Art of the Americas

from Mr. Bowers AP Art History Courses at East Chapel Hill High School

//this article is about the art and culture of the Americas[1]

Key Terms


Map of the Ancient Americas

Teotihuacán. Mesoamerica's largest metropolis and its first main city. Established a civic, economic, and religious role for much of Mesoamerica.
Teotihuacán. Mesoamerica's largest metropolis and its first main city. Established a civic, economic, and religious role for much of Mesoamerica.

The art of the Americas had a lot of variety and complex styles. It began to form in Mesoamerica around 20,000-30,000 years ago. People were thought to have arrived in North and South America from Asia when glaciers of ice created a land bridge across the Bering Straight. It is also a theory that there were connections with Europe as well as along the Arctic coast of the North Atlantic Ocean. After these ice bridges melted, the bands of hunters who had traveled across in the pursuit of game were cut off from the rest of the world until the 15th Century CE. Due to this isolation, the people of the Americas experienced a cultural and agricultural transformation,settling in areas for an extended period of time to plant crops and domesticate animals. The main native plants harvested were corn, beans, and squash, though potatoes, tobacco, cacao, tomatoes, and avocado were also cultivated. The people of this new world domesticated many animals such as dogs, turkeys, guinea pigs, llamas, and llama relatives such as alpacas, guanacos, and vicunas. The Mesoamericans started the America’s art in a very complex way, and their intelligent society developed writing, astronomy, an accurate calendar, and math in their so called “new world.”[2]


Mesoamerica spanned from Mexico City to western Nicaragua. Mesoamerica consisted of four main civilizations: the Teotihuacan, the Maya, the Olmec, and the Itza. The history of Mesoamerica is divided into the Preclassic(1500BCE-250CE), Classic(250-900), and Post Classic(900-1521). These classes of time are based on the archaeology of the Maya people but have almost no correspondence to the other civilizations .Mesoamerica had civilizations that rose and shared cultural similarities and trade. Also a ball game which consisted of religious and political significances, aspects of monumental ceremonial building construction, and a complex system of multiple calendars. The decline of the Olmec culture came with the inclines of the Maya and the Teotihuacan.

The region is divided into three periods.
Pre Classic (Golden Age) (1500 BCE-250 CE)
Classic (250-900 CE)
Post Classic (900-1521 CE)

The Olmecs
Mexico, Olmec culture, c. 1000-6000 BCE. Pyramid height approx. 100' (30m)
Mexico, Olmec culture, c. 1000-6000 BCE. Pyramid height approx. 100' (30m)

Mexico. Olmec culture, c. 900-400 BCE, height 7'5"
Mexico. Olmec culture, c. 900-400 BCE, height 7'5"

The Olmecs created the first major art syle in the Pre Classic period.
Centers where the Olmecs lived in were controlled by elite ruler-priests supported by farmers and Village people. They also participated in long distance trade. San Lorenzo was the earliest Olmec ceremonial center. They built the Great Pyramid and Ball court at La Venta which was a 100 foot manmade hill was used for ceremonial purposes. The ball court was used for a ball game which had arcane significance to the Olmec. They also created the Colossal Head at La Venta which were massive heads used to depict their gods.

The Ciudadela, Teotihuacan, Mexico, Teotihuacan culture, after 350 CE
The Ciudadela, Teotihuacan, Mexico, Teotihuacan culture, after 350 CE
Teotihuacan, located 30 miles northeast of Mexico City, and it is known for its wealth and source of high quality obsedian. The Teotihuacan was a culture which had a population of over 200,000 people, and was located 30 miles northeast of Mexico City. They build the Pyramid of the sun which was a temple built to the sun with a 720 foot base and was 200 feet tall. It was almost as tall as the great pyramid of Giza, and was build over a spring. The Temple of the Feathered Serpent was a series of platforms built in Talud-Tablero style, and was built in a plaza meant as a focal point. The storm god and feathered serpent are symbols of cycles and renewals, or the seasons.

Bloodletting Ritual, Fresco from Teotihuacan, Mexico, 600-750 CE

The Teotihuacan also produced a fresco called the Bloodletting Ritual which shows a priest cutting himself with a maguey (Mesoamerican plant) spine to revitalize the earth with his blood.

