The Joys of Pre-Columbian Art

Moche Portrait Vessels at Lima’s Museo Larco

Not everyone is an aficionado of primitive art—particularly the Pre-Columbian art of the Americas. Children are not taught in schools about the early civilizations of the Americas. On the contrary, I suspect most kids think that, since the ancient civilizations fell so quickly to the conquistadores,  they didn’t have anything to offer to us.

Even one of my literary heroes, Aldous Huxley, came a cropper in his 1934 travel classic, Beyond the Mexique Bay: “Frankly, try how I may, I cannot very much like primitive people. They make me feel uncomfortable. ‘La bêtise n’est pas mon fort.’”

I strongly suspect that among Europeans of some eighty years ago, that was a common opinion. After all, the Olmecs, Maya, Aztecs, Moche, and Inca do not in any way resemble the ancient Greeks and Romans—except that the Inca, like the Romans, were also great road-builders. They didn’t have much of a literature that has survived the Spanish conquest, except perhaps for the Maya Popol Vuh of the 16th century. As for philosophy, drama, novels, poetry… you can pretty much forget about it.

There was a period of tens of thousands of years during which the peoples of the Americas were isolated from any possible contact with European civilization. In consequence, they developed along different lines. Again and again in his book on Guatemala and Mexico, Huxley shows himself to be unwilling to consider that the Maya are very different. Not inferior, just different.

The Moche figures in the above photograph are all highly individualized. They remind me of the terra-cotta Chinese warriors discovered in Xian: Each of the 8,000 soldiers was different from all the others.

Totonac Figure from Mexico

Take the Totonac figure from the State of Veracruz in Mexico. This is a typical subject for Totonac art. Do we know what it means? The sloping forehead (does it show a deliberately deformed skull such as many Maya subjects?), the humorous expression: It is as if the distant past were laughing at us. And, in a way, it is. Many Pre-Columbian figures of animals from Mexico are downright hilarious. I don’t remember that type of humor from Greece or Rome, and certainly nothing similar from the Christian era.

Look at the Diego Rivera mural below, depicting a scene from El Tajin, the ancient ceremonial center of the Totonacs:

Scene from Diego Rivera Mural of El Tajin, Ancient Totonac Center

Let’s face it. We don’t quite understand what is going on here. We probably never will. I myself have been to El Tajin and saw Totonac youths rotating around elevated poles as voladores. Was there any convincing explanation of what was going on here? No, of course not. What intrigues me about this period is that the subjects are incredibly fascinating, but it is all a great mystery. Like life in general.

 

Who Was More Civilized?

Moche Ceramics at Lima’s Museo Larco

Moche Ceramics at Lima’s Museo Larco

Who really was more highly civilized—the Incas or some of the peoples who preceded them? While it is unquestionable that the Incas were the greatest stonemasons and road builders, they could not hold a candle to the Moche in their artwork. Look at the faces above: They are remarkably individualized, especially the one to the right.

If you should find yourself in Lima, I would highly recommend a visit to the Museo Larco in Pueblo Libre. Dedicated primarily to Moche ceramics and metal-working, it is a phenomenal collection, originally put together by Rafael Larco Hoyle in Northern Peru. It is a delightful place to spend several hours, especially if one eats at the museum’s excellent restaurant. (Try the tiraditos.) After visiting the Museo Larco, you could follow the painted blue line on the sidewalk for some twenty minutes or so and end up at the Museo Nacional de Arqueología Antropología e Historia del Perú, with its excellent exhibition on the Paracas Culture.

The Incas were, in their time, an up-and-coming military power that conquered most of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and parts of Chile. In the process they supplanted many talented peoples who were set to working raising crops and building roads and structures. Gone forever were the brilliant ceramics. Fortunately, enough was left to leave a brilliant picture of a culture that flourished from 100 to 800 AD, centuries before the Inca rose to power.

 

Before the Incas

Yes, There Were Great Civilizations Before the Incas

Yes, There Were Great Civilizations Before the Incas—Witness This Moche Pot

We tend to think that the only advanced Pre-Columbian Civilizations were the latest. For Mexico and Central America, that would mean the Aztecs and Mayas; for Peru, the Incas.

As one who has traveled to Mexico many times to see archaeological sites, I can vouch for the fact that, long before the Aztecs left their mythical homeland of Aztlán, there were other civilizations in Mexico that they replaced, but which they did not necessarily improve upon. The peoples who built Teotihuacan north of Mexico City did it around a hundred years before the Christian era. Then there were the Toltecs, the Totonacs, the Olmecs, and the Huastecs. I have seen remains from these and other Meso-American civilizations over a thirty-year period.

The Mayans are slightly different: They were less a centralized political entity than a people who have been around for thousands of years and lived through both empires and more localized city states and leagues of city states. The last Mayans were conquered by the Spanish at Tayasal in 1697, representing a much thornier military target for the conquistadores than the Aztecs.

The Moche Civilization of Peru

The Moche Civilization of Peru (100-800 AD)

Like the Aztecs, the Incas were fairly late on the scene, first coming to notice around 1438 and being conquered (but not decisively) by Francisco Pizarro a hundred years later. In many ways they were not as advanced as the Aztecs and Mayans inasmuch as they did not have writing—though they appear to have been able to use a writing system of colored knotted cords called quipus for inventories and other business purposes. (In this regard, they were like the ancient Greeks who used Linear A in a similiar way.)

What the Incas had going for them were primarily two things:

  1. They built a great paved road system covering some 25,000 miles. (But since these roads included steps at times, they could be navigated by sure-footed llamas, but not by the Spaniards’ horses).
  2. They were great builders who, in a major earthquake zone, erected structures that are still standing.

Prior to the Incas, there were numerous Peruvian civilizations who bettered the Incas in many respects. The Moches or Mochica of the north were just one example: Their pottery is far more artistic (see above photo) than anything the Inca were able to create. Then, there were the Wari, the Nazca, the Chavin, Tiwanaku, Chincha, Chanka, and Chimu.

My upcoming trip to Peru will include some visits to non-Inca ruins, such as Huaca Pucllana of the indigenous Lima culture and Pachacamac of the Ichma people. If it weren’t for the fact that I’ve never been to Peru before—and I don’t know whether I can go again—I will concentrate mostly on the Inca sites of the Sacred Valley between Cusco and Machu Picchu.