Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Cultures of the Ancient Americas; A Series in Parts... (Part 2 )

The Arizona Museum of Natural History has recently received major donations of objects from the American Southwest, Mesoamerica, and the Andes region of South America. The museum has opened a new exhibition, Cultures of the Ancient Americas, created solely from the new gifts. These magnificent objects offer insights into the cultures that produced them and underscore the monumental achievements of ancient peoples from New Mexico to Bolivia. We also celebrate the extraordinary generosity of our donors, who made the exhibition possible. Moche materials are the gift of Walter Knox of Scottsdale, AZ. Over the next several weeks AzMNH’s Museum Musings will highlight these objects and the cultures they represent, and suggest the special experience awaiting visitors to the exhibition.
Colombian Cultures
The land now within the modern country of Colombia played a crucial role in the peopling of South America, because the earliest prehistoric inhabitants of the continent originally came through the geographical funnel of Central America and Panama into what is now Colombia.  The earliest archaeological evidence of habitation in Colombia dates to around 12,000 years ago.  By 2000 years ago, agricultural communities occupied many of the river valleys.  Organized as chiefdoms, many Colombian cultures produced remarkable gold-work.

Vessel with Strap and Spout
Calima Culture, ca. 0-100 CE

This unusual strap-handled vessel with spout may represent a vinegaroon, or perhaps an insect.  The pinchers turn inwards towards the protuberant mouth, and incised bands with punctations adorn the face and head.  The abdomen is decorated with incised designs on the front, sides and rear.  Calima peoples inhabited the lower reaches of the Cauca River in a series of cultures from the first millennium BCE until the Spanish conquest in 1530.  Calima cultures are known for their gold-work.

Anthropomorphic Figure Jar
Tairona Culture, c. 1000-1550 CE

Tairona peoples densely inhabited the northern Caribbean coast of Columbia from about 200 BCE, and they exhibited significant expansion about 1000 CE.  They lived in the area of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain range in the world at over 19,000 feet.  This figure in the form of a burnished blackware jar has facial tattooing and wears a pendant resting on a bib over his chest.  A band with enlarged ends circles the top of the forehead.  The nose ornament and plug are the most distinctive features of the sculpture.  The plug probably penetrates the lip and forces the nose ornament into a horizontal position.  Elsewhere in the Andes, the nose ornament and plug, pendant and forehead band in real life would have been rendered in metal, probably gold, as found with the burials at Sipán in the Moche area.  Tairona artisans were excellent goldsmiths.

Retablo Figure
Quimbaya Culture, 300-800 CE

Quimbaya peoples lived in the middle reaches of the Cauca River in Columbia, on the western slopes of the Andes.  The culture is known for its spectacular gold-work and its distinctive retablo figurines.  Quimbaya retablo figurines are flat, solid and seated with arms outstretched or attached to the knees.  On this specimen, the eyes and mouth are mere slits, while the nose is prominent with a metal nose-ring.  This ring is copper; they were often gold.  Perforations across the forehead and atop the head were for attaching feathers or some other decoration.  Holes in the torso could be for tying garments to the figure, or the image to a larger frame.  Is this an ancestor figure, placed on a home altar?  Most retablo figures were recovered from tombs, where they might have represented ancestors or served as tomb guardians.

Seated Figure
Nariño Culture, 600-1400 CE
Southern Colombia

The figure, seated on a stool and wearing loincloth and sash, has a wad of coca leaves in his mouth.  He is a coquero, or coca chewer.  Coca, the plant source of natural cocaine, originated in the eastern Andes at elevations of 500-2000 metres.  Archaeologists have dated both coca leaves and artifacts associated with coca use as early as 8,000 years ago in Peru and in the Valdivia culture in coastal Ecuador by 5,000 years ago.  Coca was traditionally chewed for its medicinal and hallucinogenic properties, and thus had a role in everyday life in curing, religion and recreational use.  Stool, loincloth, sash and face are rendered in red, with detailing in black.  Was this man a curer, member of the elite, or just a regular guy?  Nariño culture is known for its gold-work and deep (30-40 metres) shaft tombs.

Join us in 2 weeks for part 3

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