Threads of Time: Tradition and Change in Indigenous American Textiles

Tapestry Tunic Fragment with Staffbearer



Tapestry Tunic Fragment with Staffbearer


This tiny bit of a very fine tapestry is all that is left from a Tiwanaku-style textile dating to around 600 AD. It features a human arm and hand grasping some kind of a staff, facing right. It was once connected to a very complex body with wings and a human or an animal head (either a puma or a condor). This transformative flying animal-shaman figure was ubiquitous in the Wari and Tiwanaku cultures that jointly ruled most of what is now PerĂº and Bolivia, plus some of northern Chile. Because the Quechua language pre-dates the Inka, the concepts explored in the exhibition, such as qumpi or the finest quality cloth, may well have been used by the Wari.

One of the prime requirements for cloth to be called qumpi is a high thread count, meaning as many very thin, hand-spun threads packed into a textile as possible. In one inch of this fragment there are 142 wefts (the colorful ones) over 33 warps (the white cotton ones seen where the wefts have been lost around the edges). Handwoven as well as spun, such a thread count is extraordinary; nevertheless, the Inka Key fragment is even higher (162 wefts per inch). Clearly, absolute superlative technical skill was highly valued well before Inka hegemony; qumpi is an idea that all ancient Andean cultures held, no matter what the actual word might have been.

Geographic Area

South America, Central Andes, Central Coast




Middle Horizon, ca. 500-800 AD


Cotton, camelid fiber

Credit Line

Ex coll. C. Clay and Virginia Aldridge

Accession Number


Photo Credit

Photo by Michael McKelvey

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