Early Indigenous Art of the Americas summary



Early Indigenous Art of the Americas summary


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Early Indigenous Art of the Americas summary


Early Indigenous Art of the Americas


10,000 BCE – 1300 BCE


Sometime between 30,000 and 12,000 years ago, during the last Ice Ages, nomadic hunters and gatherers took advantage of the land bridge revealed by the lower level of the oceans, and moved along the emerged Bering Strait grasslands lying between Alaska and Siberia, following the herds of game animals into the American continents. The earliest archaeological materials date from between 12,000 and 10,000 BCE, scattered along widely varied topography of the northern and southern continents. Cultures developed most rapidly in middle, or Mesoamerica, with large, creative, and complex civilizations rising simultaneously with many of the major cultures of the old world.


1500 BCE – 250 CE


The Olmec


The earliest major Mesoamerican culture, the Olmec, established themselves along the Gulf of Mexico just north of the Yucatan Peninsula; the Yucatan and areas of central America adjacent to it seem to be the hotbed of early American civilization. The Olmec people’s first established city, San Lorenzo, gives evidence of their intensive agricultural practices, the draining and filling of swamps and the creation of canal systems. The tropical environment made possible long growing seasons, tempered by the trade winds blowing in from the Atlantic and Pacific. At San Lorenzo there is evidence of the creation of raised platforms of earth and a ceremonial center, as well as artifacts suggesting very active long distance trade.


La Venta, Great Pyramid and Ball Court 900 – 600BCE. The pyramidal structure at La Venta overlooks a large level field, possibly a ball court, and is oriented astronomically, demonstrating two Mesoamerican preoccupations: the marking of time and events, and the cosmic ball game. Objects found at the site include jade jaguars, an animal of continuing symbolic importance throughout Olmec, Maya, and Aztec cultures.


Colossal Heads, La Venta, 900-500BCE. A total of nine such massive basalt heads have been found at San Lorenzo, and seventy-seven basalt monuments, including four great heads, at La Venta. These portrait heads, depicting rulers in symbolic “power” helmets, form part of the Olmec cosmology concerned with the recording of time through dynasties, achievements, and the passing of power. Writing and calendrical systems appeared for the first time in Mesoamerica in about 600-500BCE in Olmec regions.


The Maya


Pre-classic, 2000BCE-300CE

Classic, 300-900CE

Early Post-Classic, 800-1250CE


With a population of over 200,000, the Mayan city of Teotihuacan was extremely influential in the spread of the culture of the Maya throughout Mesoamerica. Laid out on the axis of the avenue of the dead, with pyramids dedicated to the sun and the moon, the city was highly organized and complex. The Mayans extended and elaborated some of the basic patterns and structures of life of the Olmec. They established a calendar based on a combination of interlocking years, the 260 day, and the 365 day, known as the long count. Important dates are interwoven with the lives of rulers.


Aerial view of Teotihuacan, from the north, Pyramid of the Moon, foreground, Pyramid of the Sun top left, and the Citadel, background, all on the Avenue of the Dead, structures 50-200 CE, site 100BCE-750CE.


Teotihuacan, Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon,  350-650CE. The great pyramid/temples form the heart of the city and its grid, creating geometric clarity within the apparent chaos of nature.  Each pyramid normally was constructed with nine levels, imitating the nine levels of the universe. Even today, the gleaming pinnacles of the temples lend scale and punctuation to the vast tracts of tangled forest of the surrounding landscape.


