pre-Columbian art and architecture

pre-Columbian art and architecture,

works of art and structures created in Central and South America before the arrival of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere. For many years the regions that are now Mexico and Guatemala and the Andean region of South America had been the cradle of indigenous civilizations whose remains bear witness to an exceptional degree of artistic advancement.

For Native American art in North America, see North American Native artNorth American Native art,
diverse traditional arts of Native North Americans. In recent years Native American arts have become commodities collected and marketed by nonindigenous Americans and Europeans.
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The Cultures of Central America

The Maya

The MayaMaya
, indigenous people of S Mexico and Central America, occupying an area comprising the Yucatán peninsula and much of the present state of Chiapas in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, parts of El Salvador, and extreme western Honduras.
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 occupied the general area of Yucatán and adjacent parts of Central America from very early times. Their roots were in the Archaic period (c.2000 B.C.), but it was only during the Late Preclassic (300 B.C.–A.D. 150) and the Protoclassic (A.D. 150–300) periods that the traits associated with the Classic Maya were developed. Their greatest artistic achievements included their elaborate calendar, writing, palaces and temple pyramids with vaulted rooms made of limestone, polychrome pottery, stone stelae, and stylized wall paintings and bas-reliefs.

The Classic Maya (A.D. 300–900) was the apex of Maya civilization and is described as that period when the Maya inscribed the "Long Count Calendar" on their monuments. The remains of BonampakBonampak
, ruined city of the Late Classic period of the Maya, close to Tuxtla, in Chiapas, S Mexico. Discovered in 1946, it consists of a group of temples, one of which is remarkable for a number of very well preserved frescoes, painted in bright, flat colors, depicting in
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, with its famous murals, can be dated to shortly after 800. Maya cities were ceremonial centers, and some of the edifices may be more properly identified as sculptured monuments. Maya architectural styles are found in three main regions: the Petén district (Uaxactún and TikalTikal
, ruined city of the Classic Period of the Maya, N central Petén, Guatemala. The largest and possibly the oldest of the Maya cities, Tikal consists of nine groups of courts and plazas built on hilly land above surrounding swamps (which may have been lakes in former
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); the cities of the river valleys, such as Piedras NegrasPiedras Negras
[Span.,=black stones], ruined city of the Classic era of the Maya, NW Petén, Guatemala, in the Usumacinta valley. Reaching a peak of sculptural achievement (according to one dating system, between 731 and 795), Piedras Negras developed some of the finest
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 and PalenquePalenque
, ancient city of the Maya in Chiapas, S Mexico, in the Usumacinta Valley. Its architectural elegance, adapted to tropical and topographical conditions, was a high point in the art of the Classic period.
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; and the cities of central and N Yucatán (UxmalUxmal
, ancient city, northern Yucatán peninsula, Mexico. A Late Classic period Maya center situated in the Puuc hills, Uxmal flourished between 600 and 900. It is one of the finest expressions of Maya architecture known as the Puuc style.
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In the valley of the Motagua River to the south are CopánCopán
, ruined city of the Maya, W Honduras, in a small river valley of the same name. Copán is noted for its fine sculptured stele and majestic architecture. The ruins were the site of extensive research and restoration from the mid-1930s to the 1950s.
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 and QuiriguáQuiriguá
, city of the Classic epoch of the Maya, E Guatemala. It is famous for its zoomorphics. Its stone steles have fine hieroglyphs. Near the ruins the United Fruit Company maintains a hospital.
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, where sculpture flourished in the form of huge, elaborately carved stone stelae; more delicate forms and a refined spatial sense are evident in the famous stucco sculpture of Palenque and in the airiness and grace of its buildings. In the flat, dry country of N Yucatán, Maya architecture underwent changes in style. The erection of stone stelae was largely abandoned, and decoration, notably at Uxmal, became geometric. The cause of the collapse of the Maya civilization is not precisely understood. The culture persisted over so long a period that it is easier to understand the rest of Mesoamerican art and culture from the framework of Maya chronology.

