Pre-Columbian Meso-America (to 1697)

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Mayan calendar
Stucco frieze
Stucco mask panels
Ceramic Mayan jar
Bonampak murals
San Bartolo mural
Stucco portrait of K’inich Janaab Pakal I
Vase, Enthroned Maya lord and courtiers
Smiling figure
Yaxchilan lintels
Maya Stelae
Cancuen Guatemala panel
Mayan relief from Palenque
Jade plaque from Nebaj
Jade belt assemblage
Maya Ballplayer from Jaina
Piedras Negras throne
Toniná bound prisoner
Jaina island figurines
Dresden Codex

Teotihuacan culture:
Avenue of the Dead
Pyramid of the Moon
Pyramid of the Sun
Greenstone Masks
Temple of Quetzalcoatl
Mural from Tepantitl
Sun god relief
Standing figurine
Incense Burner
Net Jaguar
Mural fragment

Caribbean – Arawak/Taino:
Cohaba inhaler
Taíno Zemis
Taíno petorglyphs
Taíno duho stool
Taíno pottery
Taíno trigonolito

Pyramid B and C
Atlantean figures
Orange-ware vessel
Reliefs at Tula
Bird-snake deity

Gourd vessel
Purépecha priests
History of Michoacán Mural

Turquoise masks
Codex Vindobonensis
Stucco reliefs, tomb 1
Codex Bradley
Shield of Yanhuitlán
Codex Zouche-Nuttall

Aztec calendar
Aztec headdress
Codex Telleriano-Remensis – Huītzilōpōchtli
Codex Magliabechiano – human sacrifice
Vase of Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain, storms and agriculture

Meso-America is the region extending from central Mexico south to the northwestern border of Costa Rica that gave rise to a group of stratified, culturally related agrarian civilizations spanning an approximately 3,000-year period before the visits to the Caribbean by Christopher Columbus.

Meso-American Pre-Columbian cultures may be divided into three periods:

  • Pre-classic (up to 200 CE) – see 1.1.8 – Archaic Americas Index
  • Classic (ca. 200–900 CE) – Maya, Teotihuacan, Arawaks
  • Post-classic (ca. 900 to 1580 CE) – Mixtecs, Purépecha, Aztecs

Classic era 200-900:

The main Preclassic sculptural style from the Maya area is that of Izapa, a large settlement on the Pacific coast where many stelas and (frog-shaped) altars were found showing motifs also present in Olmec art.

Mayan art focuses on rain, agriculture and fertility, the images are mainly in relief and surface decoration, and some sculpture. Glyphs and stylized figures were used to decorate architecture such as the pyramid temple of Chichén Itzá. Murals dating from about 750 CE were discovered when the city of Bonampak was excavated in 1946.

An impressive city of 125,000-200,000 inhabitants, by the 6th century, Teotihuacan was the first large metropolis in the Americas. Teotihuacan, as the city is called, is a Náhuatl name that means it was named Teotihuacan, ‘Birthplace of the Gods’ by the Aztecs, centuries after it was abandoned in the 7th century. The Aztecs attributed names and significance to its buildings but had no contact with this earlier culture.

Teotihuacan, located in the highlands of central Mexico, is one of the world’s most impressive archaeological sites. Between 100,000 and 200,000 people lived there at its peak around 600 CE, making it one of the ancient world’s largest cities, with an urban core covering some twenty square kilometers. The ethnic identity of Teotihuacan’s inhabitants is not known. No writing system has been discovered there, even in the intricate iconography of its many painted murals.

Settlement began about 200 BCE, and the basic layout of the city was complete by the mid-2nd c CE. Most of the major construction was accomplished within the next hundred years. In plan, Teotihuacan is a complex urban grid filled with single- and multifloor apartment compounds. This grid, unique in Mesoamerica in its scale and organization, implies a high degree of social control. Presumably an elite group of nobles directed the building projects and coordinated trade and tribute relations with far-flung corners of Mesoamerica.

