THE TEXTILES OF
THE PARACAS CULTURES
One of the main reasons why the Paracas Culture is well known is for the quality of its textiles, especially those belonging to the "Paracas Necropolis" period, dating from 500 BC and constituting an exceptionally beautiful expression of this culture.
As from the period of the Spanish conquest, the existence of these textiles, used as bartering items for diplomatic and military negotiations, as well as votive offerings in religious ceremonies and death shrouds, has been amply documented.
It is important to stress that these textiles are constantly associated with circles of power. The most important rulers owned a greater number of them during their life, and were buried with a greater number at their death. Thus they may be considered to be a symbol of wealth. In some religious rites, textile items were actually "sacrificed", showing their primordial importance in the Paracas Culture.
An interesting aspect of the religions of the Paracas and all the other known pre-Hispanic cultures, is their cult of the dead, evidencing a deep interest in conciliating all the different traditions and rituals transmitted orally from one generation to the next, as well as the painstaking care shown in their preparation of cemeteries, funeral wraps and each of the items that accompanied the deceased on his or her final voyage.
Paracas, as an archaeological site, was discovered in 1925, when the Cabeza Larga and Cavernas Areas were found. Later, in 1927, a third archaeological site was found at the foot of Cerro Colorado, between the two; this place has been called the "Paracas Necropolis", because it was one huge cemetery - a veritable city of the dead, buried in all their finery and adorned with ceremonial and symbolic items; each of the differently sized compartments was considered a "funeral chamber", and a total of 429 corpses were found, wrapped in marvelous embroidered shrouds. The funeral chambers had been built over the remains of older settlements.
Each "wrap" contained the deceased in a fetal position, wrapped in spectacular shrouds and placed on top of a basket. Generally there were also funeral offerings, such as seashells, scepters, a turban, ceramic dishes with some corncobs, some minor gold jewelry items sewn onto the shrouds, as well as surgical instruments or weaving equipment. Each of these items, constituting a complete funeral "trousseau" of the person's belongings and obviously used during his or her life, was carefully placed beside the deceased for the final journey.
Another interesting aspect of the Paracas culture is the widespread "trepanning of skulls". Although the reason for this practice is not known, the most prevalent theories are that skull fractures were frequent in battle at that time, or that it might have been used as a way of relieving constant headaches. The operation was carried out under anesthetic, probably using coca, alcohol or even hypnosis. Then, with an obsidian (flint) scalpel, the scalp and muscles were cut away, baring the bone of the skull. After this, the surgeon had a choice of three options: cutting away the affected area, marking it out with a series of small drill-holes, cleaning and polishing the bone, which might be fissured, thus enabling it to reseal, and finally cutting through the perimeter of drill-holes, substituting the bone with a gold plate, closing the wound and applying bandages.
Another exceedingly intriguing aspect is the voluntary deforming of the skulls, the reason for this frequent practice in the Paracas culture not yet being clearly known, although it might have been done for magic or ritualistic reasons or for esthetic purposes. The method used for deforming the skull of a newborn baby was to tie a cushioned wooden framework to the anterior and posterior areas of its skull until the deformation was considered irreversible. Although it is known that this procedure did not cause any mental disability, it might have produced an altered perception of reality.
By the amount of gold found in the Paracas tombs, it is known that these people were great goldsmiths. They melted gold nuggets, forming bars which were later laminated by hammering them into thin sheets or threads as fine as a human hair. Afterwards, the sheets could be cut, hammered, engraved or used for repousse work, and sometimes used to manufacture swallow-shaped diadems, cats' ears, and nose ornaments simulating feline whiskers or birds' beaks.
Finally, we can state that the technique for manufacturing these beautiful blankets involved growing the special fibers, using special dyes and weaving the cloth in simple waist-type looms (for daily clothes) and more sophisticated looms and more complex techniques to weave a fabric combining cotton and wool for the higher quality textiles.
The Paracas also knitted fishing nets. We must not forget that they lived by the sea, from which they obtained their sustenance, so it was very important for them to have the right working tools.
The men of the Paracas Culture wore a turban called llanto, for everyday use, as well as an unku, a kind of sleeveless waist-length shirt. Occasionally they wore escalvinas, a kind of small poncho, the men wearing loincloths and the women a skirt. As footwear they generally used vegetable fiber sandals which could be combined with the hide or fur of some mammal.
A strange thing happened once to Dr Julio C. Tello. On one of his frequent unwrappings of a funeral "wrap", after having taken all necessary precautions, he and his team proceeded to slowly unwrap the many layers of shrouds blanketing the corpse, finding a series of attractive, finely embroidered textiles and offerings wrapped in each of the layers. However, when the actual "corpse" was laid bare when the last shroud was removed, it turned out to be a small bag of black beans! Nobody will ever know what happened.