The Olmec

The OlmecOlmec
, term denoting the culture of ancient Mexican natives inhabiting the tropical coastal plain of the contemporary states of Veracruz and Tabasco, between 1300 and 400 B.C.
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 civilization, to the west, in the area of Veracruz and Tabasco, Mexico, was developing in the Preclassic period. Specifically, the period 800 to 400 B.C. marks the finest period of Olmec art as typified by the finds made at the site of La Venta. It is believed that the Olmec devised the Long Count Calendar and invented writing and that they may well be the source of these developments among the Maya. Noted for the excellence of their stone carving—ranging from small, finely detailed jade objects to colossal, often realistic basalt heads—the Olmec frequently used a motif combining human and jaguar features.


, ancient commercial and religious center in the central valley of Mexico, c.30 mi (48 km) NE of Mexico City. Once thought to be the great religious center of the Toltec, it is now held to be the relic of an earlier civilization.
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 is much to the west of the Olmec and Maya areas and dates from the 1st cent. A.D. to A.D. 700. The major part of the site and the height of its artistic expression belong to the periods Teotihuacán II and Teotihuacán III (c.300–700). Teotihuacán is an urban center, perhaps the greatest in Mexico; its monumental pyramids, temples, and royal processional roads are an extraordinary architectural achievement.

In the latter part of Maya Early Classic (c.A.D. 400–c.A.D. 600) there is evidence of great influence from Teotihuacán, as exemplified at the site of Kaminaljuyú and in varying degrees at other sites, including Tikal and Uaxactún. Erected on high land above the surrounding swamps, the latter two sites reveal their massive, richly decorated temples in the midst of tropical jungles. The site of Teotihuacán apparently was deliberately destroyed by invaders c.700 and thereafter ceased to be a factor in Maya civilization.

The Toltec

After the fall of Teotihuacán, a period of nearly two centuries (700–900) seems to have ensued during which there was no single dominant force, but a number of warring factions. One of these, the ToltecToltec
, ancient civilization of Mexico. The name in Nahuatl means "master builders." The Toltec formed a warrior aristocracy that gained ascendancy in the Valley of Mexico c.A.D. 900 after the fall of Teotihuacán.
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, made their capital at TulaTula
, ancient city in the present state of Hidalgo, central Mexico. It was one of the chief urban centers of the Toltec. The city is believed to be Tollán, the legendary Toltec capital mentioned in a number of postconquest sources, including Bernardino de
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 (c.900–1200), northwest of Teotihuacán. The Toltec achieved power and dominated much of N and central Mexico until they were vanquished in 1156 or 1168. They invaded Maya country, principally Chichén ItzáChichén Itzá
, city of the ancient Maya, central Yucatán, Mexico. It was founded around two large cenotes, or natural wells. According to one system of dating, it was founded c.
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 (c.987). There they had a profound influence as revealed by the pyramids at Tula and Chichén Itzá, with their deep colonnades (an unusual feature in Mesoamerican architecture) and their decorative bas-relief and sculptured structural elements, e.g., the 15-ft-tall (4.5 m) caryatids at Tula. Toltec occupation has also been identified at other sites in the Yucatán. Indications are that Chichén Itzá was abandoned by the Toltec around 1224.

The Aztec

The final great native conquest in Mesoamerica was by the AztecAztec
, Indian people dominating central Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest. Their language belonged to the Nahuatlan subfamily of Uto-Aztecan languages. They arrived in the Valley of Mexico from the north toward the end of the 12th cent.
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, who rose to power following a period of anarchy after the destruction of the Toltec's Tula. By 1344 the Aztecs had founded their magnificent capital, TenochtitlánTenochtitlán
, ancient city in the central valley of Mexico. The capital of the Aztec, it was founded (c.A.D. 1345) on a marshy island in Lake Texcoco. It was a flourishing city (with an estimated population of between 200,000 and 300,000), connected with the mainland by
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, at the site of present-day Mexico City in the Valley of Mexico, which became one of the architectural wonders of ancient America. Aztec art was eclectic, drawing on the traditions of conquered areas; but under the influence of the harsh Aztec religion, it developed a unique character. The importance of human sacrifice in the cult of the war god, Huitzilopochtli, permeated life and art, and representations of skulls, hearts, hands, and sacrificial scenes were common.