The primary avenue, the so-called Street of the Dead, runs on a north-south axis for several kilometers and aligns the city approximately fifteen degrees east of north toward Cerro Gordo. The Pyramid of the Moon, facing south, lies at the northern end of this avenue; the Pyramid of the Sun, facing west, is about a kilometer down the avenue. Another major structure, the Ciudadela, is a great sunken plaza further south. It is surrounded by fifteen smaller stepped pyramids.

The Arawak are an indigenous people that are believed to have originated in the basin of the Orinoco River, in Venezuela. They populated large areas of South America and the Caribbean Antilles. The two largest tribes were the Taíno, living in the Caribbean, and the Lokono in South America. Specifically, the term ‘Arawak’ has been applied at various times to the Lokono of South America and the Taíno, who historically lived in the Greater Antilles and northern Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean. All these groups spoke related Arawakan languages

Post-Classic era 900-1697:

The Toltecs who made colossal, block-like sculptures such as those employed as free-standing columns at Tula, Mexico.

The Mixtecs developed a style of painting known as Mixtec-Puebla, as seen in their murals and codices (manuscripts), in which all available space is covered by flat figures in geometric designs.

Maya (200-900):

The Maya civilization developed iacross a broad swathe of Meso-America – southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras and western El Salvador, the northern lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula, the highlands of the Sierra Madre…

The first Maya cities developed around 750 BCE, and by 500 BCE these cities possessed monumental architecture, including large temples with elaborate stucco façades. Hieroglyphic writing was being used in the Maya region by the 3rd century BC.

The Maya Classic Period is suggested as 200-900 CE. Rule during the Classic period centred on the concept of the ‘divine king’, who was thought to act as a mediator between mortals and the supernatural realm. Kingship was normally patrilineal, power passing to the eldest son. A prospective king was expected to be a successful war leader as well as a ruler.

The Maya developed sophisticated art forms using both perishable and non-perishable materials, including wood, jade, obsidian ceramics, sculpted stone monuments, stucco, and finely painted murals.


This is a representation of the Mayan Calendar, a system of three interlacing calendars and almanacs which was used by pre-Columbian Central America. Although the Mayans contributed to its development , they did not actually invent it. The three separate calendars are the Long Count, the Tzolkin (or divine calendar), and the Haab (the civil calendar). The Tzolkin and the Haab identify only the days, not the years.

The Haab operates acoss 365 days with 18 months of 20 days, and one month of five days, the 19 have their own glyphs or pictures and each has an associated personality. It has an in-built issue that a year is a little more than 365 days.

The Tzolbin has 260 days, 13 months of 20 days. This is used to define religious days.

The Long Count runs for 2,880,000 days, some 7,885 solar years. The Mayans believed that the universe is destroyed and then recreated at the start of each cycle.

Image source: timeanddate.com

Image source: Wikimedia commons

This Stucco frieze is from Placeres, Campeche on the Gulf of Mexico, and dates to the Early Classic period 250- 600 CE.

It is on show at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
This is an image from the central staircase of the Pyramid of the Mask at Kohunlich on the Yucatán Peninsula. It was settled here in 200 BCE, but much of its development took place between 250-600 CE. The staircase features large stucco masks.
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Ceramic Mayan jar depicting a ballplayer from the Classic period, 300-900 CE, It is on show at the National Museum of the American Indian.

The Meso-American ballgame was a sport with ritual associations, that was played across the region from at least 1,650 BCE. The sport had different versions in different places and across the millennia.

A newer, more modern, version of the game called ulama, is still played by the indigenous populations in some places. The lower image shows a game in play.
Bonampak is an ancient Maya archaeological site in the Mexican state of Chiapas, near the border with Guatemala. it is well known for The Temple of the Murals that has a number of murals.

The top image is of a mural on the east wall of room 1, it shows a procession of musicians, attended by the king, Chan Muwan, and his wife.

The lower image is a Battle Mural from Room 2. It shows King Chan Muwan and his captives.

