Art of the Ancient Americas
The people of the ancient Americas were as varied as the landscapes they lived in, but their art has some qualities in common.
Idea One: Art reflected the concerns of daily life.
This pot from Mexico is in the shape of a pumpkin or squash, one of the staple crops of the ancient Americas. Its legs are in the shape of parrots, whose green and yellow feathers were prized because they are the color of healthy crops.
The ancient peoples of the Americas lived in landscapes as varied as the frozen tundra of the Arctic far north, the high mountains of South America, and the deserts and jungles in between.
Finding food was the first concern of the earliest groups of people. They were always on the move in search of the wild plants and animals they needed for survival.
The development of farming allowed people to produce and store extra food for times of the year when it was scarce. Not everyone in a community had to work to find food. Some people could devote themselves to other activities, like making pots or forming metal.
Many of the things these artisans made, such as seed pots and cooking utensils, were useful for daily life. Other objects played a part in rituals to ensure the good fortune of a community.
Since the community’s welfare depended upon a good crop, these ritual objects often refer to agriculture. Common images include corn, beans, and squash, the staple crops of the ancient Americas, as well as rainfall and water. These images appear in art made by the descendents of the ancient cultures to this day.
The Nazca [NAHZ-ka] people of Peru lived in the driest desert in the world. They depended upon fish from the Pacific Ocean for their survival.
Change text to: The pattern on this Ancestral Pueblo pot was inspired by the rows of kernels on an ear of corn
This stone metate [meh-TAH-tay], a tool for grinding corn, from Costa Rica was used only in rituals, not in daily life. It symbolized the chief’s control over the community’s food supply.
Idea Two: Art showed who held power.
This ear spool belonged to a Chimu [CHEE-moo] king of ancient Peru. Kings were buried with their jewelry for use in the afterlife.
Some people of the ancient Americas lived in large cities ruled by kings. Other cultural groups lived in small villages led by chiefs. In both cases, the elite of a society used art to show their power.
In large cities, such as Teotihuacan (TAY-o-tee-wa-KAHN) in ancient Mexico, art decorated the king’s court and other official buildings. Sculptures and rich materials also appeared in areas for performing rituals to protect the king’s power.
Smaller communities did not have the elaborate buildings of the large cities. But leaders of both large and small communities used art in the form of jewelry, costumes, and headdresses to show their power. Not surprisingly, rare materials like jade and gold were popular symbols of status. Colorful feathers from South American jungles were commonly used in costumes, reaching even the southwestern United States through trade.
Materials were also prized for their symbolic meanings. Jade, green like growing ears of corn, was a symbol of fertility for some Central Americans. Gold suggested the power of the sun.
A high-ranking official of the Moche [MO-chay] in Peru like the one pictured on this jar would have worn jewelry on his ears, wrists, and hat.
Men of high rank in the Mississippian culture of the eastern United States also wore discs on their ears. This image of the sun, about the size of the palm of a hand, was carved from limestone.
Jalisco [ha-LEES-ko] warriors of West Mexico wore helmets topped by horns. This warrior’s helmet is decorated with two dogs instead, known to be good guides in the underworld. The sculpture probably represents a spiritual warrior created to stand guard at a tomb.
Idea Three: Animals provided a connection with the spirit world.
Frogs cross between land and water. Many cultures believed they helped the dead cross to the next world.
The power of animals to do things that humans cannot fascinated people in all regions of the ancient Americas. Owls can see to hunt at night, monkeys swing among the treetops, and bears sleep all winter. These special abilities seemed magical.
Animals that can cross between the land, air, and water were thought to be able to carry messages to the powerful spirit world. Ducks, for example, can fly great distances and dive deep into the water. Frogs change from young tadpoles living in water to adult frogs that can live on land. Images of these animals often appear on ritual objects to help priests or shamans communicate with the spirit world.
Other animals were important because they were particularly quick, strong, or fierce. Rulers, hunters, and warriors used images of animals like the jaguar and eagle to remind the people around them that they had similar qualities.
The jaguar is the largest predator of the Americas. Rulers from Mexico to the Andes of South America used it as a symbol of their power. The Maya of Mexico regarded the jaguar as a god, pictured here.
