The Immortal Feline

The lords of the ancient world sought to connect themselves with symbols of physical, supernatural and visual power. So, it’s no surprise that predatory cats were a key motif in many artistic traditions of Pre-Columbian people across Central and South America.

As hunters, big cats embody strength and agility inspiring awe and fear. Their elusive nature and nocturnal stealth give them a ghost like mystique, while in daylight they sport some of the most vivid coats in the animal kingdom. To reinforce the connection between powerful felines and the shamanic ruling classes the ancients adorned ceremonial weavings, stone work, metal work and ceramics with depictions of Jaguar, Panther and Puma.

Perhaps Pre-Columbian lords desired to become cats. Attempting, as with the Olmec Were-jaguar transformational masks, to commune with feline spirits and morph into their bodies. Indeed, illustrations made by the Mayans show deities and rulers wearing Jaguar furs. In Peru, the Nasca and Huari used Tie-Dye techniques to adorn textiles with spotted patterns, allowing the wearer to visually and symbolically enter the skin of the Jaguar.

wooden huari feline snuff tray chimu silver feline beaker feline mortar inca culture peru

Ceremonial Ceramics of the Calima

The Calima Culture was a succession of overlapping societies that settled along the Calima River in Western Colombia around 1500 BC. Over time, agricultural chiefdoms gave rise to more centralized governance and the role of shamanism and ritual grew with the expansion of a ruling class.

The height of Calima culture (200 BC – 700 AD) saw the production of much of the amazing gold and terra-cotta objects that survive today. Often taking the form of ‘spouted’ or ‘stirrup’ vessels, their anthropomorphic and zoomorphic subjects likely emerged from the use of hallucinogenic substances during ceremony.

Among Pre-Columbian ceramics, Calima terra-cotta works are quite distinct. They take whimsical form as living creatures morph into bottles, bowls and urns. Their rich burnished surfaces are often incised with lively geometric designs and the use of red and white finishes creates contrast and focal points. As a whole they are iconic, even as each piece finds a unique character.

Whistling Vessel - Colombia Calima Culture Western Colombia            

The Painted Stones of Chucu

In the mountainous Chucu region of southern Peru, miles of huge boulder fields form innumerable caves and passages. Starting early in the 19th Century, people exploring the area began finding painted ceramic plaques and stone slabs cached there between 700 – 1200 AD.

These amazing millennia old paintings were made with vivid mineral pigments in yellow, red, white, pale green and glittering grey tones. Many display well known Nasca and Huari geometric motifs in various combinations, while some depict stylized humans and animals. Further, the artists that made them seem to consider and incorporate their irregular shapes, using the contours and proportions as key elements in their individual compositions.

Although the ancient paintings from Chucu clearly relate to Pre-Columbian textiles in design and color, their weight and materiality differentiate them, giving each a unique and dramatic sculptural quality.

Pre Inca Painted Votive Stone Pre Inca Painted Votive Stone Pre Inca Painted Votive Stone

                                                                                                                             Great Small Textiles

Amidst the full Pre-Columbian Tunics and Mantles that we often feature in the gallery, it’s easy to forget that some of the oldest, finest and most colorful Peruvian weavings are quite small. Despite their size however, these amazing pieces retain the presence and potency of the great cultures that wove them.

nasca sihuas mummy mask human hair    sihuas occular being panel     nasca fringed mantle    

Olmec Culture: Cradle of Civilization
 
Sometime after 3000 BC the people settling along the fertile southern coasts of the Gulf of Mexico began forming a society. The “Olmec” (as they would later be called by the Aztecs) are one of the earliest cultures in Mesoamerica. They evolved without outside influence, making them what archaeologists refer to as a “pristine” or “cradle” civilization, one of only six in the world.

The early Olmec were likely a network of farming and fishing communities, but by 1200 BC they began to build incredible stone cities. They created monumental pyramids, boulevards and temple complexes. These sites, such as the magnificent Tres Zapotes, were focal points for extensive trade networks and became primary models for the Teotihuacan, Aztec and Mayan cities that would come centuries later.