Temple of the Feathered Serpent, 350CE. Mayan temples are often peopled with the faces of the jaguar, the rain god, and the feathered serpent. The Feathered Serpent is associated with the god Quetzalcoatl (known later as Kukulkan), the lord of life and death. According to legend, he was born of the virgin Chimalman, who died in childbirth, and was endowed with great gifts, such as speech, writing, metalworking, painting, and so forth. He lived serenely in his four-quartered palace, until another god tricked him, and showed him that he was flesh, which at that time was aged and wrinkled. After drinking a forbidden beverage given to him by Tezcatlipoca he realized his sin and burned his fair palace of four colors, turned his precious chocolate trees to mesquite, and finally sat down on a stone to weep. His tears, hands, and feet stained the rock, and took the impress of his palms, often used as sign of his holiness. He was challenged by sorcerers and gave them his secrets of the crafts. Once again he was challenged by Tezcatlipoca to a ball game, and to a test of archery. In response he shot a pochotl tree as an arrow through another pochotl tree, forming his sign, the cross. The feathered serpent symbolized resurrection, the rising and setting of the sun, which is fueled by human sacrifice. Another legend tells of the jaguar fighting with the sun after it sets to bring it back in the morning.


Maguey Bloodletting Ritual, Teotiihuacan, fresco, 600-750CE. Bloodletting was done on various sacrificial persons, prisoners, maidens, and the kings and priests themselves. Many of the ceremonial buildings were once covered in painted plaster. The forests around Mayan cities became denuded in part due to the hot fires demanded to cure lime for the making of finishing plaster for the sacred buildings.


Goddess, mural painting from Tetitla apartment complex at Teotihuacan, 650-750CE Mayan. This image is thought to be an earth/nature goddess that was perhaps the patroness of the city. Always shown face-on with a jade mask and long feathered headdress, she stretches out her arms giving forth liquid bounty. Her bird-masked face is flanked by human hearts, indicating sacrifice or maybe her compassion for human subjects.


Stele D portraying the ruler 18-Rabbit, Great Plaza at Copan, 736CE, Maya. The temples of Copan in Hoduras, has more hieroglyphic inscriptions and well-preserved carved monuments than any other site in the Americas. This stele represents one the city’s greatest rulers, Waxaklahun-Ubah-K’awil. He was the 13th in a dynastic succession of 16 rulers. In this portrait, commemorating his long rule, he wears an elaborate headdress and ceremonial  kilt, carrying a serpent staff, symbol of his power descended from the sky. Rabbit was eventually captured and beheaded in a Ball game by his rival, king of Quirigua.


North Acropolis, Tikal, 400-700CE. One of the most sacred sites in the extensive city of Tikal, the North Acropolis was built over many times, in reverence for the great line of rulers, perhaps the most celebrated of which, Great Jaguar Paw, is referred to in numerous places on the acropolis. Tikal was a sort of “floating” city, with extensive water handling structures, feeding a system of house gardens.


Place and Temple of the Inscriptions, tomb of Lord Pakal, 7th century. In this important classic period city, Palenque architects perfected the corbelled vault to a degree unknown behind the thick walls of Tikal. Lord Pakal and this descendents helped bring the city into Mayan prominence, commissioning the graceful nine-story pyramid tomb.


Sarcophagus Lid, the tomb of the Lord Pakal, 683CE. Like Quetzalcoatl, Pakal is poised between life and death, the rising and the setting sun. He holds the sacred tree, the cross, which holds in turn the celestial bird, the soul flying to heaven.


Portrait of Pakal, tomb sculpture, mid 7th centuryCE. Pakal’s image was often reproduced, portraits which as well embodied Mayan ideas of beauty, including the elongated head, produced by infant binding. Both universal and particular, perhaps Pakal was a kind of Mayan pop star or celebrity.


Shield Jaguar and Lady Xoc, Lintel 24, Temple 23, Yaxchilan, Mexico, 725CE, Maya.

The ruler Itzamna Blaam II (Known as Shield Jaguar) and his principal wife, Lady Xoc, here share the rarified space on a stele, one of the few depictions of women in important ceremonial roles. She pierces here tongue in a bloodletting ceremony, ostensibly in celebration of the birth of a son to one of his other wives, as well as an alignment between Saturn and Jupiter. Seeking perhaps a vision in the darkness, the Lord holds a flaming torch.


