1.1.8 Archaic Americas (8,000 BCE – 800 CE)

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Wooden heads
Wrestler figurine
Baby figurine
Twins with Jaguar
Jadeite mask
Colossal heads
Shaman Jaguar
Lehi Stone Stela 5
Feathered serpent

Gold crown
Carved stone head
Gold crown, hammered
Gold pectoral
Feline/Cactus stirrup vessel
Raimondi Stela
Tenon heads

Nazca lines
Female effigy
Double-spouted water jar
Orca figurine
Fish design bowl

Other Early South America:
Chinchorro death mask
Valdivia double-headed figurine
Caral ruins city/pyramids
Teuchitlán ceramic village scene
Paracas Textile motif
Aguada Chalchaquí copper plaque
Quimbaya, poporo

OLMEC (1,500-400 BCE):

The first major civilization that emerged in the Americas was created by the Olmecs in southern Mexico. This emerged from earlier agricultural advances at Tabasco (5,100 – 4600 BCE).

Olmecs are considered by later Amerindian cultures to be the Mother Culture of the Americas.

Their civilization emerged between 1,500 and 1,200 BCE initially basing themselves around San Lorenzo, but abandoned this for La Venta around 900 BCE. Olmec artists are known for both monumental six-ton heads and miniature figurines, both are assumed to portray elite Olmecs. (Note the name Olmec was applied to them after the fact, it apparently means ‘rubber people’.)

The Olmec culture is thought to have ended around 400 BCE when populations declined rapidly. Some sources suggest they were driven out by regular volcanic action.


Olmec: Wooden busts that were found at El Manati, Veracruz Mexico, an Olmec site from 1,600 – 1,200 BCE. It is believed the site was a ritual and sacrifical site, the worshippers threw into a bog these wooden sculptures, ceremonial axes – and children’s bones. These were well preserved by the bog material.

The wooden sculptures were created in an ‘elongated man’ style. These are the oldest wooden artefacts found to-date in Mexico. There were also rubber balls at the site believed to have been used for a Mesoamerican ballgame.

Image source: realhistoryww.com

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Olmec: Known as The Wrestler; this basalt figurine is 66 cm tall and dated to 1200-400 BCE.

It is from the Arroyo Sonso area, near Veracruz, Mexico. It is on show at the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Madrid Spain.
Olmec: Seated painted ceramic life-size figurine of a baby, 34 x 32 x 15. This sort of figurine is conjectured to be they could be portraits of infants, infantilised portraits of adults, infant forms of deities, or emblems of royal descent.

This is one of the better known examples, which has an elaborate headpiece, colored red-pink with powdered cinnabar and red ochre, probably used to anoint the tomb where the figure was placed.

It is dated to the 12th–9th c BCE and on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY USA.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: solarlunar.com

Olmec: the image shows the tableau presented when these statues were found at El Azuzul, believed to not have been moved since Olmec times.

Two nearly identical seated human figures, referenced therefore as ‘twins’, face East and towards a larger feline statue (1.2m high) that is usually identified as a jaguar. The ‘jaguar’ has signs of having been recarved from an earlier statue. Its purpose is not known.

The “twins” are conjectured to be forerunners of the Maya Hero Twins from the later text, the Popul Vuh. This is a chronicle of the Kʼicheʼ people (Guatamaln Maya) from before the Spanish conquest of Mexico. It includes the Mayan creation myth and relates the exploits of the Hero Twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué.
Olmec: A greenstone, jadeite, sculpture of naturalistic face, the Met says ‘almost flesh-like quality of the nose and parted lips belie the hardness of the stone from which this mask was made.’ Yet, the almond-shaped eyes and turned-down mouth are artistic embellishment.The cleft in the forehead is said to reference the Olmec Maize God. Maize was the principla crop for Mesoamericans.
The greenstone was linked to fertility, abundance and claimed to have life-giving properties.

Image source: metmuseum.org

Image source: realhistoryww.com

Olmec: produced a number of colossal heads from basalt boulders, one source suggests seventeen have been discovered to date. These varied in height from 1.5-3.5 m and weigh between six and fifty tonnes. They date to c.1,500-900 BCE.

They all wear distinctive headgear and one theory is that these were worn for war or to take part in a ceremonial Mesoamerican ballgame. The differences in the head gear has led to speculation that specific headdresses represented different dynasties, or perhaps identified specific rulers.

