Monday, November 24, 2014

Cultures of the Ancient Americas; A series in parts... (Part 3)

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.
Early Ecuador
In archaeology, much remains to be discovered, investigated and learned.  It was not until 1956 that Ecuadorian business man and avocational archaeologist Emilio Estrada discovered the site of Valdivia and defined a previously unknown culture.  Remarkably, this is one of the earliest cultures in the New World to settle in permanent villages and to raise crops, starting as early as 3500 BCE. This transformation between hunting and gathering groups living on what nature provides and the ability to use agriculture to produce food is called the Neolithic Revolution and represents the greatest change ever seen in human lifesyles.

Working with American archaeologists Betty Meggars and Cifford Evans, Estrada advanced the idea that similarities between Valdivian pottery and the early Jomon pottery of Japan showed that the two areas had been in contact.  However, transcontinental contact could not be supported with any direct evidence.  Science looks into many interesting ideas, many of which are found not to be valid. It is part of the scientific process to develop well-structured ideas and to test them against actual archaeological evidence.  "The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you actually don’t know."  Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

 owl figure   owl figure
Stone Figure "Owls"
Valdivia Culture, 2300-2000 BCE

These Valdivian "owls" are one of the unique types of artifacts produced by the Valdivian culture.  Valdivian artisans’ ability to make precise cuts, grooves and corners in the stone without modern tools shows a great deal of skill.  The resulting sculptures, while among the earliest in the Americas, appear remarkably modern.  These carvings might have been used as grave markers or guardian figures.

3 Tree of Life Vessels with Applique
Jama-Coaque, 350 BCE-600 CE
This is a unique set of Jama-Coaque ceramics, a culture that survived from 500 BCE to 1531 CE from the forested hills to the beaches of Ecuador.  They are believed to represent a "tree of life" scene.  In Mesoamerica the tree of life is the Ceiba tree, whose trunk, the Axis Mundi, connected the underworld with our world on the surface of the earth and to the worlds of the sky and was the point where the six directions (north, south, east, west, zenith and nadir) came together.  The pastel colors of these polychrome vessels were not fired on the vessel but were added later.  It is "fugitive" or easily removed.  The paint on this example is well preserved for this type of ceramic.

(Join us in two weeks for part 4 )

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