pastoral lifestyle, a common mode of Andean economic production involving high-altitude cultivation and the rearing of domesticated llama and alpaca (Bonavia 2008; Dransart 2002; Flannery, Marcus, and Reynolds 1989; Flores-Ochoa 1977; Flores-Ochoa, MacQuarrie, and Portús 1994; Kuznar 1995; Murra 1972). By no means were the groups of the Recuay tradition the first to herd camelids. But it was the Recuay who were among the first to intensively highlight camelids as a form of wealth and especially as a symbolic resource for constructing elite identity, as reflected in their ceremonial practices and imagery (Lau 2002, 2011, 2020). This essay further examines Recuay’s ancient “commitment” to camelids. I present new discoveries of camelid figurines and ceramic representations at the site of Pashash (Pallasca Province, Ancash), north highlands of Peru. By detailing the social context of their use, it is argued that noble identity at Pashash was enhanced: camelid pendants were worn and placed in the offering context; a camelid effigy was “sacrificed”; and images of lords “hold” camelid figures. As special ceremonial offerings and symbols of high status and authority, camelids became explicitly embedded in the political economic practices of chiefly elites.

Camelids, consumption, and the Recuay culture

For studying ancient Andean complexity when camelids became increasingly incorporated into social life, there is perhaps no better or more relevant case than the Recuay. Elsewhere I have discussed this mutual development as an emergent “moral economy” between humans and camelids (Lau 2020). For groups around the world, Hastorf (2016: 169-170) has recently addressed the moral economy of food in relation to the norms, practices, and social relations of obligation and care involved in provisioning food and nourishment. This draws from a large anthropological and ethnohistorical literature, not least for South America, both highland (Allen 1988; Gose 1994; Ramírez 2005) and lowland (Overing 1975; Viveiros de Castro 1996), regarding the “moral economy of intimacy,” specifically a kind of anthropological writing about kin and community relations (and cosmology) centered on the production and distribution of food. The focus is on shared living and mutuality, especially as seen at the village level. This essay helps reconstruct a Recuay collective outlook and system of social relations by which camelids were seen not solely as food, but also as beings that intervened in overall social life; its “moral economy” involved camelids in community well-being and reproduction. Following the insights of ethnography and ethnohistory (Allen 1988, 2015; Cadena 2015; Dransart 2006; Gose 1994; Salomon 2018), what follows develops a framework about ancient highland “social life” which embraces a range of nonhuman beings (e.g., animals, plants, mountains, objects, stones) as significant actors for identity, ritual, and livelihood (Lau 2013, 2016). The peoples of the Recuay cultural tradition (ca. 1-700 CE) flourished in Ancash department in Peru’s north highlands (Figure 2). Recuay groups relied on intensive agriculture and herding, especially in the rich suni and puna production zones, just below the icecaps of the Andean cordillera. Large centers arose and these appear to have been the seats of independent chiefly societies, probably similar to “lordships” known during late prehispanic times (Cook 1977; Espinoza Soriano 1978). Figure 2 – Map of northern Peru region and places mentioned in the text (map by author). Recuay was among the earliest corporate art styles of the Andean highlands to regularly depict camelids using the medium of fired clay (Lau 2011). Weavers developed sophisticated techniques for incorporating camelid fiber (Brito 2016; Lau 2014; Oakland Rodman and Cassman 1995). Other groups, by roughly the early centuries CE, innovated additional practices and cultural representations. Newfound camelid-based symbolism took form in carved stone monoliths and pottery (Baitzel and Trigo Rodríguez 2019; Goepfert 2011). To the extent that we know, the Recuay did not see camelids as major divinities nor were they suitable images for their large cult objects. Across the Andes, herded camelids were used for sacrificial ritual and as burial offerings (Bonavia 2008; Goepfert 2011; Goepfert et al. 2020; Valdez, Bettcher, and Huamaní 2020). Before detailing the research at Pashash, it is useful to describe the current picture of Recuay camelid use practices. The