Analysis of prehispanic cultural signs database


Tocapu Drawings Database Project (TDDP)

by Christiane Clados,  



Funding for this project was generously provided by a grant from the German Research Foundation (DFG). Further, I could not have completed this database without the help of several people including Heidi King, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Rebecca Finfield, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Manuela Fischer, Ethnological Museum Berlin; Gary Urton, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology - Harvard University; Susan Bergh, The Cleveland Museum of Art; Leslie Freund, Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley; Margaret Young-Sanchez, Denver Art Museum: Ulla Holmquist, Larco Herrera Museum Lima; Bruce Owen, Department of Anthropology, Sonoma State University; Patricia J. Knobloch, Research Associate, Institute of Andean Studies, Berkeley; Edward de Bock, Museum voor Volkenkunde Rotterdam; Dawn Scher-Thomae, Milwaukee Public Museum; Doris Kurella, Linden-Museum Stuttgart; Danielle Benden, Anthropology Department, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Maria Scaffiotti Dale, Chazen Museum, Madison; Auriel Garza, Dallas Museum of Art, and Frederico Kauffmann Doig. A special thanks goes to Frank Salomon, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Laura Levi, University of Texas-San Antonio, Kathryn Brown, University of Texas-San Antonio, and Jason Yaeger, University of Texas-San Antonio, for giving me an institutional home and for supporting my commitment to this project.
I also extend special thanks to Christoph Forster and datalino for doing the technical part of the database, and Carolyn Freiwald for her editorial assistance in preparing the text of the database. I particularly wish to thank Meghan Egan who contributed to the database with additional drawings.

About the author

Christiane Clados received a Ph.D. 2001 from the Free  University Berlin. She has worked on Mitla (Oaxaca, Mexico), La Cantina and El  Pobre (Casma, Peru) archaeological projects and has focused on iconography and  notation systems from Mexico to Peru. She has been affiliated with the  Anthropology Department, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and instructor of a  course on Pre-Columbian Art and Architecture in the Art History Department. She recently finished the Habilitation thesis.

The Database                             

The main purpose of the database is to provide an online-catalogue of pre-Hispanic Tocapus found so far on artifacts of any material and form. The idea to do an online-catalogue on pre-Hispanic Tocapus was considered as necessary since many current interpretations are based on sometimes unsystematic use of basic types of Tocapus and their variations. Some recent publications still confuse basic Tocapu types and variations of basic types.
A second goal of the database is the presentation of a new corpus of pre-Hispanic Tocapus that also will help in testing current interpretations on Tocapus and in developing new ones.
A third goal was the definition of prehispanic Tocapu basic types and their variations found on different media. Because Tocapus can not be understood without their relation to motifs with a more iconic nature a fourth goal of the database was the presentation of Tocapu-related motifs.
The catalogue of Tocapus is a versatile tool designed to present the most up to date information on the Tocapu system in a way that is inter-relational and easy to access. An on-line catalogue of artifacts is a dynamic entity, one that can be constantly updated, corrected and added to as new information comes forth. This database should not be considered as finished but still in progress. Also, this format avoids the pitfalls of previously published works where errors of information have gone uncorrected and invariably compounded through repeated citation. The catalogue uses line drawings and line drawings combined with stippling. The Tocapus in this catalogue were drawn from sight in museum collections, or alternatively, copied from photographs. Preference was given to the first method. Because Tocapus and their understanding is also based on colours most of the rollouts of the database are shown in colour. Colors follow the Munsell Color Chart. At the time of this writing the database has 760 entries. Links display other images related to the discussed image. 
The database has seven categories (Synthesis, Tocapu-Signs, Sites, Archives & Collections, Objects, Images, Literature). With each drawing in the Images and Objects categories comes a brief description referring to materials, shape, provenience, current location, date, phase, related objects, analysis and occasionally interpretation. The Objects category contains a sub-category with Tocapu grids, that shows sequences and distribution of specific Tocapus on some of the objects of the database. It also provides charts showing types of Tocapus and their variations. The Tocapu-Signs category lists separately all Tocapu signs that appear in the database.
The database presents new results on Tocapus by analyzing textiles, ceramics, metalwork, wooden objects and murals. It provides an extended catalogue of Barthel’s Tocapu list (1971) including signs yet not listed in previous publications, thus expanding the possibilities of analysis. The objects for the catalogue that were selected come either from controlled archaeological excavations, from museum collections or private collections, some of them without provenience. The research was based on the analysis of more than 2,000 slides which are part of the author’s archive.
Colors follow the Munsell Color Chart.

