Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino

Art > Selected Pieces

  • Fishermen’s Headdress

    One of the identifying features of pre-Hispanic coastal communities of Northern Chile was the simple diadem, a headdress made with pelican feathers. This kind of headdress has been found in cemeteries south of Iquique all the way to Arica, in association with implements for fishing, hunting and marine gathering, as well as with miniature models of three-beamed rafts with paddles.
    If the feather diadem was emblematic for the desert coast fishermen, this may indicate that these ancient people identified with these marine birds whose feathers were used to adorn them. After all, the pelicans depended on the same marine resources as the fishing groups for their survival.
    Diadema de plumas de pelicano, Pescadores Tardíos Arica, 1000-1536 d.C.
  • Art Up Close and Personal

    The most beautiful and interesting pieces of the ‘drug kit’ used by pre-Hispanic societies in San Pedro de Atacama for snuffing psychoactive substances were made out of wood or bone. The artists incised and/or carved these raw materials to create tablets, tubes, miniature mortars and tiny spoons with finely detailed images in two- and three-dimensions and even bas-relief. Certain details were accentuated by embedding small fragments of seashells, semiprecious stones and/or gold, which were affixed to the surface with plant resin.
    The vast majority of these pieces are less than 20 centimeters long, making them highly portable. Their tiny motifs are often less than 1 cm in area, indicating clearly that they were designed to be seen from very close range, such as when an individual was leaning down to snuff hallucinogenic powder.
  • Sea lion skin rafts

    The sea lion skin raft appeared in Northern Chile in the first millennium of the Common Era (0–1000 CE). This watercraft consisted of two inflated sea lion skins sewn up with tendons and cactus needles and waterproofed with clay and sea lion oil. A wooden frame placed on top provided a deck to hold the crew. These vessels were propelled by double-bladed wooden paddles. Smaller versions of the raft held a single crewmember, while larger ones could transport several crewmembers and more cargo.
    This sculpture, made of finely polished andesite, represents a large raft with ample space for cargo and was probably carved during Inca times. Two seated rowers—one at the prow and the other at the stern—sail the vessel, and a catch of four large fish hang overboard.
  • Toasting, Inka Style

    In the past, toasting with alcoholic beverages was both a central element of Andean celebrations and a political ritual. When the Inka arrived to conquer a region, they would first demand peaceful submission from local chiefs. Those chiefs that accepted were presented with gifts, including wooden cups or keros for drinking chicha, a fermented beverage. These keros remained in the community as a permanent reminder of the community’s new inalterable relation of power with the Inka State.
    The kero cups embedded in the mud walls of the monumental funerary towers built by the Aymara people in the Altiplano of Chile and Bolivia are thought to symbolize the political alliances that the Inka entered into with the local chiefs who were found buried inside.


  • ‘Lost wax’ bronzes

    This bronze piece was found in Illapel and is one nearly 30 bronze discs that have been attributed to the Aguada, one of the most important cultural traditions of Northwest Argentina. The piece represents the “Lord of the Empty Hands”, a pan-Andean sun-god who was worshipped in different forms up to Inka times. The bronze was made using the ‘lost wax’ technique. In this technique, the artist begins by carefully crafting a wax mold of the disc. The mold is then covered in several layers of clay, leaving a hole through which the metal will be poured.
    After it has been left to dry for several days, the entire piece is placed in the fire, where the wax melts and the clay is hardened. The result is a hollow ceramic mold that contains a negative of the disc that the artist wishes to produce, including all details added to the original wax mold. The smelted bronze is then poured through the hole and left to solidify, then the artist breaks the clay mold to release the bronze disc enclosed within it.
  • Caicai and Trentren

    Caicai and Trentren are two serpents from Mapuche mythology. Caicai lives in the sea, Trentren on the land. Mapuche legend relates that when Caicai awoke from slumber, became witnessed the ingratitude of humans for everything the sea had provided for them. Furious, he hit the water with his tail, causing a great wave to flood the earth. Terrified, the humans who lived on the land attempted to save themselves. They were assisted by Trentren, who ordered the hills to rise to save them from the flood unleashed by Caicai.
    The struggle between the two powerful beings continued until both became tired, and the Chilean landscape was left as we know it today. The tidal waves and earthquakes that plague this land from time to time are believed to be manifestations of this ongoing antagonism between the two serpents. This star-shaped mace decorated with a serpent and lizard could be an archaic representation of these two powerful mythological reptiles.
  • Leather Armor

