Pre-columbian Art

Pre-Columbian civilizations have always fascinated me. Today I will combined this with one of my historical obsessions: art! Now, there is something very special about these artistic representations. For pre-Columbian civilizations, art was a wide-spread way of communicating and recording events. Certainly, this applies to many cultures around the world, however we have to remember that the vast majority of these people did not actually use any other type of writing or coding. So, effectively, this is practically the only source we have (archaeology aside) to know about their everyday life, their philosophy, religion, and even cosmology! Obviously I cannot cover all of the civilizations and cultures that contribute to the varied artistic picture of this continent. So I have picked the ones I consider relevant or interesting to provide a general insight into their tradition and trends.

Mesoamerican Art

Several cultures lived in Mesoamerica before the Europeans arrived. Amongst these people, the Olmec are renowned for their contribution to the art of the pre-classic period. They are probably best known for their jade figurines, and their colossal head sculptures that measured up to 2m. Some experts believe that these artefacts perhaps fit role within the ceremonial centers that the Olmecs started developing in the area of Mexico from 1500 BC to 400BC. Towards the end of their of this period, they also started developing stella, such as the ones found in the site of La Venta. These seem to represent and record important historical events such as the legitimisation of rulers.

In the post-classic period different styles and concepts were developed by various cultures. Once of the best known pieces of architecture from this period, belongs to the Toltec (800-1000 CE). They are responsible- or so it is believed, archaeologists are currently debating the actual existence of the Toltec civilization- for the free-standing 4 meters-tall columns at Tula. These seem to have been carved from one piece of basalt and shaped to look like warriors, which would have guarded the pyramid of Quetzalcoatl. The Mixtec also produced interesting pieces of art, these were however in the form of paintings and illustrations. Developed in the area of La Mixteca (including the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Puebla), this culture populated their codices and walls with geometric designs. In addition, the Mixtec seem to have been master jewelers, and there is an abundance of gold and turquoise ornaments produced between the 11th Century and the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors. It seems that these products were in fact so precious that they were paid to the Aztecs as tribute to keep peace amongst the two people. Apparently, a lot of the artistic background and knowledge produced by the Aztecs is heavily borrowed and influenced by that of the Mixtec, so it is not so easy to define what was the Aztec style or specifics designs introduced by them.

Southamerican Art

Further down in the American continent, art came to live as vigorously as is the north, particularly along the Andes. The Chavin culture (900 BC- 200 BC) is perhaps the most prominent as they were the first people in this area to create a recognisable and widespread style. The Chavin people specialised in pottery making. They developed 2 main types the polyhedral and the globular painted techniques. Their potteries were adorned using contour rivalry: a very intrinsic pattern,  which functions similar to a language with its own meaning. As an example of this we have the Raimundi Stella. Another evidence of Chavin art is the Tello Obelisk, which tells their creation myth in the shape of a giant shaft with animal and plant motifs. Finally, the Lazon located as the temple Chavin de Huantar is a most astonishing piece. This 4.53 metre long shaft presents the carving of a fanged deity or perhaps the chief cult figure of these people.

Further to the Chavin, it is widely recognise that the Nazca culture has been one of the most influential in South America, therefore I had to include them in this little update. The Nazca inhabited Peru ‘s south-east coast from 100 BC to 800 AD.  The experts believe that their heritage came from the Paracas culture and this is showed in their textile, ceramic and geoglyphs production. Following the steps of the Chavin, the Nazca people developed a master polychrome pottery technique that used up to 15 different colours! Moreover, archaeological evidence have proven that everyone has access to this product and not only the elite members of society. There are 9 phases in the evolution of this type of pottery, which I will briefly explain now. Starting in the proto-Nazca stage, with fruit, plants and animal motifs, the style moved from depictions of nature to more elaborate scenes, which is reached by stage 5. At this middle point in the development of this style, the natural realm is left behind and exchanged for military scenes. However, by stage 9 this trend is also abandoned. Instead the pots are decorated with complex geometric patterns and other social scenes, which perhaps suggests a change from a militaristic society to a different hierarchy and structure.

As a final point, I cannot leave without mentioning the famous Nazca lines. These massive pictures, which can be seen from the air are submerged in mystery and riddles. Nevertheless, the most recent studies about them show that they were created at various stages in time and with the involvement of different generations. The technique used to create this huge depictions is based on the placement of red pebbles in strategic positions on the ground. This contrast, aided by the climatological conditions of the area, effectively make the figures easily defined and visible from far away and higher up.


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