Chapter 14 From Alaska to the Andes

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Chapter 14

From Alaska to the Andes


This chapter introduces the great cultures of the New World. The focus will primarily deal with the New World before the advent of Christopher Columbus. The student will be introduced to the great civilizations of Mexico, Central America and South America. An explanation for the term pre-Columbian will focus attention on the cultures’ activities before the Spaniards came to the New World, before the conquest of Mexico by Hernan Cortés, before the invasion of Peru by Francisco Pizarro. The student will meet the great civilizations, which developed complex religious rituals to substantiate their right to rule and to keep their “world in harmony.” The student will be introduced to the marvels of architecture, painting and a dynamic sculptural tradition that measured up to the great civilizations of the ancient world. Commonalties of religious themes will also be investigated. This chapter will also examine the dynamics of trade and visual diffusion within the vast geography that is the New World. In addition to the great cultures of Mexico, Central America and South America, the student will discover the “prehistoric” peoples of the United States and Canada. Educated speculations will be presented as to possible reasons for the demise of these great cultures (prior to the advent of the Spaniards) and the dynamics of the interchange: trade, military conquest and religious diffusion will be examined.

A map of Mexico will also give the student an idea of the complexity of the groups of peoples who settled and developed into the great societies: the Olmecs of the Gulf Coast, Nayarit, Colima and Jalisco of West Mexico, the Maya of Chiapas, Campeche and Yucatán, the Zapotecs and Mixtecs of Oaxaca and the Teotihuacán, Totlecs and the Aztecs of Central Mexico. The map will also show the student the geography of the landscape and give them a better idea of the development of these areas of Mexico.

2) The foundation culture of Mexico is generally accepted as the Preclassic Olmecs of the Gulf Coast area of Mexico (present day Veracruz and Tabasco). The traditions and visual elements that were pervasive throughout Mexico can be traced to the Olmecs. The Olmecs first developed the pyramidal structures and u-shaped architecture, which focused the religious attention on the sacred mountain concept. This idea held the source of the belief system: the birth of humanity emerging from the cave of the sacred mountain. The sacred mountain was also the source of water, a life sustaining necessity. The sacred mountain was the volcano, a source of destruction. The two concepts co-existed: life and death. The religious rituals developed around this dichotomy: life and death and the need to sustain a harmony between these two universals. The importance of the collaborative relationship between archaeology and art history can be demonstrated by the change in theory and discussion regarding the colossal heads of the Olmecs. These heads are thought to be the images of Olmec rulers, archaeological investigations have confirmed the Maya preference for portraits of rulers, hence the same preference can be suggested for the Colossal Head (14–1). The individuality of the features and ornaments do suggest portraiture. In another image Altar 4 (ca. 800 B.C.) from Tabasco, we see an image which is recurring in Mesoamerican Mexico. The emerging figure from the “mouth of the cave,” is a concept which could explain the function of harmonious balance which is the duty of the ruler. This charge for the ruler was a primary and foundational purpose of his role in Mesoamerican society. He would make a pact with the deities and in return for their guidance and assistance he would serve. A portion of this servitude was the provision of “blood sacrifice.” It was the function of the ruler to provide order and to maintain order within the universe. The ruler also defined the meaning for that order and the universe, and created permanence which was a result of the order and meaning. For Mesoamerican society in general, and Olmec society in particular, the ruler created order and meaning by performing the rituals necessary to propitiate the gods.

Examples of the anomalous creations of the Olmec are the jaguar-human creations (14–2), why did the Olmec artist carve such a creature in jade? It has been suggested that these figures are images of shamans performing the ritual of communicating with the gods. It is known that shamans did, in fact, perform such rituals in order to communicate and protect that community from disasters or confer with the gods. This function of the spiritual guide of the community hearkens back to Paleolithic times. The Sorcerer and Human with Feline Head (1–3) are just such representations. Continuing the examination of the Olmecs, one also sees the relationship of the art and architecture with the ritual and belief systems of these people. A drawing of Monument 52 (900–800 B.C.) from San Lorenzo, Veracruz does illustrate the relationship of ritual and belief and art. Monument 52 has a channel cut into the back of the figure and it was found in connection with a drainage system. The topography of the Olmec landscape was rich in rivers and water bodies. The connection between water and agriculture was an essential component in the Olmec belief system. It could be argued that these figures, “were-jaguars” were in fact connected with a water deity, an essential figure in the life of Olmec society.