Much of the stone sculpture was huge and elaborate, a remarkable example being the statue of the earth goddess Coatlicue. Masses of intertwined serpents dominate the statue, which bears a necklace of human hearts and hands. Less ominous subjects, such as the plumed serpent, Quetzalcoatl, and various animals, were often beautifully carved in a smooth, compact style. Featherwork, jade carving, goldwork, extraordinary ceremonial vases, and superb textiles were produced by the artisans of subjugated groups, especially the MixtecMixtec
, Native American people of Oaxaca, Puebla, and part of Guerrero, SW Mexico, one of the most important groups in Mexico. Although the Mixtec codices constitute the largest collection of pre-Columbian manuscripts in existence, their origin is obscure.
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. Aztec power over Central Mexico extended until the arrival of Cortés in 1519.

Other Mexican Cultures

The area of the Mixtec and ZapotecZapotec
, indigenous people of Mexico, primarily in S Oaxaca and on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Little is known of the origin of the Zapotec. Unlike most native peoples of Middle America, they had no traditions or legends of migration, but believed themselves to have been born
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 in OaxacaOaxaca
, state (1990 pop. 3,019,560), 36,375 sq mi (94,211 sq km), S Mexico, on the Pacific Ocean and its arm, the Gulf of Tehuantepec. Oaxaca is the capital. The northern part of the state is dominated by the Sierra de Oaxaca; there are deep tortuous valleys in the south and
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, Mexico, was not completely conquered by the Aztecs. The Zapotec originally occupied the site of Monte AlbánMonte Albán
, ancient city, c.7 mi (11.3 km) from Oaxaca, SW Mexico, capital of the Zapotec. Monte Albán was built on an artificially leveled, rocky promontory above the Valley of Oaxaca.
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 from late Olmec times (c.600 B.C.) until about A.D. 900. Then a new seat of Zapotec civilization was founded at MitlaMitla
[Nahuatl,=abode of the dead], religious center of the Zapotec, near Oaxaca, SW Mexico. Probably built in the 13th cent., the buildings, unlike the pyramidal structures of most Middle American architecture, are low, horizontal masses enclosing the plazas.
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. Later the Mixtec began to infiltrate, intermarry with, occupy, and absorb the Zapotec. Apart from architecture, the Mixtec also excelled at the minor arts: goldwork, jewelry, vessels fashioned with semiprecious stones, turquoise and feather mosaics, extremely fine polychrome pottery, and painted books known as codices.

Many of the Mexican cultures produced ceramic figurines and pottery, often of superior artistic merit. The site of Tlatilco, in the Valley of Mexico, has yielded famous ceramics of remarkably early date, about 500 B.C. Delicacy of detail characterizes the figurines of Teotihuacán, and the finely decorated funerary urns of Monte Albán (c.400 B.C.) are particularly well wrought. In the western states of Nayarit, Jalisco, and Colima, early cultures produced an enormously varied array of fanciful and often grotesque terra-cotta figurines and pottery during the Classic period, A.D. 300 to 900. The TarascanTarascan
, Native Americans of the state of Michoacán, Mexico. Their language has no known relation to other languages, and their history prior to the 16th cent. is poorly understood.
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 of Lake Pátzcuaro were one of these groups; they still produce excellent lacquerware. In the jungle states of Veracruz, Campeche, and Tabasco many sites, particularly Remojadas, have yielded fine examples of clay sculpture.

The Cultures of South America

Ancient Peru

The first great art style of the geographical area that is now Peru was that of the civilization that flourished at Chavín de HuántarChavín de Huántar
, archaeological site in the northeastern highlands of Peru, near the headwaters of the Marañon River. It flourished between c.900 B.C. and 200 B.C.
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 in the northern highlands c.900 to 200 B.C. A more or less contemporaneous culture of the north coast produced a style of pottery known as Cupisnique. The Paracas culture of the south coast, of the same era, left some of the most beautiful textiles of pre-Inca Peru as well as fine pottery decorated with resin paint. Excellent painted ceramics and beautiful weavings were also characteristic of the NazcaNazca
or Nasca
, ancient culture of the Nazca, Pisco, and Ica river valleys on the desert coast of S Peru. Flourishing during the first millennium A.D., the Nazca culture seems to have developed out of the Paracas culture, and after 900 it was apparently under
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 civilization (c.200 B.C.–A.D. 600) to the south, which also produced the huge and mysterious "Nazca lines."