Other murals show court practices, a feast, a bloodletting ritual, human sacrifice. The murals are dated to c790.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

This is a mural fragment from San Bartolo, northern Guatemala. It shows the king impersonating Hunahpu, piercing his penis with a spear to spill sacrificial blood.

The twin mythical gods Hunahpu and Xbalanque were Maya heroes who defeated and destroyed the lords of the underworld or land of the dead.

The site is known for the Late-Preclassic mural paintings, heavily influenced by Olmec tradition. It also has examples of a Maya script, that has not yet been deciphered.
Stucco portrait of K’inich Janaab Pakal I (603-683 CE), a king of Palenque n the Late Classic period. He acced to the throne at the age of twelve and ruled for sixty-eight years. He was reponsible for some of Palenque’s most notable surviving inscriptions and monumental architecture.

It is on show at the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico-City.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: brewminate.com

Detail of Enthroned Maya lord and his courtiers and attendants. The figures are wearing simple loincloths, turbans of wrapped cloth and feathers, and black body paint.

It is from a 20 cm high ceramic cylinder vase. It is from the Motul de San Jose region, Guatemala, c672-830 CE.

The vase is painted red, rose, orange, white and black on cream.
A ceramic figurine is called the ‘Smiling Figure’. It is from the Late Classic Period, 7th-8th c. It is 46 cm high from Remojadas, Veracruz, Mexico.

It is fabricated from brown clay, hand-modelled and moulded, it is painted with white pigment.

Image source: brewminate.com

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Both images show reliefs from lintels at the Maya site of Yaxchilan, Mexico.

The top image shows a bloodletting ritual. It is of Lady Xook, wife of king Shield Jaguar II drawing blood. It is dated to 783 CE and on show at the British Museum.

The lower image is a 115 x 89 cm limestone lintel with traces of paint. It shows captives being presented to a Maya ruler. It is dated to 785 CE and on show at Kimbell Art Museum Fort Worth, Texas.
Hundreds of stelae have been recorded in the Maya region, with a wide stylistic variation. Many are upright slabs of limestone sculpted on one or more faces. They were sculpted with figures carved in relief and with hieroglyphic text. At Copán and Toniná they began to become three-dimensional. Most Maya stelae were probably brightly painted in red, yellow, black, blue and other colours.

The top image is of Stela B, a high relief sculpture from Copán depicting the king Uaxaclajuun Ubʼaah Kʼawiil.

The second image is Stela 51 from Calakmul, dating to 731. It is the best preserved monument from the city and depicts the king Yuknoom Tookʼ Kʼawiil.

The bottom image is of Stela 5 at Takalik Abaj, Guatemala. It was at Takalik Abaj that the Maya began to show rulers in Early Classic Maya posture accompanied by calendrical dates and hieroglyphic texts. It was also at Takalik Abaj and at Izapa that these stelae began to be paired with circular altars.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

This panel was found at Cancuén Guatemala. It depicts king T’ah ‘ak’ Cha’an who ruled Cancuén from 757-799. He built the city’s palace in 770.

Relief sculpture Mayan king Pakal from Palenque, Mexico, a UNESCO world heritage site.

Image source: brewminate.com

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Jade plaque from Nebaj, showing king Pakal of Palenque. He is flanked by maize stalks in this funerary offering. It is on show at the National Museum of Anthropolgy in Mexico City
Jade belt assemblage with celt pendants, from the tomb of king Pakal, Palenque
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: brewminate.com

Ballplayer, Maya, from Jaina Island, Mexico. It is dated 700-900CE. It is painted clay and 16 cm high. Maya Blue is a pigment that has proven virtually indestructible, unlike other dyes and paints that have faded with time.
Piedras Negras throne (throne #1). Piedras Negras is the modern name for a ruined Maya city on the north bank of the Usumacinta River in the Petén department of NW Guatemala.

