From an ancient pre-Columbian graveyard to the Captain Cook Collection.

Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.

Clay water bottle – as it is described in the Museum register – is from Pre-Columbian culture of present day Peru. It could be Chimu, or more likely Moche culture. Precise dating is not possible nor, in this context, most important. It could be 1000 years old, give or take several centuries either way.

An interesting question is how this bottle found its way into the Captain Cook Collection. The superficial answer is simple enough – it was added to the Cook Collection by Joseph Banks. This opens two possibilities; it was acquired by Banks after his journey around the world with Cook (1768-70), or indeed collected during their epic exploration of the south Pacific.

The problem is that they touched South American land briefly at two places extremely far, geographically and culturally, from the north coast of Peru where Moche and Chimu culture flourished before being absorbed by the Incas. First our explorers stopped in Rio de Janeiro on the east coast of Atlantic to replenish the expedition’s supplies and then at Cape Horn in January 1769 where they had a short encounter with native Fuegians - Ona or Alakaluf people.

The bottle must have been removed from pre-Columbian ruins or most likely a graveyard during Spanish colonial administration, after it was consolidated in the latter part of the 16th century. Pre-Columbian artefacts were plundered from historic sites and traded within and beyond the Viceroyalty of Peru. The voluminous movement of people, plants and animals along with silver, silk and all sorts of merchandise was conducted briskly across the Pacific. Peruvian pottery could have been transported to any Spanish colonial outpost in the region – from Manila to the Mariana Islands, or the Caroline Islands. The bottle may not have been brought as a historical relic but as a serviceable container used for water or grog.

But there is another tantalising possibility that the Moche-Chimu water vessel was brought to Easter Island in colonial times, or even before, and collected during a short visit of the Endeavour to this, one of the most remote Polynesian Islands. While some stylistic associations between Easter Island’s artefacts and the native cultures of South America are open to interpretation, the varieties of sweet potato cultivated on the island demonstrates the links (direct or not) with this closest, yet distant continent – over 3,000 km away.

It is credible that the Moche-Chimu bottle was brought to Eastern Island with or after the first European expedition in 1722 and taken away by someone from Cook’s ‘party’ in 1770 or 1774. While this is only a possibility, we hope that the presence of this ancient Peruvian vessel in the Cook Collection one day will be explained. And who knows, perhaps the story is far more complex.

Prepared by Vickie Tran and Stan Florek