Pre-Columbian Art
Definition, History, Timeline: Maya, Aztec, Inca, Chavin Cultures.

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Figure of a Baby Crawling.
(1200-900 BCE) Olmec Mexican art.
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.
For a quick guide to specific
styles, see: Art Movements.

Pre-Columbian Art (c.1200 BCE - 1535 CE)


Timeline of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican Art
- Ceremonial Architecture
- Sculpture
- Ceramics
- Codices and Murals
- Featherwork and Mosaics
South America
Chronology of Pre-Columbian South American Art
- Architecture
- Carvings
- Pottery
- Metalworking
- Textiles

Hand Stencils in Cueva de las Manos
in Argentina, dating to 7,300 BCE.

Mixtec Mosaic mask of Tezcatlipoca
15th century. British Museum.

Double-headed serpent, Turquoise,
red and white mosaic on wood.
Aztec (possibly) Mixtec, (1400-1521).


The term "Pre-Columbian art" refers to the architecture, art and crafts of the native peoples of North, Central, and South America, and the islands of the Caribbean (c.13,000 BCE - 1500 CE) up to the time period marked by the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. See also: American Indian art. The term "Mesoamerica" is synonymous with Central America, describing a cultural region in the Americas, which extends roughly from central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica.


The civilisations of Central America (Mesoamerica) and the Pacific Coast of South America were roughly contemporary with the European Christian era. Both were rapidly brought to an end by the Spanish conquest following on the voyages of discovery of Columbus. The conquerors immediately found themselves in conflict with the original inhabitants. The soldiers were looters and treasure hunters looking for gold. The priests were seeking to save human souls, and took with them the no less violent methods of the Inquisition, and in the name of their religion they eventually destroyed a whole culture.

There were two empires, the Aztecs of Mesoamerica and the Incas of Peru. Both were agriculturally settled and competent, and supported art and architecture. The monuments left behind are impressively massive, yet the societies that produced them were surprisingly primitive. The Mayan culture of Mesoamerica made advances in mathematics and astronomy, but it was overrun by Aztecs from the north in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, who in turn were conquered by the Spanish in 1519. The conquest of Peru followed in 1532.

The Pre-Columbian cultures seem to have been dominated by millenarianism - a belief that the end of the world was periodically imminent. This could only be averted by human sacrifice, and of course once such a belief gains an ascendancy there is no way of disproving it. Their gods, were protrayed as terrifying monsters whose hostility could only be appeased by blood, by torture and sacrifice. Certain elements in Pre-Columbian superstition have never died out, and flagellation and other forms of self-torture were incorporated into a form of Christian ritual still peculiar to the sub-continent.

For post-Columbian art, see: American Colonial Art (c.1670-1800) and American Art (1750-present).

Machu Picchu (15th Century Peru)
Pre-Columbian Inca site thousands
of feet up in the mountains.
The site was constructed in 1450
and abandonded in 1572.
It is thought the population
died of small pox.


Timeline of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican Art

The Mesoamerican cultures are traditionally divided into three time periods, running from 1200-1580, as follows:

Pre-classic (c.1200-200 CE)
This era was dominated by the Olmec civilization, which flourished about 1200-400 BCE. The Olmecs created jade figurines, and carved colossal heads up to 8 feet high. The Central American tradition of constructing huge ceremonial complexes began with the Olmecs.

Classic (c.200-900)
This period was dominated by the Maya. Like the Mississippian cultures of North America such as the Natchez and Choctaw, the Maya lived in large, agricultural settlements, practising their own type of hieroglyphic writing as well as advanced astronomy. Mayan art is mainly characterized by petroglyphs, a variety of rock art, some stone sculpture and wood-carving, as well as mural paintings (city of Bonampak c.750 CE).

Post-classic (c.900-1580)
This period was dominated first (c.900-1300) by the Toltec civilization from the western region who carved massive, block-like sculptures like those used as free-standing columns at Tula, Mexico. Then came the Mixtecs, whose central Mexcan culture was active in both pre-Aztec and post-Aztec eras, with their unique painting style in which all available space is covered with flat figures arranged in geometric patterns. The Aztec culture of central and southern Mexico produced a variety of visual art, including: brighly coloured fresco painting, masks, ceremonial costumes, bracelets and necklaces, as well as a range of clay, stone and wood sculpture. Aztec mosaic art was frequently used to decorate masks as well as architecture.

