Beginning around 900 BC, many cultures thrived on the central-western coasts of Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia before the rise of the Inca Empire in the 13th Century, and Francisco Pizarro’s first victory of the Spanish Conquest at the Battle of Cajamarca in 1532.
Archaeologists have found cities, monuments, bones, art, and adornment belonging to a myriad of cultures such as the Chavin, Moche, Vicús, and Chimú. As they dug, a world emerged where gold was a ubiquitous, abundant part of life. It was used to make jewelry, not coins.
Adornment not only represented status, but sacred origin. Gold jewelry allowed the wearer to transform himself into an animal-god personality with special powers.
One of the most important pieces of jewelry was the nose ring, or narigurea. Up to 4 inches wide, they were hammered down to featherweight thinness. The ring on top of the decoration was open, so it would painlessly attach onto the external naris, the piece of skin just below the nasal vestibule, which separates the nostrils.
In the market places (tiangues), jewelry merchants (mindalaes) sold their wares after having traversed trade networks with neighboring peoples. This exchange of ideas resulted in each culture developing its own distinct design. Artists forged a great metallurgical tradition, making cast and hammered objects for elite use.
Thousands of gold objects like nose rings, ear ornaments, lip plugs, tweezers, and figurines have been found in ancient tombs. The American Museum of Natural History had a whole collection pinned to one board.
Some tribes made jewelry with wires, shaped by hammering. Tiny spheres of metal were joined by complex soldering or sweat-welding techniques to achieve delicate filigree and granulated effects. Other tribes created jewelry in simple, spherical shapes.
The Chavin civilization flourished in the Andean highlands from 900 BC to 200 BC. Their main deity had a human form with a feline face, fanged mouth, and clawed feet that were spread apart. Its hair was made up of snakes. The deity was depicted on temple walls, as well as in jewelry.
Secret chambers in Chavin temples allowed the priests to climb to the roof, chant, and make it look like their god was speaking. Chavin artists also chose to portray eagles, which were found in other regions.
From the American Museum of Natural History, this Chavin nose ornament was cast in the form of their feline god; the second ring I photographed was hammered, with two cast eagle heads welded to each edge.
The Moche civilization lasted from 100 AD to 800 AD in the upper Piura Valley of Northern Peru. Their philosophy linked death, art, and political power. However, instead of a centralized empire, a series of polities shared the same culture.
The Moche relied on a sophisticated irrigation network as their source of wealth. To mirror the flow of water in agriculture, the Moche also focused on a flow of blood in war and human sacrifice.
Ceramics and tapestries show the Moche elite wearing elaborate turbans. This Moche nose ornament from the Metropolitan Museum of Art comes from Loma Negra. A chief, priest, or shaman would have worn this, portraying himself wearing a nose ornament — nice triple play. Date: 390–450 AD.
The Moche god Ayapec was also known as the Decapitator. This nose ornament has a simple form in the middle, outlined by one Decapitator on each side with severed heads outlining the bottom. Loma Negra, c. 100-300 AD.
From the Museo Larco de Peru, this “nariguera Mohica” depicts two serpents with their heads sawn off, replaced by the heads of two cats, transforming the wearer into a supernatural being. Early Intermediate Period, 200 BC – 600 AD.
Bi-metal nose rings of gold and silver gave shape to the concept of dualism. Religions incorporated positive and negative forces, such as light-and-darkness, masculine-and-feminine, force-and-repose.
This Moche nose ring depicts the moon and the sun. Against a bi-colored, circular shape, two geometric circles protrude. From the Museo Larco, Early Intermediate Period, 200 BC – 600 AD.
The Vicús culture (200 BC – 600 AD) also lived also in upper Piura Valley of Northern Peru, but their nose rings had simple shapes, geometric designs, and concentric circles. They were certainly influenced by the Moche, but also looked at peoples from Ecuador, and engaged in local development of art motifs.
Emerging from Moche culture, the Kingdom of Chimor flourished from 850 AD until the Incas conquered them in 1470 AD. Their capital was the ancient city of Chan Chan, northwest of modern-day Trujillo, Peru.
The Chimú worshipped a moon deity known as Pacasmayo. To them, the sun was a destroyer, perhaps because it was responsible for the Northern Coast’s harsh desert conditions. However in response, the Chimú perfected large-scale irrigation, which connected different valleys and cultures such as La Leche, Lambayeque, Reque, and Saña Jequetepeque. They also developed a complex network of markets to obtain goods and services.
It was the Lanbayeque who created the myth of Naymlap. In life, he was a king who ruled peacefully until his death. However, some Lambayeque feared others would not understand his mortality, so he was buried secretly. They told others Naymlap transformed into a bird-man deity and flew away with the wind. It is Naymlap’s image that is seen in most Chimú metalwork.
Chimú funerary jewelry for the elite was made up of headdresses, nose-rings, earrings, and breastplates. Silver and gold were equally valuable in Chimú society because making jewelry in both metals required the same technical expertise. A full costume can be seen in this exhibition picture from the Museo Larco in Lima, Peru. On the left, Nyamlap decorates the headdress. Underneath are a pair of earrings, a breastplate, and this nose ring.
The nose ring not only shows sophistication in jewelry design and technical execution, it also shows an advanced concept of architecture.
Above two scrolls with dangling pendants is a pyramid-shaped roof made of adobe-mud bricks. The roof has 5 esplanades, on which birds are shown eating. One could speculate the esplanades boasted gardens.
On the back of the nose ring is a fitting, which would have slipped up the sides of the nose, exposing only the bridge.
There were many other gold-cultures along the Western Coast of South America, especially in the high plains of the Andean mountains and the valleys of Colombia and northern Ecuador. Among them were the Tayrona, Sinú, Muisca, Quimbaya, Tolima, Calima,Tierradentro, San Agustín, Nariño, and Tumaco.
In the 16th Century, this multi-cultural, networked, religious world came to an end. The Spanish conquered, enslaved, and eliminated countless civilizations because of their lust for power, greed for gold currency, and fanaticism for the Christianity of the Spanish Inquisition. Many times they had indigenous allies, as the pre-Columbian world was also filled with intrigue.
Conversely, it was the Zipa, or chief of the Muisca Confederation in Bacatá (Bogotá), whose ritual at Lake Guatavita captured the halucinations of Spanish conquerors.
In his 1636 book, “Conquista y descubrimiento del Nuevo Reino de Granada o El carnero,” Juan Rodríguez Freyle describes a new chief returning from 6 years of spiritual reflection in a cave to take part in his final ascension ceremony. On a raft of reeds, he is covered in sticky mud. Gold dust is applied on top. When he is completely powdered, the golden man dives into the lake with jewelry to make an offering to the gods.
The Spanish called him El Dorado.
Through time, El Dorado transformed from a man into a lost empire. Then “conquistadores” ventured into the Amazon schizophrenically searching for the gold, so comfortably and proudly worn by the civilizations they destroyed.