Human beings are rarely represented in art produced in the heartland of the Inca Empire. However, the collection at the Ethnological Museum of Berlin includes a unique ceramic piece from the Cusco region on which six women are depicted holding a branch from which sprout two flowers. Who are these women and what was the nature of their relationship with the plant?
In order to answer this question, the first step was to identify the plant. The characteristics of the flower—its color, the dark shades at both extremes of the petal, and the dark stamen—are typical features of a type of Bomarea dulcis, a species that grows in the Andean Highlands. The plant is known today among the Kallawaya healers of Bolivia for its abortifacient effects (Girault 1984:112), and its Quechua name, sullu sullu, also refers to this property. According to various Quechua dictionaries, the word sullu alludes to abortion, and its derivative, sulluni, means “to abort” (González Holguín 1952: 332). If the plant was indeed used to induce abortion, its connection with the women depicted on the Inca jar seems clear: the six figures are carrying a plant that grants them the power of birth control. Even more, the plant served as an attribute of the women that carry it and helps us identify these feminine figures; in other words, it is an identifying attribute of them.
The acllas (chosen women) were a group of females who held a particular status in the Inca Empire and whose roles required that they bear no children. Various sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish and native chroniclers describe the institution of the acllas as a select group of female subjects who lived in closed complexes. The acllas fulfilled a number of economically and ritually significant roles, including weaving the highest-quality textiles, preparing chicha (maize beer), and working in the fields of the Inca, the emperor himself. The Spanish chroniclers associated this institution with Christian convents and the acllas with nuns, asserting that they were virgins. However, as the concept of virginity did not exist among the Andean peoples prior to the arrival of the Spanish Christian invaders, it would be more correct to say that the empire was concerned with controlling these women’s reproductivity and not their virginity.
The fertility of the acllas was not to be expressed through their offspring, but rather through their work and the products they manufactured. The empire would thereby profit from the restriction of individual women’s reproductive possibilities, and it is quite possible that the sullu sullu plant was an important part of this system. This may go some way towards explaining its place of honor on imperial ceramics—appearing to distinguish these female subjects with special agencies.