Andean Colonial Keros as Objects of Transculturation

Ana Girard

A kero, derived from q’ero in the Quechua language, is a vessel or beaker used for the ceremonial drinking of chicha (aqa in Quechua), which is the general name for different types of alcoholic beverages made from fermented maize and other grains, fruits, and plants. The ingredients, production, and brewing process as well as the drinking of chicha have been central to Andean ritual and daily life since ancient times. While its consumption was typically the preserve of elite males, the supplies and labor to produce the quantities of chicha required for large ceremonies and feasts involved entire communities, and especially women.(1) Among the Inca, for example, the position of acllakuna was occupied by sequestered women who were responsible for the production of chicha and prestigious textiles for religious festivals, such as the Inca ceremony Inti Raymi that marked the winter solstice and venerated the Sun God (Inti).(2) The political and ceremonial importance of drinking chicha made keros an essential art form of social reciprocity, political solidarity, and spiritual appeasement. Before the Spaniards arrived, woodworkers in the Inca empire who manufactured keros and other various artifacts were known as querocamayocs, a word that not only derives from carpentering but also from a tool that woodworkers used called llacllona, a sort of adze. The word “quero” also describes this carpentry profession, signaling that keros were the most important objects produced by querocamayocs.(3)

Indicative of the sociopolitical significance of drinking and exchange, keros were frequently made in pairs or even-numbered sets. At the site of Cerro Baúl, a colony settlement of the Middle Horizon (ca. 600–1000) Wari empire, archaeologists uncovered seven distinct four-vessel sets of polychrome ceramic keros during excavations of a chicha brewery.(4) Slip-painted with representations of deities and geometric designs, these ceramic, flared beakers had been ritually shattered and buried as part of a ceremony, apparently before the brewery and site were shut down.(5) Keros come in many different shapes and sizes, and can also be carved from wood, as are those in the Menil Collection, or fashioned out of thin sheets of silver and gold. Smiths masterfully hammered, stamped, and shaped these metal keros, or aquillas, into the forms of human heads or animals such as felines and monkeys. The talented metalsmiths of the Lambayeque (Sícan) (ca. 700–1375) and Chimú (ca. 1000–1470) cultures produced some of the largest and most refined examples of silver and gold drinking vessels. Some are large and can hold nearly 62 fluid ounces. Other, less grand examples show the artists’ ability to work on a much smaller scale and meticulously create figures of deer, monkeys, and other animals, and human faces to give these beakers a more decorative look.

During the colonial period, with the regulation of silver and gold by the Spanish government, artisans made keros mostly out of wood, which are often plainly engraved with geometric patterns. Keros with more baroque polychrome designs are typically inlaid and painted with lacquers and mineral- and plant-based colorants, such as cinnabar, orpiment, and cochineal.(6) The Inca similarly used these colorants to dye textiles, and they also have been identified in the painted illustrations of colonial maps and codices.(7) A white powdery pigment used to create new color palettes has been identified as a lead white, which initially was imported from Europe and only later produced locally. Cinnabar was mixed with white to create a sort of pink color for the figures’ skin.

Carved and inlaid designs include geometric patterns, zoomorphic and figural forms, floral elements, and symbols. Many cups can have multiple horizontal registers that organize the painted decorations into compositions of figural scenes and abstract motifs. They also organize figures hierarchically, which suggests ways these ceremonial vessels reflected social structures of the Inca. In the upper register of one Menil kero is a figural scene of musicians with differently painted faces flanking a harp. Although they wear variations of Spanish-like clothing, their headdresses are similar. Another example shows figures, possibly warriors, wearing distinct dress and holding different heraldic banners or shields. While the persons’ identities and the pictorial narratives on these examples are not known, both the paired figures evoke the sociopolitical function of keros and drinking chicha.

Hybrids of Inca and European imagery like these are distinctive of colonial keros and were often intended to look Inca without being too revealing of the Inca past in order to avoid references to paganism. Along with other objects, keros decorated with Inca iconography were confiscated by ecclesiastical and colonial authorities to suppress Indigenous religious practices and references to the past that might foment political uprisings. For example, Incan imagery played an important role in the large-scale revolt led by the cacique Tupac Amaru II (José Gabriel) in 1780.(8) Keros made in workshops by native artisans in Spanish colonial cities therefore presented Inca iconography differently. They were typically decorated with flower and plant motifs, which were commonly found in paintings and frames from the period, and arguably appealed to Spanish tastes. Nevertheless, this imagery was powerfully symbolic of the Inca.

