Pre-Colombian- means b4 Columbus

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Art of the Americas

*Map of South America

Pre-Colombian- means b4 Columbus (1492 lands in Bahamas not Japan as expected- headed for the East Indies- SE Asia- Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, etc.- East of India) and refers to Americas before the arrival of Christopher Columbus and other western explorers and settlers (aka pre contact, post contact)- staring in early 16th c. on-

Earliest people migrated over the land bridge (from Russia to Alaska) in Ice Age- still art most likely invented independently of other parts of the world.

Early domestication of animals and crops in 7000-5000BCE in Mexico

  • Maize, beans, squash, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes and avocados- turkeys, guinea pigs, llamas, alpacas, guanacos (like llama), vicunas (like llama), dogs

PreColumbian people lacked some ingredients of other early world civilizations:

  • No horses or beasts of burden that could carry humans (llamas and alpacas could only carry goods)

  • (No big animals! No major cereal crop! May have contributed to the lack of development seen in Mediterranean and Asia! Geography matters!)

  • No wheels (seen only on toys in Mexico, never scaled up.) Probably because they had no horse to pull it!

  • No discovery of how to process bronze or iron (had gold silver and copper but they= soft metals)- used wood, stone, bone and obsidian for tools

  • No known or deciphered written language (except for Maya) (See the Quipu!)


  • Made enormous elevated platform temples (earlier than in Mesoamericans!)

  • Painting, textiles, ceramics, sculptures

  • Created amazing art that rivals other early civilizations with all of the above

Artists were often very valued members of society- part of high social order- often seen as caretakers of important sacred information

  • Must look at the art of the Americas in their separate areas

South America: Central Andies


Great florescence of high civilization developed in Central Andean area of Peru, southern Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, and Northern Bolivia

-long, narrow terrain of abrupt ecological extremes, 50-250 miles wide

-Andean heartland is defined by Pacific Ocean on west and Andes mntns on east

-the Andes are about 4,660 miles long

-separate coastal desert from Amazonian rainforest

-once separated western urban agriculturists from eastern forest people- People traded and depended on one another- fish and shells from the coast were traded for beans and squash in the east

-Andes ranks 2nd only to Himalayas in height-some peaks as high as 23,000 ft.

-but stretches 3 times as long-**Rugged and inhospitable

-primarily will cover area between Quito, Ecuador and Santiago, Chile (book’s focus)

-sedentary villages and urban centers were interrupted by arrival of Spanish in 1532


3 principal zones

1) western COAST-- Dramatic change in climatic areas-desert coast-arid, dry perfect climate for preservation, where mummies found (500 years before Egyptians!)

2) HIGHLANDS: Andes MOUNTAINOUS region, combo of strong sun and altitude

-only small portion usable for farming- terraced farms

-most people live 6,000 feet above sea level

-little affected by El Nino, little annual change in temperature

- In highlands, rainfall more important than irrigation

- highland peoples want access to lowland materials- Basically forced trade & exchange

-Highland people more reliant-developed majority of religious institutions

-easier to get from highlands to coast, than one highland community to another

-jungle terrain never incorporated into cultures-yet served as a place of philosophic origin


-Amazonian Rainforest beyond Andes mntns-jungle territory

Amazon drainage, largest river system in the world

El Nino- weather cycle that brings warm water sweeping across Pacific.

  • Comes every decade or so, but ever 25 to 40 years in S America it is more severe and can change the water temp by almost 7 degrees. This kills the phytoplankton and the fish that feed on it. Floods occur and ruin crops and irrigation channels.

  • Every few hundred years a worse El Nino occurs and creates horrible damage. This destroyed the Moche and Chimu cities.