    Before going into battle, Andean warriors altered their state of consciousness by using hallucinogenic substances that allowed them to imagine themselves as jaguars, pumas, mountain lions, foxes, hawks, serpents and other beings that represented deities. Their transformation was assisted by the use of exotic accessories to change the warriors’ appearance. Thus, instead of becoming an animal, a warrior would “change his skin” using clothing and/or accessories to absorb the attributes and powers of these large predators.
    Armor such as the suit shown—made from the skin of caimans and monkeys, two animals rarely seen in northern Chile—tells us that the warriors of this region obtained hides from the eastern jungles to make their transformative attire.
  • From the Crucible to the Mold

    In ancient times, the crucible was the recipient in which ore was melted in the smelting oven. Crucibles were usually made with refractory ceramics to ensure they could withstand temperatures higher than 1000 °C and the chemical action of the hot metal. Some crucibles had notches that functioned as spouts, while others were slightly indented so they could be more easily gripped with long wooden handles. Another kind had a circular hole to drain the smelted metal into molds, as well as a plug to control the flow through the hole.
    Ancient groups used the molds to make small bars that were then used to manufacture different objects. They made metal foil and hammered metal, and reheated smelted metal to increase its malleability and allow objects to be shaped. Three-dimensional sculpted objects and elaborately decorated ones could also be made by pouring the liquid metal into molds using the ‘lost wax’ technique.
    Fundición de un hacha.
  • Ketru–Emblem of the Married Mapuche Woman

    The ketru metawe is an asymmetrical pitcher in the shape of a duck. Many of these vessels have wings, tails and female breasts, and some include a duckling carried on the back of the larger duck. In the Mapuche tradition, the machi (shaman) gives a ketru metawe to a Mapuche woman after she is married, when custom dictates that the woman leave her family home to go and live with her husband’s family.
    This symbol reflects the behavior of the female ketru duck, which usually moves to the territory of her (male) mate, a situaiton analagous to the Mapuche matrimonial tradition. Like the male ketru, the Mapuche husband is expected to protect the female and her offspring. The ketru metawe is reserved almost exclusively for married women and is used in high profile communal ceremonies such as the nguillatun.
  • Implements for Inhaling Hallucinogenic Substances

    The nasal inhalation or ‘snuffing’ of hallucinogenic substances was a very common practice among the pre-Hispanic peoples of northern Chile. The substances inhaled were usually made from the seeds of the cebil tree, Anadenanthera colubrina, which grows on the eastern side of the Andes. The prepared substance was stored in a cane or bone container or in a leather pouch.
    To prepare the substance, the seeds were crushed to powder in a mortar. For snuffing the powder was dropped on the tablet using a special spoon and spread around the surface with a brush. The inhaler inserted one end of the tube into one nostril and snuffed the psychoactive powder from the tablet while covering the other nostril. Cactus needles were probably used to clean out the inhaling tubes. This ancient “drug kit” would have been stored in a small woolen pouch.
  • Disc-shaped Hat

    Many of these headdresses have been found in the cemeteries of the Pica Oasis. The hats consist of a wide circular brim of coiled plant fiber sewn together with yarn, with a thick bunch of braided fibers and colorful feathers emerging from the center of the disc at the top. A fiber ring attached to the underside of the brim allowed the hat to be perched on the top of the wearer’s head, while a cord tied under the chin held it in place.
    The light, permeable structure of these hats made them unsuitable for wearing in the rainy mountainous zones of the region, but would have offered ample protection from the strong rays of the desert sun. In fact, they are the only local headpiece made especially to shield the wearer from the sun.
  • The Kultrun

    The kultrun is the quintessential musical instrument of the Mapuche machi (shaman). It is a large wooden kettledrum made from the hollow-out trunk of a “tree of power” that is considered to represent the earth. Each machi paints his or her drum with the same general design, adding his or her own unique touches as well. The leather drumhead bears two crossed lines to represent the Mapuche division of the world into four parts. The machi’s place is at the center of these four corners of the world, surrounded by the astral powers that assist him or her.
    The interior of the kultrun contains magic objects as well as the voice of the machi, which was introduced as the drum was made. The kultrun is played close to the ear so that its rich sound saturates the awareness of the player and encourages a state of trance.
  • The Sacrificer

    The Sacrificer is an Andean figure who carries an axe in one hand and a severed head in the other. He appears in rock art and on dozens of wood and bone objects found in northern Chile. The classic interpretation of the Sacrificer is that the severed heads were ritually removed from the Sacrificer’s enemies as trophies of war. An alternate explanation is tied to the belief that the deceased watch over agricultural fields and ensure a bountiful harvest.
    Just as the farmers cut the heads of the potatoes and plant them to obtain new potatoes, the Sacrificer removed certain parts of the human body and planted them in the earth to release their power to renew not only crops but the community itself.
  • Aymara Headdress