The qantu flower, for example, is regularly seen on keros; it was important to Inca ceremonies before and during the colonial period.(9) Other motifs on colonial keros include carved human faces, jaguars, feathers, birds, vegetative forms, geometric shapes that resemble Inca pyramidal structures or staircases, and figures of people wearing capes and headdresses, such as images of noble persons engaged in some sort of ritual or dance rooted in the Inca past and cosmology. However, rather than being meaningful ceremonial and highly valuable gifts, they were promoted as merchandise or curious commodities in the colonial market.(10)

One kero in the Menil’s collection is in the form of a human head with a prominent nose and intricately carved ears, and eyes indicated with paint. In fact, the entire surface of this kero was once completely painted. The three horizontal bands of color on the face suggest it represents an Anti or Chuncho, people associated with forest regions of the eastern Andes. Although deteriorated, a painted register on the back of the head depicts standing figures holding heraldic banners and floral elements, with possibly another figure prostrating between them. The neck is painted with an elaborate design of plants and flowers. Notably, one would need to grab this vessel by the neck in order to drink. This form of kero may have been to emphasize the native aspect of such objects and make them exotic and attractive to their buyers (European merchants), and to be referred to as “indigenous” items or souvenirs.

Keros and their imagery embody a rich transcultural conversation. Because traditional objects were targeted as part of the “extirpation of idolatries” and ancient rituals, colonial-era makers adapted keros to European tastes. They had to be modified and commercialized for the newly formed viceregal society. Today, kero cups are still commercially produced and utilized by Indigenous peoples in Peru. This kero-chicha tradition, significant during religious festivities and Andean culture, demonstrates that after many centuries, pre-Hispanic art and customs have resisted, persisted, and survived colonization and the imposition of a foreign religion.(11) Woodcarving and chicha brewing traditions have survived along with metalwork and weaving traditions to this day.

Despite Spanish impositions, ceremonial keros encoded, and still encode, profound meanings for the Indigenous peoples who did not write or read but communicated and still communicate orally and through symbols. Their iconography is representative of Andean ancestral rituals, religion, and society, and political and military power. Therefore, keros are objects of great cultural value that represent a millenary artistic tradition of one of the greatest civilizations on earth, whose descendants are still struggling to survive and preserve their traditions.

  1. Tamara L. Bray, “Inka Pottery as Culinary Equipment: Food, Feasting, and Gender in Imperial State Design,” Latin American Antiquity 14, no. 1 (March 2003): 3–28; Andrea Cuéllar, “The Archaeology of Food and Social Inequality in the Andes,” Journal of Archaeological Research 21, no. 2 (June 2013): 123–74.
  2. Cuéllar, “The Archaeology of Food and Social Inequality,” 144–45; Sara Vicuña Guengerich, “Virtuosas O Corruptas: Las Mujeres Indígenas En Las Obras De Guamán Poma De Ayala Y El Inca Garcilaso De La Vega,” Hispania 96, no. 4 (2013): 672–83.
  3. Thomas B.F. Cummins, Toasts with the Inca: Andean Abstraction and Colonial Images on Kero Vessels. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002) 20–23.
  4. Michael E. Moseley et al. “Burning Down the Brewery: Establishing and Evacuating an Ancient Imperial Colony at Cerro Baúl, Peru,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 102, no. 48 (November 29, 2005), 17264–71.
  5. Ibid.; Mary Glowacki, “Shattered Ceramics and Offerings,” in Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes, ed. Susan E. Bergh (Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art; New York: Thames and Hudson, 2012), 144–57.
  6. Ellen J. Pearlstein et al. “Technical Analyses of Painted Inka and Colonial Qeros.” In Objects Specialty Group Postprints, Volume Six, 1999 (Washington, DC: American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works, 2000), 94–111;
  7. Ellen Pearlstein, Emily Kaplan, and Judith Levinson, “Tradition and Innovation: Cochineal and Andean Keros,” A Red Like No Other: How Cochineal Colored the World (Santa Fe, NM: Museum of International Folk Art; New York: Skira/Rizzoli, 2015) 44–51, 290–92. See
  8. Claudia Brosseder, “The Conquest from Andean Perspectives, in The Andean World, ed. Linda J. Seligmann and Kathleen S. Fine-Dare (New York: Routledge, 2019), 161–74; John Howland Rowe, “The Chronology of Inca Wooden Cups,” in Essays in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology, ed. S.K. Lothrop (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961), 317–41.
  9. Catherine J. Allen, “The Incas Have Gone inside: Pattern and Persistence in Andean Iconography,” Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 42 (September 2002): 180–203;
  10. Ibid.
  11. See, for example, Katzew, Ilona, and Luisa Elena Alcalá, Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2011), 252–57.