What can small-scale ceramic figurines tell us about the past? It turns out, they can tell us a great deal about cultures that no longer exist. A wonderful example is a Chancay female figure from 1200–1450.
The Chancay people lived on the central coast of Peru, centered on the Chancay river valley (approximately 80 kilometers north of Lima) from c. 1000 C.E. until their conquest by the Chimú and then the Inka in the fifteenth century. They were expert weavers, creating fine cloth as well as fiber sculptures, but they also created ceramic sculptures in a distinctive style. Among them are standing figures of both men and women, painted in a brown-black over a creamy white slip.
The Standing Female Figure is relatively large (over eighteen inches tall), hollow, and likely made by joining slabs of clay together, although molds could have been part of that process. The surface of the figure is painted with a white slip that was then overpainted with brown-black slip designs. The abstracted body is characterized by a large head, wide torso, and long, large legs with big feet that help to hold the sculpture upright. The small arms are relatively flat, with a bend at the elbow and paddle-like hands.
Her facial features are small compared to the overall head, with oval eyes, a sharply triangular nose, and a small mouth that is partially obscured by the decorative pattern on her chin that is made up of two serrated lines (this is actually an animal mouth painted over her actual mouth, as discussed below). Her face and head are in fact painted with a number of patterns made up of lines with a consistent thickness.
At the top of her head, vertical lines delineate sections that are filled with a shape reminiscent of a step or mountain range. A design similar to this is found in most ancient Andean visual vocabularies, especially in textiles. Beneath that, a band with a more complex pattern features white circles outlined in black, with a black dot at the center. These circles fit into triangular shapes, alternating point up and point down, with a space in between decorated with curved and straight lines. This may be meant to indicate a textile headband, but the design does not wrap around the back of the head the way the design on the torso does. The corners of her eyes are linked to the bottom of the band by two thin lines set at a diagonal, with more dotted circles in between the lines and curves fringing the outer edges.
While the figure at first appears to be wearing a patterned tunic and nude from the waist down, the decoration on her torso is probably intended to represent body paint or tattooing. It consists of a black background, a frame-like border made up of two white lines, and white spots, some of which have a pattern in the center made up of two crossed lines and four dots. Two of the spots that do not have the central pattern actually surround small bumps that indicate breasts.
While not visible in the photographs, there is a faint impression of a textile on the sculpture that indicates that this figure was originally meant to be dressed, further indicating that the torso patterning is body decoration. The holes across the top of the head indicate that along with her dress, she would have been adorned with perhaps a feather headdress or other head ornament.
…and something else
The decoration of the body paint on the standing figure’s torso may just look like irregular splotches of white on a dark background, but Dr. Rebecca Stone has noted that the spots, along with the wide, toothy mouth painted over her actual mouth, likely reference the whale shark. Stone has also pointed out that the white strip down the back of the figure’s torso echoes the white line of dots that can highlight the edge of the shark’s dorsal fin. The whale shark is the largest living species of fish, with an average length of 32 feet and weight of 20,000 pounds. Their mouths can be up to 4.9 feet wide, and are filled with tiny teeth and filters for feeding on plankton and very small fish. As they are not predators, their attitude towards humans has historically been one of docile indifference.
These whale shark attributes, layered over her human body, could be indications that this figure is being depicted as a ritual specialist transforming into a spiritual alter ego to travel into the spirit world, and whose animal self is the whale shark. While the whale shark is not a fierce predator like a jaguar, harpy eagle, or caiman — apex predators that are commonly associated with ritual transformation in Andean art — they are formidable in size, and are able to move from the surface of the water to depths of several thousand feet, which may have been thought of as an ability to travel between this world and the underworld, just as ritual specialists could travel between this world and the next. It is also possible that the woman’s body paint marks her as a member of a clan or other lineage group associated with the whale shark, perhaps claiming it as an ancestor.
Female whale sharks can produce large litters of pups, perhaps also linking them with fertility in the minds of the Chancay people, and making this the spiritual power that the whale shark (as spiritual alter ego or as lineage ancestor) was thought to wield. Her wide, staring eyes may allude to trance or spiritual sight (the ability to see into the spirit world), but they also dovetail with the whale shark’s ability to roll its eyes back and pull them into its head, which must have made a strong impression on the Chancay people who witnessed it. The blending of human and animal traits in this figure shows us that the Chancay people were keen observers of nature, and that their beliefs were combined with what they knew about the natural world.
Rebecca R. Stone, Art of the Andes: From Chavín to Inca (London: Thames & Hudson 2012)
Rebecca R. Stone, The Jaguar Within: Shamanic Trance in Ancient Central and South American Art (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011)
Rebecca R. Stone and William B. Size, Seeing with New Eyes: Highlights of the Michael C. Carlos Museum Collection of Art of the Ancient Americas (Atlanta: Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, 2002)