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Pre-Columbian Antiquities

Reprinted by permission from "Artifacts of Ancient Civilizations"  by Alex G. Malloy, updated by Joseph Sermarini

The Pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas were many and varied, ranging from the Eskimo cultures of the far north to the Indian tribes of Tierra del Fuego in the far south. Most were isolated, although there is some evidence of widespread trade. The Pre-Columbian Indian cultures reached their highest cultural achievements in the 4000-mile-long strip of Pacific coastal land stretching from Mexico to Peru. Although there is some evidence of the Pre-Columbian contacts with other parts of the world (the Viking colonies are but one example), it was the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 which was changed these cultures forever. The impact the European colonization which followed had on the native civilization was so devastating that the regionís history has been divided into the Pre-Columbian and Post-Conquest periods. Two civilizations stand out in Pre-Columbian America. One was centered in Mesoamerica, the valley of Mexico south of Honduras and parts of Nicaragua. The Columbian America. One was centered in Mesoamerica, the valley of Mexico south of Honduras and parts of Nicaragua. The other was centered in the region of the central Andes which is mostly in what is now Peru. They were divided by intermediate areas, peopled by tribes and chiefdoms stretching from Nicaragua south to Ecuador. Pre-Columbia cultures are divided into chronological periods. Mesoamerican cultures have three chronological periods: Pre-Classic from roughly 2000 B.C.-300 A.D., Classic from 300-900 A.D., and Post-Classic from 900-1540 A.D., based on the dating of the Maya area. Although other Mesoamerican cultures do not fit as well within this dating scheme, the same terms are often used with their chronologies. The over the entire region. The tribal cultures of the intermediate areas are dated in "Phases" based on archaeological evidence: for example, the Jama-Coaque phase in Ecuador, which reached its height c. 300 B.C. to 300 A.D.

The Pre-Classic period in Mesoamerica is dominated by the Olmec culture. Often considered the mother culture of Mesoamerica, it arose in about the 12th century B.C. and spread through the region. The Olmecs introduced a civilization with kings, professional specialization, and writing into the area, which up to that time had been dominated by local village-centered societies. Olmec culture transformed the individual village-centered cultures of Mesoamerica into a network dominated by advanced centers where masses of people were organized to produce monumental art and architecture for the benefit of the King and his priests and officials. This laid the groundwork for succeeding cultures in the area. Between 100 B.C. and 300 A.D., Olmec innovations were developed in distinctively varying ways in the different regions of Mesoamerica. In central Mexico, the local Nahuatl-speakers focused on architecture, developing the precursors of the famous pyramid of a later date. In the Maya speaking southeast, the Izapa culture of the Pre-Classic stressed the stela cult, which laid the groundwork for the most advanced system of writing in Pre-Columbia America: the Mayan Hieroglyphs.

In central Mexico around the 1st century A.D., the lords of Teotihuacan erected what was to be the largest pyramidal structure for more than a millennium. Teotihuacan motifs spread widely through Mesoamerica during the early Classic period. The art of the Teotihuacan culture severe geometric form. In the south, the Maya developed their highest culture in the Classical period, building the great stone cities which were later reclaimed by the jungle.

Early in the Post-Classic era, drastic movements of people dramatically altered the face of Mesoamerica. The Toltec, formerly a nomadic people, settled at Tula, northwest of Teotihuacan, and soon extended their control over long-settled peoples, such as those of Veracruz, and even the Maya according to some theories. They brought with them their own unique forms of art which emphasized new motifs, such as the serpent and the human skull. The Maya themselves had recently abandoned their older cities in the central jungles in a process whose causes have been hotly debated by historians and archaeologists alike, and increased the population if their northern Yucatan centers where they continued to prosper until the Spanish conquest.

Such movements brought the peoples of Mesoamerica in closer contact with each other. The increased contact was ultimately reflected in a greater similarity of their art forms. The Aztec, the dominant political power in Mesoamerica when the Spaniards arrived in 1519, had been northern nomads like the Toltec, whose culture they copied. Although all the Conquistadors wanted to see was the bloody sacrificial rituals and pagan pomp in order to justify their own superiority, the Aztec culture was in many ways more advanced than their own. Contemporary accounts show the European conquerors had to admit the technical skill of the New World artists, even as they melted down priceless artifacts into gold bullion for transport back home. The art which has survived from the various Mesoamerican cultures is among the most highly desired of all Pre-Columbian art.