Some sources think that the name of the city is Paw Stone, which appear as glyphs on Throne 1 and altar 4, but that is more likely to be the name of the founder.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

A figurine from the Toniná, monument at Chiapas, Mexico. It shows a bound prisoner
in limestone, from the classical-recent era, 600-900 CE. The glyphs mean that the man is a aj k’uhu’n, that is a high ranking religious and political figure.
Jaina island is a small limestone island on the Yucatán Peninsula’s Gulf coast with only a tidal inlet separating it from the mainland. Jaina served as an elite Maya burial site, and is notable for the high number of fine ceramic figurines that have been excavated there.

The top image is indicated by some as a nobleman, and others as ‘the Cowboy’. It is on show at the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City.

The second image is self-evidently a warrior. He is kneeling using his shield, there are signs of facial scarification. It is on show at the De Young Museum, San Francisco, CAL USA.

The bottom image is referenced as a drunkard. It is on show at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons
The Dresden Codex is a Mayan book. It is the oldest surviving book written in the Americas, dating to the 11th-12th c. The codex was rediscovered in the city of Dresden, Germany, hence the book’s present name. It is located in the museum of the Saxon State Library.

The pages are made of amate (a form of bark paper). It is 20 cm high, and its 78 pages are folded accordion-style. Unfolded the codex is 3.7 m long.

It is written in Mayan hieroglyphs and refers to an original text of some 300-400 years earlier, describing local history and astronomical tables.
This shows a section of the Dresden Codex, pages 55-59 and 74. These describe eclipses, multiplication tables and the flood.

Teotihuacan culture (300-400):

Teōtīhuacān is actually the Aztec name given to the city, meaning ‘Place of the Gods’; the Aztecs revered the inhabitants and claimed lineage from them. The original name is yet to be deciphered from surviving name glyphs at the site. Teōtīhuacān civilisation was contemporary with the early Classic Maya. Located in a valley (given the same name), the city evolved between 150 BCE and 200 CE. The valley had plentiful spring water which was channelled through irrigation. The city reached its peak in the 4th c CE with a population estimated at 125,000 to 200,000.

The city of Teōtīhuacān stretched over 20 square kilometres, with a precise grid layout oriented at 15.5 degrees east of true north. The city is dominated by the wide Avenue of the Dead or Miccaotli as the Aztecs called it.


The image shows the Avenue of the Dead which is 40 metres wide and 3.2 km long, pointing towards the sacred mountain Cerro Gordo. It leads from agricultural fields to pass the Great Compound or market place, the Citadel, the Pyramid of the Sun, and many other lesser temples. It ends at the Pyramid of the Moon.
Image source: ancient.eu

Image source: uncoveredhistory.com

The Pyramid of the Moon is a little smaller than the Pyramid of the Sun. Constructed c150 CE there is no inner chamber (as in the Sun pyramid).

It contained one person and many dedicatory offerings such as obsidian and greenstone felines and eagles. Offerings were also buried at each subsequent construction stage.

Three males were buried just beneath the summit. From the accompanying precious jade objects it is presumed they were important Maya nobles. Finds at the site included the remains of sacrificed animals – pumas, rattlesnakes, and birds of prey.
The five-level Pyramid of the Sun was actually built over a much earlier sacred tunnel-cave and natural spring. The structure, constructed c. 100 CE, has six platforms and measures 215 metres along the sides and towers 60 metres high, which made it one of the biggest structures ever built in the ancient Americas.

Its exterior would have once had a facing of smooth lime plaster. It covers a slightly smaller earlier pyramid built over a massive mud-brick and rubble interior. The top once had a small temple structure, reached by a flight of stone stairs. Inside the pyramid is a 100 metre-long tunnel which leads from beneath the outside staircase to a four-winged chamber, unfortunately this was looted in antiquity, probably once a burial chamber or shrine.

