South America Pre Hispanic Design and Art

Pre-Hispanic art works are seldom recognized as works of art; instead, they are often grouped as archeological remnants. This explains why you find most pre-Hispanic art pieces in historic and anthropology museums, instead of them being displayed on the walls of great Mexican art galleries like they do other masterpieces from great artists like Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo. In fact, these two great artists of all times got inspired by pre-Hispanic art. Tamayo (1899-1991), a Zapotec from Oaxaca, was very particular about preserving his collections as art collections and not science pieces (Barto, 2006). This explains why all his collections were donated to the National Institute of Fine Art and not the National Institute of Anthropology when he died. The Rufino Tamayo museum was the result of this gesture, the only location in Mexico where pre-Hispanic collections are put on display like normal art pieces for the benefit of art lovers.

Some of the important humanistic pieces do not emanate from popular city states, such as Chichen Itza or Teotihuacan, but from the west coast civilizations, from what we know today as Colima, Guerrero, Jalisco, Sinaloa, and Nayarit. According to Pesqueira, these cultures have mostly remained an enigma. Geographic isolation can be said to be responsible for this in a way. But it is mostly due to the fact that they abandoned some of the most celebrated centers, such as the Monte Alban and Teotihuacan. Occidental Mexican art is mostly different from the other regions found within its secular nature (Barto, 2006). Instead of portraying idealized images of warriors and priests, most of their sculptures display normal human beings doing normal everyday tasks: playing football, washing clothes, and engaging in informal gatherings.

According to Pesqueira, the question of religion and warfare were to a large extent, influenced by Aztecs. But, the form of life lived in the cultures of the west coast is less rigid and more human. But neither the Aztec nor Maya where wholly concerned about human sacrifice and warfare. For example, the Maya had a well-developed music tradition, which they depicted with statuettes of musicians, conch shell and finely crafted clay flutes. The Aztec sculptors equally achieved very realistic details in the human subjects. Most of these works were sculptured when Europe was still mostly inhabited by the nomadic hunters, just like most of the achievements of the pre-Columbian art (Barto, 2006). In the whole pre-Columbian chronology, the splendor age, the classic era, made up the first one thousand years in the Christian era, according to Pesqueira. The Spanish arrived in the 15th century and met the Aztecs, a race with no more splendor. Contrary to common beliefs, the Olmecs were not the oldest pre-Columbian civilization. Rather, the Zapotecs, who governed all southern Mesoamerica from the capital, were the oldest pre-Columbian civilization. The capital was Monte, Alban, a hill overlooking the present day Oaxaca, between 500 BC-750 AD. In the conventional Mexican art, just like you find in many aspects of the present day Mexican life, pre-Hispanic tradition lasts, even if it is in a hidden form. This pre-Hispanic influence is manifested not just in the images of sacrifices and deaths, but also in the Mexican addiction to colors like pinks, turquoises, bright oranges, etc., which they use for painting their walls. These colors were invested by the Maya with very symbolic meanings.

For instance, turquoise symbolized the harmony in the meeting between the heavens (blue) and the earth (green).

The mural paintings, which Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros gave more fame in the 20s are equally part of the continuation of the pre-Hispanic tradition. This means that you may have always appreciated pre-Hispanic art unknowingly. This assignment will look at two pre-Hispanic arts: The Kunz Axe and Leiden Plaque.

Kunz Axe/Middle Formative

The most significant legacy of Olmec civilization is the enormous stone heads they formed. They were all carved using basalt and displayed very unique facial appearances that could be considered as portraits of real rulers. Most of the heads were up to 3m high and about 8 tons in weight, while the stone from which they were carved, were in some cases, transported from a distance of about 80km or more. It was assumed they were transported using balsa river rafts. 17 of such heads have been uncovered, and 10 have been found to be from San Lorenzo (Cartwright, 2013). The ruler often wears protective helmets (from the ballgame or war) and show the subjects with jaguar paws, sometimes hanging above the forehead, which is believed to represent a jaguar pelt, which was worn to symbolize some religious and political powers. The ancient Mesoamerican belief that the head housed the soul was the sole reason why these massive sculptures depicted only the heads.