Chichen Itza, 800-900CE,Yucatan, 9th-13th century. The northern, post-classic Mayan Itza culture, dominating the head of the Yucatan peninsula, culminated centuries of Mayan culture. Castillo. The great pyramid of the feathered serpent is designed to imitate the serpent at the equinoxes by the shadow pattern of the balustrades on the stairs. The steps are very high and narrow in tread, making it necessary for the devotee to walk in a diagonal zigzag pattern if he wants to avoid excruciating leg cramps. One then also avoids inadvertently turning one’s back fully on any of the other Gods in the plaza while imitating the serpent’s undulating path.  Chachmool. The unassuming figures leaning back on their haunches held the neck of captives during decapitation, as evidenced by the dark stains on their bellies. The image probably represents a fallen enemy warrior bound for sacrifice. Ball court and Temple.  Although the exact nature of the game played by Mayan warriors remains unclear, it certainly was played with the highest stakes. Carvings of human skulls line the walls of the playing field, representing the fate of the losers. The field represents the universe, and the ball used in play evokes the movement of the sun through space and time. Iglesia.  The “church” uses the ancient form of the corbel vault, braced by timbers, to create a tall but claustrophobic interior space. The function of this building remains a mystery. Observatory. The consciously asymmetrical layout of the base of the structure’s purpose is unknown, but the tower was certainly used for observation and charting of the heavens. Time was charted and divined as precisely as other aspects of the Mayan universe, with each compass direction associated with certain plants, animals, and parts of the human body, as well as with certain periods within the year. One word, kin, translates as Sun, day, and time. The Mayan year, the tzolkin (in Aztek tonalpohualli) consisted of 260 days, 20 units of 13 days. The 260 day year is associated even today in Mesoamerica with a woman’s gestation period, and with the average length of the common agricultural season. The tzolkin cycled through the seasonal year endlessly, with a given day turning up in different seasons from year to year. Another count was used to delineate the haab, the seasonal year of 360days (they ignored the .24 portion of the day actually in the year, and considered the final five days highly inauspicious). Longer units of time were also calculated to highlight eras or epochs, including the calendrical round of 52 years, the long count, which was created by compiling cycles with multiples of 20: 18 (units of 20 days in the haab) x20x20 equaled the tulun, multiplied by 20 again to make the baktun, and so on as long as you please. The observatory was surely used to mesh the complex calculations of earthly time with the eternal clock of the heavens, keeping the chaos of the universe at bay.


Central and South America


Pendant in the form of a bat-faced man,  from NE Colombia, 1000CE, Tairona. One of the groups living in the isolated highlands of Northern Columbia, the Tairona were accomplished metalsmiths created talismans such as this, worn about the neck for protection more than fashion. Their mythology describes the bat as the first creature, so perhaps this image lends the wearer the power and favor of the ancients.


Shaman with Drum and Snake, Costa Rica Diquis culture, 1000CE. The people of this small chiefdom, while not engaging in monumental architecture, nonetheless excelled in metal work, such as this lost-wax casting in gold of a shaman figure communing with the powerful forces of the spirits of nature.


Earth Drawing of Hummingbird, Nazca plain, Peru, 500CE. The Nazca people, 200BCE-600CE, skilled craftsmen in many media, are best known for their overwhelming geoglyphs. Living on the high, dry Nazca plain, the native peoples found it necessary to develop elaborate irrigation systems to transport water reliably to their fields. In the process, they evolved sophisticated methods of surveying straight lines over great distances. In addition to lines of stones used as canals, they drew large images of animals and insects hundreds of feet long, which often connected to watercourses. Motifs include the monkey, spider, whale, duck, hummingbird, images also found on their pottery. These may have been clan or religious symbols, or related to the agricultural season; we may never know for certain. By removing the weather-darkened stone to reveal lighter stone beneath, they created monumental works of art with ingeniously simple technology; the audience for these drawings can only be guessed at:  perhaps they honored rain deities observing them from on high.


