Pre-Columbian Art Research Paper

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The arts of Central and South America created prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 1500s represent the development of many sophisticated civilizations, some of which still exist. Although countless changes occurred after the European conquest, many indigenous philosophies, cultures, and customs did not vanish; rather, people of the Americas found ways to combine aspects of old and new, especially in their art and architecture.

Before the late fifteenth- early sixteenth-century European conquest of Central and South America, indigenous peoples—such as the Inca, Maya, Mixtec, Aztec/Mexica, and Zapotec—had developed art and architecture with distinctive characteristics. Many artifacts exist to inform world historians and researchers studying those civilizations, and scholars continue to excavate, analyze, and publicize the remains of ostensibly vanished cultures. Native Americans and mestizos (those of mixed Native American and European ancestry) continue to spur discussion and exploration of pre-Columbian cultures, and to revive an indigenous past that formerly was suppressed or hidden during the colonial era.

Pre-Columbian Art: Overview

Although artistic traditions in the Americas continued long after the arrival of Europeans, the end of the pre-Columbian period in the Caribbean is marked by 1492, the year in which Christopher Columbus came to the Antilles. In the highlands of Mexico, pre- Columbian art is generally dated prior to 1521, the year in which the conquistador Hernan Cortes and his allies conquered the Aztec/Mexica capital Tenochtitlan. Francisco Pizarro’s 1533 conquest of the Inca capital Cuzco, Peru, ends the pre-Columbian creation of art in South America.

The exchange of art and ideas occurred across vast distances and influenced widely disbursed groups in the Americas; sometimes art materials were brought from afar to satisfy philosophical, spiritual, political, and aesthetic needs. Much extant pre-Columbian art is made of durable stone, metal, stucco, or clay, but the people of the Americas created goods for home and trade using materials as varied as amaranth seeds, animal hide, bark paper, bone, cotton, feathers (especially the quetzal’s), gold, greenstone, jade, mineral and vegetal paint, pearls, shells, silver, turquoise, wood, wool, and yucca. Public and semipublic monuments communicated messages asserting the legitimacy of the right to rule; they commemorated conquests of polities and foes, celebrated the histories and awe-inducing qualities of gods, and informed successive generations about historical and mythological events. Thus, art in the ancient Americas transmitted much more than ideas about beauty.

Although the Americas comprised various ethnic groups and city-states, they shared similar beliefs (pan-American bird-feline-lizard religion; rain or lightning gods), cultural practices (patronage and trade; sacred architecture; art used in rituals and ceremonies), and motifs (preference for abstraction; substantial use of red pigments; accordion-style record books). Historians once accounted for these similarities in Mesoamerica by theorizing that the Olmec (c. 1500–550 BCE) established norms that successors followed, but today they believe cultures such as the Zapotec may be nearly as ancient. As for South American indigenous peoples, scholars believe they maintained the customs, aesthetics, and culture of the Chavin (c. 800–200 BCE) of the Andes. Recurrent themes also abound in pre-Columbian South American art and architecture: food and agriculture; gods and rulers; sacrificial rituals; sexuality and fertility; and symbols of wealth and status.

Most surviving pre-Columbian art emphasizes contour line, pattern, and hieratic scale (the depiction of more important figures as larger than others in the scene). Artists, apparently suffering from horror vacui (literally, the fear of empty spaces), filled the entire composition with images, glyphs, or repeated motifs. They preferred composite perspective for figures, a style comparable to Egyptian art in which arms and legs appear in profile while the torso is frontal. Pre-Columbian art rarely, if at all, used perspectival systems to create illusions of the realistic world humans inhabited. These practices were the product of aesthetics, not a lack of technique: oral histories, documents, and material evidence indicate that pre- Columbian artists were extensively trained.

This survey takes a geographical approach to the settlements of the pre-Columbian period, starting in ancient Mesoamerica with the Olmec and ending in the Andean cultures of South America.