The Maya
The Mayan’s were known for “Maya Record Keeping” The Mayan studied astronomy, natural cycles of plants, and animals. They also used sophisticated math concepts. The Maya were a civilization based in the Yucatan Rainforest divided into several city-states such as Tikal, and Palenque. In Tikal, they Mayans conformed to the Guatemalan rainforest, and were forced to build their ceremonial centers on high ground, like the Base of the North Acropolis, a royal tomb structure made from limestone. This structure incorporated the Temple I, the tomb for Ah Hasaw, a famous leader of the Maya, which had 9 layers to symbolize the underworld. The tomb was also used for mythological reenactments by the priests. In Palenque, they Maya build the Palace, a 2 level administrative building used by the nobles, and the Temple of Inscriptions, a 75 foot tall pyramid with 9 levels like the Temple I, but it had portico on top with 5 entrances and an inner vault with Lord Pakal’s Tomb. Lord Pakal was a famous leader of Palenque, buried in a carved sarcophagus with him in the front, and his ancestors carved into the sides. Stucco on the sarcophagus called the Portrait of Lord Pakal shows Pakal with an elongated skull, curved nose, full lips, and open mouth which were the Mayan ideals. Found on anther temple in Palenque was the Sculpture of Lady Xok which featured Lady Xok, the wife of Shield Jaguar (Lord Pakal). The sculpture is composed of 3 lintels, the first as a bloodletting ritual, the second was a snake being conjured by Lady Xok, and the third the Lady assisting Pakal suit up for battle. The Palenque also had a Cylindrical vessel which was a roll out vase with an image carved into it. The image was an episode from the Mayan sacred book, the Popol Vuh, featuring the hero twins defeating the Xibalba or lords of the underworld.

Pyramid (El Castillo), Chichen Itza. 800-1000 CE
Pyramid (El Castillo), Chichen Itza. 800-1000 CE

The final Mayan culture was the Itza, who built the city In the postclassic period the Itza rose to prominence. Thethe height of the Itza Empire it covered six square miles. The architecture was similar to that of past prominent Mesoamerican civilizations except for the use of pillars and columns at the top of some pyramids. In the city of Chichen Itza, they built a massive temple called El Castillo, which was a pyramid designed to align the shadows at the equinoxes. The pyramid had 9 layers and a stairway on all 4 sides.

Central America

Shaman with Drum and Snake, Diquis Culture, 13-16 century CE
Shaman with Drum and Snake, Diquis Culture, 13-16 century CE
Unlike the people of Mesoamerica, Central Americans didn't live in complex hierarchical societies. They lived in extended family groups with chiefs. The main example of these chiefdoms were the Diquis people. In Diquis mythology serpents and crocodiles were in a lower world, and birds and humans in an upper world, this is shown in their few artworks. All of their artworks contain many different animals and in most of the artworks these animals are a mixture of multiple animals or changing from one animal to another. The Diquis people also believed the sun captured the energy and power of the sun,and for that reason they did a lot of metallurgy usually consisting of gold. The lost wax technique was probably introduced to these people from 500 to 300 BCE and its high amount of usage went hand in hand with the popularity of other works of gold. The Central Americans had other artistic tendencies revolving around mythology. They believed that serpents and crocodiles inhabited a lower world, and the humans and birds inhabit a higher world

South America: The Central Andes

Raimondi Stone, Chavin de Huantar. Peru, 1000-600 BCE. Height 6'6", Diorite
Raimondi Stone, Chavin de Huantar. Peru, 1000-600 BCE. Height 6'6", Diorite

In South America, the people of the Central Andes developed hieratical societies like Mesoamerica. They used resources from the ocean to draw, even though the Andevean people specialized in textile productions and fine tapestries. The area of south american culture was a region of geographical contrasts. On the west there is the Pacific Ocean, and the Andes mountains border this area on the east. There are also several deserts in the surrounding areas. Life was dependent on the Pacific and the rivers that flow from the Andes. These bodies of water created valleys that were good for farming and living.

Mantle with Bird Impersonators. Paracas peninsula, Peru. Paracas culture, c. 200 BCE-200 CE. Camelid fiber, plain weave with stem-stitch embroidery.
Mantle with Bird Impersonators. Paracas peninsula, Peru. Paracas culture, c. 200 BCE-200 CE. Camelid fiber, plain weave with stem-stitch embroidery.

In the south coast of today’s Peru, the Paracas culture flourished and grew from approximately 600 BCE to 200 CE, overlapping with the Chavin period (Chavin de
Huantar). The Paracas had stunning textiles, which were used for burials as wrappings for the the bodies of the dead. Some bodies were wrapped with almost 200 layers of cloth. Weaving was a major part of the Andean culture, and it reflected in the Paracas style. Some of the desingn on Paracas textiles were embroidered figures of warriors, dancers, and creatures such as birdlike people. These patterns were created with several different colors, creating a contrasting effect.