Another important Olmecs record can be found in rock paintings and carvings. These were often made near the entrance to caves to depict seated kings. A good example is the one at Oxtotitlan, where a figure can be seen wearing a green colored bird suit and at Chalcatzingo, where another king can be seen sitting on her throne, and flanked by a maize scenery.

There are also paintings of cave rituals found on other sites, for instance, at Juxtlahuaca, Cacahuazqui and Oxtotlan (Cartwright, 2013). Ceramic and Jade were some other popular materials used by sculptors; wood was also a popular material used. The Kunz Axe, is perhaps, the most important significant jade carving. The Kunz Axe is a ceremonial axe-head found in the American Museum of Natural History in New York today. In 1889, George Kunz published a paper on an ancient jade axe whose origin was not known. The jade axe, which is now among the ancient art collections of the American Museum of Natural History, was created to depict a war-jaguar using jade tools alone and polished with jade abrasives. One popular subject was animals, especially the very powerful animals, such as eagles and jaguars. Interestingly, the Olmecs always buried their sculptures, even the larger pieces, probably in a ritualistic memory act.

The National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution joined hands to sponsor eight different expeditions to Mexico with the goal of exploring archeological sites in Tabasco, Veracruz and Campeche from 1939-1946. The Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethology chief, Mathew W. Stirling, led the expeditions. Stirling made the Olmec culture more popular using a series of impressive finds, which included several large stone heads found at sites like La Venta, Tres Zapotes, San Lorenzo, etc. The discoveries made by Stirling made room for intense discussions among the scholars concerning the right place for Olmec in the Mesoamerican civilization’s chronology, some of which are still on today.

The Smithsonian kept getting involved in Olmec studies when it was part of the team that sponsored the 1995 expedition to La Venta (Smithsonian Olmec Legacy: Early Reports on the Olmec: Erly reports of the Olmec: George Kunz, 1889).

The early exploration and excavation of these Olmec sites laid the foundation for every single subsequent research as well as archaeological studies. The Smithsonian preserves the reports, field notes, slides, correspondence, films, prints, and artifacts expeditions from the 8th Stirling expeditions, as well as the 1955 season.

Leiden Plaque/Classic

Archaeologists divided the whole areas occupied by Mayan language speakers into three parts: (1) The Southern region, specifically the highlands and the Pacific Coast of Guatemala, (2) The Central Subregion, which comprises the Peten department in northern Guatemala as well as the direct adjacent lowlands to the west and east, (3) The Northern region, comprising the Yucatan Peninsula directly north of Peten. The most striking civilization witnessed between 250-900 in the New World prospered in the forested lowlands of both the Northern and Central subregions.

The Maya civilization of lowlands falls into two distinct chronological cultures or phases: Tzakol culture, and Early Classic started shortly before AD 250, and continued to the Late Classic Tepeu culture; this saw the complete florescence of Maya achievements. The Tepeu culture started around 600 and ended around 900, with the last abandonment and downfall of the Central subregion. The Leiden Plague, referred to as Leiden Plate in some quarters, was founded in the year 1864 in Bahia de Graciosa, north of Guatemala and is named so based on its location within the collection of the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, Netherlands. Dating from the Earliest Classic period, it is generally believed to have originated from the central lowlands Peten Basin of Guatemala, specifically, the Tikal Maya site.

The fact that it contains one of the foremost hieroglyphic inscriptions of Maya makes it a very important artifact to the early Maya archaeology (Shook, 1960). Mayans were also known to be quite successful with Jade works. The Mayan society placed so much value in Jade. Tomb excavations yielded very large quantity of Jade jewelry, plaques, effigies, and mosaics (Maya Art History). The craftsmen found in Maya also carved in shells, bones, and woods. The information available to us about the perishable works of art like weaving and feather work produced in Maya are quite few, because only a few of such arts survived to date. The metal works were not considered important works of art until after 900 AD, the post classic period. The evidences available to us today show that Mayans mostly used gold and copper for their works.

