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Coya Belts: An unbroken Inca Weaving Tradition In The  Huamachuco Region Of Peru, Paper presented at the 45th Annual Meeting of the Institute of Andean Studies, Berkeley, California, January 7-8, 2005

        by Lynn Meisch (Saint Mary’s College of California) and Joseph Fabish (Huamachuco Textile Project), with the assistance of Horacio Rodriguez.


    We dedicate our paper to the late John Rowe and Ed Franquemont, with thanks for their encouragement and support of our work.


    In the late sixteenth century, a Mercedarian friar Martín de Murúa was sent to Peru as a missionary. He was also the encomendero, of Yanaca east of Cusco. Murua’s contemporary Guaman Poma wrote that Murúa forced the Indians to spin, weave and make cumbi, as well as other kinds of cloth. Guaman Poma included a drawing of Murúa kicking and beating an elderly indigenous man who is sitting at a loom of the kind used to weave cumbi (1980 [1615], vol. 2: 612).

    Murúa’s 1611 Historia general includes a code for weaving a belt. In his words it is a “Memorandum of a famous belt of llipi or cumbi, which was only worn by the coyas in the sara (corn) festivals; it has 104 [warps] and their duplicates. Eight are at the extremities, four on one side and four on the other” (Meisch translation). The 24-line code is complex, with 12 lines for heddles (“Yllaba”) alternating with lines of numbers and the letters a, c, e and v.

    In a brilliant piece of textile detective work in 1984, French researcher Sophie Derossier wove two examples of the belt using different double-faced techniques. She did not believe multiple heddles were involved, and picked the design by hand. What confirmed the belt’s structure was her discovery of a pre-Hispanic Peruvian belt in the American Museum of Natural History. The belt was made of undyed camelid fibers in four colors (white, black, tan, and dark brown) and was virtually identical in pattern and structure to her second hypothesis (Desrosiers 1986 [1984.]: passim) But what about the belt’s significance to the Incas, and how did coyas participate in the corn festivals?

    Coya is frequently glossed as queen, the principal wife of the Inca. In the later years of the empire when the Inca married his full-sister, coya referred to both his wife and his daughters (Julien2000: 311). Corn, called sara in Quechua, was highly valued not only by the Incas, but by indigenous people throughout the empire. It was used ritually in various forms and burned as offerings. There was even a maize garden attached to the Coricancha in Cusco, which was watered by hand. Three times a year this garden was decorated with life-sized gold corn plants.

    Because Murúa mentioned that the highest-ranking Inca noblewomen wore the belts during the corn festivals, Lynn researched the public, royal Inca corn ceremonies. These were state cults designed to legitimize Inca rule by emphasizing the Incas as founders of agriculture and bearers of civilization. An Inca legend associates maize with the founding of Cusco: When the mythical first Inca Manco Capac, his wife, and the wives of his three brothers arrived in Cusco, they planted maize, which they took from their cave of origin.

    Various chroniclers have described corn planting and harvesting rituals, and the extensive ceremonial use of maize and chicha in the Cusco region. While there were no months or festivals called sara, there were two festivals named after the ripening, harvest, and storage of corn: Ayrihua in April-May, and Aymuray in May-June. The end of the corn harvest coincided with the winter solstice and festival of the sun, Inti Raymi.

    For both the harvesting and planting of maize, the Inca and his nobles used golden foot plows in a field at the edge of Cusco. This belonged to the mummy of Mama Hauco, one of the women who accompanied legendary first Inca to Cusco. She planted the first maize and her field was always the worked first. Her corn was made into chicha for the service of her mummy. Note that it was a coya, Mama Huaco, who was credited with the introduction of corn to the Andes. This “burial of the Inca” drawing shows the new Inca offering chicha to the mummified, but life-like bodies of a deceased Inca and his coya, all dressed in cumbi. A careful reading of such chroniclers as Molina, Cobo, Sarmiento, and Betanzos indicates that coyas were present at the maize festivals as onlookers and companions to the Inca, as mummies, and as musicians and dancers. The coyas, living and dead, would have worn their corn belts at these events.

    Nobility and common people observed another major feature of the corn harvest: the saramama (corn mother) ritual, but it was a household, rather than public, observance. People chose a corncob that had been most productive, placed it ceremonially in a small granary and watched over it for three nights. They dressed this corn in the richest garments they owned, held it in great veneration, called it the mother of maize, and said that this rite preserved the corn crop.

    Such cobs are still valued. In 1996, in Otavalo, Ecuador, Lynn’s comadre brought her a “saramama,” one large cob surrounded by ten smaller ones. She said the woman who finds a saramama would have many babies or grandchildren - corn, women and fertility are linked. This association is found throughout the Andes - the Moche and Chimú made ceramics of deities surrounded by smaller cobs, and solar deities with ears of corn.  Even royal Inca households had a saramama, but theirs were gold. Pachacuti made a gold maize god whom he called Saramama, and a gold chicha idol. Since the treasures of the deceased rulers were passed along to their panacas, each panaca would have had its own gold saramama. Because the saramama was dressed “in the richest garments the people owned,” was the golden saramama wrapped in a corn belt?

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