The Nazca's contemporaries on the north coast, the MocheMoche
or Mochica
, ancient Native American civilization on the coast of N Peru. Previously called Early Chimu (see Chimu), the Moche were warriors with a highly developed social and political organization.
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, surpassed them in the art of painted pottery. Battle scenes, rituals, animals, and mythological beings were masterfully depicted. Their ceramic "portrait vessels" in the form of human heads are the high point of realism in pre-Columbian art. They were also master builders, the Moche Pyramid of the Sun being the largest in South America. During the following period (c.600–800), the TiahuanacoTiahuanaco
, ancient native ruin, W Bolivia, 34 mi (55 km) S of Lake Titicaca on the Tiahuanaco R. in the S central Andes, near the Peruvian border; also called Tiwanaku or Tiahuanacu.
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 culture gained ascendancy. With the decline of Tiahuanaco the kingdom of the ChimuChimu
, ancient civilization on the desert coast of N Peru. It is believed to have begun c.1200. The Moche, an earlier civilization, was previously known as early Chimu or proto-Chimu. After the decline of the Moche (c.
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 flourished. Their capital, Chan ChanChan Chan
, ruins of an ancient city near Trujillo, N Peru. An early example of city planning, with a rectangular grid structure, it was probably begun in the period from A.D. 950 to 1400, and it is estimated that it may have contained as many as 200,000 people.
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, has long been considered one of the great centers of ancient Peru.

The Inca

Chan Chan was surpassed only by the colossal achievements of the IncaInca
, pre-Columbian empire, W South America. The name Inca may specifically refer to the emperor, but is generally used to mean the empire or the people. Extent and Organization of the Empire
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, who conquered the Chimu in the latter part of the 15th cent. As engineers the Inca were unsurpassed in ancient America. Their agricultural terraces are still in use, and the extensive network of roads and bridges that spanned their empire would merit the envy of modern road builders. However, their cities and fortresses remain their towering achievement. The great cities of CuzcoCuzco
or Cusco
, city (1993 pop. 97,466), alt. 11,207 ft (3,416 m), capital of Cuzco dept., S Peru, at the confluence of the Huatanay and Tullamayo rivers. Its population is predominantly of indigenous descent.
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 and Machu PicchuMachu Picchu
, Inca site in Peru, about 50 mi (80 km) NW of Cuzco. It is perched high upon a rock in a narrow saddle between two sharp mountain peaks and overlooks the Urubamba River 2,000 ft (600 m) below.
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 and the imposing fortresses of SacsahuamánSacsahuamán
, stronghold of the Incas outside Cuzco, Peru. Built in the 15th cent., Sacsahuamán is an imposing terraced fortress more than one third of a mile long; it is a masterpiece of stone construction. Cyclopean blocks (one is 38 ft/11.6 m long; 18 ft/5.
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 and Ollantaytambo are typical examples of their skill. The Inca also excelled at stone carving and metalwork, achieving in this latter art a degree of perfection comparable to that reached anywhere in the world. Their civilization fell to the Spanish invaders in 1538.


See H. D. Disselhoff, The Art of Ancient America (tr. 1961); G. Kubler, The Art and Architecture of Ancient America (1962); S. K. Lothrop, Treasures of Ancient America (1964); F. Dockstader, Indian Art in Middle America (1964) and Indian Art in South America (1967); H. von Winning, Pre-Columbian Art of Mexico and Central America (1968); F. Anton, The Art of Ancient Peru (tr. 1972). See also bibliography under individual cultures, e.g., AztecAztec
, Indian people dominating central Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest. Their language belonged to the Nahuatlan subfamily of Uto-Aztecan languages. They arrived in the Valley of Mexico from the north toward the end of the 12th cent.
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