handful of faunal assemblages thus far reported come from hilltop settlements (Ibarra 2009; Rofes 1999; Sawyer 1985; Vásquez Sánchez and Rosales Tham 2017), including Chinchawas, a small prehistoric village occupied from ca. 300-900 CE (Lau 2002, 2007, 2010a). Several key points of this literature are especially germane and help frame the evidence of camelid figurines from Pashash. First, Recuay faunal assemblages are dominated by camelid remains, with substantially lower representation by other species. By the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, domestic camelids (llama [Lama glama] and alpaca [Vicugna pacos]) had already supplanted deer as the main source of meat protein (Miller and Burger 1995; Rosenfeld and Sayre 2016). Some exploitation of hunted animals and wild camelids (guanaco [Lama guanicoe] and vicuña [Vicugna vicugna]) cannot be ruled out. But domestic camelids supplied the large bulk of the meat consumed by sedentary groups after Chavín (ca. 400 BCE). The fleece was converted into yarn and woven into cloth garments, which were among the most important items of prestige, value, and cultural identity in Andean communities (Arnold [ed.] 2014; Dransart 2002; Murra 1962). The fiber featured in their most important weavings, elaborated using tapestry, double cloth, and plain weave techniques. Although only a few Recuay-style cloths are known (Brito 2016; Lau 2014), spindle whorls are common at sites and demonstrate the widespread activity of spinning (Lau 2007). Camelids also provided other benefits, such as skins and sinew. Their dung may have been exploited as fuel, and their bones provided a durable raw material for making utensils, instruments, personal items, and toys. In addition, camelids could carry loads (see Bonavia 2008: 414-424); and studies on camelid behavior indicate that they may have been significant as pets and for their companionship (e.g., Aba, Bianchi, and Cavilla 2010; Dransart 2002). A second point concerns the functional contexts and activities producing the faunal assemblages. There were at least two primary patterns of consumption. The first pattern is that of general domestic refuse, the discard associated with residences and household-level camelid use. The other pattern concerned intensive consumption shown by large bulk refuse deposits, most of which were of domesticated camelids. Given their proximity to open spaces and buildings with ancestor stonecarvings, the deposits were linked to mortuary feasting (Lau 2002, 2007). Public ceremony on hilltop platforms and open spaces constituted an important context for Early Intermediate period ritual (also Bria 2017; Gero 1991). This relates to a final point, which is simply that Recuay groups began to perceive camelids as more than merely food; camelids were increasingly associated with high-status activities and imagery. At least at Chinchawas, the feasting refuse also featured many fancy and exotic ceramics, metal items, and other preciosities, suggesting that the corporate activities also involved people who had privileged access to these items. The same sites have revealed small camelid effigy figures, of pottery or stone. General domestic refuse rarely contained these items or in such frequency (Lau 2010a). The implication is that the activity of hosting festive events, offering abundant camelid meat and other food and drink, was a way for early leaders to build political communities and alliances and to garner labor obligations in exchange (Gero 1990, 1991). Therefore, Recuay groups were among the first cultural groups to show the classic form of institutionalized generosity that was critical for political integration in the Andes (Murra 1980). It is useful to note that camelid remains, to date, are not commonly found in Recuay funerary contexts. This may be due to preservation or a result of sampling; there are few cases where bone material is well preserved. But other ancient Andean peoples, including coeval groups such as the Moche, placed camelid offerings and sacrifices for their dead (Goepfert 2011; Millaire 2002). To be sure, the relations between humans and camelids must have been quite diverse in actual practice, with considerable variation synchronically and by phase; patterns must have also been varied across the culture’s geographical distribution (Lau 2011). In developing a new kind of social commitment to camelids, however, the richest record of this was made by the Recuay themselves in their ceramic art and imagery.

