Sweat of the Sun

Part of the Gold exhibition.

Case of Peruvian Gold
© AMNH / Rod Mickens

Gold in the Americas was a prized material for objects of adornment. It was also valued for its religious symbolism. For the Inca and other peoples of the Andean region of South America, gold was the "sweat of the sun," the most sacred of all deities.

But it was gold's value as money that drove European exploration and colonization of the New World. Massive collections of plundered New World gold objects and ornaments were melted down for coinage, increasing the money supply in the Old World.

Early Gold and the Chavín Cult

Sometime around 500 BC, a cult spread throughout much of the Andean region, probably associated with an oracle at Chavín de Huantar in the northern highlands of present-day Peru. Around the same time, magnificent gold objects were created on the north coast of Peru. These objects included breastplates of gold, golden headdresses and large stirrup-spout jars. Craftsmen often alloyed--or combined--the gold with other metals such as silver and copper to create a variety of colors.

These Chavín-style objects come from a single buried cache in Peru's Huarmey Valley. Chavín smiths excelled in working sheets of gold to make ritual objects. As the Chavín cult spread, goldsmiths created objects displaying Chavín iconography.

A gold vessel inscribed with a geometric design.
Chavin Stirrup Spout BottleThis hammered gold vessel with its distinctive stirrup-shaped neck was made by the goldsmiths of the Chavin culture of Peru that flourished between 900 and 200 BCE. Chavin goldsmiths excelled in working gold sheets to make fine ritual objects.
© AMNH / John Bigelow Taylor
The underside of gold bowl embossed with a geometric design.
Chavin Stirrup Spout BottleThis hammered gold vessel with its distinctive stirrup-shaped neck was made by the goldsmiths of the Chavin culture of Peru that flourished between 900 and 200 BCE. Chavin goldsmiths excelled in working gold sheets to make fine ritual objects.
© AMNH / Denis Finnin

Peruvian North Coast

Cultures such as Moche, Sicán (Lambayeque) and Chimú on present-day Peru's north coast used gold in life and after. Vast quantities of maize beer were drunk from large golden kero vessels on ceremonial occasions such as marriage celebrations, political alliances or religious sacrifices. In burial ceremonies, vast quantities of gold accompanied the rulers and other high-ranking members of these societies to their tombs.

Two gold cups with a raised decorative design.
Drinking CupsDrinking chicha, or corn beer, from cups like the golden keros pictured here was an important part of Inka political ceremonies. This keros comes from Batan Grande, Lambayeque Valley, Peru.
© AMNH / Denis Finnin

In northern South America, an area rich in gold deposits, metalsmiths used gold and gold alloys to make cast and hammered objects. Many of the gold objects found in ancient tombs, such as nose and ear ornaments, lip plugs and tools, served as symbols of power and status both in life and in death. In the region that became present-day Colombia, a number of separate cultures developed distinct styles and used a wide range of metalworking techniques.

The original story of El Dorado--"the gilded one"--described a ritual in which the chief of the Andean Muisca nation, covered in gold dust, made offerings of gold into a mountain lake. Spanish conquistadores of the 1530s were gripped by the story; eventually it turned into the legend of a lost city of gold. Many expeditions tried but failed to find El Dorado.

Keros are associated with the ceremonial drinking of chicha (maize beer), and were often used as funerary offerings in elite burials.

Sinú gold ornaments are thematically dominated by birds and animals that are native to the region. Such ornaments were worn exclusively by the elite as a sign of social status.

South Coast and Southern Andes

On the south coast and in the southern Andean regions of present-day Peru and Bolivia, artisans of ancient cultures such as Nazca and Paracas used sheet gold to create adornments such as glittering wristbands and headdress plumes. Gold objects were cut, engraved and beaten into sheets as thin as a strand of human hair.

Both Nazca and Paracas cultures observed elaborate burial rituals. At Paracas, the mummified corpses were wrapped in many layers of ornately embroidered shrouds. Golden emblems were sewn into the wrappings, allowing the deceased to take the precious metal into the next world. The dead were also accompanied by intricately woven textiles, ceramics, food and tools.

Round gold beads on a string.
Inka NecklaceAn Inka necklace of 13 hollow gold beads, each made of two hemispheres, found in Cajamarca, Peru.
© AMNH / Denis Finnin

These ancient peoples portrayed plants and animals in their metal, ceramic, and textile decoration, such as hummingbirds, whales, snakes, flowers, cacti, cat's whiskers and floating faces. Objects often depict supernatural beings:. A common image is a two-headed serpent with a human body, crested back and feline face.

Ornaments were found wrapped in mummy bundles along with textiles, ceramic vessels, food and many other objects.

Nazca goldworking, not highly developed, was usually two-dimensional.


Gold of the Inca

A human figure wrapped in a woven blanket with and a large red feather headdress behind the neck and shoulders.
Llullaillaco gold figure, clothed
© Johan Reinhard

The Inca amassed one of the greatest accumulations of gold in history. A garden populated with life-size plants, animals, men and women made of gold formed part of the temple of the sun in Cuzco, the Inca capital. Enormous gold earplugs framed the faces of men of the ruling elite. Royal women fastened their garments with large pins known as tupus. Virtually all of the Inca's golden treasure was melted down, first in a vain attempt to ransom their captured king. Then, after his execution, more gold was commandeered to fill the coffers of the Spanish treasury.




A figurine made of gold in the shape of a nude human figure, standing, and wearing a head covering resembling a brimless cap.
Inka FigureA hollow gold Inka figurine from Peru was probably used as an offering and was originally wrapped in cloth.
© Craig Chesek/AMNH

The Inca King is Told of the Spanish Hunger for Gold

Around 1615, Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, an indigenous Andean, wrote a 1,200-page illustrated letter to the king of Spain, describing the greatness of the pre-conquest world, and often making sarcastic comments on the habits of the European invaders. In the accompanying drawing, the Inca king, Wayna Capac, asked the Spaniard " … what he ate: he responded in Spanish and by sign language that he ate silver and gold. So they gave him much gold dust … and silver and gold vessels, and he carried all these treasures back to Spain."

Miniature tupu pins were used to fasten the garments of gold or silver figurines left on mountaintops as offerings to the mountain spirits. The figurines frequently accompanied young women who were sacrificed in order to avert earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.