Mesoamerica: Pyramids, Ceramics, and Ball Courts

Ancient Mesoamerica, the region that encompassed present-day central Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, included numerous settlements and cities populated by various indigenous people who shared specific religious and aesthetic philosophies—and who documented sociocultural structures and practices in their art.


Once called the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica, the Olmec settled along the Gulf of Mexico in the areas now known as Vera Cruz and Tabasco as early as 1500 BCE and continuing through 550 BCE. Data accumulated since the late 1990s, however, suggest that other groups, such as the Zapotecs of southwest Mexico, may have origins stretching back that far. The Olmec were not homogenous or static while they flourished; archaeologists have found Olmec art several hundred kilometers from their gulf-coast centers.

The Olmec developed a complex calendrical system and demonstrated an interest in writing. Glyphs found at La Venta and on the Cascajal Block (a writing tablet–sized slab dating to the first millennium BCE and discovered in Veracruz), may be the earliest example of writing in North and South America. Archaeological evidence in sites at San Lorenzo (flourished 1200– 900 BCE) and La Venta (900–400 BCE)—including clay and stone architecture, monumental and small-scale sculptures, bas-reliefs, and decorative ceramics— suggests a sophisticated, well-developed civilization with an interest in agriculture, aquatic and amphibious life-forms, leadership traditions, and status. Ceramics and small stone carvings, exchanged along extensive economic trade routes from about 1150 to 900 BCE, likely influenced artwork in the Mexican highlands, where large Olmec-style petroglyphs and pictographs have been found in caves. From about 900 to 550 BCE, the Olmec traded carved jade, usually in the forms of celts (chisels) or axes. Artists incised anthropomorphic and animal features—most notably of snarling, jaguar-like creatures, reflecting the belief that jaguar deities could assume human form—into jade, later rubbing red-brown cinnabar (mercury sulfide) into the lines. (The poisonous cinnabar signified a kind of untouchable sanctity to the works.) Frowning, puffy-faced, carved figures—some referred to as the “were-baby” or “jaguar-were-baby”— pervade Olmec art. Scholars suggest the were-baby was symbolic in the transmission of power from one ruler to another, or served as a representation of the origin of power in the Olmec tradition.

The Olmec transported huge pieces of basalt some 96 kilometers from the Tuxtla Mountains to build a portion of the 30-meter-high Great Pyramid in La Venta. (The structure, estimated to have taken 18,000 men about a million man-hours to construct, has been noted for its similarities, including its north-south axial orientation, to the great Egyptian pyramids. The best-known examples of Olmec sculpture, sacrificial offerings in the form of colossal heads, likely represented individual rulers; while they all exhibit fleshy faces, almond-shaped eyes, and downturned mouths, each face is different. The Olmec sacrificed items, such as statuary configurations and mosaic floors, by burying or somehow hiding them from public view after completion (again, a striking similarity to the Egyptians). The pre-Columbian art scholar Mary Ellen Miller has called this type of offering hidden architecture.

The Olmec built ball courts and played the Mesoamerican ballgame, a political-religious, culture-defining ritual of pre-Columbian societies, especially the Maya, that persisted until the time of the conquest. On a slope-walled, I-shaped court, heavily padded players used their arms, hips, shoulders, and torso—but not hands—to hit an approximately 4-kilogram rubber ball through small raised goals. Small ceramics depicting ball players and spectators have been found in southwestern Mexico. Some scholars suggest that the ball represented celestial bodies held aloft by the players’ skill.

Characteristics distinctive to Olmec—the colossal head, the use of red pigment as a means of expression, jaguar or feather headgear, and deity masks— influenced later cultural groups well beyond the third century CE.


The Maya, scattered like the Olmec, were located in southern Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras; their stratified society engaged in farming, hunting, masonry, and trade. Distinctively Maya centers emerged circa 300 BCE and endured until the time of the conquest. Some Maya edifices, such as the Temple of the Cross and Temple XIX at Palenque, have deteriorated significantly, while other artifacts remain subsumed by jungle or buried beneath earth.