    This is the typical headdress worn in pre-Hispanic times by the Aymaras who came down to the northern coast of Chile. It is a flat-topped cone-shaped Fez-style hat. These hats were constructed from the top down, starting with a small disc that was used for the top. Multiply camelid yarn was used to create the basic structure using a needle. The central disc was made first as a coil, then the sides were constructed with successive rows of intertwined yarn. Some of these hats have designs in different colored yarn on their sides. Some also feature a cord for tying the hat under the chin and/or a feather crest fixed on the inside of the hat with a cactus needle pin or yarn.
    Hats of a single color identified members of the Pacajes people of Lake Titicaca, while multicolored ones were used by the Carangas, Aullagas and Quillacas peoples who lived south of the lake.
  • Llama Caravans in the Desert

    At least once every year, Altiplano herders would journey to the lowlands with their llama herds in order to exchange locally made goods for those produced by lowland farming communities. The caravans required male cargo llamas, a network of cattle trails and rudimentary way stations with suitable forage, water, firewood, and shelter. These llama trains usually consisted of up to 50 llamas and could cover up to 20 kilometers in a single day on expeditions that lasted anywhere from five days to four months.
    The llamas carried an average load of 30 kilograms each in sacks tied onto their backs with rope and cargo hooks. The lead llama went first, wearing a wooden bell, while the caravan driver walked behind the train armed with a slingshot, which he used to encourage the animals to keep moving.
    Talega con diseños listados
  • Feline and Human Motifs on Atacameña Spoons

    The idea that certain powerful animals could act as the alter egos of humans is a common belief in contemporary indigenous cultures and has been used often to interpret the presence of felines on many pre-Columbian artifacts. In many South American cultures these images are associated with the consumption of psychoactive substances.
    Nevertheless, the exact use of these spoons from San Pedro de Atacama remains unknown. Their length, width and slight curvature suggest that they were used with wide-mouthed, low-sided recipients. Their shallowness indicates that they were better suited to stirring liquids or solids inside recipients than in transfering them from one to another and the differential wear on one edge indicates they were used with a sideways motion.
    Cuchara de madera del Período Medio con felino y ser humano.
  • Wooden People

    Up until the early 20th Century, the Mapuche used large wooden statues called chemamull in their kurikawin or funerary rites. These enormous wooden statues were placed beside the deceased person while a long line of relatives and leaders eulogized the deceased person, recalling his or her greatest achievements. In the final stage of the ceremony the chemamull were erected beside the tomb to mark the final resting place of the body.
    These funerary rites followed strict guidelines to prevent the spirit of the deceased person from being captured by a witch or becoming a malignant spirit before being transformed into an ancestor who would protect the other members of the family group.
    Chemamulles, Cultura Mapuche.
  • Warrior Headgear

    From 1000 to 1400 C.E., the use of maces and other large weapons reached a peak among northern Chilean groups. To defend themselves against these heavy weapons, opposing combatants wore helmets consisting of a dense, solid wooden shell covered with coils of twisted plant fiber bound with camelid yarn. Tied under the chin with a cord, the helmet protected the wearer’s head, ears and neck. A narrow notch at the front allowed him to see.
    Designs made of colored yarn and insignias attached to the helmet’s surface probably served as heraldic crests or marks of rank. The striking feather crest may have been intended to increase the warrior’s stature and to intimidate opponents.

    Sources:   J. Palma, 1993, “Análisis técnico de dos gorros del oasis de Pica confeccionados con técnica de cestería”, en Identidad y prestigio en los Andes: gorros, turbantes y diademas, pp. 84-87, Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, Santiago.   J. Berenguer, 2006, “Señales en la cabeza. Los tocados de Wirakocha en el norte de Chile”, in Gorros del desierto, pp. 38-40, Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, Santiago.

    Casco, Complejo Pica-Tarapacá, 1000-1450 d.C. Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino / Donación Santa Cruz-Yaconi Nº 1765 AB (foto Fernando Maldonado).
  • Three-beamed raft

    Dozens of miniature replicas of the ancient three-beamed raft have been found in ancient tombs near the desert coasts of southern Peru and northern Chile, especially near Arica. The replicas are painted with red stripes and were left as grave offerings by local fishing cultures in the late pre-Hispanic period. The rafts are made of three logs tied together with rope to form a deck, and are accompanied by double bladed paddles.
    A 16th Century drawing shows two of these small watercraft manned by a crew sitting astride the middle and performing a collective maneuver with a fishing net, called trawling or “al balseo”. Because of their simple and efficient design, these vessels have remained in use until very recently in isolated fishing villages and coastal towns on the northern Chilean and southern Peruvian coast, and they are still in use today in a few traditional fishing villages in southern Peru.
    Miniaturas de remos, Pescadores Tardíos de Arica, 1000-1535 d.C.
    Miniatura de balsa de tres palos, Pescadores Tardíos de Arica, 1000-1535 d.C.
  • The Spear-thrower