Andean Worldview

Collectivity, reciprocity (of trade goods between eco zones), transformation, and essence

Andean Chronology

Archaeological sequence includes: Preceramic, Initial Period, Early Horizon, Early Intermediate, Middle Horizon, Late Intermediate, and Late Horizon

-have basically 3 major “Horizons” (one single culture dominates) divided by smaller “Intermediate” (more independent regional development) periods-these terms still widely used-though more in question, too definitive

Chavin (Early Horizon), Paracas and Nasca of south Chilean coast and Moche in the north (Early Intermediate) Tiwani and Wari cultures (Middle Horizon), Inka (Late Horizon)

Valdivian Culture (3500-1600BCE)- Equador FYI

  • Oldest pre culture- Southern Ecuador- contemporary with Sumerians in Mespotamia

  • The Valdivia lived in a community that built its houses in a circle or oval around a central plaza and were sedentary people that lived off farming and fishing, though occasionally they went hunting for deer. 

  • Made large platformed structures using adobe bricks with grass and twig binders, (adobe clay coat on the exterior)

Valdivia female figurine. 3500 BC, Valdivia, Guayas Province, Ecuador, Clay, paint. 4 x 3 x 4 cm to 3 x 2 x 10.5 cm

  • the context in which the majority of these figurines are found suggests that they were associated with agricultural rituals and calling for rain.

  • Since many are female, the figurines are also thought to have represented fertility, production, and agricultural development.

  • Several figurines were intentionally broken by being thrown against a hard surface, a ritual that may have formed part of a ceremony.

  • Between four and twenty centimeters in height, the majority are shown standing. Very few figurines are in a sitting position, though some appear to be resting on the ground.

  • Valdivia figurines are characterized by their straight standing pose; pronounced breasts, shoulders, and neck; and a raised head with a small face.

  • The eyes and mouth are represented by simple lines cut into the clay, and the nose by a simple mark across the face or as an appliqué.

  • Despite their simplicity, the figurines have vivid facial expressions.

  • The makers also took care to highlight details of each figurine’s hairstyle, their most distinguishing feature. (maybe portraits?)

  • The hair always appears to be flowing down the back of the figurines. Women in Valdivia culture may have kept their hair long as a status symbol or as part of their belief system. 

  • Like Cycladic figurines, lots of looting and hard to know context…

Valdivian Pottery (Jomon pot on click*)

This culture was discovered in 1956 by the Ecuadorian archeologist Emilio Estrada. Based on comparison of archeological remains and pottery styles (specifically, the similarity between the Valdivian pottery and the ancient Jōmon culture- Estrada, along with the American archaeologist Betty Meggers suggested in the 1960s that a relationship between the people of Ecuador and the people of Japan existed in ancient times. (Not confirmed but cool Geneticists say yes!)

In the Andes

  • CLAY

  • FIBER ART/ Textiles

    • Textiles were valued as a means for sharing religious lore and beliefs.

    • They were worn to indicate status and authority.

Early Horizon

Chavin de Huantar= The Mother Culture- model for politics and religion start here

  • an ancient place of pilgrimage in the mountains (Peru)

(Say Chavin de JUAN-tar) Foundational civilization like Mesopotamians, Shang, and Egyptians (though a bit later)

  • no elite houses or defensive walls

Religious Center, perhaps the home of an oracle. Pilgrimage site.

Slide * of ruins of city (map detail image on click*)

  • it sits between the eastern (Cordillera Negra—snowless) and western (Cordillera Blanca—snowy) ranges of the Andes, near two of the few mountain passes that allow passage between the desert coast to the west and the Amazon jungle to the east.

  • It is also located near the confluence of two rivers the Huachesca and Mosna Rivers, a natural phenomenon of two joining into one that may have been seen as a spiritually powerful phenomenon.  (as the meeting place of the natural and cosmic forces?)

  • Chavín de Huántar itself is located on a lowland valley and high altitude valleys are located nearby. Consequently, the people at Chavín de Huántar were able to cultivate lowland crops such as maize and high altitude crops such as potatoes.

  • at height, city occupied by over 2,000 people

  • at elev of 10,285 feet

  • 6 day walk in either direction- both easy to get to with the rivers but hard too. Well located along natural routes of transportation.