A Note on the Use of Materials

The materials contained in this archive are freely available to all interested parties for scholarly study. For publication use of the drawings and text, permission must be requested in writing from the author:
All drawings are done by the author if not otherwise noted.


The pre-Hispanic Tocapu symbol system of the Inca culture belongs to the most impressive aspects of visual culture of prehispanic South America. Although progress has been done in the past years the meaning and function of the Tocapu signs/graphs themselves still remain unclear. Recent works (De Rojas Silva 2008, Arellano/Grube 1999) acknowledge an early existence of Tocapus in the Wari culture of the Middle Horizon and Tocapu-related motifs in the cultures of Paracas, Nasca and Moche (De Rojas Silva 2008, 23-29, Stone 2007). The article of Fonseca et al. (2010) provides a discussion on the Crossed Circle Motif found on sherds of the Conchopata and Jargampata sites. Knobloch (2002, 2012) discusses a rectangular motifs that may indicate ethnic identity and be precursor to Inca style Tocapu squares used to designate known populations in the Inca Empire as often depicted by textiles. The characteristic features of Inca Tocapus are discussed in detail by de la Jara (1967), Barthel (1971), Rowe (1979), Rowe (1992), Cummins (2002), Stone (2007) and Gentile (2010).
Tocapus of the pre-Hispanic Inca period are generally described as square designs with primarily abstract geometric forms that were woven elements of Inca unku (tunics), incised or painted on Inca drinking cups (kerus), and painted on Inca ceramic vessels (Timberlake 2008). Most of them are arranged in regular rows, varied by color and occasionally described as abstract language components. While Barthel in his later work considers them as standing for parts of spoken language similar to pre-dynastic Egypt hieroglyphs (Barthel 1971), Rowe (1992) argues against this possibility. Since the works of de la Jara (1972, 193, 1975) and Barthel (1970a, 1970b, 1971) not much emphasis was given on the understanding of the signs themselves. Recent studies tend to explain Tocapus as heraldic signs (Frame 2009, Quispe-Agnoli 2008, Eeckhout und Danis 2004) or as a mirror of social-religios concepts like hanan and hurin (Timberlake 2008, Zuidema 1982) and spatial divisions of Tahuantinsuyu (Timberlake 2001) (Also see Urton, 2008, for a discussion of khipus as a tool for keeping records, and Williams, 2008, for a systematic comparison of patterns on textiles and ceramics).


Tocapu: In the following the use of the term Tocapu will be restricted to Inca Tocapus of the Late Horizon (AD 1470-1532 and after 1532). For the Tocapu-ish elements in pre-Inca Nasca, Moche, Recuay, Tiwanaku and Wari cultures I will use the term (Nasca/Moche/Wari ect.) square/rectangular motif units.
Tocapu Band: A single (horizontal or vertical) row of Tocapus.

Tocapu Block: Two Tocapus separated by an (unframed) motif.

Analyzed Material

The analyzed material covers a time span of several hundred years. The objects presented here belong to different cultures (Paracas, Nasca, Wari, Tiwanaku, Ica-Chincha, Chancay and Inca) and date to the Early Intermediate Period (AD 0-550), the Middle Horizon (AD 550-1000), the Late Intermediate Period (AD 1000-1475), and the Late Horizon (AD 1475-1532). It includes well-known objects like the allover Tocapu tunics/all-Tocapu tunics of the Bliss Collection (Dumbarton Oaks) and the American Museum of Natural History (New York) and ceramic vessels of the Uhle Collection of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, but also yet unknown objects owned by several Peruvian, German, Swedish and Spanish Museums.

Method of Analysis

The idea behind this research is the observation that Tocapus are closely related to imagery. The existence of a Tocapu sign on the all-tocapu tunic of the Bliss Collection, Dumbarton Oaks, showing the miniature tunic of a man with checkerboard design (fig. X) and Tocapus with figural motifs (butterfly, jaguar, jaguar head, helmet, hellebard, feather, bird ect.) in the Colonial Period rose the question whether there are other Tocapu signs that have a more iconic nature than the abstract one often proposed. Two methodological tools were applied to approach the meaning of Tocapus: a style analysis and an iconographic analysis.

Beyond Textiles, Kerus and Ceramics

Tocapus (and also square/rectangular motif units) are not restricted to textiles, wooden beakers (kerus) and ceramics. Tocapus and Pre-Inca square/rectangular motif units appear on metal objects and objects made of shell and half-precious stones (images 45, 61-64). Of special interest are metal weapons showing rows of Tocapus (images 192, 211, 212).