(Image is in textbook)
The Nazca culture dominated the south coast of nowadays Peru from 0 to 700 CE, while overlapping with Paracas culture, which was slightly more north. Artists of Nazca produced fine fabrics and multicoloroed pottery with painted and molded images similar to the images of Paracas. The Nazca are known best for their geoglyphs, which are colossal earthworks. The Nazca drew large drawwings into expansive stretches of desert. They removed dark, oxidized stones, exposing the light underlying ones. In addition of animal geoglyphs like hummingbirds, whales, monkeys, spiders, and ducks, the Nazca also made groups of straight parallel linges that extended up to 12 miles in length.

Moche Lord With a Feline, Moche Valley, Peru. Moche culture, c.100 BCE-500 CE. Painted ceramic, height 7 1/2"
Moche Lord With a Feline, Moche Valley, Peru. Moche culture, c.100 BCE-500 CE. Painted ceramic, height 7 1/2"

On the northern coast of nowdays Peru, from the Piura Valley to the Huarmey Valley, the Moche culture dominated from 100 to 700 CE. Moche lords ruled each valley from a ceremonial-admistrative center. The largest valley, which became known as the Moche Valley, is home to the Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna which were both built of adobe brick. Adobe brick was very commonly used in Moche culture to build massive structures and pyramids. Some of these strucutres were builth towards a central theme in Moche iconography. This was the sacrifice ceremony, where captured prisoners of other cultures were sacrificed. In addition to elaborate ceremonies, the Moche were also amazing potters and metalsmiths. Using cermaic molds, they ere able to mass produce vessels. They also made realistic portrait vessels, which showed faces of people of status. Moche metalsmiths developed serval innovative metal alloys.

North America

North America was not as heavily populated as South or Central. The Northern Americans did not start the hunter gatherer life style until 1000 BCE, unlike the Mesoamericans who started this much earlier. The East: People in East North America lived in communities similar to the Diquis in Central America. These communities developed burial and ceremonial earthworks. These were mounds that represented the Chiefs house, shrines of ancestors, or places for sacred fires. The main ways of survival for the early people were hunting, fishing, and gathering edible plants. For agriculture, the people cultivated squash, sunflowers, and other plants to supplement their diet of game, fish, and berries.

Woodland Period
(Image is in the textbook)
During the Woodland Period the people created impressive earthworks and mounds for burial purposes. The Hopewell and Adena cultures used copper and jewelry to make artworks. The Woodland period took place between 300 BCE to 1000 CE, and several impressive earthworks were created along the river valleys of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. There was much trade going on through the Mississippi, Illinois, and Ohio River valleys. This was shown by the objects discovered in burial sites, such as copper from present-day Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, cut sheets of mica from the Appalachian Mountains, turtle shells and sharks’ teeth from Florida, and obsidian from Wyoming and Idaho. The Hopewell people also carved pipes with images of forest animals and birds such as beavers, where the eyes and teeth were sometimes made of pearls and bone.

Mississippian Period
Great Serpent Mound. Ohio. Mississippian, c. 1070 CE, 3 ft high 1330 ft long
Great Serpent Mound. Ohio. Mississippian, c. 1070 CE, 3 ft high 1330 ft long

9700-1550 CE--The most impressive artwork from this period was the great serpent mound. This mound has been dated to 1070 CE. There have been many interpretations of the serpent, such as a snake swallowing an egg or a response to seeing Halley’s Comet in 1066.

In Glades Country, Florida excavators found carved with birds and other animals in the swamps, which dated around 1000 CE. Sculptors around this time were thought to have sculpted bird’s heads and other animals in great detail. Figure 12-24 the Pelican Figurehead shows the head of a very detailed sculpture of a pelicans head.

The North American Southwest
In the North American Southwest, agricultural advances came about much slower than in surrounding areas. In the mountains of west-central nowadays New Mexico and east-central Arizona the Mimbres, also known as the Mogollon culture flourished from 200 to 1250 CE. They were known for their pottery that contained lively scenes of humans and animals. In central and southern parts of present-day Arizona, The Hohokam culture dominated from 200 BCE to 1300 CE. They built large-scale irrigation systems, multi-story residences, and ballcourts similar to those in Mesoamerica. In the present day Four Corners region (where Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico meet), the Ancestral Puebloans (also known as the Anasazi) emerged in about 500 CE. These peoples used the irrigation ideas of the Hohokam and built elaborate, multi-storied apartments, also known as “great houses”, which had many special rooms.

Ancestral Puebloans occupied present , Utah, New Mexico area around 550 CE. The Puebloans adopted irrigation technology, and multistory structures. The Puebloans were most famous for Pueblo Bonito “great house”. This structure had over 800 rooms and was 4-5tall. Puebloan women were the Potters in the society, who were known for coil-built earthenware. The Puebloan people abandoned their location in 1250 probably because of a drought.

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