Archive for the 'Peruvian' Category

Object: Shipibo Pottery


Fig 1: Shipibo Pottery Vessel. Image Credit Sam Noble Museum Ethnology Department. E/2014/003/007



Shipibo Culture


Unknown Date, Possibly 1960s-1970s

Clay, Paint Slip


This post’s object, a Shipibo ceramic vessel comes to us from the Shipibo people of Peru. The Shipibo people traditionally live near the Ucayali River, a southern tributary of the Upper Amazon in Peru.  The vessel measures 5.875” H x 5.875” W x 5.875” D.  The clay has a natural earthy red tone, which can be seen in the interior and bottom of the vessel. The exterior of the vessel is highly decorated with a cream colored base. On top of the cream base, layers of intricately woven geometric patterns are painted over the surface of the vessel in black and terracotta. There are two faces, one on each side of the vessel. The nose and ears of the face are sculpted and are part of the body of the pot.

The style of Shipibo pottery is easily identified by its geometric line patterns, and while one may believe these patterns are guided by rigid stylistic rules, each Shipibo pottery is unique. Like a fingerprint, no vessel will have the same patterning as another, and the artist is encouraged to tap into their own inspiration as they work across the surface. Another unique aspect of  Shipibo artists is that they are almost exclusively women. This tradition of women as community artists has given women today the opportunity to economically support their families through the selling of wares to tourists and collectors.


Fig 2. A Shipibo woman shows of the distinct line patterning on a textile. Photo credit by Photo by Juan Carlos Huayllapuma/CIFOR is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Often times, women work together on a single piece. In these instances, the women seem to have an unspoken understanding of their collaborative efforts. Where one woman may finish a layer of line work, the next steps in to add even further intricacies with only their personal interpretations to guide them. In some cases, the artist is inspired by the aid of colorfully veined plant leaves, called iponquënë . Women place these leaves on their closed eyelids in order to trace their complicated vein patterns.


Fig. 3.  A variation of Ayuahausca brewing on the fire. Traditionally ayuahausca is used in                                 Shipibo shamanic rituals and can create vivid visions in it’s users.                “Preparación de ayahuasca con chacruna”  by Jairo Galvis Henao  Licensed is under, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

The meaning behind these intricate patterns has been a subject of hot interpretation by anthropologists, ethnologists, and other researchers. Some believe the lines represent an early form of language. Others instead insist that the patterning is derived from early attempts to map the Amazon’s winding river systems. However, according to the Shipibo themselves, these patterns are derived from their shamanic practices aided by the use of ayuahausca, and serve as a reminder of the forces that were once visible to humans.

In mythic times, patterns like the ones that decorate Shipibo pottery, textiles and clothing, covered the entire world. These patterns flowed across the sky, trees, huts, people, and animals. All things were interconnected by this system of winding patterns. But due to the misdeeds of early humans, this idyllic union was ruptured and the world was shifted into three planes: Nëtë ŝhama (the sky world), Mai (the earth world), and Jënë ŝhama (the subaquatic underworld). Simultaneously, periodicity (day and night, or time), mortality, and speciation appeared. (1)




(1) Roe, Peter G.  (1980). “Art and residence among the Shipibo Indians of Peru: A Study in Microacculturation.”American Anthropologist, 82, 42–71.

Pantone, Dan James. (2004).  Shipibo Indians. Retrieved from

Roe, Peter and Bahuan Mëtsa. Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian. National Museum of the American Indian  Retrieved from

Object: Ear Plugs

Ear Plugs
South America: Peru
Unknown Date
Painted wood and shell

These earplugs come from the Orejon culture of northern Peru. They are round discs of a lightweight wood, each heavily coated in a white pigment. Engraved black shells are set into the center of each plug and depict three concentric circles. Each plug is 4.5” in diameter and 0.75” thick.

The Orejon people (nowadays known as the Witotoans and the Bora), have a patrilineal social structure where kinship is traced through the men of a family. The Witotoan peoples primarily practice subsistence agriculture, growing manioc, pineapple, plantains, bananas, yams, papayas, mangos, peanuts, cacao, and other crops that thrive in the tropical South American environment.

Ear piercing is a very common form of body adornment popular in cultures all over the world, and the Witotoan people are no exception. For the Witotoan people, ear piercing is a practice restricted to men. Generally, boys get their ears pierced between 10 and 15 years old. A thin awl is used to pierce the ears, and small wooden pins are inserted into the holes. The boy is then responsible for carving the earlobe hole pins (each slightly wider in diameter than the last). These earlobe hole pins are periodically replaced with the next size larger in order to slowly grow the size of the holes.