The backs of the heads are often flat, as if the monuments were intended to be placed against a wall.[

Bottom image shows the discovery of one of these heads.
Olmec: This 900 –300 BCE serpentine figurine is a shaman in the form of a jaguar, combining the intellect of man with the strength of the jaguar.

Termed as the
Kneeling Transformation it is on show at the American Museum of Natural History, Figure, NY USA.

Image source: realhistoryww.com

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Olmec: Izapa Stela 5 is one of a number of large, carved stelae found in the ancient Mesoamerican site of Izapa, Chiapas, Mexico along the present-day Guatemalan border. These stelae date from roughly 300 BCE to 50 or 100 BCE.
Stela 5 is known as the ‘Tree of Life’ stone as it is believed to illustrate a Mesoamerican creation myth.

The bottom image is an illustration to make the details clearer.
Olmec: a relief from La Venta depicting the feathered serpent. This deity has a dual nature, it
can fly into the sky or creep among the animals of the Earth, this sort of dualism is common in Mesoamerican deities.

The deity was subsequently revered as Quetzalcoatl by Aztecs, Kukulkan by the Yucatec Maya, and either Q’uq’umatz or Tohil among the K’iche’ Maya.

Image source: realhistoryww.com

CHAVIN (900-200 BCE):

The Chavin culture developed in the northern Andean highlands of Peru, it is named for Chavín de Huantar, the principal archaeological site at which its artefacts have been found. They inhabited the valleys where the the Mosna and Huachecsa rivers merged. The Chavín is the main culture of the ‘Early Horizon’ period in highland Peru.

Chavín de Huantar is believed to have been built around 900 BCE and was the religious and political center of the Chavín people. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The feline figure is one of the most important motifs seen in Chavin art, as it has an important religious meaning and is repeated on many carvings and sculptures. Eagles are also common in Chavin art.


Image source: Wikimedia commons

Chavin: Gold crown dated to 1,200 – 300 BCE, the Formative Epoch. It is on show at the Larco Museum, Lima Peru.
Chavin: stone art in the shape of a head, housed at the Museo De La Nacion, Lima Peru.
Image source: www.nbcnews.com

Image source: britannica.com

Chavin: this 24 x 14 cm hammered gold crown from Chongyape Peru. It is dated to 900–500 BCE and is on show at George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian, NY USA.
Chavin: Gold objects in the Chavín style are the earliest significant works in gold known from Peru. Impressive gold objects have been found in burials of high-ranking individuals. These are primarily personal ornaments for the neck, chest, ears, and nose.

This pectoral (10th-5th c BCE), of generalized cross shape, was probably attached to a backing through the paired holes in the centre. It is made of hammered sheet gold and features repoussé profile bird heads. When rotated ninety degrees, the profile heads, with their strongly curved beaks, become a single frontal image of a broad-nosed, jawless creature.

Image source: metmuseum.org

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Chavin: This ceramic grayware Tembladera-style work depicts a feline rendered in relatively high relief, alternating with a cactus form that may refer to the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus. It is 30 x 17 cm and on show at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore USA.

Chavín stirrup-spout vessels vary in both their architecture. Felines of the type depicted on this vessel were important in Chavín art and culture because they were associated with the ruling houses. Felines, like jaguars and pumas, were also thought to enjoy great spiritual force; shamans were believed to transform into such creatures.
Chavin: The Raimondi Stela, is a major example of the typical Chavin design technique. They were abstract and intentionally difficult to interpret because it was to only be read by high priests of the Chavín cult who understood the complex and sacred designs
Image source: sites.google.com

Image source: sites.google.com

Image source: cyark.org
Chavin: Tenon heads are found throughout Chavin de Huántar. These are large stone carvings of ranging from anthropomorphic to supernatural zoomorphic forms, and ofen feature fanged jaguar heads. These stick out from the tops of the interior walls.

Some of the Chavín sculptures appear to have mucus coming from their noses, a possible reference to the use of hallucinogenic drugs used in shamanic ceremonies. The use of psychotropic drugs, such as Amazonian Ayahuasca or local San Pedro Cactus, has been supported indirectly through the archaeological record.

NAZCA (200 BCE – 800 CE):

This culture (aka Nasca) was the archaeological culture that flourished from c100 BCE to 800 CE beside the arid, southern coast of Peru in the river valleys of the Rio Grande de Nazca nd the Ica Valley. They were strongly influenced by the preceding Paracas culture, known for extremely complex textiles. The Nazca produced an array of crafts and technologies such as ceramics, textiles, and geoglyphs.


