Pre-Columbian Art and Architecture

Pre-Columbian Art and Architecture, the art and architecture of the indigenous civilizations of Mesoamerica and the Andes and of neighboring cultures before the 16th century ad. For the art of ancient indigenous cultures north of Mexico, "see "Native American Art.

For 3000 years before the European exploration

For 3000 years before the European exploration and colonization of the western hemisphere, the Native Americans of Latin America developed civilizations that rivaled the artistic and intellectual accomplishments of ancient China, India, Mesopotamia, and the Mediterranean world. The quality of these accomplishments is even more impressive because much of the essential technology of eastern hemisphere civilizations was unknown to the Native American. The wheel, for instance, was used in Mesoamerica only for toys and was never developed into the potter`s wheel, wagon wheel, or pulley system. Metal tools were rarely used, and then only in the last stages of pre-Columbian history. The elaborate sculptures and intricate jade ornaments of the Maya, therefore, were accomplished by carving stone with stone.

Pre-Columbian and post-Columbian Native

Pre-Columbian and post-Columbian Native American art and architecture evince a concern with the relation both of the structure to its environment and of the object to its material. This regard for nature resulted in an aesthetic rooted in an awareness of natural dualitiesday and night, sun and moon, land and water, life and death. The tension in most Native American art, therefore, is derived from the contrast of opposing design elements such as light and dark, open and closed compositions, the static form and the mobile form, the realistic and the abstract, and the plain and the ornate.

Geographical Scope

Pre-Columbian cultures are grouped according

Pre-Columbian cultures are grouped according to general geographic area. Although scholars sometimes differ in the precise regions they identify, their basic divisions are more or less the same. In this article the Mesoamerican Area, a major cultural region, includes the present countries of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Peru and Bolivia make up the Central Andean Area, the other major cultural region. Constituting the Intermediate Area are the lower Central America and the northern South American nations of Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador; the Peripheral Area comprises the rest of South America, as well as the Caribbean islands. Although these areas were initially regarded as separate cultural entities, recent archaeological research has indicated substantial cultural relation rather than isolation. Cultural similarities, therefore, are being as actively investigated as were differences in the past. Many anthropologists, archaeologists, and art historians are also now studying modern Latin Native American cultures for vestigial manifestations of or similarities to pre-Columbian civilization.

Chronological Divisions

To distinguish the major characteristics

To distinguish the major characteristics of pre-Columbian civilizations, three general chronological divisions have been widely used: the Pre-Classic, or Formative, period (circa 1500 bc-c. ad 300); the Classic, or Florescent, period (circa 300-c. 900); and the Post-Classic period (c. 900-1540). Although the term "classic" suggests the height of a cultural development, current scholars and critics deny the once-common assumption that the finest pre-Columbian art and architecture were achieved in the Classic period. The art and architecture of the Post-Classic Mixtec and Aztec of Mexico and the Chimu and Inca of Peru are not less distinguished than those of their Classic predecessors, but only different in accomplishment and taste.

The Pre-Classic period was an age of experimentation

The Pre-Classic period was an age of experimentation and innovation, the achievements of which were expanded and refined by later civilizations. In this early period the Americas were primarily isolated into chiefdoms and small kingdoms that were largely independent of one another in their cultural development. Evidence exists, however, of some distribution of religious ideas and art motifs. The Olmec of Mexico, the San Agustn culture of Colombia, and the Chavn of Peru all worshiped a feline deity, and all shared a similar iconography (pictorial vocabulary) in their art.

During the Classic period complex empires

During the Classic period complex empires developed. Their rulers were often priests, rather than the warrior-priests who were the principal administrators of Post-Classic civilizations, and cultures were more readily disseminated or assimilated. Although this is often considered a peaceful period, recent archaeology has demonstrated that most major Classic civilizations were warlike. Conquest and extensive trade resulted in wealth that was spent on constructing or elaborating ceremonial centers or cities, as well as creating increasingly luxurious personal effects and high-quality objects for funerary or ritual use.

The Post-Classic period was characterized

The Post-Classic period was characterized by frequent wars resulting from the socioeconomic pressures of increased population and technological development. The terminal cultures and civilizations of this period are the best documented, because they were directly encountered by the Spanish, who recorded their personal impressions or had histories compiled of the conquered.

Cultural Traits

Pre-Columbian civilizations were primarily

Pre-Columbian civilizations were primarily agricultural, with maize (corn) being developed as the dietary staple in Mesoamerica, and the potato in Andean Peru and Bolivia. Until the relative secularism of the Post-Classic period, religion was also central to the formulation and development of pre-Columbian American culture. Religious ideas and rituals, however, were largely determined by the concerns of agricultural societies for crop fertility. Much pre-Columbian art and architecture, therefore, is involved with astronomy, which helped the Native Americans determine appropriate times for planting and times for harvesting.

Two types of urban design were developed.

Two types of urban design were developed. One was the ceremonial center, a complex of structures primarily consisting of religious and administrative buildings constructed around plazas, but without common dwellings or streets. It is conjectured that only the secular and religious rulers and their courts lived in these centers, while the majority of the population resided on small farms in a surrounding suburban zone. The other type, true cities, had streets organizing residences of rich and poor, as well as plaza-oriented temples and administrative buildings. Recent mapping projects at sites in Mesoamerica have shown that what were once thought to be ceremonial centers had resident populations of commoners and were thus more like true cities. Both ceremonial complexes and true cities served as centers for religion, government, and commerce. Important for supplying necessities and luxuries, commerce also provided the routes for transmitting ideas, technology, and art forms and motifs.

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