  • coca, chili pepper, salt, dried fish could not be produced locally

  • now very damaged by earthquakes

Chavin people, Peru (1200BCE-)

- dominated the Peruvian coast for 7 centuries (Chavin culture interacts with coast, highlands and tropical forests- all 3 zones!)

- seems to be when people are still egalitarian and before a lot of hierarchy…

- had open courts, platforms, relief sculptures, in the round sculptures and small secluded rooms

* Model of the temple at Chavín de Huántar archaeological site. Peru, 900–200 B.C.E.

- probably for sacred rituals for the Chavin gods

- Circular Plaza, Old Temple and New Temple (suggestions renovations and additions over time.)

- The renovations enlarged the site considerably and added a larger sunken rectangular plaza. The main objective of the renovations appears to be based on enabling more people to gather in one place, as the site in general expanded

-Chavín’s pyramids/temples were lower and far more complex than Mesoamerican pyramids-multi-levels w/honeycomb of rooms, ramps, passageways, and “galleries” up to 15’

- Galleries = subterranean chambers in temple

-galleries one of most unusual features of temple (maze like!)

-generally, very narrow, no source of natural lighting w/in

-frequent right angle turns and changes in floor level

-maze-like ambience w/no connection to outside world once w/in, creates sense of confusion, disorientation

- Archaeologists are still studying the meaning and use of these galleries and vents, but exciting new explorations are examining the acoustics of these structures, and how they may have projected sounds from inside the temple to pilgrims in the plazas outside. It is possible that the whole building spoke with the voice of its god.

- manipulate sound and light to change the followers way of thinking!

-Almost all Chavin design is:

o Symmetry, repetition, modular width- reduction of figures to straight lines, curves and scrolls- geometric looking figures- often used scrolls to represent hair or bird down/feathers- Lots of repetition- Ends up looking like it was drawn with parallel guide lines

o Like in poetry when you use a simile, people of the time would understand and get the meaning

o Many important images have cat like mouths and fangs probably to connect to the jaguar (legendary through S. America for courage and strength) and thus to the divine and supernatural….all are found around temples too. FANGED DIETY

o Most common natural form seen are eagles/hawks (raptor feet and curved beaks)

The Lanzon

The Old Temple, constructed early in the site's history, was an inward-facing structure composed primarily of passageways built around a circular courtyard. The structure contained obelisks and stone monuments with relief carvings depicting jaguars, caimans, and other forms with anthropomorphic features. The Lanzón Gallery, located at the very center, contained a sculpture of the Lanzón, which is assumed to be a supreme deity of Chavín de Huántar. 

The Lanzón is the colloquial name for the most important statue of the central deity of the ancient Chavín culture of the central highlands of Peru- the god for whom the temple was constructed.

  • It is a notched wedge-shaped stone over 15 feet tall, carved with the image of a supernatural being, and located deep within the Old Temple, intersecting several galleries.

  • The Lanzón takes its name from the Spanish word for "lance," an allusion to the shape of the sculpture.

  • However the shape is like the digging stick used in traditional highland agriculture.

  • That shape would seem to indicate that the deity’s power was ensuring successful planting and harvest.

  • The Lanzón is housed in the central cruciform chamber of a labyrinthine series of underground passages in the Old Temple

  • Devotees would be led into the maze of pitch-black tunnels, eventually coming face to face with the sculpture's snarling mouth and upturned eyes.

  • The worshipers' disorientation, in addition to the hallucinogenic effects of the San Pedro cactus they were given before entering (see next slide), only heightened the visual and psychological impact of the sculpture.

  • The Lanzón depicts a standing figure with large round eyes looking upward.

  • Its mouth is also large, with bared teeth and protruding fangs.

    • a mixture of human and animal features, and the representation favors a complex and visually confusing style. Probably deliberate for those who were part of the cult to truly understand.

    • creating a barrier between believers who can see its true form and those outside the cult who cannot.

    • The fangs and talons most likely indicate associations with the jaguar and the caiman—apex predators from the jungle lowlands that are seen elsewhere in Chavín art and in Andean iconography.

    • The eyebrows and hair of the figure have been rendered as snakes, making them read as both bodily features and animals.

