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Fabric of Time Volume 53 Number 2, March/April 2000
by Darrell S. Gundrum


To the ancient people of South America's central Andean region textiles played a paramount societal role, being a portable medium capable of conveying vast quantities of information: ethnic identity, regional affiliation, social status, worldview, and, perhaps most important, cosmology. Nowhere is this more evident than in a recently restored textile, a mantle, from Peru's Paracas Peninsula that is now in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum. The mantle consists of a central panel and friezelike border, both made of natural cotton and brightly dyed camelid wool. An analysis of the intricately decorated garment suggests that it served as a calendar that wove both solar and lunar movements and the rising and setting of constellations and stars into a yearly cycle that anticipated the better-known highland Inka calendar by 1,500 years. This early calendrical system served as a farmer's almanac, displaying various astronomical, atmospheric, agricultural, and ritual events of significance to the people who made it.

I have analysed the imagery and placement of the 32 central figures and 90 border images that encircle the textile and have concluded that the Brooklyn Museum mantle is literally a fabric of time, with three astronomical cycles woven into a single yearly calendar. While the complete workings of this ancient calendar may never be fully determined, it is clear that the textile contains three of the components suggested for the later Inka calendar: the solar, sidereal lunar, and synodic lunar cycles. Analysis of the imagery on this textile also suggests that the Pleiades, the twin stars Alpha and Beta Centauri, and various dark-cloud constellations such as those of the llama and the toad were utilized in the calendrical round 2,000 years ago. Their survival into Inka times and the modern era is testimony to the enduring strength and coherence of native Andean society.

Darrell S. Gundrum is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America