Camelids in Recuay imagery

Most groups of the Recuay tradition show a core range of material culture: painted kaolinite pottery in distinctive shapes, monolithic stonecarving, and a distinctive iconography across multiple media; in addition, Recuay groups often shared mortuary practices and tomb forms associated with ancestor veneration. These were special cultural elements typically shared by those groups constituting the Recuay “commonwealth” (Lau 2011).[2] Unlike the antecedent Chavín culture in highland Ancash, camelids formed an important theme in Recuay imagery. Camelids were usually hand-modeled into small, three-dimensional forms (painted two-dimensional camelid representations are rare). There are two general types: modeled figures on pottery vessels for containing liquids; and small standalone objects (stone or pottery pendants or figurines). A few carved monolithic blocks have small, ancillary zoomorphic figures, possibly camelids. Notwithstanding, camelids are extremely rare in stone sculpture overall compared to felines and mythical creatures. Small stone and pottery figurines have been found fairly regularly in Recuay archaeological sites. The small ceramic ones tend to be solid. Most appear to have been small ritual objects and personal items. Some were meant as offerings for tombs or other ritual places. These camelid objects tend to be freestanding and can be balanced on beaten dirt floors, cloth, and flat stones. Some small figurines have been found in Recuay occupations, e.g., Chinchawas and Yayno (Gero 1990; Lau 2020). Some feature a hole to run string through as a pendant. Wearing or holding such representations may have signaled some formal connection to social identity associated with camelids. The large majority of the camelid items recently found at Pashash were small pendants. Larger representations are also known (Gero 1990), most made hollow presumably to help avoid breakage during firing. Some may have been intentionally smashed, perhaps to mark ritual completion. The larger forms bear some resemblance to later camelid figures, called illas or conopas, which had holes in the back of the figure, where camelid fat was placed and burnt. Such objects were magical items used to increase herd abundance and fertility (Arriaga 1999; Hamilton 2018; Sillar 2012). The camelid figurines in Recuay imply that beliefs and practices typically associated with Inca conopas were already in development long before the Late Horizon. Among the most distinctive objects in all of Recuay culture are ceramic vessels showing multiple, interacting figures (Figure 3). Elsewhere (Lau 2011), I have discussed how these objects show formulaic kinds of social interactions (“genres of action”) that illuminate a native theory about leadership. As a corpus, they represent social relations between chiefly lords and significant person-beings (including women, attendants, animals). The interactions are about mortuary (defleshing, scavenging on corpses) and “house”[3] life and its structure and conviviality (libations, dancing, sexual intercourse, ranking); they also contain images seemingly of mythical content. But all the scenes conventionalized interactions with crucial others (Figure 3). By recognizing and conferring status, the scenes construct the “personhood” of the figures, most notably prioritizing the chiefly lord, who is usually the larger central male figure in the compositions. Being both functional serving vessels and grave offerings, the scenes may have served as biographical milestones as well as didactic reminders of ritual conventions (Lau 2011). Figure 3 – Graphic schematizing noble sociality in Recuay ceramic imagery, in particular the lord’s pivotal relationship with social others in conventionalized actions. The vessels illustrate the principal genres of action, where the central figure receives, does, or embodies (adapted from Carrión Cachot 1955: lám. XVf; XVIj; XVIIb, f, g, k; fig. 1). One of the key genres shows a human figure with a camelid to his (left) side (Figures 1, 3a, 4). These are relatively rare but appear across the Recuay culture area (Hohmann 2010; Reichert 1977). The standing human figure is dressed as a male dignitary, holding a rope that goes around the camelid’s neck. Given the fancy attire and headdress, it seems unlikely the subject represents a prosaic herding act. Rather, the type of clothing indicates more public, ceremonial occasions where recognition of status and wealth was paramount. Holding weapons or panpipes, the dignitary is seen as a kind of warrior-lord and is very likely presenting the animal for sacrifice or as a gift/offering (Carrión Cachot 1955: 69; Lau 2011). Figure 4 – Recuay-style human-camelid effigy vessel, municipal collection, Municipalidad de Chacas (approx. 15 cm tall; photo by author). These representations are probably early expressions of historically known native highland practices. Camelid sacrifices were important acts by village headmen, particularly during the festivals of the agro-pastoral seasonal round (e.g., Arriaga 1999: 51; Hernández Príncipe 1923: 42). The host (and host group) provisioned plentiful meat along with other food and drink, and in return secured labor obligations on the part of the attendees (Gero 1990). Chavín culture rarely, if ever, depicted camelids, and thus Recuay innovated an imagery that emphasized their newly central role as signs of wealth, as something transacted through sacrifice and shows of generosity. That one finds this kind of vessel across different regions of highland Ancash is also important, for it suggests that the new commitment was widespread and that many Recuay groups began to valorize this innovation in figural representation. These lord-camelid scenes are generally rare, even in collections, and none has been found in scientific excavations, until recently at Pashash.

