Organic material remains for thousands of years, when there is no humidity, no light, no air. In the graves along the coast of Peru such conditions are present, and textiles, feathers, bone, straw etc. have been preserved for thousands of years.
Pre Columbian textiles are in the collections of almost all the ethnographic museums around the world. Among the most splendid of these textiles are the feather textiles – mostly as tunics, bands and hat ornaments. The textiles consist of a plain-woven cotton textile onto which differently coloured feather fringes, tied with cotton yarns, are stitched on in various patterns. Other feather objects, like hats or earplugs have feathers glued on with a resin as a mosaic. And others are feather fans that were used for ornaments on hats and staffs.
The Paracas culture (500 BC-AD 500) has innumerable examples of mixed ”bird-people” embroidered on their textiles. Whether it is supernatural beings or people in bird costumes is hard to tell. Other cultures like Lambayeque (900-1300 AD) and Chimu (1000-1450 AD) depict mostly natural birds on their weavings.
The birds used in the feather textiles on the coast were local (Moskowich duck) or imported from the jungle (Ara, Tukan). They were either transported alive and kept in cages on the coast or the feathers were delivered as tribute or tax. The feathers were also dyed – some times with tapirage (plucking a bird and smearing dye onto its skin, that will eventually enter the feather follicles and dye the next set of feathers while growing out).
The feather textiles were very valuable – we know from the colonial chroniclers that among the Incas only the richest were allowed to wear feather textiles. The closest relatives of the Inca wore one or two falcon feathers in their headgear; the Inca himself was wearing two of the wing feathers striped in black and white.
After the Spanish conquest, in 18th century-Mexico, non colonised native Indians are depicted by Mexican painters in series of paintings of castes wearing red, blue and white feathers in their clothing and body adornment. A similar head ornament as the pre Hispanic one kept at the ethnographic museum in Berlin.
Pre Columbian Textiles in the Ethnological Museum in BERLIN, University of Nebraska (2017) www.digitalcommons/zeabook/52
Pre Columbian Textiles Conference VII, CTR, Copenhagen, 2016, University of Nebraska (forthcoming September 2017) www.digitalcommons/zeabook