The Maya kept their historical documents in codices (accordion-style record books). They did, however, maintain an oral history tradition in such collections as the Popol Vuh, written down in the sixteenth-century by a Maya noble; it details the adventures of Hero Twins who attempt to defeat the gods of the underworld and resurrect their father. Many Mayan ceramics depict scenes from the Popol Vuh: the renowned Blom Plate, for instance, illustrates the twins using blowguns to shoot a boastful macaw that wrongly claims to have created the sun and moon.

Gods, sacrificial victims, and rulers appear repeatedly in Mayan art. Deities comprised of body parts from more than one animal are shown with humanoid hands, legs, and heads. Sacrificial victims are usually depicted as nude or semi-nude, to the Maya a condition of shame. The Maya practiced ancestor worship, burying the dead with the tools of their professions, cremating or interring the remains of royalty, and, later, building temples and tombs to honor them. Stelae honoring current and departed rulers included dates and symbols of their accomplishments.

The Maya continued to refine the 260-day ritual calendar, establishing the “long count” of days since the beginning of time, which they believed to be 3114 BCE. Twentieth-century scholars who discovered that glyphs appearing in Mayan iconography were often numeric notations from this calendrical system were able to discredit the prevailing view of the Maya as peaceful philosopher-kings. Evidence is in the art: Mayan glyphs, frescoes, relief carvings, and wall panels suggest that bloody conflicts and sacrifices existed throughout known Mayan history—and that political posturing, war, and human sacrifice, in addition to agricultural and environmental factors, may have contributed to the decline of populous Mayan settlements circa 800–900 CE. The Maya lived in less populated, more decentralized settlements at the time of the Spanish conquest.


The Zapotec civilization, which established its earliest settlements in Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla, may have existed somewhat concurrently with the Olmec, although for a longer period. At the time of the conquest, Zapotecs engaged in trade across central Mexico but did not dominate the region like Mixtecs or Mexica.

The Zapotecs maintained a pantheon of gods, a 260-day ritual calendar, a priest-scribe class, and a belief in a universal life force called pe. The visage of Cocijo, their god of lightning, appears on many complex ceramic pieces from Oaxaca. Scholars suggest that the Zapotecs’ militaristic society created arts and temple architecture to connote power and status and to revere ancestors, especially previous rulers. (From about 200 to 1000 CE the Zapotecs built large mounds and structures over older structures, as did the Maya.) Relief carvings in the city of Monte Alban (built 300–200 BCE and declined 200 CE) depicted named, sacrificed captives in varying levels of mutilation. In Tomb 7 at Monte Alban, archaeologists discovered collars with golden beads shaped to resemble jaguar teeth and turtle carapaces, personal adornments (including labret plugs, i.e., decorative status items that enter below the lower lip inside the mouth and project outward away from the face), ceramic urns, and incense burners.


Teotihuacan, established during the beginning of the first century CE about 48 kilometers from presentday Mexico City, flourished from 350 to 600 as one of the world’s largest cities (population c. 200,000). Residents worshipped the Rain God and the Feather God (Quetzacoatl), recognizably antecedent to gods of later Mesoamericans. The city’s ceremonial center burned in the eighth century; thereafter Teotihuacan declined but remained a pilgrimage center until the conquest. The Mexica, who then predominated and gave the city its name, believed the site to be the place where gods created the sun and the moon. (Teotihuacan means “The City [gathering place] of the Gods.”)

The Avenue of the Dead forms a 5-kilometer north-south axis through the city beginning in front of the Pyramid of the Moon. Multiple, symmetrically arranged residences, temples, and open courts flank the road, which then passes, on the left, the dual stairway of the Pyramid of the Sun. Continuing south, in the heart of the city, the avenue leads to the Cuidadela (Citadel), a vast sunken plaza whose focal point is a six-platform step pyramid, the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. The temple structure exhibits a hallmark of Teotihuacan talud-tablero style: each sloping base (talud) supports a vertical entablature that is surrounded by a frame and filled with sculptural decoration.