Investigations at Pashash

In 2019, the Proyecto de Investigación Arqueológica Región Pallasca (PIARP) initiated a multi-year archaeological work focused on the rise of social complexity in north-central Peru (Lau and Luján Dávila 2020). Our primary research question centers on the emergence of kin-based, segmentary “lordships.” Such lordships characterized historic groups, typified by social ranking and kin-based lineages centered on special leaders whose authority was based, at least in part, on divine ancestral connections. Our project evaluates how internal social dynamics, spurred on by rival groups and new forms of social differentiation, were crucial to early social complexity. It entails the hypothesis that local leadership began to develop a political ideology which, coupled with warfare and ancestor veneration, increasingly turned to herd wealth as a source of identity and group success. The fieldwork consisted of settlement survey, surface collections, and drone photography around the town of Cabana; sampling excavations focused on the site of Pashash. Pashash has long been recognized in the scholarly literature, and it remains the best-known archaeological site in Pallasca province, the northernmost of Ancash department. It was visited by the 19th-century traveler/scholar writers Antonio Raimondi and Charles Wiener. Pashash received early archaeological reporting by Richard Schaedel, who visited the site and region to document Recuay-style stone sculpture (Schaedel 1952). Schaedel’s colleague at the University of Texas at Austin, Terence Grieder, led the first archaeological studies at Pashash from 1969 to 1973, with Hermilio Rosas and then Alberto Bueno (Grieder 1978). Grieder sought to examine the transition from Chavín to post-Chavín artistic developments, and made sampling excavations in two of Pashash’s most important sectors: the La Capilla hilltop and the area around “El Caserón,” a large freestanding monumental construction. The work resulted in a pioneering ceramic chronology and the discovery of a remarkable burial context with abundant offerings, in the sector of La Capilla (ibid.: 45-58). The main objectives of the 2019 season were to more fully map and contextualize the La Capilla architecture, and to reevaluate the sequence of occupation at Pashash (Lau and Luján Dávila 2020). While the analyses remain ongoing and additional fieldwork is planned, some preliminary observations can be made. First, our work confirms La Capilla (3170 masl) as the main nucleated zone of Pashash. Mapping also revealed previously unstudied sectors of dense and monumental architecture, including additional “Caserón”-style “platform-block”[4] buildings, canals, walled compounds, and at least two additional platform mounds. The ancient settlement of Pashash (ca. 28 ha) is therefore much more extensive and nucleated than previously reported. Second, the fieldwork revealed a longer sequence of occupation and architectural complexity, including a substantial pre-Recuay component. In particular, remains of Formative pottery resemble wares associated with Chavín’s florescence and nearby coastal styles (Chicoine 2011; Proulx 1985); and these date the earliest occupation of the La Capilla hilltop to the late 1st millennium BCE. It follows that the structures visible today on the surface are the most recent in a series of rebuilding and expansion programs. By Recuay times, La Capilla’s summit was crowned by a large quadrangular walled compound. Such compounds, with outer rooms enclosing an interior open courtyard space, were common in later Recuay phases as the house complexes of extended family/kin groups. Some compounds were small and probably of groups of limited means; other compounds were much larger and show greater elaboration (Lau 2010b).

Operation 8 offering context

Operation 8 was an excavation located to the west and southwest of the 1970s burial location (Lau and Luján Dávila 2020). The deposits went down over 3.2 m, and in the far eastern portion, we came upon an offering deposit within a small chamber.[5] This was an irregularly shaped space (Figure 5), walled on the north and west ends. There were traces of rough walling on the east side (the closest to Grieder’s 1978 burial), which, for safety reasons, could not be tested further. The chamber had slightly concave walls and also narrowed at the base. The western wall was part of the original architecture (a walled compound); the northern wall, meanwhile, was a later addition, apparently to help enclose and/or seal off the compartment.[6] Thus, what Grieder called a “temple” built expressly for the burial appears to have been the final use, perhaps termination use, of the southerly rooms in a large, palatial house compound. Figure 5 – Plan of Pashash excavation, Operation 8, showing location of offering context (map by Jacob Bongers/PIARP). The offering was characterized by a series of sequential layers of materials, laid down at distinct times but with some interval of time between their deposition. There were groups of clustered objects in the small chamber. Space limits a full description of the contents and stratigraphy, but suffice it to mention that notable offerings included gilt and copper metal objects, lapidary work, ceramic and stone figurines, whole Recuay-style fancy ceramics, and small carved wooden miniatures and pins. No human remains were encountered, and overall preservation was superb for an exposed hilltop setting. Based on the current evidence, the 2019 offering context is directly related, in proximity and style of the contents, to the noble burial found in 1973 (Grieder 1978); three discrete offering caches were found to the north and east of that interment.[7] It seems probable that the 2019 cache represents another cache, but placed to its south. Also, unlike the previous materials reported from these contexts (ibid.; Castillo pers. comm. 2019), there was significant representation of camelid-related objects in the 2019 cache.

