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.
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.
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!
Primary Form: Mezcala Ancestral Figures
The Mezcala culture thrived in the modern state of Guerrero, on the west coast of southern Mexico for six centuries (350 BC – 250 AD). Their civilization developed a simple yet sophisticated lithic tradition focused on representations of the human form.
Two millennia before Rodin, Giacometti, Brancusi and Moore, these remarkable carved stone figures are a striking embodiment of the power and presence of the essential abstract figure – the primary form.
Made of various types of stone; from highly polished Jade to monochromatic Sandstone, the Mezcala figures are an opportunity in comparative aesthetics. Through changes in scale, surface, symmetry and shape we find an array of personalities and relationships.