Arrangement and Distribution on Textiles of the Inca Period

Pre-Hispanic Inca Tocapus are arranged in a number of different ways:

Andean Primary Diagonal Axis (APD) (Adorno 1986, 100-105), alternatively called  Diagonal Repeats (Rowe 1992, vol. 2). The APD describes an arrangement of Tocapus that creates a diagonal line following the upper right to lower left axis.

Zigzag Pattern                                                                                                                             This arrangement describes bands of Tocapus creating a zigzag line. The zigzag line is formed by the most dominant part of the Tocapu sign, a diagonal. The most prominent examples of this type of arrangement are the Inca key checkerboard tunics (images 000603, 000605, 000621).
No fixed order (Rowe 1992, vol.2): Sequences and Clusters                                                     This arrangement means the tunic is entirely covered with Tocapus, a form that Murúa (1615) describes elsewhere in the text as a capac uncu (« camiseta rica y poderoso » - rich and powerful shirt) (Phipps, Turner, Trentelman 2008, 127). Rowe (1979) and Rowe (1992) identify this type of pattern as Viracocha tocapo. Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa reported that Viracocha Inca was « an ingenious inventor of fancy textile patterns, the ones they call Viracocha tocapo (Sarmiento de Gamboa, capt. 26, 1906: 59). Viracocha tunics show no simple pattern of repetition, but highly variable frequencies. The most prominent examples of this type of arrangement are the Viracocha tunics of the Bliss Collection and the American Museum of Natural History (images 000181 - 000183, 000335, 000336, 000601, 000629) (see also image 000184).
Disconnected/Interrupted Rows or Scattered Arrangement (Clados 2010)                                   This arrangement is not defined so far. With these terms I describe Tocapus and square/rectangular motif units that are arranged like scattered on the surface. The most prominent examples of this type of arrangement are tunics of the Colonial Period like that of the Ethnological Museum Berlin (VA 4577).

Patterns and Distribution on Textiles of the Wari Period

Several authors mention that Inca tunics as they are shown in Colonial Period paintings of the Cuzco School and in illustration manuscripts like the one of Guaman Poma de Ayala imitate the arrangement of square/rectangular units (Tocapus) on Wari tunics of the Middle Horizon (Iriarte 1999, Horta Tricallotis 2008). For example, the arrangement of square/rectangular units in vertical rows on Middle Horizon tunics are mirrored in the arrangement of Tocapus on textiles worn by high-ranked Inca warrior shown in the oil painting Descensión de la Virgen en el Suntur Wasi protegiendo a los españoles de los indios and also on the tunic worn by Inca Pachacuti shown on folio 108 Guaman Poma’s manuscript (1615). This is also the case with the arrangement of Tocapus in disconnected rows/scattered arrangement. A Chakipampa style effigy vessel of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Cambridge, shows a musician playing panpipe and dressed with a tunic that is decorated with tocapus organized in disconnected rows very similar to the design of a Wari feather hat of the Linden Museum (Headdress M 32205 of the Linden-Museum, Stuttgart). Both objects showing square motif units arranged in disconnected rows precede Inca tunics of the Colonial Period (Clados 2010). The arrangement in disconnected rows/scattered arrangement is without doubt a pre-hispanic features and is not an innovation in the Colonial Period. Moreover, it can be seen as a revival of pre-incaic traditions. Similar can be said about the zigzag pattern. Several tunics dating to the Middle Horizon are decorated with vertical bands that consist of square/rectangular units arranged in zigzag pattern (Images 000071, 000073 - 000076).

Waist Band Tunics of the Late Horizon (Inca)

Rowe (1979) mentions tunics decorated with a horizontal band of Tocapus in the hip area which he calls waistband tunics. Severals tunics of this type are still preserved (see Metropolitan Museum of Art 1982,365 and images 000190, 000596). A few effigy vessels show men wearing this type of tunic (images 000242, 000477, 000478). They continue to be in use in the Colonial period (see VA 4577, Ethnological Museum Berlin; Museo Inca, Universidad Nacional San Antonio Abad del Cusco 729; 9017-18 Collection Penny Righthand and Richard Levine). There are also tunics that show more than on horizontal band. Many of them date to the early Colonial Period. If organized on several horizontal parallel bands the Tocapus are generally arranged as Andean Primary Diagonal Axis (Adorno 1986, 100-105).