Camelid pendants

The most abundant items depicting camelids were small fired clay “pendants” (Figure 6); more than 94 were recovered, most complete. Each bore a hole in the neck/head or upper torso area, indicating that their main purpose was to be suspended as a personal item or adornment. Given the location of the holes, if strung together as a necklace, the camelid heads would point upward (e.g., or toward the head of a wearer). Also, the red paint of the heads would form an arc of red color around the wearer.[8] Figure 6 – Kaolinite clay pendants in the form of camelids (photos by Andrés Shiguekawa/PIARP). Almost all were made out of a fine light cream-colored clay, probably kaolin, with few nonplastic inclusions. Most measure just over 2 cm in length (max. dimension), but range from ca. 1.5 to 3.5 cm. Given their resemblance in form and features, it stands to reason that they were made together, perhaps by the same workshop over a short space of time. Moreover, the kaolin clay also typifies the fancy pottery vessels of Pashash, and it seems possible that the makers may have used the same clay sources. There were a few camelid pendants that made use of other clay recipes but these do not show the same form. The majority of the pendants showed some bright red paint (Figures 6a-e, 7), the same pigment found on the fancy kaolinite pottery. Several pendants were left plain (Figures 6f, 7), showing their fired kaolin paste color. The paint was applied most routinely on the face, head, and neck-to-chest area. Less commonly, the paint was dabbed on different parts of the body to look like mottling or spots (e.g., on the upper torso and, less frequently, rump and legs) (Figure 6b-d). Painting on one side may not repeat on the other. The paint may refer to natural coloration (usually shades of brown) or perhaps to blood.[9] Colonial accounts also observed that special camelids were painted when they were selected as sacrificial offerings, including red striping and paint on heads and faces (Guaman Poma, in Valdez, Bettcher, and Huamaní 2020: 9). Recent llama sacrifices of the Inca period along Peru’s south coast found red-colored paint on the faces of white-colored camelids (ibid.: 9, 11). Figure 7 – Kaolinite clay ring-based effigy bottle in the form of a condor, and two camelid pendants (photo by Andrés Shiguekawa/PIARP). Like the painting, the modeled features also show a great degree of formal variation and stylization. Sometimes, not all customary features are shown or they are arranged differently. Heads tend to be triangular, tapering to a pointy muzzle and mouth, indicated by a slit incision on either side. Eyes may appear as simple punctuations or slits. Ears vary in terms of their size, length, and orientation, and may also feature a slit to denote an orifice. Occasionally, the maker indicated the anus with a small hole. Tails are usually subtly modeled as a pointed or rounded prominence, or can be shown upright (Figure 6b). Some show front and hind legs, and are parted by a quick incised stroke bisecting the underside of the figurine; a few do not have this stroke or it is not continuous. The overall corpus shows many slight differences, almost to the point of abstraction. The reasons for this are not entirely clear. They may have resulted from the necessity of quick and expedient manufacture. There may have been interest also to highlight the heterogeneity in the group (herd?) and perhaps to indicate distinctive individual features. Andean classification of camelids often is based on their coloration (Flores-Ochoa 1978). While there was some clustering, the pendants were found dispersed throughout the deposit, sometimes on or in between materials. In addition, two camelid pendants were found inside a condor effigy jar (Figure 7), which had been found turned over. While some kind of bioturbation cannot be ruled out, it seems possible that the deposition was intentional, given the good preservation throughout the chamber. The camelid pendants may have been placed and most scattered deliberately over the materials and maybe at different points in time, as if sprinkling soil over a casket or casting coins into a fountain.

