Ancient Avians: Birds in Pre-Columbian Art

The humans that inhabited Central and South America before the arrival of Europeans were keen observers. Like us, they  marveled at the detail and diversity of life in their surroundings. How do we know this? Because their weavings, stone work, metal work and ceramics all come to life with intricate representations of the natural (and supernatural) world. The resources of their environs formed the foundation of their artistic and spiritual traditions and the flora and fauna around them were common motifs in their cultural production. One of the most ubiquitous motifs seen across cultures is birds.

Depending on the geography of the culture, we find in Pre-Columbian art numerous depictions of owls, eagles, condor, parrots, macaw, hummingbirds and various seabirds to name a few. Many were admired for their vivid color, others for their soaring connection to the sky and still others for hunting prowess, agility, cleverness or sheer beauty. Representations of birds range from the highly detailed to the abstract. In the depiction of deities and supernatural spirits, anthropomorphized avian features such as wings, feathers, beaks, and talons abound.

In addition to birds as a design motif, actual feathers were highly prized as a luxurious and sacred material. Akin to precious metals, they traded widely across cultures as a significant commodity. They were carefully woven into textiles to create vibrant ceremonial garments, votive offerings and decorative panels, some of which have survived in surprisingly good condition into modernity.