The focus of this essay is to explain the significance and use of the keros in Peru’s history during the Inca and the colonial period.

In order to understand the significance of the keros, it is important to understand Inca Culture. The Inca culture developed from 1476 AD to the Spanish arrival in 1535 AD. The origin of Incas is mystical, according to the legend of Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, the children of the sun god. This legend was written by Garcilaso de la Vega (1539 – 1616) a mestizo chronicler who expressed firmly that this couple, who were part of the royalty, and emerged from the Lake Titicaca. They were looking for productive land where their dynasty could rule. Finally, they settled at Cuzcosubjugating the local tribes, finding the Inca dynasty. (Villacorta 2012 p.259)

Keros were part of the Inca pottery such as pacchas, cooking pots and aryballos,related to religion and “used in ritual ceremonies,associated with agriculture” (Kirsop 2013 p.8). Keros were also used in political ceremonies of the Tahuantinsuyo Empire.

When the Inca conquered new territories, marriages of alliance were established. New tribes became a part of the empire, promising loyalty and providing labor, in exchange for the Inca’s protection. The celebration of these alliances was made by sharing a drink made from fermented corn, served in keros. These vessels were made in identical pairs and when the alliance was formed, one of the vessels was kept by the local leader as a symbol of his formal agreement with the Inca. The kero was the representation of an alliance and a guarantee of obedience. The kero is described as an “Andean ritual wooden vessel” (Cummins 2002) which before the conquest were decorated with lines made with incisions in the surface of the vessel with regular shapes. In many of the cases, they don’t show any relation to recognizable objects.  However, after the conquest, flowers, births, and people doing different activities started to be carved and painted.

The decorations of the kero experienced a transformation when the Spanish arrived in 1532. New techniques were incorporated into the process by which pottery was made. The most important was glazing, the style formed from the connection between the Incas and Spanish, marking the beginning a style of pottery incorporating European icons (Villacorta 2012 p.264).

The imagery on the new style shows a connection to the pre-colonial past of the Inca (Kirsop 2013 p.9). As Andean art was an perceived as idolatry by the Europeans, Spain felt compelled to destroy it. Only a few pre-Columbian artifacts survived the Spanish conquest and the subsequent cultural destruction of the indigenous culture,the Kero is one of these (Cummins 2002). It is clear that kero were produced in large numbers in Peru and Bolivia from the sixteenth centuries until the eighteenth centuries because they were considered a symbol of repression.  The representation of past events showed an intention of resistance which started from 1535 in the jungle refuge of Vilcabamba until 1572 when Tupac Amaru I was executed in Cuzco, an act which destroyed the Inca Empire (Villacota 2012 p.285). However, in the rebellion of 1781, Túpac Amaru II became a legend in Peru with his efforts to gain freedom from the Spanish rule.

Inca Kero could be formed from various materials (Dixon 2014).  Keros have also been crafted from gold or silver (called aquillas), ceramic or from stone according to (Flores 1999). The decorations on Inca kero produced around XV century were a linear sequence of incisions, mainly geometric, consisting of square, rectangular, triangular, diamond and zig-zag lines. The patterns look simple however there is a complex meaning of each geometric sequence. The cups were used in rituals and ceremonies and always made in pairs.

(Dixon 2014) explains the Inca’s keros decoration:Decorative engraved lines, mostly geometric, provide the bands of patterning: a single layer of four at the bottom is doubled at the top; meeting triangles alternate with a serpentine vertical line; chevrons; hatched lozenges; chevrons; more triangles and a vertical chain; chevrons again; then the repeated four-layer lines make lozenges around the top. Zig-zag lines may imply snakes or paths”. Keros were used to carry chicha made of maize. This use of keros shows that it was an important part of religious and burial rites. It also plays a role in an important celebration: Inti Raimy, which originates in Cuzco and is still held at the end of winter on June 24. It reminds people to return to planting and harvesting and the need for blessings from the Pacha Mama (the Mother Earth).

The icons in the colonial kero are organized in three zones which are separated by a red or yellow stripe. The bottom zone consists of a pattern of an upside-down flower, alternating in colours of reddish-orange and yellow. These flowers could be representations of ñucchu, a species of Sagebrush native to the Peruvian Andes. Ñucchu were sacred flowers to the Inca and are still used in religious ceremonies today. The middle zone includes another row of the repeated Ñucchu motif, again alternating in the same colours as below, but now with up-turned flowers. The top zone is separated from the middle by two coloured stripes of the same reddish-orange and yellow seen in the Ñucchu motifs. Other common patterns are depicting two humans (each carrying a bow and arrow), a monkey, three stylized trees separating the figures, and sporadic ñucchu motifs. The two human figures and the monkey are all shown facing right. This makes it look like they are moving around the kero. The trees along with the monkey are typically from the Eastern suyu (region), Antisuyu, of the Inca Empire known as Tawantinsuyu. Antisuyu bordered the modern-day upper Amazon region and was inhabited by Antis (a collective term used to describe various ethnic groups of this region. The presence of Ñucchu  seems to represent the Andes, as these flowers do not grow in the jungle. This conflict of images between the upper and lower regions shows the classical Andean theme of complementary dualities where “the world was viewed as being balanced between a series of dual opposing forces in a state of constant conflict, yet always tending toward unity or completion: light and dark, upper and lower, wet and dry, hot and cold, and so on.” (Kirsop 2013 p. 17)

During the colonial period keros started to include Tocapu designs as a form of heraldry. The Tocapu are idiographic designs in geometrical shape found in Inca designs and weavings (Coraza 2013). There are no records of what the Tocapu designs were originally meant to represent, however, during colonial times, the objective of tocapu referred to the relationship and the lineage of the people represented in the kero. (Flores 1998 p.81) In the face of Spanish repression it became important to remember one’s heritage.

In conclusion, the keros were significant cultural and historical artefacts that represented and continue to represent a substantial function in the life of Andean people. Keros were the symbol of acceptance of being part of the Inca Empire. Even after the fall of the empire, the Inca nobility used the kero as a subtle means of rebellion against the Spanish invaders, keeping alive their myths, tradition, and lineage.


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