Camelid figurines

Operation 8 uncovered seven additional camelid figurines. These do not have the lateral hole[10] and they also differ from the pendants in additional ways. One of the figurine examples (Figure 8, left), ca. 5 cm in length, is much larger than the others. It is also distinguished by its redware paste and dark exterior surface. It has three painted bands across the head, two on the sides, and one down the snout. A rope is tied onto the neck which curls around the back of the camelid. The rope is modeled, and the braiding is indicated by scoring. The camelid pendants do not show ropes.[11] Figure 8 – Camelid figurines, one of terra-cotta clay (left) and the other of kaolinite (right; photos by Andrés Shiguekawa/PIARP). Figure 8 (right) also shows a camelid miniature without a perforation. It uses a light tan (kaolinite) paste and was left unpainted. Both camelids have a short, pronounced tail, modeled over the hind quarters. Both also show punctuated eyes and slit mouths. Several additional terracotta camelid figurines show a dark exterior finish. It is possible that the darker versus plain finish may refer to the different camelid coloration. Compared to the pendants, these figurines show a greater degree of modeling than the pendants, which are more schematic. Heads are given more detail, and legs, necks, and tails are more attenuated and distinguished as features. Because of the greater elaboration, such figurines may mark special camelids, perhaps a designated lead animal of the group or caravan. Two additional points are relevant. First, these figurines and the camelid pendants are somewhat unlike camelid figures found in other Recuay sites. The Pashash specimens do not show a fuller girth or exaggerated body. The ceramic and stone figurines found at Chinchawas and Yayno, for example, tend to have chunkier bodies, especially torsos, and other parts (like legs and heads) are tiny in comparison (Lau 2020: fig. 3.6). Perhaps this resulted from artistic license, but it may show local dispositions about what was deemed important by the local groups. The torso is the vital anatomical area for the animals’ meat, growth, and reproduction. In contrast, the corpus of representations found at Pashash emphasize formal heterogeneity, as if their individuality and herd diversity were prized. In addition, several examples feature a broken hind leg. Yet both can still stand freely. Neither of the corresponding leg fragments were recovered. These coincidences may suggest some intentional ritual action; in particular, the leg breaking may have helped mark its termination and inclusion into the offering; perhaps it also acted as a gesture to immobilize the camelid symbolically.[12]

Effigy vessel

A complete camelid effigy vessel was also recovered in the offering context (Figure 9). It is a small bottle, made out of kaolin clay, with a ring base and small hemispherical spout/mouth. It shows legs bent underneath the body and a short, appliqué tail. Its upright head is painted an orange-red and features subtle modeling of the snout, mouth, and prominent, upturned ears. Incisions mark the nose and mouth, and painted nested ovoids outline the eyes. Figure 9 – Kaolinite clay effigy vessel in the form of camelid (photos by Andrés Shiguekawa/PIARP). On either side of the figure’s body is a lattice pattern painted in red over the resist black paint, with thick bands and interior dots in the paste color. The chest is painted resist black, and on either side of the neck is what seems to be a collar (white, outlined by resist); both are now somewhat faded due to the fugitive nature of the resist. The lattice may refer to some kind of cloth covering, or a net or fiber bindings to tie down the camelid, perhaps for transport and/or to secure the camelid as an offering. Recent finds of Inca period llama sacrifices indicate that young camelids, found buried alive in situ, had their limbs tied up with rope as if they were perpetually bound in a “resting posture” (Valdez, Bettcher, and Huamaní 2020: 11). This camelid representation is quite unusual for Recuay, both for its posture and for its use on this ceramic shape. The other ring-based effigy in the cache shows an avian with condor features (Figure 7), and it seems clear that the two zoomorphic vessels formed a complementary pair. Both animals thrive in highland mountainous areas, but are linked to different domains, the sky and land. Condors, of course, eat carrion meat, and it is probably not coincidental that two camelid pendants were found inside (one painted, one unpainted), as if some kind of symbolic or play predation.[13] Camelid pairs, combining individuals with dark versus beige fleece, have been noted in Chimu contexts of Peru’s north coast (Goepfert and Prieto 2016). The other peculiar aspect is that Recuay artisans rarely depicted bundled camelids and/or camelids kneeling in repose. A provisional interpretation is that the camelid’s bound state is related to the mimetic purpose of its offering: like the miniatures with broken legs, the bound camelid was rendered immobile as an enduring immolation for the cache.

Human-camelid figures

The excavations also recovered examples of representations with human figures. Two of them show humans with camelids. Both of these figurines are made of kaolin clay and feature the distinctive red paint typical of most of the ceramic materials in the offering assemblage. One shows a standing male and a camelid flanks him to his left, which stands on the ground. It has stripes, maybe representing ropes or a kind of special painting/striping. On the other (Figure 10), the camelid is smaller and the human carries the camelid under his left arm. It seems possible that it depicts a subadult or perhaps even an effigy representation. As is typical in Recuay, the left position also indicates the camelid’s subordinate status. The small camelid is basically identical in form and material to those of the pendants. It also features the distinctive red paint on the face and head. Figure 10 – Three views of figurine showing male lord holding small camelid, kaolinite (photos by Andrés Shiguekawa/PIARP). The human figures are relatively simple: they both have a slightly flattened tubular body. By far the greatest emphasis is given to their face and headdress. The human figure features simple slit eyes and mouth, and a prominent aquiline nose. The fancy headdress has a lower basal band, with lateral projections; above this assembly is a red semicircular cap or helmet, itself surmounted by a crescentic fringe. Crucially, both human figures in these two objects have warfare associations. The human holds a round shield on his right arm, and also wears a headdress and earspools often marking lords with warrior associations (Lau 2011). The other human figure does not hold a shield but has an elaborate headdress adorned by trophy-hands (a common status symbol among images of Recuay warrior-lord figures).