Dogs were a symbol of wealth in ancient Mexico because they were raised as food for special feasts. They were also thought to help guide the dead in the afterlife.
Hunters and warriors admired the speed, strength, and vision of birds of prey. A falcon decorates this ear spool found in Spiro, Oklahoma.
Idea Four: Nature inspired abstract patterns.
The zigzags and step shapes of this pot refer to lightning and storm clouds. The Ancient Puebloan people of the American Southwest eagerly awaited the rain brought by storms.
Much of the art of the ancient Americas is easy to recognize as a human figure or a particular animal. The decorations on some objects, however, seem at first glance to be nothing more than abstract patterns. That is, they do not resemble the world we see around us.
Many of these patterns are in fact inspired by nature. Sometimes an important detail helps us understand what the pattern represents. For example, large round eyes identify the shapes on the pot at left as an owl. In other cases we can understand the pattern’s connection to the natural world by learning more about the people who made the object. For example, the Ancient Puebloan (or Anasazi [ah-nah-SAH-zee]) people lived in the dry American Southwest. The three-step shape commonly found in their art represented the tall thunder clouds that brought needed rain, as seen in the pot below.
Different cultural groups developed unique styles of abstraction. Today those different styles help archeologists identify who made the objects they study.
Two large round eyes help us see the curves and lines on this pot from Costa Rica as an owl, admired for its keen eyesight.
The spiral shapes commonly used by the Caddo of the southern United States suggest gently flowing water, a reminder of the many rivers and streams found in that area.
The patterns on this plate combine features of snakes, lizards, fish, and birds. All these animals, common in tropical Panama, have qualities the maker of this plate found magical.
Idea Five: Contact between Europeans and the Native people of the Americas brought changes for both.
This ceramic figure from Mexico is dressed as a ballplayer. The ballgame was an important ritual throughout the Americas. The Spanish banned the game in the Americas, but borrowed the idea for their own games.
The great lands and peoples of the Americas were unknown to Europeans until 1492. Likewise, Native civilizations thrived for thousands of years before they encountered Europeans. Contact between the two groups of people brought changes for both.
Some changes were brutal. Spanish conquistadors ruthlessly killed for gold and silver in Central and South America. European settlers in North America hungered for land. Diseases new to the Americas killed whole villages of people.
Other changes were more benign. The Spanish introduced horses and sheep to the Americas, which became important to native traditions. Europeans eagerly adopted American foods such as beans, corn, and chocolate.
Still other changes were the result of different ways of understanding the world. The ballgame, for example, was an important ritual for cultures throughout the Americas. It was much more than a game, sometimes ending in death. Spanish governors saw it as a pagan ritual and would not allow it to be played in the Americas. But they borrowed the idea themselves, and it was the source of popular modern ballgames.
Spanish conquistadors did not view the gold items they encountered in the Americas as sacred images. They sent thousands of tons of gold and silver to the Spanish treasury to be melted down for other purposes.
In North America, European settlers pushed native people off their traditional land. The descendents of the makers of this bowl in the shape of a waterfowl might now live in the dry southern plains instead of the Mississippi River valley.
Native traditions changed to reflect the new European influences. This 19th century Maya mask from Guatemala, for example, shows a Spanish conquistador.
A Field Guide to Animals of the Americas
Compile a field guide to animals of the Americas using the search tool on Mia’s website. Choose an animal from the collection and write a description of the animal based on its appearance in the work of art. Then research the animal and add a description of its behavior. What special characteristics of the animal might have made it special to the culture that created the work of art? (See Fact 3 above) Include your ideas in your field guide entry.
The World on a Pot
What features of the natural world are prominent where you live? Choose a land form or weather pattern you know well. Let it be the inspiration for an abstract pattern to decorate the surface of a pot. What type of pot (tall, round, flat) would provide the best surface for your design? Sketch it.
Ancient American Art Supplies
The American continents include a wide variety of climates and terrain. Choose a region to investigate. What materials would have been available to an artist in that region 1000 years ago? Consider plants, rocks and minerals, and animal parts. Which of those materials do you imagine would be easiest to work with? Which would you expect to survive over time?