    The spear thrower, also known as the atlatl, replaced the lance as the weapon of choice for hunting and personal defense among pre-Hispanic societies. These instruments were made of an extended piece of wood or bone with a spur at one end that would fit into a hole at the end of the dart. The thrower would hold both instruments in his hand then launch them forward, releasing the dart and holding on to the thrower. The thrower increased the force with which the dart could be thrown, increasing both the range and precision of this weapon.
    The spear-thrower was later replaced by the bow and arrow, but iconography from later times continued to show important figures holding atlatls in their hands, indicating that the weapon remained a symbol of rank, like the saber in modern military forces.
  • Flutes and “Chinos”

    The history of the flutes of Central Chile began some 2000 years ago on the southern coast of Peru, when musicians and artists of the Parakas culture invented the “complex tube”. This tube had two or three internal diameters, which produced what is called “torn sound”, a multiphonic, dissonant, trilled sound that is a dominant esthetic of Andean flute music. This complex tube spread through time, space and cultures to leave its mark among the Nasca, Tiwanaku, San Pedro de Atacama, Diaguita, Aconcagua and Araucanía peoples.
    The tube and its unique sound are still in use today in the “Chino” dances performed by groups in traditional campesino, fishing and mining villages between Copiapó and the Aconcagua Valley. The groups that perform these dances are guilds of flute-playing dancers who express their faith through the music and dances they perform at community rituals that fuse indigenous pre-Hispanic beliefs with Catholic religious practices.
    Flauta de piedra.
    Flauta de piedra.
    Flauta de piedra.
  • The Image of the Shaman

    The carved figure on this tablet—which was used for snuffing hallucinogenic powder—is similar to one that appears in stone sculptures at Tiwanaku, as well as on other tablets and textiles found in cemeteries within the wide range of influence of the Alitplano culture of Tiwanaku. The image displays a figure with head facing upward, kneeling with one knee on the ground. It represents the typical pose a shaman would take when in a trance induced by hallucinogenic substances.
    The crossed fangs represent the transformation of the shaman into a feline, an animal that was closely associated with the use of visionary plants. The figure’s long snout seems to emphasize the pathway through which the drug was inhaled, and the substance issuing from his mouth may represent the saliva, or the vomit often produced by individuals in an ecstatic trance state.
    Personaje con atributos chamánicos en túnica del Período Medio de Pulacayo, Bolivia. Foto de Fernando Maldonado publicada en libro Tiwanaku, Señores del Lago Sag rado, 2000: 87 Textil de Pulacayo, Cultura Tiwanaku, 700-1000 d.C., Museo Arte Indígena ASUR, Sucre. (Tiwanaku 2000: 87)
    Personajes con atributos chamánicos.
    Tableta para alucinógenos del Período Medio.
  • Social Organization Depicted on a Gourd

    Las sociedades indígenas del norte de Chile estaban internamente organizadas según principios de dualidad y jerarquía. Había también alianzas entre los diversos grupos étnicos. Es probable que uno de estos tipos de organización se encuentre representado en este recipiente de calabaza decorado mediante técnica de pirograbado. El cuenco muestra una hilera de 12 personajes. Seis de ellos visten trajes en forma de escudo y otros cinco llevan lo que parecen ser corazas de cuero, uno de los cuales sostiene un hacha en la mano.
    El personaje restante combina prendas de ambos grupos: los escudos con el grupo de la izquierda y los tocados con el de la derecha. ¿Constituye este ordenamiento una versión iconográfica de la organización dual de las sociedades locales, o más bien, alude a una alianza interétnica como la que operaba en el área entre atacamas y chichas al arribo de los españoles en el siglo XVI?
    Calabaza pirograbada
  • Diaguita Clothing

    The humid conditions in the region known as the ‘Norte Chico’ of Chile prevented many archeological objects made from perishable materials from being preserved. This is especially true of clothing items, and not a single article of clothing woven by the Diaguita people has been found in this vast territory.Nevertheless, the intricate designs that decorate the Diaguita’s beautiful multicolor ceramic pieces seem to correspond to textile patterns. Detailed examination of the so-called “Jarros Pato” (duck-shaped jugs) shows that many designs are also drawn on the bodies of human figures depicted on these ceramic pieces.
    For example, the decorated band applied to the foreheads of individuals depicted on Diaguita ceramics appear similar to the headbands used today by Mapuche leaders. The “V” shape found below the head of such figures also seems to represent the familiar notch found in the woven tunic or Andean poncho, while the band painted below it appears to be the patch that reinforces this notched opening.
    Jarro-pato Cultura Diaguita.
    Jarro-pato Cultura Diaguita.
  • Inka Provincial Ceramics