Discussion and conclusion

In total, the 2019 excavations at Pashash recovered over 109 small ceramic artifacts which depict camelids. The objects were part of an elaborate offering context rarely documented before in the Andes. In this case, the offering appears to have been an additional cache which complemented at least three others dedicated to an elite burial context found in the La Capilla sector (Grieder 1978). The Pashash context clearly fits with the highly specific and complex activities associated with multi-episode and multi-locus ritual offerings in the ancient Andes. These cases show rigorous attention to purposeful inclusions, and to parts, layers, and sequences of offering; there is also strong emphasis in dual oppositions (e.g., Alva and Donnan 1993; Arriola Tuni and Tesar 2011; Lau 2019; Reinhard and Ceruti 2010; Valdez, Bettcher, and Huamaní 2020). The complex ritual order consists of adding discrete offerings in sequential episodes. The effort involved in all these contexts signals the special and elite character of the offering practice. Their general complexity can be attributed to the function of the offering program: the multiple components and methodical sequence are to help effect and venerate the subject (the body or the context/setting). But the precise meanings and logic of each step will require further data and comparison. The contents of the 2019 cache resemble, in very general terms, those of the other three caches (esp. ceramic bowl forms, manufacturing style, and painting). But the specific materials differ markedly. For example, there were stone bowls and more numerous vessels in the caches reported by Grieder (1978). In contrast, the 2019 cache is especially novel for its number and range of camelid-depicting items. The other caches contained modeled zoomorphic figures and many effigy vessels (treating zoomorphic creatures), but none depict camelids. Given strong resemblances in their materials and manufacture, many of the items may have been from the same workshop and/or producer (or small team of producers therefrom). This workshop probably provisioned a range of objects for the offering, including fine ceramics and small figurines; more work is planned, including paste characterization, to evaluate this hypothesis. Although the camelid depictions cannot be identified to species, it seems reasonable to believe that they were of domesticated varieties and that some represented sacrificial animals. This is due to features such as rope and face painting, variability in body coloration, and several depictions of well-appointed humans handling camelids. Moreover, all the examples from Pashash were manufactured as whole animals. In common with Recuay culture more generally, there are no painted, two-dimensional camelid depictions or parts, which I believe is owed to the special emphasis given to the intact body of the camelid and its vitality. The object’s purpose, whether ritual sacrifice or offering, probably required the complete camelid “body”—hence, the rope bindings or the broken figurine legs seem to be part of this outlook, since they help ensure the integrity and viability of the camelid’s trunk portion (the vehicle for the life vitality being transacted). Taken together, the camelid images reflect their novelty and importance for the Pashash people. Not only did they signal and display the accumulation of wealth and prestige goods locally at Pashash. As a conspicuous act, the offering removed them from circulation. Perhaps most important, persons of special standing, particularly leaders, explicitly linked themselves with camelids as part of their high status; camelids, along with signs of warriorhood, helped constitute their identity (Figure 3, 10). While this link had been noted before iconographically, such effigies have never formerly been reported from their original contexts, and certainly not from a known political center, like Pashash, where nobles lived and performed administrative and ritual activities of their lordship (Grieder 1978). It is worth noting that previous scholarship hypothesized that mobile camelid herding was more important for the southern Recuay, while the northern Recuay (e.g., Pashash) was seen to be more reliant on sedentary cultivation practices (Smith Jr. 1978: 34-35). The reasoning took into account extensive high-altitude pasturelands associated with the Cordilleras Blanca and Negra further south, colonial historical accounts, and, up to that point, the greater presence of camelid representations, including those combining human and camelid figures. The 2019 discoveries indicate that the Recuay communities at Pashash were just as committed to herding and the emergent moral economy of camelids. The 2019 faunal assemblage require further systematic study. But the assemblage is substantial[14] and there is no doubt that camelids were routinely consumed and their remains were discarded on the La Capilla hilltop. Large-scale deposits of refuse in one sector at the foot of the principal compound contained large quantities of butchered bone and abundant broken fancy serving vessels. Handled bowls (for handling soups and stews) comprised one of two principal shapes recovered. The corpus, when fully studied, will offer key data to compare consumption patterns of hilltop sites further south, associated with feasts and labor recruitment by increasingly powerful lords (Bria 2017; Gero 1992; Lau 2002). Notwithstanding, it is clear now that camelids were not simply a source of meat provision. The imagery of camelid items at Pashash and other communities across the Recuay commonwealth reveals that the animals served as a form of symbolic currency that enhanced the prestige and authority of local leaders and their respective groups. The new data from Pashash, when combined with the wider Recuay record, have significant implications for Central Andean prehistory. It is clear that highland groups in northern Peru seized on the benefits of camelid-based practices initiated by groups of the preceding centuries. Once domestic animals and herding strategies were adopted, camelid production intensified dramatically and directly impacted other domains (e.g., potting, exchange, and weaving), as Tello (1929) observed almost a century ago. Ultimately, the new Pashash data shed light on how camelids became increasingly integrated into new modes of social life and cultural production. Besides the pervasiveness of camelid products at the domestic level, camelids became vital components in public rituals (feasts, burials, and sacrifices). These were local, community-based ceremonial initiatives that seem, at least in terms of associated imagery, dramatically different from what occurred before with the Chavín culture. Herded animals also became resources for political authority in northern Peru: specifically, leaders began to depict themselves with camelids directly as signs of distinction. A “moral economy” incorporated camelids as part of cultural experiments for a new kind of social order—in which camelids intervened as key actors in the flows of work, production, and ritual obligations seen as crucial for collective well-being and reproduction. It is remarkable that such pivotal transformations took place in northern Peru, and not in those areas often seen to be the core heartlands for camelid herding, intensification, and species diversity, namely southern Peru and the Titicaca altiplano. Areas with already competing political ethnic communities, strongly compressed vertical zonation, and more circumscribed pasturelands may have been critical factors fueling the new transformations. Ultimately, more data and research are needed to evaluate early social complexity based on agro-pastoralism. The evidence of small camelid representations in clay help illuminate one dimension of this larger question.