Nazca: The Nazca Lines are a group of very large geoglyphs made in the soil of the Nazca Desert in southern Peru. They were created between 500 BCE and 500 CE by people making depressions or shallow incisions in the desert floor, removing pebbles and leaving differently colored dirt exposed. In the years leading up to 2020 between 80 and 100 new figures had been found with the use of drones, archaeologists believe that there are more to be found.

Some of the Nazca lines form shapes that are best seen from the air (c500 m), though they are also visible from the surrounding foothills and other high places. The shapes are usually made from one continuous line, the largest ones are about 370 m long. Because of its isolation and the dry, windless, stable climate of the plateau, the lines have mostly been preserved naturally.

Hundreds are simple lines and geometric shapes, but more than sventy are zoomorphic designs, including our images of a condor, a hummingbird, a spider and a giant human. Others include a cat, dog, fish, heron, lizard, monkey, trees and flowers. Scholars differ in interpreting their purpose but usually ascribe religious significance to them. They were designated in 1994 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Nazca: this effigy of a female is made from a sperm whale tooth, shell and hair. The carving of a ritual figurine from the tooth of a gigantic marine creature would have carried extra spiritual significance.

At 8 x 3 x 2 cms, it is dated to 200 BCE – 50 CE and is on show at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore USA.
Nazca: this 21cm high, painted clay, double-spouted, water jar is dated to the 1st–2nd c CE. It is on show at the American Museum of Natural History, NY USA.
Image source: kids.britannica.com

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Nazca: figurine based upon an Orca/Killer Whale
Nazca: Bowl with fish design dated 300-600 CE. It is on show at the V&A, London UK.
Image source: Wikimedia commons




Chinchorro: this culture was preceramic between 7,000 to 1,500 BCE. They were sedentary fishermen inhabiting the Pacific coastal region of current northern Chile and southern Peru.

The Chinchorro were famous for their detailed mummification and funerary practices. The images are of death masks.
Valdivia: this culture inhabited Ecuador’s Santa Elena Peninsula. Valdivia peoples produced small stone and ceramic figurines. Predominantly female, these figurines depicted women in various stages of their lives. However, there are examples of figurines sharing male and female characteristics and, as in the image, more than one individual. It has two female heads and torsos emerging from a shared lower body.

Commonly interpreted as fertility figures and/or guardian spirits, the exact purpose of this figurine remains unknown

Image source: metmuseum.org

Image source: peruforless.com

Image source: realhistoryww.com

Image source: latinamericanstudies.org

Caral: this culture created the ancient city located in the Supe Valley of Peru. It is described as one of the oldest urban centres in the Americas, from c2600 BCE.

The site covers 60 hectares of residential buildings, temples and plazas. The most stunning findings at Caral include the Main Pyramid, the Amphitheater Pyramid, and the residential Quarters of the Elite.

The top images show the city ruins and its pyramids. In one of the pyramids they uncovered 32 flutes made of condor and pelican bones and 37 cornets made of deer and llama bones. Further, no trace of human sacrifice was found.

The lower images show Caral figurines.
Teuchitlán: this culture was one of several related cultures in West Mexico during the Late Formative to Classic period (350 BCE to 500 CE). Situated in the Tequila Valleys of Jalisco, the Teuchitlán culture shared in the tradition of burying some of their dead in shaft and chamber tombs.

The image shows a 13cm tall ceramic scene of a village, identified as ‘shaft tomb culture’ from 300 BCE-600 CE.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Paracas: this culture was an Andean society existing c800-100 BCE, with an extensive knowledge of irrigation and water management, It made significant contributions in the textile arts. It was located in what today is the Ica Region of Peru. Most information about the lives of the Paracas people comes from excavations at the large seaside Paracas site on the Paracas Peninsula. It made significant contributions in the textile arts.

The image shows a famous motif from the Paracas Necropolis burial textiles. This is on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY USA.
Aguada/ Chalchaquí: Late Aguada or Early Chalchaquí cast copper plaque depicting a man between two felines. It is from Argentina and dated to c700–1000 CE.
Image source:kidsbritannica.com

Image source: britannica.com

Quimbaya: the image shows a gold poporo or lime container from the Quimbaya culture, based in today’s Colombia.

The poporo was used in pre-Columbian ceremonies involving the chewing of coca. It is dated to 1st–7th c CE and is on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY USA.

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