Earth, Water, Fleece and Fabric: an ethnography and archaeology of Andean camelid herding

Penny Dransart, 2002

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Dr Penny Dransart
School of Archaeology, History and Anthropology
University of Wales Trinity St David
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Tel: 01570 424792

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Penny Dransart (2002) Earth, Water, Fleece and Fabric: an ethnography and archaeology of Andean camelid herding [data-set]. York: Archaeology Data Service [distributor]


Earth, Water, Fleece and Fabric examines in rich detail the practices of spinning yarn from the fleece of llamas and alpacas. It also explores the relationships that herders of the present and of the past have maintained with their herd animals in the Andes. The book juxtaposes an ethnography of an Aymara herding community, based on more than ten years fieldwork in Isluga in the Chilean highlands, with archaeological material from excavations in the Atacama desert. It also incorporates relevant historical evidence.

The book investigates the material culture of pastoral communities at the transition from a hunting and gathering way of life over three thousand years ago, its relationship with domestication processes, and how spinning and weaving in contemporary Isluga express the values of a herding way of life. These values are intimately related to the perceived importance of the landscape, with its resources of earth and water, in the transformation of pasture into fleece. This book is a systematic study that sets the material culture of pastoral communities against an understanding of the long term effects of herding practices.

Spinners in Isluga value fleece as a raw material possessing particular qualities and possibilities. They take the fibre grown by their own llamas and alpacas, and spin it into yarn, which they then convert into clothing and blankets to wrap human bodies. These garments, the products of human hands, which work and transform the raw material, seem to be part of a living system. There is a sense of organic unity between the herd animal, the maker and the final product. Isluga spinners are also very sensitive to the natural colours of the fleece. This sensitivity to the use of fleece colours is a characteristic of the spinning that was practised three thousand years ago in the Atacama desert. However, those spinners of the past had a more restricted range of natural colours in their herds most of their animals would have more closely resembled wild guanaco and vicuña.

This book is unusual in that the arid conditions in the Atacama desert have preserved fleece and yarn remains, which are not usually available for archaeologists to study. It presents a direct study of the product for which the camelids were highly valued: the fleece itself. Three thousand years ago, changes were occurring in the fleeces of those camelids herded by human owners. The changes were ultimately to result in the range of colours that now exist in herds of llamas and alpacas. The images on these web pages indicate the importance of colour in textile production in the Andes. They complement the consideration of the material culture of herding communities in the book Earth, Water, Fleece and Fabric.

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