The Witotoan people have cultural similarities to the Canela people, who live in nearby Brazil. The Canela believe that boys with open ears are more receptive to the knowledge revealed to them by their elders. In the words of Raimundo Roberto, a Canela man: “Our elders thought that an ear decoration made young men beautiful, and that those who received them would become even more handsome to young women.…He wouldn’t act foolishly, nor talk badly to anyone, because he knew that the women were always watching him. So, a man’s earring indicates that he is a tribesman of the highest caliber. That’s why I think earrings were a very serious matter for our elders.”

This type of ear piercing and use of earplugs is less common today among the Canela and the Witotoan peoples as it has been increasingly perceived by the non-native population as “ugly” or “subversive.” However, body adornment remains popular in many different cultures all over the world, including our own.

[Stephanie L. Allen] 

Object: Head Flattener

Head flattener (betaneti)
Shipibo Indians
South America: Peru
Unknown date
Materials: Wood, cotton padding, cloth, string

This object is a head flattener made by the Shipibo Indians of Peru. It consists of a long narrow cotton pad attached to a wooden board which is then attached by strings to another square cloth pad. It would have been used to elongate the shape of an infant’s head.

The practice of head flattening, also known as cranial deformation, has a long and interesting history in cultures all around the world. It is thought to be the oldest form of body modification, dating back at least 9,000 years. While cranial deformation can occur naturally or accidentally after birth, many cultures choose to deliberately shape an infant’s head, generally because it is a sign of beauty or status. Head flattening, which has not been proven to cause any damage to the brain, has occurred on every continent in the world at some point in time. Pressure is applied to a baby’s skull during their first several weeks of life when the bones of the skull have not yet fused together. It is accomplished by using a cradleboard or a special binding board such as the one in the Ethnology Collection. This process gradually shifts the bones of the skull, forming an elongated shape. The bones then fuse together in that shape.

Papua New Guinea, Africa, Central America, and Australia are only a few places where cranial deformation has occurred. North American tribes, including the Chinookan people of the Columbia River area in Oregon and Washington, used cradleboards to produce a wedge-shaped head in a child. This practice died out by the 1950’s, but it illustrates the prevalence of this practice. Even ancient Egyptian, Roman, and Greek nobles practiced head binding as a statement of beauty. In the Andean areas of Peru, cranial deformation was a common practice for both women and men between AD 1200 and 1450 (before the time of European contact with Central and South America). The head flattener from the Ethnology Collection possibly derives from this fascinating tradition.

[Stephanie Lynn Allen]

Object: Ornament

Feather ornament (or “tail”)
ca 1955
Materials: Feathers, cloth twine

This feather ornament is described in the Ethnology catalog as a “tail” that is meant to be attached to the back of a man’s robe, called a manchakintsi or cushma. The donor that collected with particular “tail” also donated the cushma it was meant to go with, E/1956/2/11, shown on the right. These objects were made by a member of the Machiguenga tribe of Peru. The Machiguenga are a part of the Arawakan linguistic family, a group of languages spoken throughout South and Central America. The Machiguenga live in the upper mountain rain forest of Southeastern Peru. The Machiguenga grow manioc, bananas, maize, sweet potatoes, peanuts and a variety of other crops in small agricultural plots cleared out of the forest. They supplement their diet by hunting, fishing and gathering other native foods from the forest. Feather ornaments, especially crowns and necklaces are popular amongst the Machiguenga.

Do you know any additional information on this type of ornament? Can you identify the type of feathers used? Let us know what you know. Provide a comment to this weblog or via email to [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Necklace

South America: Colombia or Peru
ca. 1954
Materials: Insect legs, thread

This necklace is made from the the upper legs of a beetle native to Central and South America and can be found from Mexico to Brazil and Argentina. This beetle, the giant metallic ceiba borer (Euchroma gigantea), is a member of the Buprestidae family, which are also known as “jewel beetles.” This type of beetle has been used by native groups in Central and South America for natural jewelry and food. The species can be eaten in both the larval and adult stages – Tzeltal-Mayans in southern Mexico (Chiapas) roast the adults when available, and the Tukanoans (northwestern Amazon) eat the larvae. These beetles vary in color throughout their lives. When they first emerge from their pupa they are covered in a bright yellow-green colored waxy “bloom.” This bloom is secreted by the adult after transforming from the pupa and prior to emerging from its larval host. After the beetle emerges and becomes active, the bloom is quickly rubbed off and the beetle takes on the shiny, iridescent purple-green color. In its larval form the giant metallic ceiba borer typically inhabit soft wood of trees in the Bombacaceae family, such as the giant ceiba or kapok tree (Ceiba petandra). The adult beetles are usually seen walking or flying around the trunks of the trees.

