Pre–Columbian Art of South America

views updated

Pre–Columbian Art of South America

The Inca Empire or Tahuantinsuyo (1438–1532 ce), crushed by the Spanish invaders, was only the last of many pre-Hispanic cultures in the Central Andes (a geographical and cultural area that includes the Pacific Coast, highlands, and tropical lowlands of modern Peru as well as the Bolivian altiplano), each of which had contributed to a very long and distinguished tradition in the arts. This tradition included architecture, sculpture, and painting as well as textiles, pottery, and metalwork, classes of objects that occupied a paramount position in the symbolic life of the ancient inhabitants of the Central Andes.


One theme that runs throughout Andean cultural history is the intimate relationship between architectural monuments and their natural surroundings. This phenomenon is evident at the highlands center of Chavín de Huántar (the seat of Chavín culture, ca. 850–200 bce), a ceremonial site built in a sacred geographical context. The site is located between two rivers whose waters originate from the melting snows of a sacred mountain; the river water was channeled through tunnels in the main temple to produce a rumbling, thundering sound that emanated from its interior. It is likely that mountain worship was a principal reason for the construction of Chavín de Huántar, and it may have motivated the design of later monuments (such as the Nasca Lines and Tiahuanaku [Tiwanaku] and Inca structures). In fact, the main building may have represented a real or cosmic mountain. Named the Castillo, it is a massive structure faced with cut granite blocks laid in horizontal rows of alternating widths. Inside, a labyrinth of stone-lined galleries, compartments, and ventilating shafts runs through the temple on several irregular levels.

The Castillo was adorned originally with dozens of stone sculptures, such as the Lanzón (14.77 feet tall), which resides in a small, dark chamber deep inside the temple. The Lanzón is carved to represent a costumed anthropomorphic figure with a feline mouth and serpent hair. The conjoining of diverse elements from the natural world in a single figure, combined with a mysterious and awesome setting, evokes an otherworldly experience. The Lanzón was most likely a cult object, perhaps symbolic of natural forces.


Paracas culture (ca. 700 bce–200 ce) is at present best known through elaborately decorated textiles and well-made ceramic vessels. The largest scientifically documented group of Paracas textiles comes from a burial precinct called the Necrópolis on the Paracas peninsula. Among the hundreds of funerary bundles excavated there, several dozen contained dignitaries, each of whom had been wrapped in stunning woven garments. The brightly colored images of animals and of costumed human impersonators that are embroidered on these garments relay information about the worldview and social roles of the members of Paracas society. Other, more abstract designs likely encode information about ancestral relationships and community supernaturals. The Paracas cultural tradition included two styles of fineware pottery, one a postfire resin-painted ware and the other an extraordinarily thin, finely crafted monochrome ware modeled into animal and plant forms.

Few extensive architectural remains are known for Nasca culture (ca. 1–700 ce). Of these, the most prominent is the ceremonial center of Cahuachi, with its forty mounds of varying sizes. The largest construction, the Great Temple, is a 66-foot-high stepped mound formed by encasing a natural rise with elongated, wedge-shaped adobes. Cahuachi's architectural forms were oriented to the spiritual world: the site has a natural spring that was a hallowed landscape feature, and a sunken court on top of one mound opens east toward a sacred mountain associated in local legend with water sources.

The most famous material remains of Nasca culture are gigantic desert markings. The Nasca geoglyphs, which include biomorphic figures, geometric designs, and straight lines, undoubtedly had multiple meanings; one of their functions may have been as ceremonial paths related to some sort of ritual process directed towards a mountain/water/fertility cult.

Nasca pottery is notable for its rich palette. Images were painted in many different colors of slip clay, which was fired on top of a solid-color ground. They illustrate creatures and plants, as well as human beings wearing facial masks and ritual costumes. Many of these images are similar to some of those embroidered on fabrics from the Paracas Necrópolis, but the use of polychrome slip-based pigments represents a major artistic and technological breakthrough in pottery making on the southern coast.