Ceremonial Architecture

From around 2000 BCE the erection of large ceremonial buildings, usually clustered in a ceremonial centre complex, became central to Central American society. The principal type was a pyramidical platform mound - similar to that of the Egyptian Pyramids - but terminating in a flat top, to which one to four flights of steps led, for the enactment of ritual practices: see, for instance, the pyramid at Teotihuacan (c.500 CE). Such pyramids in Mesoamerica were of a ceremonial rather than funerary function, and were central to the performance of religious rites. (See also: Religious art.) At Monte Alban in Oaxaca, and Palenque in the Maya Lowlands, these structures were found also to contain rich burials of civic or religious dignitaries, but these were of secondary importance to the main purpose of the pyramid. (For more about pyramids, see: Ancient Egyptian Architecture from c.3000 BCE onwards.)

Within Central America there were two main types of architectural style, especially clear in pyramid construction: the broad square talud-tablero of Mexico and the tall, narrow based Maya form. Corbel vaulting of overlapping, flat, balanced stones is also typical of Maya architecture and was used extensively as a technique in the construction of palaces and temples. The true arch was never known in the New World. Another typical feature of the Central American cultural tradition was the ball-court where the sacred ball game was played. This made its first appearance, as did the pyramid, with Central America's first large civilization - the Olmec of the Mexican Gulf Coast. The ball-court was shaped like the capital letter 'I' with accentuated cross-pieces; later examples had stone rings at either end through which the ball was passed. Spectators' seats were arranged each side of the main court. See, for instance, the Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza (c.500 CE).

Palaces and temples of the aristocracy and the single-storey living quarters and workshops of the artisans were organised in an orderly grid plan around the main ritual complex. The city of Teotihuacan in Mexico, which prospered around AD 500, is one of the most remarkable examples of a planned urban and religious centre.

Pre-Columbian architecture was an important influence on modern architects like Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959). See American Architecture.


Art flourished mainly in the medium of sculpture in Central America. Figures and freizes, ranging in scale from gigantic to very small, are fundamental to the artistic consciousness of the cultural tradition. Serpents, skulls, snarling jaguars and the grim-looking rain-god Tlaloc decorate many of the temples and palaces as whole sculpture or friezes.

Sculptural style varies, naturally, through time and with the different regions and different local cultures. The Olmec culture, for example, specialized in stone sculpture, producing giant basalt heads representing warriors or ball-players, the largest of which are nine feet high and weigh up to twenty tons. Their heavy, almost negroid looks are very different from the graceful, slender features of the Maya sculptured or stucco figures, with their tall, intricate head-dresses. In the Maya lowlands, the erection and elaborate carving of pillars or stelae typified the aesthetics of this particular civilisation at its height, recording astronomical, religious and civic events in hieroglyphic symbols. The stela itself often represented gods or dignitaries, their bodies covered with intricate flowing designs in bas-relief.

The plastic art of the Aztec Mexican cultures, terminating in the 16th century with the conquest of the Aztecs by the Spanish, produced finely executed sculptures of grim ferocious beings and animals and very naturalistic versions of rattlesnake, coyote and jaguar. The human skull was always a popular subject and the finest existing example is carved from the pure crystal. The Aztecs immediate forbears, the Toltecs, were also a war-loving and death-worshipping people, evidenced by the giant stone warriors in the pillared temples at Tula, their capital, and the widespread appearance of the skull-cult and the chacmool - a reclining stone figure bearing a sacrificial bowl on his belly. Smaller sculptures exist in the form of figurines of clay or polished jade. The Olmecs hoarded caches of jade figurines and were fond of realistic models of fat babies (see picture).


Pottery manufacture was known in Central America by 2000 BCE, although glazing and the potter's wheel were never known. Pots were either fashioned by hand or mould-made and fine polychrome highly burnished wares were being produced by the early centuries CE. The variety of form and decoration is immense. Most standard forms produced in the Old World with a potter's wheel were common: plate, bowl, jar, vase and beaker with many elaborations of these. Pottery was decorated in a variety of different methods, from stamping, incision, excision, and applique in geometric designs, to polychrome painting of ritual scenes with dignitaries, prisoners and slaves. These latter were especially common in Maya ceramics. Among the most beautiful wares produced were those from the Mixteca-Puebla culture in Mexico. Later taken over by the Aztecs, it manufactured a type of lacquered polychrome of mainly geometric motifs. Effigy urns and vases were also popular, depicting a variety of human, animal and imaginary characters.