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[1] Tello’s stance was therefore also social commentary about early 20th-century Peru; he unmasked how the gaps in Peruvian prehistory derived from regional sampling and prejudices, both methodological and sociological.

[2] This is essentially a provisional social ascription given to heterogeneous social arrangements made up of peoples sharing these distinctive cultural features (see Lau 2011: 13-17).

[3] “House” here refers to both the physical structure and social organization (Lau 2010b).

[4] On “platform-block” buildings, see Lau (2011: 69).

[5] Owing to lack of time and the integrity of the pit walls, it was not possible to extend the excavation further toward the east to see the articulation with Grieder’s pits, but it is clear from the artifacts that the deposits were of the same style and general timeframe as the temple burial.

[6] Grieder (1978: 45-49) believed the burial space was a “temple” and was built around the burial chamber in one single program, but he could not readily explain why the walls above the tomb were so low.

[7] Bones were identified, but the remains were poorly preserved and could not be studied. Given the remains of weaving equipment and pins, Grieder (1978: 52) suggested tentatively that the burial was of a noble woman.

[8] Aside from some broken parts, the pendants do not show much indication of wear or abrasion.

[9] Accounts witnessed the splashing and smearing of blood on camelids during colonial period camelid sacrifices (Arriaga 1999). The uncovered skin of human figures in Recuay ceramic imagery was painted in the same bright red color.

[10] This does not exclude them from being hung as pendants, but the absence of a hole is merely one clear formal difference from the pendants.

[11] It is possible, of course, that the string holding the pendant might have been seen metonymically as a kind of rope, tethering the camelid miniature to the person.

[12] Retainers or “guards” in Moche royal burials have been found without feet (Alva and Donnan 1993).

[13] There are many pairs of objects in the offering, including of pins (and their miniatures) and of ceramic vessels. The offering’s dualism will be more fully detailed at another opportunity.

[14] A basic inventory indicates substantial representation by camelids, followed by minor quantities of deer, guinea pig, and smaller rodents.

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