3) A good comparison in order to show the rich visual imagery that supported the belief systems of the peoples of the New World is contrasting the great sites with each other. Figures 14–4, 14–7 and 14–16 do indicate a similarity in presenting the concept of “civilized” governance. Each of these sites, Teotihuacán, Copán and Chavín de Huántar has pyramidal structures and u-shaped constructions does indicate a commonality of belief systems; while not disputing the originality of each cultures individuality. The richness of surface ornamentation is also reflected in these cultures’ monuments, the detail of the Temple of Quetzalcóatl (ca. 100 B.C.–A.D. 750) (14–5) is a good contrast for the Maya stele portraying the ruler 18–Rabbit (695–738 A.D.) (14–9). Both images reflect the individuality of its parent culture. By contrasting these two images with figure 14–17 Raimondi Stele (1000 B.C.) from Chavíin de Huántar clearly illustrates the rich ornamentation and the sophistication of artistic vocabulary developed in these areas. All three groups are representative the achievement of the societies of the New World.

4) Other media had been developed as well, in West Mexico, the rich ceramic tradition reached unparalleled heights. The seated figure with arms upraised (14–3) shows the level of ceramic sculpture, the liveliness of figure, the roundness of the body and limbs, create an image which does not respond to the typical imagery of Mesoamerican Mexico. The figure represents what role model, shaman or ruler, or both? This is the tendency of West Mexico to create blurred roles; there were no clear-cut demarcations between secular and religious systems. Another example, not totally unfamiliar, is the composite figures. Here is an image of a Colima dog, is the animal wearing a mask, or is this a human with an animal body? Either way this figure did function as a supernatural creature.

Another example of this rich ceramic tradition is a Maya work from Guatemala. This pregnant female (Kidder Figure) parallels with the Colima seated figure, in spite of the age difference. The two figures might create a dialog with the deities via the performance of the ritual. The belief systems of both peoples, however cloudy, does illustrate the use of images as vehicles to support the function of the ritual performance, at this point, scholarship is not quite clear on the exact function of these figures.

In spite of the lack of clarity on the precise nature of the ritual, the craftsmanship of the ceramic sculptures is not in doubt. A comparison with a portrait bottle (14–21) from the Moche of Peru does demonstrate a pattern. The Colima figure (14–3) and the Moche portrait bottle (14–21) do show a similarity in detailing portraits of individuals. This is in keeping with the concepts of order, meaning and permanence. These figures are visual representations of the need that these peoples sought to clarify their environment. They, perhaps, represent an attempt to establish an order both in life and death as these objects were part of the funereal rites. It could be argued that these works could establish a permanent connection for the living with the dead, a line of communication, which could be augmented, by the dead with the gods.

5) North of Mexico is the United States and Canada. The immigrants to this area also had a rich visual tradition. However, in the severe climate of Alaska, the Eskimo developed a small portable world of visual imagery. The Eskimo tradition was rich in masks and small carved ivories. The inclement weather of the area did not allow for the development of architecture. The severity of winters forced this group to follow a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Figure 14–25 shows the economy of design, yet the mask is seen. The rich masking tradition of the Eskimo allowed them to visualize their environment and bring an order to their universe. They, too, had a history with the shaman. He would employ masks in an attempt to communicate with the spiritual powers in order to assist the community in living in their harsh environment. An example of this mask for communication is Tunghat; a supernatural being who was a great hunter. This was a mandatory survival skill for the Eskimo.

As we saw a rich ceramic tradition in Mexico and Central and South America, this legacy continued in the Southwest of the United States. The Mimbres bowl (14–29) illustrates the rich design pattern that is unique to this area. Another example of the rich diversity of design elements employed by the Mimbres potter can be found in this bowl depicting a man in an antler headdress (1000–1150 A.D.). A point to be made is the possible attribution of this excellent ceramic tradition to female artists. As stated in the text, the potters in this area are usually women. Regardless of gender both objects do demonstrate the visual vocabulary employed by the artist. Both bowls do point to a rich belief system held by this pre-contact culture. This ceramic tradition also attests to a complex system that was used to explain the environment. This system was developed to rationalize the universe and establish an order for the Mimbres world that reflects a universal concept. We have seen this need for order and meaning throughout, both the Old and New Worlds humanity sought assistance and guidance by creating a belief system, which was complex and diverse. This belief system created order out of chaos and established parameters for behaviors and explanations for disasters, the gods were angry and needed propitiation or offer sacrifice to the gods and society will benefit.

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