Today, we marvel at the Olmecs skill with stone. In addition to the elaborate architecture in their ruin cities they left behind enormous carved stone heads and innumerable artifacts. They made polished obsidian mirrors, delicate jade spoons, jewelry and burial masks – proving mastery in selecting, carving and polishing even the hardest stone.

Olmec Maskette   Olmec Jade Maskette      Sitting Figure Mexico Olmec Culture   Standing FIgure Mexico Olmec Culture

mor·tar
/ˈmôrdər/

noun    1. a cup-shaped receptacle made of hard material, in which ingredients are crushed or ground, used especially in cooking or pharmacy. See also; “mortar and pestle”

The Mortar was a widely used implement in many Pre-Columbian cultures. It played a key role in rituals and ceremonies but was also an important part of daily life.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of mortars is their tactility. It’s difficult to fully appreciate the extent of their formal nuance until they are handled. Only then does one understand how the shape or placement of appendages actually affect its use.

If good design is a marriage of form and function, then the ancient mortars made by the Inca, Chavin, Chorrera-Valdivia and Alamito Cultures certainly represent the height of early design in the Americas.

inca four feline mortar stone    chavin spiked mortar pre-columbian        chavin incised mortar pre-columbian    

Faces of the Past: Pre-Columbian Masks
 

The first masks likely evolved from face painting in the Neolithic period. Since then, various types of masks have been used in nearly every part of the world. Masks are worn for protection, disguise, performance, ritual and in burial practices. Others are not worn, but represent the faces of gods, saints or ancestors; sacred embodiments to be revered or worshiped.

In the Americas, Pre-Columbian cultures made masks using cloth, wood, stone, ceramic and soft metals. They are marvelously diverse, with unique expressions and personalities ranging from the anatomically accurate to the highly stylized. Across cultures ancient masks provide a glimpse into how early people saw themselves and how their perceptions and depictions of the human face changed dramatically over time and distance.

colima culture ceramic mask  

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.

  

 

Gold of the Ancient Americas
 

The earliest evidence of worked gold in the Americas appears around 2000 BC from the region near the Lake Titicaca at the modern border between Bolivia and Peru. From there, the use of gold spread slowly northward up the coast over many centuries. By 100 BC it was in regular use by the Calima culture of western Colombia and continued to move north though Central America and into Mexico.

Unlike in many ancient civilizations around the world, soft metals (gold, silver and copper) were not used in the early Americas as direct currency, rather, they were fashioned into ceremonial objects or wearable ornaments conveying social or religious status. Such regalia was often focused around the head, face, neck and chest, forming part of spectacular full-body costumes that included vivid textiles, feather work, shells and precious stones.

Although many Pre-Columbian gold works were plundered after the arrival of Europeans, an array of beautiful objects and ornaments survived. The pieces pictured below come from several cultures that inhabited the region that is modern day Colombia. Amazingly, these pieces can still be worn as striking jewelry today!

 

Figure w/Headress Colombia Sinu CultureZoomorphic Earrings - Colombia and Pre-Columbian - Calima CultureFeline Disc - Colombia and Pre-Columbian - Calima Culture - Colombia

Nariguera Colombia Calima Culture

The Baskets of Tiahuanaco

The Tiahuanaco Culture flourished in the Bolivian Altiplano south of Lake Titicaca for over a millennia. At the height of the empire, from 300 BC – 300 AD, the capital city of Tiahuanaco was the major cultural and spiritual center in the region. Tiahuanaco’s builders engineered massive stone structures and courtyards – the stages for political and religious rites.

The people of Tiahuanaco left behind artifacts of immense beauty; intricate weavings encoded with meaning, carved and inlaid implements with zoomorphic imagery and incredible finely woven baskets.

Made with dyed grass fibers, the conical baskets display colorful geometric patterns. They survived in truly amazing condition, preserved for centuries in secluded caves in the arid climate of Bolivia’s Southern Altiplano.  They  are  a  dramatic reminder of the advanced artistic traditions of the  Tiahuanaco civilization.

   
tiahuanaco tiwanaku woven reed basket      tiahuanaco tiwanaku woven reed basket      tiahuanaco tiwanaku woven reed basket      tiahuanaco tiwanaku woven reed basket