In Focus

An Inca (Inka) Tunic

The following excerpt was written in 2003 by Carol Robbins, the former Ellen and Harry S. Parker III Curator of the Arts of Americas and the Pacific, for the publication Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years.

The Inca (Inka) Empire—called Tawantinsuyu, or Land of the Four Quarters—was a vast realm built by forceful expansion and organizational genius during a brief period between 1476 and 1534. From the capital city of Cuzco (Quzqu) in the southern highlands of Peru, the empire spread along the western edge of South America to encompass present-day Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, northern Chile, and northwestern Argentina. In 1532, when Francisco Pizarro captured the Inca emperor, Atawalpa, it was the largest state in the Western Hemisphere.

The Inca state relied heavily on a labor tax. This rotating labor system provided manpower for military service and personal service for the ruler and the nobility. It was used to cultivate the state's fields and to carry out many of its construction projects, including the elaborate system of roads that linked distant parts of the empire. It also supplied the state with textiles, which are often described as second only to agriculture in economic importance. Accurate inventorying of people, resources, and products was important. While the Incas did not have a writing system, they did record numbers on an abacus-like configuration of knotted cords, the quipu (khipu).

Inca art is distinguished by standardization of design and technical precision. These qualities are apparent in Inca architecture: the coursed stone walls of Cuzco, the polygonal stonework of Saqsawaman, the terraces of Pisac, the hillside storehouses of Ollantaytambo, and the integration of architecture and landscape at Machu Picchu. They can also be seen in portable Inca art forms; textiles, and objects of gold and silver are legendary, but the Spanish were also astonished by the fineness of the Inca tapestry-woven cloth, which had a higher thread count than contemporary European tapestry and was so carefully finished on both sides as to be reversible.

Tapestry-woven cloth (qompi) was woven by several types of specialists: religiously cloistered women, wives of provincial administrative officials, and a class of men who wove qompi to meet their labor-tax obligations. The entire production of the male specialists went to the Inca government for redistribution, for qompi garments could only be worn if they had been received as a gift from the ruler.

Of the tapestry-woven garments that have survived, the most impressive is the man's knee-length tunic (unqu in the Quechua language), which was worn with a loincloth and an unpatterned cloak. Inca tunics were made from a rectangular cloth that was woven to size, folded, and seamed with embroidery worked in narrow stripes. The lower edge might also be embroidered, and finished with a horizontal zig-zag. Of several standardized tunic designs, the bold black-and-white checkerboard pattern with a stepped red yoke is the most dramatic. The Dallas Museum of Art's tunic was woven from the hair of a camelid animal—probably alpaca or vicuna. The yarns of the black squares and creamy white squares were not dyed but represent the natural color of the fiber. The yarns of the vibrant red yoke were probably dyed with cochineal, a scaly insect. What appears to be a purely geometric composition connotes architecture and landscape. The checkerboard pattern is known in Quechua as qolqanpata, "hill of terraces with storehouses."[1] The word qolqa refers to the individual one-room stone structures that were built in rows on hillsides. Bernabé Cobo, a 17th-century historian of the Inca empire and culture, described small square buildings "set in a line like little towers, very neatly and symmetrically and spaced two or three yards apart from one another."[2] He noted twenty, thirty, and fifty storehouses in a row. The buildings stored and preserved all manner of goods that the state received as a tribute—foodstuffs, tools, cloth, weapons, sandals, coca, and feathers, to name a few.

Checkerboard-patterned tunics seem to have had military associations. Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala depicted an Inca warrior wearing one. Francisco de Xerez, writing in 1534 of the arrival of Atahualpa, the last Inca ruler, into the Spanish presence in Cajamarca, provided another military association for the type: "The men [of Atahualpa's army] began to enter the plaza; first came a squadron of Indians dressed in livery of colors in the manner of chessboards; they came removing straws from the ground and sweeping the road."[3]

[1] Elizabeth P. Benson, Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration, ed. Jay A. Levenson (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1991), 593.

[2] John Hemming, Monuments of the Incas (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1982), 46.

[3] Rebecca Stone-Miller, To Weave for the Sun: Andean Textiles in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1992), 172.

Excerpt from

Carol Robbins, “An Inca Tunic,” in Dallas Museum of Art 100 Years, eds. Dorothy Kosinski, et al. (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), 76.