Image source: brittanica.com

Image source: metmuseum.org
Image source: britishmuseum.org

There was no tradition of portraiture at the great central Mexico city of Teotihuacan, but a large number of impressive stone masks were produced. Considered to be funerary masks, none have been found in an excavated burial, so they were not placed in tombs but have been found among public and religious buildings along the Street of the Dead.

The upper image is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY USA. Carved out of greenstone, in its original state it may have been painted. The eyes and teeth may have had inlaid stones or shells.

The lower image is decribed by the British Museum as a greenstone mask with cleft head. 24h x 26w cms. The eyes and mouth were probably inlaid with shell, obsidian or iron pyrites.

The abstract cleft heads are reminiscent of Olmec objects.
Detail from the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, at Teōtīhuacān. Quetzalcoatl is the Aztec deity name. This Pyramid was built in the talud-tablero style (a sloping wall, talud, that is surmounted by a vertical wall, tablero). The feathered serpent is associated with water imagery and appears numerous times on the exterior of the temple as an undulating snake navigating seashells.
Image source: khanacademy.org

Image source: khanacademy.org

Reconstruction of mural from Tepantitla in Teotihuacan on show at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City
The fire god Huehuetéotl is one of the oldest deities in Meso-America. He was widely worshipped long before Teotihuacan. He is typically represented in a cross-legged position, with his arms and hands resting on his legs. Wrinkles on the face show the advanced age of the god, who bears a Coal pan on his head. Huehuetéotl seems to have been a protection god for house and fireplace.

The image shows the deity carved in stone, from Teotihuacan. It is 65 x 63 x 66 cms and on show at the Museo National de Antropología, Mexico-City.

Image source: universes.art

Image source: apollo-magazine.com

A Standing Figurine dated 200–250) discovered in the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, Teotihuacan. It is on show at the Museo Nacional de Antropología Mexico.
An incense burner from Teotihuacan, dated to 350–400.
Image source: apollo-magazine.com

Image source: cookjmex.blogspot.com

Mural of a ‘net-jaguar’ consuming a human heart. This mysterious creature gets its name from the net-like lines on its body, which may suggest transparency, even magical invisibility. Net-jaguars are unique to Teotihuacan.

This net-jaguar from the  Palacio Atetelco wears a feathered head-dress, indicating elite status, and has a curving speech-scroll rising from its mouth. The creature appears to be eating a human heart from which three drops of blood fall. This symbolism relates to both warrior cults and to human sacrifice.
Mural fragment of flowering trees from a compound near the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan.
Image source: latimes.com

Caribbean Arawak/Taino (500-1500):

The Arawak are a group of indigenous peoples of South America and of the Caribbean who spoke related Arawakan languages. Specifically, the term ‘Arawak’ has been applied at various times to the Lokono of South America and the Taíno, who historically lived in the Greater Antilles and northern Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean. Early Spanish explorers and administrators used the terms Arawak and Caribs to distinguish the peoples of the Caribbean, with Carib reserved for indigenous groups that they considered hostile and Arawak for groups that they considered friendly.

The Taíno were the first New World peoples encountered by Christopher Columbus during his 1492 voyage. At this time of European contact in the late fifteenth century, they were the principal inhabitants of most of Cuba, Hispaniola (today’s Dominican Republic and Haiti), Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and the northern Lesser Antilles.

Taíno society was divided into two classes: naborias (commoners) and nitaínos (nobles). They were governed by male chiefs known as caciques, who inherited their position through their mother’s noble line. Taíno women were highly skilled in agriculture, the people depended on it, the men also fished and hunted. Some words that they used, such as barbacoa (barbecue), hamaca (hammock), kanoa (canoe), tabaco (tobacco), yuca, batata (sweet potato), and juracán (hurricane), have been incorporated into Spanish and English.


Taíno stone artefact Cohoba Inhaler in the Form of a Ritual Specialist (a Shaman). Cohoba is a potent hallucinogen made by grinding cojóbana tree seeds. The term was also used for the ceremony itself, where the caciques (chiefs) or ritual specialists used the inhaler to produce the sense of a visionary journey into the spiritual world.