Codices and Murals

Hieroglyphic writing had been discovered in Central America by the 1st century CE and was carved principally on commemorative stelae. More recent was the production of codices where pictographs were painted on prepared strips of deer hide or bark cloth and form the few precious written accounts the Pre-Columbian peoples made of themselves. There are three Maya codices and many more from Mexico. They detail tribal histories and legends and also contain aspects of daily life and such interesting details as the tribute received for Emperor Montezuma II from his subjects.

Little mural-painting has survived, but fine colourful examples exist from cave-paintings of Olmec dating to the more elaborate ritual scenes from the temple walls at Teotihuacan in Mexico and Bonampak in the Maya Lowlands.

Featherwork and Mosaics

Shields, standards, head-dresses and capes for the nobility were often created in ornate and colourful lapidary work, from feathers traded from the tropical rain forests. This craft was particularly prized in Central America and the best examples that exist today were given in token to the Spanish sovereigns of the Conquistadores.

The inlaying of serpentine, turquoise, malachite and shell to make mosaics was also a popular craft and is known from Olmec times. The Olmecs are best known for their beautiful pavements of inlaid serpentine representing stylised jaguar masks and purposely buried, probably for ritual reasons. The Aztecs created wonderful masks and skulls overlaid with turquoise, malachite and shell with eyes of iron pyrites. One of their most famous mosaic artifacts is the chalcedony-bladed sacrificial knife with inlaid handle in the form of a crouching eagle warrior. Larger mosaics decorating the walls of palaces and temples exist in complex geometric motifs; these occur mainly after 800 CE in the architecture of the Maya although fine examples exist at Mitla in Mexico.

For other 'primitive' artworks, see: Oceanic Art (Pacific Islands) and African Art (North and Sub-Saharan Africa), Aboriginal Rock Art (Australian Continent).

South America: Andean and Coastal Kingdoms

Chronology of Pre-Columbian South American Art

The earliest art in South America appeared at archeological sites such as the famous Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands), which dates back to the era of Mesolithic art, around 7,300 BCE.

In the Andean region (present-day Peru), the first developed culture was the northern Chavin civilization, that flourished 1000-300 BCE. Noted for small-scale ceramics, as well as the magnificent murals, carvings and other artifacts (the Tello Obelisk, the Lanzon and the Raimondi Stela) excavated from its principal religious site of Chavin de Huantar. The Chavin were succeeded by the Moche (c.100-800 CE), who are best remembered for their portrait vases, metallurgy and architecture (such as the Huaca del Sol and the Huaca de la Luna). Meanwhile, on the southern coast of Peru, the Paracas culture - renowned for its textiles - was followed by the Nasca culture, responsible for a South American Renaissance in multi-coloured ceramic art (c.200-750 CE). Later cultures in the Andes included the northern Wari (or Huari) culture, famous for its stone architecture, sculpture and large-scale painted pottery; the Bolivian Tiwanaku culture (375-700 CE); the Chimu people, noted for their silversmithery and featherwork. (See also: Tribal Art.) Then came the great Inca civilization (flourished 1400-1535), celebrated for its goldsmithing and jewellery art, gold/silver sculpture, and characteristic abstract art, as well as its monumental architecture.


Building materials were of either stone or adobe - mud-brick. The former is mainly found in the highlands and the latter on the coast where vast urban and defensive complexes were created solely from this material, such as at Chan Chan, capital of the Chimu coastal empire in north Peru.

From 1000 BCE, the peoples of Peru were constructing complex temples and ritual structures, as at Chavin de Huantar in the North Highlands where the main temple platform was found to be honeycombed with labyrinths on at least three levels. The best-known architecture is that of the Inca, who constructed mighty fortresses. Sacsahuaman near Cuzco has three ringed zig-zag defences with the basal stones measuring sometimes over 25 feet high. Mortar was not used, but perfect joints were made by carefully cutting and dressing each stone. Built thus and slightly tapered from base to top, they were strong enough to withstand the severe earthquakes of the region.


