Arts of Ancient America


Many different culture groups lived in ancient central Mexico: Olmecs, Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Aztecs, and others. Farther south through Guatamala lived the Maya. The subject of many Mesoamerican artists was the human form. Different cultures depicted human beings differently. While the Maya often carved lifelike individuals, the people of Teotihuacan mass produced identical ceramic figurines for the city’s population of 200,000. The Mezcala borrowed from Olmec styles, then reduced the human figure to geometric angles. These many different art styles reflect the many different culture groups that lived and still live today in Mesoamerica.

Despite their diversity, the peoples of Mesoamerica shared many things in common. Around 3500 BC, they began growing maize corn, and later beans, squash, and chili peppers for food. They used a 260 day ritual calendar, and played a religious sport with a rubber ball. They also shared religious beliefs that emphasized the idea that rebirth followed death, which Mesoamericans observed in the cycles of nature.

These beliefs were expressed in art. Jade was the most valuable stone used by artists, its green color was associated with growing crops and the rain they required. Certain animals also had special meaning and were often depicted. The jaguar was a symbol of military power and religious knowledge for ancient kings. Bats represented blood sacrifice, by which people paid the ancestor gods for sending the rains people needed to grow their crops. Specially carved flint knives were meant to look like the lightening of thunderstorms, and the rain god Tlaloc has jaguar teeth and carries a flint knife.

A series of civilizations grew up along the Pacific coast of Peru and the highlands of the Andes Mountains beginning in the 1st millennium BC. Those living in the desert coast kept irrigated fields of maize and beans, while those in the highlands grew potatoes and raised llamas. The principle arts of the Andes were ceramic bottles and woven textiles.

The creation of woven textiles required contacts between the peoples of the coast and the highlands. Cotton grown on the coast was needed for the warp, while llama wool that could be dyed bright colors was used for the weft. The angular designs of textiles influenced other artistic styles in the Andes, resulting in a preference for abstract forms. The Moche (1-700 AD) however, created individual portraits of their nobles with ceramic bottles.

Bird designs were popular in Andean art. Birds could fly as high as the mountains, or dive into the sea for fish, and therefore represented the duality between highlands and coast, between heaven and earth.

The Inca united Andean peoples into an enormous empire beginning around 1400 AD. Inca art relied on earlier designs, and artists from the conquered Chimu people.

  • Allied Arts
  • Oklahoma Arts
  • National Endowment

© 2008 Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art. All Rights Reserved
1900 West MacArthur Drive, Shawnee, OK 74804
P: 405-878-5300 F: 405-878-5133
Website designed by Back40 Design and managed by Javelin CMS