The lower image is a pictograph of Cohoba found in one of the 55 Pomier caves in the south of the Dominican Republic. The practice of snuffing cohoba was popular with the Taíno and Arawakan peoples, with whom Christopher Columbus made first contact, as documented by Ramon Pane in 1496.

It is dated to 1000–1500 CE and on show at the Walters Museum.

Image source: smarthistory.org

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: smarthistory.org

Taínos worshiped two main gods, Yúcahu, the lord of cassava (root plant) and the sea, and Attabeira, his mother and the goddess of fresh water and human fertility. They and other lesser gods associated with natural forces, and were worshiped in the form of zemís, sculptural figures that depicted gods or ancestors.

The images show two examples of Taíno zemi, bowls that were used for cohoba rituals.

The upper image is a Zemi made from basalt stone. It is from the Dominican Republic dated to 800–1500 CE. It is on show at the Waters Museum.

The lower image shows a zemi made from ironwood with shell inlay. It is 15th-16th c from the Dominican Republic. It is on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Las Caritas, meaning ‘the faces’ is a number of Taíno inscriptions in a porous rock formation looking over Lake Enriquillo in the Dominican Republic.

The place is also called the Trono de Enriquillo (Enriquillo’s throne) because it is said the Taíno leader Enriquillo used to camp here during his rebellion.

Image source: latinamericanstudies.org

Image source: Wikimedia commons

This Taíno wooden stool is carved from lignum vitae or guayacan. It is a duho or ritual stool from the Dominican Republic. They are said to be a man on all fours and often have the male genitalia underneath. It is dated to 1000-1500 CE.
The Taíno created a breadth of pottery styles in earthenware. Most feature abstract anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures decorated with high-relief geometric linework.
Image source: worthpoint.com

Image source: metmuseum.org
This Taíno portable limestone trigonolito was said to be relted to cassava or yucca. Described as the Three-Cornered Stone, it is dated to 13th–15th c CE. It came from the Dominican Republic, is 17 x 18 x 10 cms, and is on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY USA.

Toltec (900-1150):

The Toltec civilization was based in central Mexico between the 10th c and mid-12th c CE. Continuing the Mesoamerican heritage left to them by the earlier Olmec, Teotihuacan, Maya and others, the Toltecs would build an impressive capital at Tollan and, ultimately, pass on that heritage to later civilizations such as the Aztecs, who regarded the Toltecs as a great and prosperous civilization, even claiming descent from this once great civilization.


Toltec architecture at Tula included pyramids, large palaces and dense urban housing. The Aztecs wrote of Tula’s great beauty and impressive character.
Tula was laid out with limestone structures built around a central plaza or square. The largest building was a stone pyramid later given the name Pyramid C (upper image).

Better preserved is a slightly smaller pyramid given the name Pyramid B (middle image).

The bottom image shows the Coateplanti or Wall of Snakes’. In relief it features human skulls in the open mouths of serpents.

Image source: study.com

Image source: worldhistory.org


Image source: Wikimedia commons

This is a chacmool, a common stone sculpture of a warrior that was used in Toltec, Maya and Aztec periods. It is a life-size figure reclining on its back, supporting itself by its elbows, with its head turned and knees up. The figure held a vessel on its stomach into which offerings could be placed. It is thought these figures were slain warriors carrying offerings to the gods. The offerings might include tamales, tortillas, tobacco, turkeys and incense. An Aztec chacmool had a cuauhxicalli bowl to receive sacrificed human hearts.
Atlantean figures are carved stone support columns or pillars in the shape of fierce men in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. These figures found on the top of Pyramid B are considered to be massive statues of Toltec warriors. Atlantean is a historiographic term referencing the figures’ supporting posture, and alluding to the load-bearing Titan Atlas. Though the most famous Atlantean figures reside in Tula, the Olmecs were the first to use Atlantean figures on a relief discovered in Potrero Nuevo. Mayan sculptors also created Atlantean figures in Chichen Itza, and Aztecs too copied these statues.

