Unique Discovery Offers Glimpse of Provincial Culture in Inka Empire

A recently unearthed tunic combines symbols of imperial authority and local tradition.

February 8, 2023

Inka Unku

WASHINGTON (Feb. 8, 2023) – A new study co-authored by a George Washington University research professor examines the Inka Empire’s instruments of culture and control through a well-preserved article of clothing discovered in a centuries-old Chilean cemetery. Researchers excavating the burial site along Caleta Vítor Bay in northern Chile found a tunic, or unku (see attached image), which would have been worn by a man who commanded respect and prestige in the Inka Empire. Unkus were largely standardized attire meeting technical and stylistic specifications imposed by imperial authorities.

The Caleta Vítor unku, however, goes beyond the strict mandates handed down by Inka leaders. While the artisans who fashioned this unku clearly adhered to imperial design standards, they also included subtle cultural tributes unique to their provincial homeland. Whoever wove the Caleta Vítor unku lived hundreds of miles south of the Inka capital of Cusco in an area absorbed into the Inka Empire in the late 15th century. The weaver employed the techniques and unique style and imagery of an indigenous culture that existed long before the Inka conquest, creating a tangible symbol of provincial life in pre-colonial South America.

“It represents a study of a rare example of an excavated Inka unku tunic, whose context and technical features are providing an unprecedented understanding of imperial Inka influence in the provinces,” Jeffrey Splitstoser, an assistant research professor of anthropology at GW and a co-author of the study, said.

The article, “Inka Unku: Imperial or Provincial? State-Local Relations,” was published in PLOS ONE on Feb. 8, 2023. The international research team includes Jacqueline Correa-Lau, Ester Echenique, and Calogero M. Santoro of the University of Tarapacá in Arica, Chile; Carolina Agüero of the Chilean Archeological Society; and Tracy Martens of La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.