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Art of the Ancient Americas

The art of ancient America is as diverse as the landscapes from which it comes. Stretching for more than 6,000 miles, the Americas have produced art that rivals the finest examples of Egypt, Rome or Greece. But the art produced in this region is far different from the "classical" ancient arts. Pre-Columbian art (produced before the conquest of this massive region by the Spanish Conquistadors) often shows both a great fear and huge appreciation of the supernatural world with a range of demons and gods that make the gods of Greece and Egypt seem mild by comparison. And while the art of ancient Mediterranean usually showed idyllic themes, Pre-Columbian art often depicted the horrors of warfare, and human sacrifices - powerful art that even 2000 years after it was produced still clearly conveys the fears and superstitions that motivated every man, woman and child of this region.

The art of the ancient Americas can be divided into four main regions. Naturally, within each region there are diverse sub-regions, with art created by cultures that existed 2000+ years apart with huge variances of artistic skill and mediums.
   Drinking Vessel, Maya
Drinking Vessel, Maya - LACMA, California

      Standing Figure, Valdivia
Standing Figure, Valdivia - Metropolitan Museum of Art

South America

Comprising 7,000,000 square miles, this region is the largest and most diverse of the art-producing western hemisphere. Art and artifacts have been found as high as 17,000 feet in the Andes and at sea-level in the Peruvian deserts. Using materials that include pottery, stone, textiles, metal (gold, silver, copper and bronze), basketry, shells, feather-work and wood, South American artisans were producing fine art during the time of the Egyptian Dynastic periods and even before the rise and fall of both the Greek and Roman empires.

**The major ancient cultures from South America include Chavin, Salinar, Moche, Nazca, Inca, Tihuanaco, Wari, Jamacoaque, Chancay, Chimu, Lambayeque/Sican, Quimbaya, Valdivia, Chorrera, La Tolita, Calima, Sinu, Vicus, Ika, and many others.

Man's Tunic
Man's Tunic - LACMA, California

4 Corner Hat
Four-Corner Hat, Peru, Wari - LACMA, California

Central America / Caribbean Islands

Comprised of Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and the Caribbean Islands, this region is perhaps the least studied / least collected of the American cultural centers. Because so little is known of the ancient cultures from this region, often works found in this region are simply described as Costa Rican stone, or Panamanian redware pottery, with no associated culture. Still, this region produced exquisite pottery, and highly skilled works in stone and gold that grace the largest and finest museums around the world. Because of the tropical conditions found here, almost no wooden or textile objects survive.

**The major cultures from Central America / Caribbean Islands were relatively obscure, and include Tonosi, Macaracas, Cocle, San Carlos, Choretega, Joaquin, Conte, Nicoya, Diquis, and Taino.

      Avian Axe-God Pendant
Avian Axe-God Pendant - LACMA, California


In contrast to the cultures found in Central America, the most well-known cultures of this area are the Maya and Aztec. But Mesoamerica is comprised of far more cultures than just these two, and stretches for a thousand miles from north to south, and 500 miles east to west. Art in this region began with the Olmec around 1500 B.C. and continued until the conquest of the Aztecs by Cortes in 1521. Between this 3000 year period, art flourished along both coasts of Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, and into parts of Nicaragua. Master artisans produced art in sizes ranging from huge monolithic stele and stone heads to miniature ceramics well under 1" in height. They used pottery, stone, shell, wood (although rare to find) and metal (mostly copper and bronze, but some gold and silver) to create their masterpieces.

**Ancient cultures from Mesoamerica include Olmec, Maya, Teotihuacan, Xochipala, Colima, Chupicuaro, Nayarit, Jalisco, Aztec, Mixtec, Huastec, Veracruz, Chontal, Mezcala, Tlatilco, Zapotec, Zacatecas, Guerrero, among others.

Dog with Human Mask, Colima
Dog with Human Mask, Colima - LACMA, California

Frog Yoke, Veracruz
Frog Yoke, Veracruz - Metropolitan Museum of Art

North America / Northern Mexico

While most individuals think of Pre-Columbian art as coming only from the regions listed Mexico, Central or South America, the indigenous peoples of North America were prolific in their creation of art and artifacts. Creating art for over 1500 years before the arrival of Columbus, Native American artists primarily used pottery in their creations, but also used stone and shell. Most items collected today were made for utilitarian purposes - bowls, ollas, pouring vessels - but also included objects for the grave and personal adornment (pendants and beads).

**Ancient cultures from North America / Northern Mexico include Casas Grandes, Mimbres, Anasazi, Mississippian, Caddo, Quapaw, Mogollon, and Hohokam.

Bowl / Olla, Anasazi
Bowl / Olla, Anasazi - The Brooklyn Museum

Bowl, Mimbres Valley
Bowl, Mimbres Valley - LACMA, California

Pre-Columbian artifacts of the Caribbean area mostly come from the Greater Antilles islands of Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic). The principal people to inhabit this area were the Arawak, who migrated from Venezuela's Orinoco River delta. Settling in Puerto Rico about 200 AD, the Arawak were known as the Taíno, and their culture continued until the Spanish conquest. The most characteristic Taíno objects are made of bone, wood, and stone. They include spatulas for inducing vomiting for religious purification; dujos, or carved wooden stools for chiefs or priests; and zemi, or triangular stones carved with human or animal features representing major natural spirits and deities. Pottery included incised pots with geometric designs and effigy vessels in human shapes.

        Deity Figure (Zemí), Tiano
Deity Figure (Zemí), Tiano - Metropolitan Museum of Art

Figure Pendant, Tairona
Figure Pendant, Tairona - Metropolitan Museum of Art