Atlantean figures were made out of available stone in their area. Atlantean figures have been made using limestone, sandstone, and volcanic rock.

These Toltec statues are dated to 750 CE. At Tula’s Temple of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (‘House of the Morning Star’) there were found four Atlantean figures standing over 4.6m. The figures wear stylised butterfly breastplates, have sun-shaped shields on their backs, they wear feathered headdresses and carry spear throwers and a supply of spears.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: study.com

Image source: Wikimedia commons

This is a typical Toltec orange-ware clay vessel. It is on show at the American Museum of Natural History.
Further reliefs from Tula show eagles eating bleeding human hearts, panthers and other cats with bloody mouths. These images refer to human sacrifice and symbolise Toltec warrior cults.

The lower image is a detailed view of the jaguar.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons
This relief, at the Temple of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli at Tula, depicts an anthropomorphic bird-snake deity, probably Quetzalcoatl.

Purépecha/Tarascan (1000-1525):

The culture and tradition of the (Mexican) Purépecha people still resonates, for example the NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez claims to be Purépecha. The tribe was based in the Michoacán region of Mexico along the Sierra Madre Mountains. Originally called Tarascans, they survived despite their neighbours, being the subsequently more celebrated Aztec tribe.

Purépechans had their own distinct culture, language and traditions. The Tarascan language of Purépecha is the derivation of their name. Despite the close proximity, it is not related to the neighbouring Aztec language, which may account for their different history and their relationship with the conquering Spanish in the 1500s. Their religion was based on prayers rather than blood sacrifices.

Craftsmen were important to the Purépechans as they relied heavily on trade. They were known for their jewellery made of obsidian, silver, gold, bronze, copper, and turquoise. The Purépechans were known for their fishing ability, their name means ‘Place of the Fish Masters’.

They were overrun by the Spanish in the 1530s, having ignored the Aztec’s pleas for help for some decades. The Spanish ruled them as a feudal state that paid taxes, rather than enforcing total subjugation.

Because Purépechans made their weapons from copper and bronze, by the 1470s they defeated the Aztecs, they took Aztec lands, settling well into the Aztec homeland, Tenochtitlan.

ultcult.com failed to find any original and extant Purépecha art.


Image source: americanindian.si.edu

One of the Purépechan crafts was the painting of gourds. THis one is modern (1940s) and is 29 x 35 cms.
An illustration of Purépechan priests, its attribution is none-too-clear, But it shows ther priests, typically, carrying lances and gourds.
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons
A mural located at the Biblioteca Gertrudis Bocanegra, Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, presents a montage of the ‘History of Michoacán’. It too is 1940s.

Mixtecs (1000-1697):

The Mixtec peoples inhabited the region known as La Mixteca, which today covers parts of the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla. The major Mixtec centre was Tututepec, which rose to prominence in the 11th century under the leadership of Eight Deer Jaguar Claw, the only Mixtec king who united the highland and lowland communities into a single Mixtec state. During his era there were approximately 1.5 million Mixtecs.

A family of Mixtec languages was developed by these peoples, today there are said to be fifty distinct languages. Mixtecs placed their capital at Tilantongo, and other prominent locations were Achiutla, Cuilapan, and Yucuñudahui. The Mixtec also developed the ancient city of Monte Albán, which had been seized from the Zapotecs.

Mixtec art included the use of turquoise, gold and carved stones.


Both of the images are described as funerary masks, both use turquoise as decoration. Mixtec artists were known for their mastery of jewellery, in which gold and turquoise figured prominently.

The top image appears to have applied the turqoise to a skull.

The lower image is at the British Museum and described as Mixtec-Aztec and dated to 1420-1521.

Image source: courses.lumenlearning.com

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

This is Plate #37 of the Codex Vindobonensis. Its central scene depicts the origin of the Mixtecs as a people, whose ancestors sprang from a tree.