Teotihuacan murals exhibit easy-to-understand, cartoon-like line drawings in which elements of color and style can be read symbolically. The jade green nose adornment, headdress feathers, and beads of the Great Goddess of Tetitla (Teotihuacan) denote spiritual wealth and the sustenance it provides. The repeated C curls and lines attached to her hands represent abundance and flowing water.

Archeological evidence of human and animal artifacts buried with precious jade figurines, adornments, and obsidian suggest that the Teotihuacanos engaged in sacrificial practices; evidence of sacrificial rituals appears in A fragment of a mural called Maguey Bloodletting Ritual (600–750 CE, Cleveland Museum of Art) shows a priest piercing his hand on the spine of a maguey plant—a source of food and fiber (for fabric, rope, and paper), as well as a sacramental drink. The priest then scatters his blood on seeded, rectangular plots of earth.


The Mixtec settled between 1500 and 750 BCE in Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla, where they became powerful circa 900 CE. Mixtec culture continued to develop somewhat concurrently beside the Mexica, who conquered several Mixtec city-states during the 1400s and early 1500s, exacting tribute from the conquered villages. The Mixtec used alliances created through marriage to determine the inheritance of titles and the right of rule. Spaniards later came to rely on this elite ruling class to aid in conversion and cultural changes.

Scholars have labeled extant codices, jewelry, and ceramics as Mixteca-Puebla, a style that emphasized the planar qualities of a figure and object by outlining and filling the image with flat, consistent earth tones and eschewing realistic representation for economical stylization.


At the time of the conquests, Nahuatl-speaking peoples who called themselves Mexica, not Aztec, were the dominant power and culture in Mesoamerica. (The name “Aztec” only became popular when scholars in the nineteenth century adopted it as a way to distance “modern” Mexicans from pre-conquest Mexicans.) The Mexica controlled a vast empire spanning central Mexico from the gulf to the Pacific, an accomplishment achieved through military campaigns, marriage alliances, an education system for elite males, and control of trade networks.

The Mexica developed communities as early as 950 CE in central Mexico; they built portions of their capitol Tenochtitlan, where Mexico City stands now, as early as the twelfth century, constructing it on islands in Lake Texcoco that were built up from debris. One renowned Mexica myth, now part of modern Mexican national identity, describes the peoples’ origins on an “island of whiteness” (Aztlan). The hummingbird god Huitzilopochtli directed them to leave Aztlan and travel until they saw an eagle, perched on a prickly pear cactus, gobbling a snake—and there to build their new home. After Mexico won independence from Spain in the late 1880s, leaders evoked images of the Mexica past to inspire the future: Mexico’s coat of arms depicted an eagle clutching a snake in its beak, and symbols from Mexica carvings began to appear on postage stamps. In the 1920s, when Mexico’s education minister invited artists including Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco to paint murals on public buildings to commemorate those who fought in the revolution, many painters drew upon Mexica mythology and symbols. For Rivera, the Earth goddess Coatlicue (Huitzilopochtli’s mother) was an especially iconic image.

Scribes recorded details of Mexica history, religion, and culture in codices—the pre-Columbianist Elizabeth Boone calls them “containers of knowledge”—by using glyphs that represented components of words, ideas, names, and dates and by arranging them in “scenes” with symbolic, interpretative clues. Very few of these books exist today. The Mexica king Itzcoatl became notorious (in part) for rewriting or destroying these historical chronicles when he came to the throne in 1428. After installing the first bishop in Tenochtitlan in 1528, Spaniards also embarked on a campaign to destroy indigenous records.