    The aríbalo jug, the pedestal pot and the plate together consituted the basic set of ceramic vessels used by individuals and groups residing in provinces under Inka Imperial rule. The aríbalo was used to store and transport chicha, a local corn beer that was often enjoyed at social meetings or gatherings. The pedestal pot, which often had a lid as well, was used to prepare corn-based stews or to heat up or store cooked food.
    These vessels were often brought as “campaign pots” on military campaigns from the Inka capital of Cuzco. Lastly, the plate was used to serve individual portions of solid or semi-solid food, including meat. These three kinds of dishes would have been handled mainly be women, as they were the ones who stored and served food and beverages in these pre-Hispanic times.
    Vajilla inkaica, Collacagua. Fotografía, Archivo José Berenguer, Proyecto Fondecyt 1050276
  • Pipes of Central Chile

    Ritual pipe smoking was a common practice among early agricultural groups in the region, but the custom seems to have disappeared around 400 C.E. in Chile’s far north (Norte Grande) and around 1000 C.E. in the near north (Norte Chico) and Central Chile. It is still practiced, however, among the machis (shamans) of the Araucanía region in rituals for agricultural fertility, healing and prophesying. The pipes used in Central Chile were made of ceramic and were used to inhale psychoactive substances.
    These pipes were engraved with decorative motifs and had a T-shape, with a hole at either end. An assistant would blow into one hole to ensure the smoker inhaled the alkaloid deeply. The many different kinds of pipes suggest that different communities made their own styles of pipe. Pipes found at territorial borders suggest that these implements were used not only for agricultural rituals but also in encounters between different communities.
    Pipa en T de cerámica, Chile central. Donación Santa Cruz-Yaconi Nº 2300, 2391 y 2469.
    Pipa en T de cerámica, Chile central
    Pipa en T de cerámica, Chile central
  • Tiwanaku Hats in Arica

    The people associated with the Tiwanaku culture in Arica customarily wore one of two kinds of hats. One was the multicolored four-cornered hat. The other was the single or bi-colored four-cornered hat, which was usually made in dark colors. The former were worn by members of the elite class and the latter by less distinguished members of Tiwanaku society. These hats remained popular even after the collapse of the Altiplano Tiwanaku Empire.
    The lower or middle zone of the multicolored version often featured a zigzagging line with interspersed motifs, a design similar to the bas reliefs found at the Tiwanaku capital. Heads of birds of prey are placed in juxtaposed pairs looking upward, forming stepped designs that evoke the stepped pyramids of that Alitplano site. The points of the hats represent the heads of these upward-gazing birds, and some of them even have wings.
    Gorro de 4 puntas monocromo.
  • Turbans in the Americas

    The turbans used by the pre-Hispanic inhabitants of Northern Chile consisted of yarn and skeins of yarn up to four meters long that were wound around the entire head, leaving just the face exposed. Because of their pliability, these headdresses easily accommodated the cranial deformations displayed by individuals from some ancient South American indigenous groups. Such deformations were the result of being subjected to cranial deformation practices beginning in early childhood.
    Many turbans have arrowheads, hooks, and even harpoon heads affixed to the skeins, as emblems of the activities practiced by the wearer. Other adornments—such as the claws of birds of prey, tubes for inhaling hallucinogenic substances, reverse-twisted yarn, bunches of dyed human hair and copper serpent brooches—suggest that some of these headdresses also had magical or ritual functions.
  • Males and Females on Diaguita Ceramic Vessels

    Many of the ceramic serving bowls produced by the Diaguita Culture bear the image of a male feline head on their exterior surface, probably a jaguar or other spotted cat judging by the spots painted on the face. At the back end, these figures often have a tail-like appendage. In contrast, feline representations found on small bowls are usually female. The artist who crafted this small molded bowl, for instance, took pains to depict an unequivocally female cat that contrasts markedly with the images found on larger serving bowls.
    It appears that the generic feline shape applied regularly to serving bowls was considered male by default. Female felines, on the other hand, were rarely depicted, and then only on small bowls and with the vulva explicitly indicated.
    Escudilla zoomorfa policroma, Cultura Diaguita.
    Recipiente felino Cultura Diaguita.

Selected Pieces