The Codex is an accordion-folded pre-Columbian piece of Mixtec writing. It is a ritual-calendrical and genealogical document dated to the 14th c.
This rather indistinct photo shows Tomb 1 of Zaachila in the central valley of Oaxaca and its stucco reliefs.
Zaachila is also referenced in the Codex Zouche-Nuttall (see below).

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: courses.lumenlearning.com

Image source: Wikimedia commons

This is the Codex Bodley, it is a pictographic manuscript on animal skin. It is 6.71 m (w) x 28 cm (h), folded accordion style to create 40 ‘pages’, twenty on each side. It is named for the Bodleian Library, where it is has been on display since the 17th c, the museum dates the Codex to the 14th-15th c.

It reads from right to left and is ‘printed’ on both sides. In fact the skin was painted with a white base coat, then divided into horizontal abands with red lines (front has five bands, rear has four). It tells the tells the story of the Tilantongo and Tiaxiaco dynasties.

It depicts a relatively complete review of family relationships among the dynasties of the main cacicazgos (community kingdoms) of the Mixteca Alta region. It includes creation stories, including the ‘War of Heaven’ that describes the origins of elite Mixtec dynasties.
Mixtec jewellery piece known as the ‘Shield of Yanhuitlán’ It is made of gold with turquoise inlays. It comes from Yanhuitlán Mexico and is dated to 10th-16th c. It is on show at the Museum of Anthropolgy of Mexico City.
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: brewminate.com
These images are from the pre-Columbian Codex Zouche-Nuttall, an accordion-folded pre-Columbian document of Mixtec pictography, now in the collections of the British Library. Its name derives from Zelia Nuttall, who first published it in 1902, and Baroness Zouche, its donor.

The top image is the Codex on display at the British Museum.

The second image is depicting a meeting between Mixtec king and warlord Eight Deer Jaguar Claw (right) and Four Jaguar.

The thrid image is described simply as page 20.

The bottom image is a warrior scene.

Aztecs (1300-1521):

The Aztec culture in Mexico produced some dramatically expressive artworks, such as the decorated skulls of captives and stone sculpture, of which Tlazolteotl (Woods Bliss Collection, Washington), a goddess in childbirth, is a good example. Aztec art, similar to other Mesoamerican cultures also focused on deity worship and portraying values in their society. In creating their art, Aztecs also were interested in naturalism, as making something life-like better conveyed their message through the artwork. For example, the Eagle Warrior statues are life-sized ceramic sculptures that show this sense of naturalism. The Aztecs believed these eagle warriors showed the value of youthful beauty, this can be seen in the sculpture with the Warriors young and soft features of his face.


The top image is a monolith, the ‘Stone of the Sun’, also named ‘Aztec calendar stone’. Discovered in 1790, it is basalt, its diameter is 3.7m and it weighs c25 tonnes. On show at the National Museum of Anthropology and History, Mexico City.
Image source: Wikimedia commons

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An Aztec headdress, probably owned by a member of the elite. The feathers appear to be from tropical rainforest birds.
Codex Telleriano-Remensis: shows the god war, the sun and human sacrifice, Huītzilōpōchtli (literally meaning the left-handed hummingbird god) in his warrior and ritual costume.

It was Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcoatl created fire, the first male and female humans, the Earth, and the Sun.

Image source: courses.lumenlearning.com

Image source: courses.lumenlearning.com

A depiction of human sacrifice in the Codex Magliabechiano. This is a Spanish rendering of human sacrifices reflecting an outsider’s view of these rituals.
15th c vase from the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. It representing Tlāloc, the Aztec god of rain, water and agriculture fertility. He was also feared for his ability to send hail, thunder, and lightning. He is usually depicted with goggle eyes and fangs.

He may have been adopted from the Maya god Chaac or vice versa.

An underground Tlaloc shrine has been found at Teotihuacan.

Image source: brewminate.com

Forward to – South America – Forward to 1.3 Renaissance to Romanticism
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