An important center of Moche culture (ca. 100–750 ce) comprises two adobe structures in the form of truncated stepped platform mounds, the Huaca del Sol and the Huaca de la Luna (in the Moche Valley). Although only a portion of the original remains, the Huaca del Sol is a spectacular landmark, towering 130 feet above the desert plain at its highest point. Across a wide plain, the Huaca de la Luna sits on the steep lower slopes of a hill.

Almost all Moche structures were adorned with polychrome murals, such as one (now destroyed) at Pañamarca in the Nepeña Valley that depicted a religious procession of elaborately costumed figures carrying goblets. The same scene is known from painted depictions on Moche pottery, which carries a pictorial art rich in naturalistic detail. Moche potters also excelled in modeling vessels into realistic, commanding portraits of their rulers.

As shown most beautifully in the tombs of Sipán, Moche metalsmiths—the most sophisticated artists within the Andean metallurgical tradition—crafted masks, beads, and nose, ear, and headdress ornaments as well as bells and rattles for the elite to use as adornments and to display political power and social status and to communicate religious beliefs. They also developed ingenious procedures to impart the colors of gold and silver to objects actually made of alloys. The style of Moche art also represents the political transformations of the time. The Moche gradually dominated the Gallinazo, but did not eliminate its culture. Consequently, ceramic production reflected a mix of the dominant culture and the previous Gallinazo.


Confusion exists over the relationship of two principal polities, Tiahuanaco and Huari, that thrived in the Central Andes during the period ca. 550–900 ce. The cities were centers of power that, while culturally distinct in many respects, shared a religious iconography as well as the production of certain art forms (such as interlocked tapestry tunics and knotted hats). Some scholars believe that the earlier Pucara culture was the common heritage of these two, which could help explain the similarities in their art.

The original form of the buildings at Tiahuanaco is uncertain, but set within its palaces, temples, and plazas were impressive large stone sculptures. The so-called Gate of the Sun is a large single block of andesite incised with images of the principal figures in the Tiahuanaco belief system: a central, frontal figure dressed in an elaborate tunic, flanked by rows of staff-bearing human- and condor-headed attendants seen in profile.

The Huari empire extended throughout the highlands and coast of Peru. It boasted both administrative and ceremonial sites with large rectilinear structures, multistory buildings, and edifices with interior galleries and plazas. Tapestry tunics and four-cornered hats are two of its most spectacular artistic expressions; the predominant imagery features the same staff-bearing figures seen on the Gate of the Sun as well as geometric motifs. A limited number of recognizable subjects appear in Huari tunics, but iconography is overshadowed by color patterns. Huari culture is known also through monolithic sculptures and carved miniature figures.


Chan Chan in the Moche Valley was the capital city of the Chimú kingdom (ca. 1100–1476 ce). The central core of monumental constructions contains ten huge adobe rectangular enclosures that were major administrative centers of the empire. These palace compounds are enriched with carved clay wall decoration: repeating figures of fish, crustaceans, birds, and anthropomorphs are arranged in bands and panels. Many of the same motifs appear in other media, such as woven garments. For example, pelicans are represented on a stunning set of garments made entirely of undyed white cotton; white birds are brocaded in a checkerboard design on white plain-weave and gauze fabric.


Chimú metalworking also was highly developed and was so prized by the Incas that they took objects and artisans to the capital when their king, Pachacuti, vanquished the Chimú ruler Minchançaman. Pachacuti undertook the rebuilding of Cuzco, the political and religious capital of Tahuantinsuyo, in what some scholars claim is the physical form of a puma, the animal that symbolized the Inca dynasty. The technically astounding stonework of Inca imperial architecture is evident in Cuzco's main temple, the Coricancha, with its foundations and freestanding buildings of perfectly cut and fitted basalt (much of this stonework was obscured originally by sheets of beaten gold). Inca rulers had palaces not only in Cuzco but also in the country. The sites of Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Machu Picchu were royal estates developed by Pachacuti. His architecture focused on the contrast between built and natural form, often incorporating into a building site natural outcrops that were embellished and elaborated with walls, niches, and carving.