The Witoto tribe of South America lives along the Caquetá (also known as the Japurá) and Putumayo (also known as the Içá) rivers, in the Amazon region of Colombia and Peru. The Witoto tribe consists of more than 100 subgroups, many based on the names of villages, and are closely related to their traditional enemies the Bora tribe. The Witoto are primarily hunters and farmers, their staple crop being manioc. In addition, they also grow plantains, bananas, yams, papayas, sweet potatoes, mangoes, palms, peanuts, cacao, sugarcane, maize, tobacco, and coca.  In order to ensure that their fields remain fertile in the notoriously thin soil of the Amazon, the Witoto follow a strict schedule of crop rotation and allow their plots of land to go fallow for at least ten years before they are replanted. Traditionally, Witoto men wore a breechclout of bark cloth, and women only body paint. On ritual or ceremonial occasions individuals would wear necklaces and ornaments determined by their status within the tribe.  When first contacted by European explorers the population of the Witoto tribe was around 50,000. After years of forced labor, the introduction of new types of diseases and tribal migrations it is now believed there are between 7,000 and 10,000 Witoto left in the Amazon. A video discussing the Witoto way of life can be found at [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Flute

Quena, flute
Peru: Inca, Quechua
Materials: Copper

Traditionally constructed from bone, ceramic or cane, this flute known as the quena is considered a fundamental aspect of South American music. Research suggests that it was developed during the reign of the Inca Empire, which spanned over a vast portion of the continent, and was centralized in the Andes Mountains of Peru. There is evidence, however, that notched flutes similar to the quena were being used by the Moche culture along the Peruvian coast, dating back to 100 CE.

In the mid 15th century, a power began to rise in the mountains of Peru, eventually becoming the Inca Empire, ranging from Columbia in the north all the way to Chile in the South. The Incas were very successful at maintaining control over the various indigenous peoples within their empire, and had an extremely effective method of food production and storage. They also were skilled architects, erecting temples, cities and complex road systems with precision. The Inca people, along with their technological and agricultural advancements, were highly ritualistic. Dancing and music at festivals is likely how the quena flute became integrated into the Inca culture, and later dispersed to other regions in the Americas.

This particular instrument is a contemporary version of the traditional quena, and like many others, is made of copper. A distinct feature of quena flutes is a notch in the mouthpiece, typically in a U, V or square shape. The different shapes of the notch result in slightly different acoustics, but all quenas produce a light, lyrical, bird-like sound. While the quena is historically significant, it continues to be in use today throughout South America, in both traditional festivals in the Andean region and also incorporated into contemporary, popular music. [Kristina Sokolowsky]

Object: Balero

Latin America: possibly Peruvian
Date unknown
Materials: wood, string

This object is a balero toy from Latin America. Baleros are fashioned from a ball and a pin joined together by a string. Usually, the ball contains a small cylindrical opening that fits over the pin. Balero toys are similar to cup-and-ball games, in which players attempt to sling a ball into a cup by manipulating the movement of the ball from the string. Balero players maneuver the ball by holding the pin and swinging the ball into the air with the string while attempting to catch it on the tip of the pin.

Baleros are thought to have originated from bilboquets in France during the sixteenth century. Bilboquets are variants of the ball-and-pin toys and monarchs, such as King Henry III of France, popularized the game in the European royal courts. Eventually, the game spread to the Americas, though there is evidence similar games existed among indigenous groups for many years before interactions with Europeans. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, balero toys became fashionable among elite circles, and King Louis XV was reported to have owned several ivory ball-and-pin sets.

Today, baleros are common in tourist shops and toy stores around the world. Versions of balero toys from different countries can be seen here. The game has also been featured in music and art work, as in the work pictured to the left. However, for most children and adults, baleros remain a simple, yet enjoyable diversion.

[Lauren Simons]

Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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