Miniature gold llama figurine

Peru, Inca, about AD 1500

Andean peoples have a long tradition of beliefs relating to an ideal but invisible world that can be represented by miniature objects.

Miniature figurines wrought in hammered gold were deposited as offerings to accompany high-altitude human sacrifices made in the course of the Inca state ritual of capacocha, meaning royal sin or obligation. These events took place upon the death of an Inca king and were used to incorporate new territory into the rapidly expanding Inca empire.

The local lords of subject ethnic groups were required to select and send to the capital city, Cusco, unblemished children embodying the ideal of human perfection. Here the young children were ritually married and presented with sets of miniature human and llama figurines in gold, silver, copper and shell. These miniature figurines would be dressed in a full miniature set of woven textile clothing and feather headdresses.

The children, along with their offerings, were then returned to their original communities, where they were feted and honoured before being sacrificed to the mountain deities (apus) in high altitude burials.

Today, offerings of coca leaves and small carved stone amulets of animals known as illas are arranged on a special textile mesa (altar). These are safeguarded and blessed by offerings of alcohol in rituals designed to bring fertility to the llama herds and prosperity to the owners.

The practice of making offerings to the spirit powers and to ancestors living in the landscape has a long history in Andean cultures and is deeply embedded.

Human communities depend on a process of reciprocal exchange with other members of society for access to goods and crops from other altitudes. However, the notion of a reciprocal exchange is also extended to ancestral powers and to the pachamama (mother earth). Offerings encourage the flow of energies necessary to create, maintain and protect the goodwill of these powers and are deemed fundamental to the success of their crops and herds.



From their capital, Cuzco, in Peru, the Inca controlled a huge empire reaching over 2,400 miles along the length of the Andes mountains. The supreme head of state was the king, considered a living god ruling by divine right.

Incas world culture

Inca ushnus

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Object details

Height: 6.3 cm
Width: 1 cm



Room 2: Collecting the world


    C. McEwan, Precolumbian Gold: Technology, Style and Iconography (2000) 

    C. McEwan, Ancient American Art in Detail (London, The British Museum Press, 2009)

    See this object in our Collection database online

    Further reading

    T.N. D’Altroy, The Incas (Oxford, hb 2002, pb 2003)

    T.N. D’Altroy, ‘Transitions in Power: Centralisation of Wanka Political Organisation Under Inka Rule’, Ethnohistory, 34 (1987), 78–102

    T.N. D’Altroy and C.A. Hastorf, ‘The Distribution and Contents of Inca State Storehouses in the Xauxa Region of Peru’, American Antiquity, 49 (1984), 334–349

    T. Earle, ‘Wealth Finance in the Inca Empire: Evidence from the Calchaqui Valley, Argentina’, American Antiquity, 59 (1994), 443–460

    D. Guillet, ‘Terracing and Irrigation in the Peruvian Highlands’, Current Archaeology, 28 (1987), 409–430

    H. Lechtman, ‘Andean Value Systems and the Development of Prehistoric Metallurgy’, Technology and Culture 25 (1984), 1–36

    S.K. Lothrop, ‘Gold and Silver from Southern Peru and Bolivia’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 67 (1937), 305–325

    C. McEwan, S. La Neice and N. Meeks, ‘The Gilded Image: Precolombian Gold from South and Central America’, Minerva, 7.3 (1996), 10–16

    M.E. Moseley, The Incas and their Ancestors (London, 1992)

    J. Reinhard, ‘Sacred Mountains: an Ethno-archaeological Study of High Andean Ruins’, Mountain Research and Development, 5 (1985), 299–317

    P.W. Stahl, ‘Pre-Columbian Andean Animal Domesticates at the Edge of Empire’, World Archaeology, 34 (2003), 470–483