Vessel in the Shape of a portrait head,  north coast Peru, painted clay, 5th-6th centuries, Moche. The Moche’s anthropomorphic pots often illustrate their craft, including architecture, metallurgy, weaving, the brewing of Chicha beer, human diseases and sexual acts. Made originally by hand, by wheel, then via a mold, these highly refined vessels retained the form of the stirrup spout, even when the use was primarily ceremonial, as in this grave object.


Moche Lord with Feline, Moche Valley, Peru, 1-700CE. The inhabitants of the Moche valley created a variety of works, including brick pyramids, but are best known for their sophisticated ceramic works. Anthropomorphic vessels such as this were used for ritual purposes, illustrating or commemorating sacrifice.


Earspool, Moche, 300CE. Earspools were important personal decoration throughout many cultures in Peru; this piece illustrates the importance of warriors in their society, with these powerful persons depicted with great attention to detail in precious, lustrous materials.


Lima Tapestry, from Peru, Tunic, 500-800 CE, Wari. Created out of a combination of cotton and wool fibers, this tunic is a true tapestry, with the colored design woven as the densely packed weft fibers over the warp. The figures depicted---human beings dressing up as animals in a mythological mis en scene---are managed in a complexly gridded abstract system. This fine example survived in the dry coastal atmosphere of the Wari.


North America


Burial Mask, Ipiotak, from Point Hope, Alaska, Ivory, 100 CE, Eskimo. Created by the tool making hunters at the Ipiutak site during the Norton, or Old Bering Sea Culture, this burial mask made from walrus ivory seems to give the deceased a voice in the next life. It uses nine separate parts, combining human and animal forms into a power-face that can help the wearer make the mysterious transition into the next life.


Great Serpent Mound, Ohio, Mississippian Culture, 1070CE. Holding a large egg in its mouth, perhaps representing resurrection, the undulating snake-mound seems to mimic the vastness of eternity in the extravagant folds of its body. Although some human remains have been found in its banks, the mound seems to have not been primarily intended as a funerary site. We can have no clear idea as yet of their motivation, but we can be sure that the Mississippian peoples possessed a clear concept of their universe, and devoted considerable resources to their relationship to it.


Drawing of Cahokia, Illinois, Mississippian Culture, 1150CE. This urban center which, at its height, had a population of about 20,000, continued the South American tradition of pyramid building. Wooden posts were used to form a stockade around the city, as well as for marking astronomical cycles.


Pueblo Bonito, Chaco canyon, Anasazi culture, 900-1250CE. Agricultural societies emerged in North America in about 200BCE, with the advent of the Mogollon and Hohokam cultures. The “Ancient Ones”, traced their legendary roots literally under the ground. Stories are told of an ancient time when they learned of farming and industriousness through the “Ant People” while the humans still lived under the surface of the earth. According to this tradition, humans were only able to overcome their natural lassitude and ignorance by the example of the Ant People. Pueblo Bonito is an elaborate complex, built out in the open, bold and striking in its relation to the surrounding environment. Underground ritual smoking rooms, kivas  recall the Anasazi tradition of sacred places as being in the ground. After a time the increasing drying of the climate, paired with increased attacks from other peoples, forced the Anasazi to abandon Pueblo Bonito for more defensible dwellings, in less arid areas.


Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde,  Mesa Verde national Park, Colorado, 1150-1300 CE, Anasazi

After a drought forced the Ancient Ones out of Chaco Canyon, they build a great city/palace farther north in the lush steep walled canyons of Colorado. More than 200 rooms fill the Palace, mostly residential communal spaces, all build of laid stone, timer, and finally adobe.


Ceramic Vessels,  Pueblo Bonito. A wide variety of objects were created in the thriving Anasazi ceramic practice, all with variations of the so-called “lightning flash” pattern. Some were fixed with rope, to store seeds above the ground to keep them safe from rodents. This pattern seems amenable to endless variations, with a wide range of designs demonstrated by ancient and contemporary artists with the same elemental motifs.


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