The main temple of the Mexica Empire, the Templo Mayor, held dual shrines, one dedicated to Huitzilopochtli and the other to the rain god Tlaloc. Excavations revealed a cave and offerings below the pyramid, as well as artworks depicting Mexica origin myths. The Coyolxauhqui disk, for example, illustrates the dismemberment of Huitzilopochtli’s traitorous sister, who attempted to kill their mother, Coatlicue (“she of the serpent skirt”), after learning of their mother’s pregnancy.

The Mexica first fell to Hernan Cortes in 1519 and suffered a final defeat in 1521. On 22 October 1522, Holy Roman Emperor Charles I (V) declared Cortes Governor and Captain General of New Spain. Over the next several years, Spanish forces subdued much of the rest of Mexico and established it as a colony.

South America: Textiles before Ceramics

Ancient peoples of the Peruvian Andes developed textile technology before ceramic technology. Woven items dating from the ninth to the sixth centuries BCE found in Guitarrero Cave are the oldest artifacts from the continent, and archaeologists discovered mummies wearing intricate textile designs from as early as 5,000 BCE at Huaca Prieta. The high grasslands of the Andes—the habitat of llamas, alpacas, vicunas, and guanacos (all a rich source of wool)—made the creation of textiles in South America a flourishing art form. Textiles designed by artists for private use reflected a measure of ethnic, political, and social status. Textiles in Andean public life assumed the significance equal to ceramics in Mesoamerican ritual sacrif ices and bronze in Chinese ancestor worship— and yet relatively few textiles, at least compared to in number to their durable clay and metal counterparts, exist in the archaeological record.

Early South American Origins

In the central Andes of South America (present-day Peru and Bolivia) civilizations developed, as they did in Mesoamerica, with rich and varied artistic traditions, but in the midst of a more dramatic geography—dry desert between the Pacific and the snow-capped peaks, highland grasses (home to the Andean camelids), and steep slopes that descended on the east to the rainforest of the Amazon Basin. The earliest ceremonial mounds and plazas on the coast date to the third millennium BCE, the same period as the earliest pyramids in Egypt. Multi-room stone structures in the highlands featured sunken fire pits that were used to burn ritual offerings. During the second millennium BCE, prior to the settlement of Chavin de Huantar, coastal peoples became more dependent on agriculture, and thus began to build canal and irrigation systems. A distinct style of architecture emerged as populations moved inland: large, U-shaped ceremonial structures, with sunken, circular spaces, were oriented toward the mountains, the rising sun, and the source of the water they needed to grow food.


The people who populated Chavin de Huantar (c. 900–200 BCE), a settlement located on a trade route through the mountains that connected the Pacific Coast and the Amazon Basin, were influential in South America for centuries. The Chavin incorporated influences from earlier surrounding peoples, appropriating the U-shaped buildings of the coastal regions and the recessed spaces of South American highland structures to create a uniquely Chavin aesthetic.

Archaeologists have found golden objects, ceramics, and textiles produced by the Chavin far north and west of the mountain pass, an indication of their complex trade network. Artisans produced gold and gold alloy sheet-metal adornments, headgear, pectorals (chest pieces worn by elite men), and ceramic stirrup-spout vessels. The abstract style of Chavin art deals with recurrent motifs and subject matter, especially religion and spiritual transcendence.


The residents of Nazca (Nasca), Peru, established their settlement as early as 600 BCE. The adobe pyramid— altered hills made to resemble large structures— burials mounds, plazas, and funerary offerings at Cahuachie are associated with the Nazca.

Chavin textiles and ceramics influenced Nazca weaving and pottery, but the Nazca are best known for transforming the living surface of the Earth to create monumental artworks, called geoglyphs, on the Pampa de Nazca. The Nazca dug contour lines in the dark gravel of the plains to form gigantic images—a hummingbird, a killer whale, and a monkey, for example—and then they edged the underlying lighter soil they’d exposed with sea and river stones, shells, and ceramics full of corn beer in what scholars believe were fertility or water rituals. Some have posited that the people of Nazca could not have made the geoglyphs themselves—that the makers and intended audience were space aliens. Scholars do agree, however, that early humans were capable of creating such large imagery (and that such endeavors could take place without conscription or slavery). Pre-Columbian art produced only for the eyes of gods is not unusual: the Olmec offered hidden architecture below buildings and under special spaces; the Mexica gave offerings in the layers of the great Templo Mayor.