Nose Ornament, c. 500-200 B.C.E., Peru, North Highlands, Chavín de Huántar, hammered and cut gold, 2.3 cm high

  • The serpent motif seen in the Lanzón is also visible in a nose ornament

  •  This kind of nose ornament, which pinches or passes through the septum, is a common form in the Andes. 

  • The two serpent heads flank right and left, with the same upward-looking eyes as the Lanzón. (on click*)

  • The swirling forms beneath them also evoke the sculpture’s eye shape.

  • An ornament like this would have been worn by an elite person to show not only their wealth and power but their allegiance to the Chavín religion.

  • Metallurgy in the Americas first developed in South America before traveling north, and objects such as this that combine wealth and religion are among the earliest known examples.

Back to the Lanzon

  • The figure’s left hand rests pointing down, while the right is raised upward, encompassing the heavens and the earth.

  • Both hands have long, talon-like fingernails.

  • A carved channel runs from the top of the Lanzón to the figure’s forehead, perhaps to receive liquid offerings poured from one of the intersecting galleries.

The central image of the Lanzon functions as axis mundi, or pivot linking the heavens, earth and underworld. Position within the building also suggests centrality of image.

San Pedro Cactus

 It has been used for healing and religious divination in the Andes Mountains region for over 3,000 years.

  • Contains mescaline a hallucinogenic. Hallucinogens points to shamanism.

 The usual native preparation of the cactus involves boiling slices of the stem for a number of hours and then, once cooled, the resulting liquid is drunk. - Also could snort or smoke it.

  • about San Pedro cactus from a shaman:

    • “The drug produces drowsiness or a dreamy state and a feeling of lethargy... a slight dizziness… then a great vision, a clearing of the faculties. It produces a light numbness in the body and afterward a tranquility. And then comes detachment, a type of visual force... inclusive of all the senses... including the sixth sense, the telepathic sense of transmitting oneself across time and matter... like a kind of removal of one’s thought to a distant dimension.”

Slide * Tello Obelisk (say Te-yo)

- Tello Obelisk was probably set in the center of the Old Temple’s (U-shaped platform mound) sunken court

- Obelisk’s iconography reflects the natural world in the tropical lowlands, the coast and the highlands

- a slightly tapered white granite quadrangular solid

- All four sides or faces are sculpted in bas-relief carvings from top to bottom

- strong material, but hard to carve (with no metal tools!)- used wedges and water to break off chunks (like Egyptians), used other stones to carve

- the Tello Obelisk narrates a cosmological myth (meaning not proven)- The large artifact may portray a creation story.

- The two great caiman (small alligators) representations are nose upright and, in scale, are nearly the size of the Obelisk.

- A harpy eagle rises above the snout of one of them, giving the impression of a sky element at the top of the monolith.

- The water element is insinuated by the caiman (alligator) and also by Spondylus and Strombus shells, elements from the Pacific Ocean.

- Conch Shell *Chavín pututus: decorated 3,000-year-old conch shell horns from the Andes, on display at the Peruvian National Museum in Chavín de Huántar

- blown through to make sounds

- show the trade to the sea- found in the ruins here

- Cultivated plants of Amazon Basin origin are associated with the heads, mouths and noses of faces with pronounced canine teeth, possibly jaguar representations.

- The many faces, mouths, plants, animals, anthropomorphs, shells, snakes, and geometric forms fill the space on the monolith and cover the body of the caiman.

* Raimondi Stela

8.2 * Drawing of the Raimondi Stela. Chavín de Huántar. c. 460–300 BCE. Approx. 6’5” × 2’5” (196 × 74 cm).

- The stela (singular for stelae) is seven feet high, made of highly polished granite, with a lightly incised design which is almost unnoticeable on the sculpture. For this reason, the design is best studied from a drawing

- named after its discoverer

- unknown exact original location

- stelae represents Staff God= a squat anthropomorphic jaguar deity (probably a nature god- possibly sky because of the eagles and hawks shown on the temple) with downturned snarling mouth, fangs, claws, serpentine arms- holds ornate staff, hence name

- an agricultural deity?

