pre-Columbian art and architecture

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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 art.

The Cultures of Central America

The Maya

The Maya 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 BC), but it was only during the Late Preclassic (300 BC–AD 150) and the Protoclassic (AD 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 (AD 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 Bonampak, 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 Tikal); the cities of the river valleys, such as Piedras Negras and Palenque; and the cities of central and N Yucatán (Uxmal).

In the valley of the Motagua River to the south are Copán and Quiriguá, 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 Olmec civilization, to the west, in the area of Veracruz and Tabasco, Mexico, was developing in the Preclassic period. Specifically, the period 800 to 400 BC 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.


Teotihuacán is much to the west of the Olmec and Maya areas and dates from the 1st cent. AD to AD 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.AD 400–c.AD 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 Toltec, made their capital at Tula (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 Itzá (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 Aztec, 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, Tenochtitlán, 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 Mixtec. Aztec power over Central Mexico extended until the arrival of Cortés in 1519.

Other Mexican Cultures

The area of the Mixtec and Zapotec in Oaxaca, Mexico, was not completely conquered by the Aztecs. The Zapotec originally occupied the site of Monte Albán from late Olmec times (c.600 BC) until about AD 900. Then a new seat of Zapotec civilization was founded at Mitla. 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 BC Delicacy of detail characterizes the figurines of Teotihuacán, and the finely decorated funerary urns of Monte Albán (c.400 BC) 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, AD 300 to 900. The Tarascan 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 Huántar in the northern highlands c.900 to 200 BC 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 Nazca civilization (c.200 BC–AD 600) to the south, which also produced the huge and mysterious "Nazca lines."

The Nazca's contemporaries on the north coast, the Mochica, 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 Mochica Pyramid of the Sun being the largest in South America. During the following period (c.600–800), the Tiahuanaco culture gained ascendancy. With the decline of Tiahuanaco the kingdom of the Chimu flourished. Their capital, Chan Chan, 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 Inca, 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 Cuzco and Machu Picchu and the imposing fortresses of Sacsahuamán 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., Aztec.

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pre-Columbian art and architecture Arts of Mexico, Central America, and the Andean region of South America before colonization. In the Maya period, beginning 200, many cities or ceremonial centres were built in Central America. The Teotihuacán, Zapotec, and Mixtec cultures also built pyramid temples. The Toltec and Aztec civilizations succeeded these cultures in the post-classical period (ad 900–1300). The cultures constructed monuments without wheels or the use of the arch, and dazzling patterns decorated building surfaces. In the Andean region, the early Chavín sculptures were succeeded by the Mochica, the Tiahuanaco and, in the 14th century, by the rich temple architecture and sophisticated engineering of the Inca. Gold-working, weaving and sculpture were other important pre-Columbian arts.

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Pre-Columbian architecture. Architecture of the Americas before their discovery by Columbus in C15.