Science & Tech

In their cups

1 min read

Professor solves enigma of Inca drinking vessels and other mysteries of Andean and Mesoamerican art

Thomas Cummins, Dumbarton Oaks Professor of the History of Pre-Columbian and Colonial Art, has made a career of finding and interpreting objects that hold the key to a fuller understanding of the encounter between native peoples and their Spanish conquerors. “Indigenous people weren’t winners, and, with few exceptions, they didn’t write histories,” Cummins said. “But with a little perseverance, you can find the objects that enable you to tell history from the other side. That’s the driving force for me, because without that perspective, our knowledge of the encounter between indigenous peoples and Europeans would be one-sided.” Cummins’ latest book is a fine illustration of this effort to achieve a more balanced view of history by interpreting indigenously crafted objects whose significance has not been fully understood. The book is “Toasts With the Inca: Andean Abstraction and Colonial Images on Kero Vessels” (University of Michigan Press, 2002). The book focuses on ritual Inca drinking vessels and the transformation of their decorative designs from geometric abstraction to pictorial representation. He finds that the cups represented a compromise between the Inca and the Spanish authorities.