- very organized symmetrical designs- appears to be set rules

- tongue can be an arm, serpents can be hair, tail can be a neck….visual puns

- supernatural beings for sure

- grid like organization like the warp and weft of textiles!

- set of faces make a towering headdress, or a cape that is pulled up (or hair?) the height of it smartly helps to fill the height of the stela without sacrificing the proportions of the god.

Right Side Up- When the Raimondi Stela is viewed one way, the image depicts a fearsome deity holding two Huachuma cactus. His eyes look upward toward his large, elaborate headdress of snakes and volutes. The staff god looks up, as if to establish a connection with the upperworld. 

- can turn the head upside down and it will make another head (like an alligator)- also 4 more “heads” under (if turned upside down) SEE Next Slide! *upside down image

- called anatropic or contour rivalry

Upside down- The headdress can be "read" as a stacked row of smiling, fanged faces, while the deity's face has turned into the face of a smiling reptile. 

- The deity's staffs also appear to be rows of stacked faces.

- transformed to a hovering celestial figure with an elongated tongue that unfolds like a Jacob’s Ladder.

- visual pun between physical and spiritual world

- could be about the shaman like transformation (and their hallucinogens- San Pedro Cactus!)

- Shaman= “medicine men” -may heal the sick, assist hunters, control weather, foretell the future (may have come over from Central Asia) - the cure all man in societies of the Americas

- implies that some knowledge or thought was required to understand the allusion intended

- This technique speaks to larger Andean concerns of the duality and reciprocal nature of nature, life, and society

- Why so confusing??? Maybe to keep the knowledge special for those in control, to keep impressing and controlling the people

Slide * Tenon Heads

- Tenon heads are found throughout Chavin de Huántar and are one of the most well-known images associated with the Chavin civilization.

- Tenon heads are massive stone carvings of fanged jaguar heads which project from the tops of the interior walls.

- Some of the Chavín sculptures appear to have mucus coming from their noses, a possible reference to the use of hallucinogenic drugs used in shamanic ceremonies. (snorted san pedro cactus)

- represents the transformation of a shaman into a supernatural fanged creature.

- A long stone piece extending from the head of the carving was wedged into the exterior of the temple to allow the head to protrude from the wall.

Early Intermediate (Paracas, Nasca in the south coast and Moche in north)

Paracas Culture

The Paracas culture flourished on the south Pacific coast of the central Andes in what is now Peru in around 600-150 B.C.E. and is one of the earliest known complex societies in South America. 

- first investigated by the Peruvian archaeologist Julio Tello in the 1920s.

- mummies, textiles with the fanged deity of Chavin on it, headhunting and shamanistic images

- great fishers and good knowledge of irrigation (had fresh water nearby)

*Slide of Map of the city of Paracas on the coast of Peru

Paracas, Peru (700BCE-1CE)

  • Desert coast of Peru includes a Peninsula (see map)

  • Invented pit houses

  • Area with large cult of the dead- tombs

  • Made fabulous textiles (many preserved because of the arid climate) to place inside rock cut tombs- “mummies” (not consciously mummified, just dried out because of the desert) wrapped in textiles. (slide of arid coast on click*)

  • Next slide* Burials (mummy bundles)

    • In Paracas, bodies were put into "mummy bundles" before they were interred in a large underground necropolis, or burial chamber that was bottle shaped.

    • They were placed in a seated position and bound tightly with cord.

    • Then they were covered with cotton cloth (more for more important people) and wrapped with brightly decorated fabric. – (probably made by women)

      • Fancier fabric was on the inside

    • Finally, the body was placed in a coiled basket and taken to the necropolis. 

    • Buried with gold, ceramics and other special items

  • At one cemetery, mummy bundles were found with lavish offerings- tons of clothes (without signs of wear) as many as 150 outfits- tunics, scarves, headbands, headdresses, bags, shawls etc.

  • All the clothes = wealth and status in the afterlife
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