The Incas often relocated artisans from other conquered cultures to provincial centers in order to produce crafts for the state. These works displayed Inca cultural symbols, but different ethnic groups continued to produce crafts following their local techniques and traditions.

Like generations of Andeans before them, these last pre-Hispanic peoples embedded symbolic meanings in cloth. In Inca society, dress was a mark of ethnic identity as well as social station (Inca royalty wore the most sumptuous woven garments), material was an important accessory to ritual, weavings were offered as a major sacrificial item, and cloth was exchanged during diplomatic negotiations. Fabric indeed had a social and sacred nature in the Andean world.

See alsoMesoamerica .


Alan R. Sawyer, "Tiahuanaco Tapestry Design," in Textile Museum Journal 1, no. 2 (1963): 27-38.

John H. Rowe, "Form and Meaning in Chavín Art," in Peruvian Archaeology: Selected Readings, edited by John H. Rowe and Dorothy Menzel (1967).

Christopher B. Donnan, Moche Art of Peru: Pre-Columbian Symbolic Communication (1978).

John H. Rowe, "Standardization in Inca Tapestry Tunics," in The Junius B. Bird Pre-Columbian Textile Conference, May 19th and 20th, 1973 (1979).

Michael E. Moseley and Kent C. Day, eds., Chan Chan: Andean Desert City (1981).

Ann P. Rowe, Costumes and Featherwork of the Lords of Chimor: Textiles from Peru's North Coast (1984).

Johan Reinhard, "Chavín and Tiahuanaco: A New Look at Two Andean Ceremonial Centers," in National Geographic Research 1, no. 3 (1985): 395-422.

Walter Alva, "Discovering the New World's Richest Unlooted Tomb," in National Geographic 174, no. 4 (1988): 510-549.

Richard L. Burger, "Unity and Heterogeneity Within the Chavín Horizon," in Peruvian Prehistory, edited by Richard W. Keating (1988): 99-144.

Susan A. Niles, "Looking for 'Lost' Inca Palaces," in Expedition 30, no. 3 (1988): 56-64.

Anthony F. Aveni, ed., The Lines of Nazca (1990).

Anne Paul, Paracas Ritual Attire: Symbols of Authority in Ancient Peru (1990), and Paracas Art and Architecture: Object and Context in South Coastal Peru (1991).

Richard Burger, Chavín and the Origins of Andean Civilization (1992).

Anita Cook, "The Stone Ancestors: Idioms of Imperial Attire and Rank Among Huari Figurines," in Latin American Antiquity 3, no. 4 (1992): 341-364.

Rebecca Stone-Miller, To Weave for the Sun: Andean Textiles in the Museums of Fine Arts (1992).

Richard F. Townsend, ed., The Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes (1992).

Helaine Silverman, Cahuanchi in the Ancient Nasca World (1993).

Walter Alva and Christopher Donnan, Royal Tombs of Sipán (1993).

Additional Bibliography

Hayashida, Frances M. "Style, Technology and State Production: Inka Pottery Manufacture in the Leche Vallye, Peru." Latin American Antiquity 10(4) (1999): 337-352.

Moore, Jerry D. Cultural Landscapes in the Ancient Andes: Archaeologies of Place. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005.

Niles, Susan A. The Shape of Inca History: Narrative and Architecture in an Andean Empire. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.

Pasztory, Esther. Pre-Columbian Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Pillsbury, Joanne. Moche Art and Archaeology in Ancient Peru. Washington, DC: Distributed by Yale University Press, 2001.

Stone-Miller, Rebecca. Art of the Andes: From Chavín to Inca. London: Thames & Hudson, 2002.

Uceda, Santiago and Elias Mujica. Moche: Propuestas y per-spectivas. Trujillo: Universidad Nacional de la Libertad, 1994.

                                              Anne Paul