South of Mesoamerica, the Intermediate Area was populated by Indian tribes whose archaeological remains are primarily noted for small objects made of gold or tumbaga, an alloy of gold with copper, and ceramics, some of which, such as those found in Panama and Columbia, are highly decorative, with occasional ornamental objects in fine stone and bone. With few exceptions, the monumental art for which the cultures of Mesoamerica to the north and Peru to the south were noted was absent. Although lacking in sculpture, artifacts produced in this area are still eminently collectible.

In the Andes region of South America, civilization began at an early date, perhaps prior to the 4th millennium B.C. The earliest artistic traditions appeared along the coast and foothills of the northern Andes. The Indians of Ecuador manufactured containers of clay, often decorated with small figures of men and animals and fired at high temperatures, as well as crude stone and clay figures in the round. Their culture is known as the Valdivia culture. In villages along the north coast of Peru, the earliest art, dating from before 2000 B.C., resembled the art of the neighboring Valdivia culture of Ecuador, but lacked ceramics. The first ceramic making culture in Peru was the Chavin, and by 900 B.C., the Chavin art style had become the first widespread art style in the Andes. In the south around 100 B.C., the Paracas culture was also noted for its ceramics and textiles.

Perhaps the two most important styles of art in Pre-Columbian Peru were the Nazca (c. 200 B.C.=600 A.D.) and Mochica (100 B.C.-700 A.D.) styles. Nazca is the name given to the culture that flourished from about 200 B.C. until about 600 A.D. on the southern coast of present-day Peru. It is centered in the Nazca Valley, an almost rainless desert region broken by rivers from the Andean highlands to the east. It was characterized by exquisite painted pottery which almost looks glazed, although the Indians of Peru never achieve a true glaze. It is also known for its beautiful textiles and feather work, much of which was preserved by the dry climate. During the same period on the north coast, the culture known as Mochica created the most humanistic statements in art found south of Mesoamerica. Most central Andean art up to this time was concerned with geometric forms, and even where animals and humans were depicted they were somewhat stylized. Mochica ceramicists, on the other hand, building on Chavin motifs, modeled remarkably realistic animals and human figures shown in the myriad activities of daily life, and portrayed with powerful realism. The Mochica also excelled in gold work and other arts. They were succeeded by the Huari (c. 600-900 A.D.) and Chimu (c. 1000-1450 A.D.), whose artistic styles built on their predecessors.

The last great culture in Peru was in the Inca culture (c. 1450-1540 A.D.). Although its pottery was rather uninspired, tending toward geometric decoration, it was very advanced in civil engineering and architecture. The art of ancient Peru is avidly sought by collectors today.

Pottery and Terracotta

In Pre-Columbian America, pottery was used for the production of domestic and ritual vessels, as well as for sculptures in many of the cultures. Much of the pottery is decorated, usually with geometric patterns. Some of the most desirable pottery is painted with elaborate scenes of ritual life, as in the Maya area, or modeled with relief art, as in Peru and Panama. A wide variety of animal and human subjects are found. Often the artwork is somewhat stylized, but sometimes, as in the Mochica culture, it can be highly realistic. Some Mochica effigy heads are believed to be actual portraits. The realism is reflected in many pottery sculptures from Mesoamerica, particularly those of the village culture of Colima. Because much of it was buried in protected graves, Pre-Columbian pottery is perhaps the most abundant form of Pre-Columbian art on the market today. Small heads can be had for a few dollars, but a fine statue or decorated vessel can go for many thousands.


Many of the important buildings in Mesoamerica and Peru was decorated, and in cultural areas, such as the Maya and Olmec, large stele and other stone sculptures played an important part in the rituals of the people. Stone carving was also widely spread used for the production of jewelry and small items such as small figurines. Due to export controls in many countries, large stone items are extremely expensive when available at all, but some examples, such as Guerero figurines, can be had from time for a reasonable price.


Precious metals, such as gold and silver and alloys such as tumbaga, were in widespread use in Pre-Columbian America, as was copper. Indeed, it was the presence of large quantities of precious metals in the societies of Mexico and Peru which attracted the European conquerors to the area. Needless to say, much of this art was wantonly destroyed, or hidden by the Indians to protect it, giving rise to many a lost treasure legend. Some items do appear on the market from time to time, though, and are early sought after.