The Moche, whose origins are not fully understood, resided in a desert valley in the Andes (north of Chavin de Huantar) from the first century CE to the eighth century; the capital, Cerro Blanco, was located close to an ancient trade route connecting the coast and the edge of the highlands.

Allusions to agricultural and commercial pursuits appear in many Moche artworks. The burial site of the Lord of Sipan, discovered north of the Moche Valley, included a gold and silver collar made from beads representing the peanut (an important source of protein and fat), as well as silver-and-gold-gilded ear spools, masks, textiles, and ceramics. Excavation of the burial site suggests that the Moche were a stratified, militaristic society with a many skilled artisans.

The enormous adobe pyramid at Cerro Blanco, a royal residence known as the Pyramid of the Sun, was made using sun-dried mud bricks, some of which retain the distinctive marks identifying the communities that made them. A second pyramid, the Pyramid of the Moon, was built on a hill, probably as a ritual or ceremonial space. The repetitive building of pyramids in Central and South America suggests a possible early connection between the two cultures, although the building of such structures could have been independent of each other.

The Moche mass-produced molded ceramics and created one-of-a-kind pieces that were both functional and decorative; such objects displayed naturalism and convincing detail. Scholars believe that vessels portraying rulers were used in rituals and later buried with elites. Moche Lord with a Feline (Art Institute of Chicago) is a square vessel on top of which sits a lord, wearing an elaborate headdress with coordinating ear spools, who pets the head of the cat (or jaguar cub) lying next to him. Behind the figure the ceramicist attached a stirrup spout—an upside-down, U-shaped, hollow handle with a single spout protruding from the top—a feature probably appropriated from the Chavin.

Other vessels convey scenes from daily life and sacrificial practices. Some depict food (e.g., corn and beans), deities, flora and fauna, birds, and ocean creatures. Many display sexual imagery, such as prisoners of war with exposed genitalia, or dancing skeletons with erect penises; still others show scenes in which numerous lively figures engage in numerous forms of sexual activity. (Replicas of these so-called Moche sex pots, ubiquitous in marketplaces that target tourists, and are also the subject of considerable anthropological discussion.) Although not much is known about Moche spirituality, several Moche ceramics depict a warrior priest holding a ritual cup, presumably filled with blood or other sacrificial libations.

The arrival of El Nino in the Moche Valley circa 600 CE started the decline of the civilization, and, eventually, the Moche abandoned Cerro Blanco. After the conquest a local river was redirected to flood the site and make it easier to pillage precious objects.


The Inca developed circa 1100 and by the sixteenth century grew to rule the empire of Tiwantinsuyo, laying stones over the ancient paths that ran from Ecuador to southern Chile. (In the early 1500s its territory rivaled China’s in size.) The capital, Cuzco, included ritual routes called ceque, lines radiating out from the Qorikancha (Coricancha, or the Temple of the Sun), the city center.

Several versions of the Incas’ origin stories are known and referenced in colonial paintings of ancient ancestors. One tells that the Inca believed the incestuous brother/sister husband/wife pair, Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, received a prophecy about a new homeland in which a golden staff could miraculously penetrate the soil. Eventually they found that place, defeated the people who lived there, and took control of what was to become the center of their empire.