The Leiden Plate is one of the first objects with a fully developed Maya Calendar inscribed on it. The Leiden Plate is a jade plaque, housed presently at the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden, Neth, which shows a luxuriously dressed Maya king, trampling one captive underfoot.

On the reverse side of the Leiden Plate is a lengthy date that corresponds to 320. Though found in a remote site on the coast of the Caribbean, there are stylistic evidences that show that Leiden Plate was produced at Tikal, right in the heart of northern Peten. In the middle of the 20th century, the Pennsylvania University’s motivated field program held at the Tikal site led to the production of Stela 29, built 28 years earlier, in 292 (Pre-Columbian civilization — The two objects, and, actually, almost everyone of the early Tzakol memorial, copy a great deal from the Late Formative earlier Izapan civilization, with its extremely baroque and narrative stylistic content. Due to the habit of covering older monuments with newer ones, the remains of Tzakol in the Central Subregion need to be dug out laboriously from their massive Late Classic overload.

However, it is quite clear that at such sites as Tikal, Holmul, Uaxactun, May civilization has gotten close to its last stage. Large ceremonious centers were surrounded by masonry places and temples facing very spacious plazas that are covered in white stucco (Pre-Columbian civilizations — Using the corbel vault to span rooms, a trait that is very unique to the lowland Maya, was at that time, a universal phenomenon. Stelae and altars (an Izapa legacy) have dates carved in them and figures of men and sometimes gods embellished in them.


The first Mesoamerican civilization was the Maya, beginning from around 2600 B.C. They lasted longer than any other and were often seen as the most significant Mesoamerican civilization. Most of their great cities were built between A.D. 250 and A.D. 900. Though they were the first to come around, the Maya were only able to rise to the top in the later years after they had adopted most of their culture from the more modern Olmec civilization. The Maya ended up leaving a longer, more successful legacy behind. This legacy encompassed parts of Guatamala, Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras (Griffon, 2013). Kings and priests ruled them, and they didn’t get wiped out like several of the other cultures, but degenerated gradually. Their actual connection with the Olmecs remained indistinct. So the first Mesoamerican culture was the Olmecs, despite the fact that the Mayas were there before them. They definitely didn’t call themselves the Olmecs, but the name was derived from Aztec literatures. The Olmecs were able to establish themselves as early as 1400 B.C. and were able to sustain their existence for about a thousand years. They occupied a reasonably large portion of land. They were known as great farmers, mathematicians, artists, and astronomers (Griffon, 2013).

Their writings were in hieroglyphics, just like most other cultures that came after them. No known major city was built by them, but they managed to leave a pyramid behind before becoming extinct. The mystery of the Olmecs heads: 9 ft (3-meter) tall heads that look like African warriors carved from stones found around 130km (80mi) away, were probably their most celebrated legacy.


Barto, Anna. “Prehispanic Art.” Another Day in Paradise 2006 ADIP Web. .

Cartwright, Mark. “Olmec Civilization – Ancient History Encyclopedia.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. 30 Aug 2013. Web. 9 Dec 2015. .

Griffon, Simon. “The Difference Between The Aztec, Maya, Inca, And Olmec – KnowledgeNuts.” KnowledgeNuts. 22 Oct 2013. Web. 10 Dec 2015. .

“Maya Art History.” Maya Inca Aztec. Web. 10 Dec 2015. .

“Pre-Columbian civilizations —” Web. 9 Dec 2015. .

Shook, Edwin. “Tikal Stela 29. Expedition.” Penn Museum – University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. 1960. Web. 9 Dec 2015. .

“Smithsonian Olmec Legacy: Early Reports on the Olmec: George Kunz, 1889.” Anthropology Home. Web. 10 Dec 2015. .

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