Waist Band Tunics of the Middle Horizon (Wari)

Although no "classic" waist band tunic of the Wari culture is preserved there is indication that waist band tunics exists long before the Incas (Clados 2007, Tribus, Band 56 (2007), pp. 71-106). Two silver plaques of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a small silver figurine in the Milwaukee Public Museum clearly show high-ranked men dressed in waist band tunics (images 000042, 000045).

Wari: Organization in Disconnnected/Interrupted Rows

Normally organized in continuous rows Middle Horizon square/rectangular motif units sometimes show an organization in interrupted rows yet not known. A Chakipampa style effigy vessel of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Cambridge, shows a musician playing panpipe and dressed with a tunic that is decorated with square/rectangular motif units organized in interrupted rows (images 000107, 000108), very similar to the design of the headdress of the Linden Museum, Stuttgart.

Moche: Organization in Rows, Convention of “Fusion”

Moche square/rectangular motif units share with those of contemporary Nasca being organized in rows (images 00008, 000009, 000011). They mostly appear on ceramics and are not as polychrome as in Nasca. Conjoined steps with one or two triangles and spirals are used as central motifs. Representations of costumes in multifigural scenes indicate that also textiles were richly decorated with square/rectangular motif units. While in Nasca one and the same sign gets repeated several different Moche square/rectangular motif units usually appear in a row alternating, a feature that can be seen later on many Tocapu-decorated Inca textiles. A unique convention is the fusion of two different square/rectangular motif units as single one. For example a square/rectangular motif unit with a central motif of what that can be identified the frontal face of a catfish is combined with a spiral.

Recuay: First Appearance of Waist Band Tunics

Culturally related to Moche and located in the Ancash Department of present-day Peru Recuay culture also shows the use of square/rectangular motif units. They mostly can be found on bi-chrome (negative painted) ceramics, since textiles in the Recuay area are rarely preserved. They share with Moche square/rectangular motif units that they are not polychrome. They are distinguished from Moche square/rectangular motif units by the fact that one and the same square/rectangular motif unit can be varied by color, a convention that also can be seen with Nasca square/rectangular motif units and Inca Tocapus like the Inca key. Also, representations of high-ranked men and women dressed in shirts that are decorated with a row of square/rectangular motif units in the waist area seem to anticipate Tocapu waist band tunics of the Wari and Inca cultures.

Square/Rectangular Motif Units in Wari and Tiwanaku

Wari iconography clearly shows evidence for the existence of elements that can be described as related to Inca Tocapus if not as Tocapus at all (CL 394 - 400). CL 396 shows the use of rectangular motif units as face painting. All Wari square/rectangular motif units can be described as framed motifs. Conjoined steps, diamonds, squares with two or four dots, diagonal steps, diagonal motifs and several figural motifs are used as central motifs.

“Closeups” in Wari: The Cases “Jaguar Pelt” and “Star”

As with Nasca square/rectangular motif units some “abstract” motifs of Wari square/rectangular motif units are clearly derived from motifs which are figural in nature. They are composed by taking a “closeup” of a figural motif larger in size than its derivate which then is compressed in rectangular form and framed. Several Wari face neck bottles show high ranked persons wearing tunics with jaguar figures symmetrically arranged. In this cases jaguar pelt is normally expressed by black spots on an orange background (Kasser Collection 2008, 107, 71). Fonseca et al. (2010) provides a discussion on the Crossed Circle Motif found on sherds of the Conchopate site, which is occasionly combined with the jaguar pelt sign. Two types of Jaguar Pelt Rectangular Units (T105, T106) on ceramics of Conchopata site are discussed by Knobloch (2014) (see Clados discussed the figural origin of several Wari square/rectangular motif units including the "Jaguar Pelt Square Unit" (MH 5.1) (2007, 2010).

Paracas: Compressed Miniature Scenes and Checkerboard Organization

During the late Paracas culture (EIP 1, 2) textiles of the Block Color Style show a checkerboard organization of the entire surface (image 000002). Generally blocks with figures alternate with blank rectangular fields. A closer look on the fields filled with figures reveal that these are in fact miniature scenes showing several characters interacting (000002,000003). Not only anticipates the checkerboard organization later Tocapu arrangements on textiles, ceramics and metal artifacts in Wari and Inca cultures, but the miniature scene are characterized by compressing of what is depicted, a feature similar to the closeup convention of Wari square/rectangular motif units.
In Nasca square/rectangular motif units mostly appear on ceramics and textiles.

Created by: Dr. Christiane Clados
Last Updated:     July 2, 2012
Copyright © 2011 Christiane Clados,,


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