As with architecture, fine sculpture occurs from around 1000 BCE with the Chavin culture. A great white granite monolith over 12 feet high was found at the centre of the temple mound at Chavin de Huantar, at the crossing of the galleries. This "Great Image" was carved intricately as a snarling fanged man-like being with hair of snake-heads and a girdle composed of serpent-jaguar heads - concepts all central to Chavin and other South American art-styles. Cornices were carved to represent condors with feline attributes or bas-reliefs of felines with snake-like attributes. About the same time, at Cerro Sechin on the coast of Peru, temple walls are composed of monoliths elaborately carved with relief sculpture of warriors and their dead or dismembered captives, also a popular theme. Much later around 1200 CE at Chan Chan, a very different type of sculpture can be seen with the mud-plaster friezes on the temple walls, where entirely mythical creatures of dragon-like appearance were represented together with sea-birds and fishes, underlining the importance of the coastal economy here. In highland Bolivia on the shores of Lake Titicaca, Tiahuanaco, centre of another great civilisation, displays competence in the execution of whole sculpture and carved reliefs with principal figures also representing snarling man-jaguar beings and condor-headed deities bearing staffs. Heavier whole stone statues of squat, slanting-eyed men are found nearby at Pucara.

See also: How to Appreciate Sculpture. For more modern works, see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture.


Pottery manufacture was introduced about 1800 BCE and later periods show great competence in this field of applied art. All visual forms were common and, since the potter's wheel was unknown, were produced by hand or from moulds. The stirrup bottle and from this form, the whistling jar, often decorated with life-like figures of humans and animals, were especially popular. Pottery provided the Pre-Columbian craftsman with one of his main types of art and the consequent variety and vitality of form and decoration exemplify this. Around 400 CE the Mochica of North Coastal Peru produced vast quantities of finely moulded pots, some in the likeness of local dignitaries, others showing the manifold daily pastimes and occupations of the people from weaving to making love. Painted scenes of battles, the parading of nobles and the punishment of naked prisoners were common. Some of the most beautiful pots were made on the South Coast of Peru in the Nazca Valley up to 600 CE. Bowls, bridge and spout jars or figurine-urns were commonly decorated in bright burnished polychrome designs of life-like birds, fishes, animals and people. The Huari-Tiahuanaco culture similarly depended upon ceramics for the spread of its own bold and distinctive art style. Fanged beings with rayed sun-like head-dresses, snakes and eagles still abound. The Incas decorated their pottery in mainly intricate geometric motifs. The aryballus - a large globular jar with pointed base and tall widely everted mouth - was a classic Inca form used for the storage and transport of water or the alcoholic beverage chicha.


Metalwork appeared in general use around Chavin times, by 900 BCE, although the techniques known were limited to hammering, annealing, soldering and repousse working of sheet gold and silver. By Mochica times, every technique was used including casting - simple and cire perdue - alloying and gilding. By then, metal was used for utilitarian purposes in the production of weapons and agricultural tools as well as plate and jewellery. The Chimu of North Coastal Peru were especially known for a high degree of competence in metallurgy, producing quantities of gold and silver figurines, ceremonial knives, tweezers, earspools, plate, bowls and beakers, many decorated with fine repousse designs of gods, animals and mythical creatures. It was from them that the Incas and then the Spaniards acquired much of their wealth. At the Spanish Conquest (1519 CE), South and Middle America were still technically in the Bronze Age, having no knowledge of iron working.


The exceptionally arid conditions of coastal Peru, particularly in the south, account for the remarkable state of preservation of organic matter, especially cloth. In the Paracas Peninsula are the cemeteries of a culture whose artisans specialised in weaving intricate and complex designs of many rich colours in cotton and fine alpaca and llama wool, for themselves and for their lords. The Spaniards made comment on the exquisite, fabrics they saw and noted that in Peru, techniques were more refined than in Europe - a fabric similar to silk being woven for exclusive wear by the Inca Emperor from the wool of the wild vicuna. Every technique was known: tapestry-art, brocading, embroidery, double-cloth and open-works being the most favoured. Interlocking motifs of cat heads or double-headed serpents were also very popular. As with the decoration of pottery, textiles were often the medium for the transmission of cult ideas with heavy emphasis on designs representing deity forms. Some of the figures are realistic, but are more often highly stylised, conforming to the needs of the weaving technology, and the figures at times seem almost geometric in their execution. For other crafts, see Folk Art.

Works of Pre-Columbian art can be seen in many of the best art museums around the world.


• For a chronological guide to the early arts of the Americas, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For more about the culture of Mesoamerica and South America, see: Homepage.

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