Political systems of the Inca, which required subjects to make tax payments in the form of food, labor, or textiles, and to exchange equal amounts of work among households, fostered advances in textile arts and architecture, two distinctive features of Andean civilizations. Andean textiles are among the most technically complex cloths ever made, some containing five hundred threads per square inch. Making textiles consumed a major part of the human resources of Andean society, whose dyers, weavers, and embroiderers employed and invented nearly every technique known over the centuries. Some cloths, dually appreciated for their beauty and labor intensiveness, were woven, unwoven, and rewoven to achieve special effects. Cotton, grown in Peru as early as 3000 BCE, was the most commonly used plant fiber. The earliest cloths were made without looms, and the techniques of knotting, winding, twining, braiding, and looping continued after the invention of the loom in the early second century BCE. Possessing finely woven cloth conveyed wealth and status; textiles, considered offerings worthy of the gods, were often draped around gold statues. (The conquistadors, of course, kept their sights on the gold). Incan textiles were primarily woven by aclla, or female weavers who were under the jurisdiction of state religion. Special administrators called the quipumacayu probably tracked such items, in addition to histories, census data, and tribute, with record-keeping systems using quipus, knotted and colored cord.

Although the Inca domesticated llamas, these animals could not bear the weight of the monumental stones used in construction. Thus human labor was necessary for two types of architectural construction: cyclopean masonry and pirca (pirka) masonry. Cyclopean masonry involved the mortarless configuration of load-bearing walls that were able to withstand destruction from earthquakes endemic to the region. Pirca was a load-bearing approach that used mud mortar. Some Incan buildings were constructed of pirca walls with a cyclopean masonry facade. A geometric style emphasized basic shapes and lines instead of complex or crowded iconography. Thus Incan builders created other stonework of refinement and durability, such as roads and bridges to link the empire, terraces for growing crops, and irrigation systems essential for supporting a highland population increasingly dependent on agriculture.

When the Europeans arrived, Incan rulership was in dispute. King Huayna Capac died unexpectedly without selecting an heir, leaving his two sons to fight for control of the empire. In 1532 the victorious son Atahualpa fell hostage to Francisco Pizarro, his band of men, and, likely, his Native American allies. After receiving a room full of gold as ransom, Pizarro and his men strangled Atahualpa, appropriating the Incan Empire for the Spanish crown, and took Cuzco in 1533.

Aftermath of the Conquest

Exploitive policies of European conquerors (and ravages of disease they carried, to which indigenous peoples were not immune) caused a sharp decline in native populations in Central and South America. Colonizers suppressed local beliefs and practices, tore down temples, and built churches. Religious conversion fell to Franciscan, Dominican, and Augustinian missionaries, many of whom were appalled by the conquerors’ treatment of their subjects.

To some extent, indigenous symbolism was absorbed in Christian iconography, especially in the form of crosses installed in church atriums, where converts gathered to be educated. Missionaries recruited native sculptors to carve these stone crosses, and although the images were likely copied from illustrated books the missionaries supplied, elements of pre-Hispanic sculpture pervaded. One such sixteenth-century cross (in the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City), carved with dense low-relief images such as Christ’s crown of thorns, suggests an ancient Mesoamerican symbol, the World Tree (or Tree of Life), with its stark form and rich surface symbols; the image of blood sacrifice correlates to indigenous beliefs of the Teotihuacan culture, for example, but the newly converted artists who carved it might not yet have experienced the spiritual resonance.

The customs and arts of many indigenous peoples, rather than disappear, mixed with those of their conquerors or survived intact among smaller groups (only to be revived as research in pre-Columbian art piques). While adopting Spanish cultural ideas and practices, the Maya preserved their traditions and language throughout the colonial era, and continue to reside in Chiapas, Mexico, as well as in Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. Today Zapotecs are concentrated in many southwestern Mexican regions where their ancestors lived. Mixtecos in the twenty-first century are engaged in a revival of their language and pre-Columbian thought and culture, while blockbuster museum exhibits in all things “Aztec” have brought a more nuanced approach to the Mexica. Still-practicing weavers and other textile artists, whose craft has been handed down through centuries, provide a source of pride and world recognition today, as well as a storehouse of information for historians.


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