pre-Columbian art and architecture: The Cultures of Central America

The Maya occupied the general area of Yucatán and adjacent parts of Central America from very early times. Their roots were in the Archaic period (c.2000 BC), but it was only during the Late Preclassic (300 BC–AD 150) and the Protoclassic (AD 150–300) periods that the traits associated with the Classic Maya were developed. Their greatest artistic achievements included their elaborate calendar, writing, palaces and temple pyramids with vaulted rooms made of limestone, polychrome pottery, stone stelae, and stylized wall paintings and bas-reliefs.

The Classic Maya (AD 300–900) was the apex of Maya civilization and is described as that period when the Maya inscribed the Long Count Calendar on their monuments. The remains of Bonampak, with its famous murals, can be dated to shortly after 800. Maya cities were ceremonial centers, and some of the edifices may be more properly identified as sculptured monuments. Maya architectural styles are found in three main regions: the Petén district (Uaxactún and Tikal); the cities of the river valleys, such as Piedras Negras and Palenque; and the cities of central and N Yucatán (Uxmal).

In the valley of the Motagua River to the south are Copán and Quiriguá, where sculpture flourished in the form of huge, elaborately carved stone stelae; more delicate forms and a refined spatial sense are evident in the famous stucco sculpture of Palenque and in the airiness and grace of its buildings. In the flat, dry country of N Yucatán, Maya architecture underwent changes in style. The erection of stone stelae was largely abandoned, and decoration, notably at Uxmal, became geometric. The cause of the collapse of the Maya civilization is not precisely understood. The culture persisted over so long a period that it is easier to understand the rest of Mesoamerican art and culture from the framework of Maya chronology.

The Olmec civilization, to the west, in the area of Veracruz and Tabasco, Mexico, was developing in the Preclassic period. Specifically, the period 800 to 400 BC marks the finest period of Olmec art as typified by the finds made at the site of La Venta. It is believed that the Olmec devised the Long Count Calendar and invented writing and that they may well be the source of these developments among the Maya. Noted for the excellence of their stone carving—ranging from small, finely detailed jade objects to colossal, often realistic basalt heads—the Olmec frequently used a motif combining human and jaguar features.

Teotihuacán is much to the west of the Olmec and Maya areas and dates from the 1st cent. AD to AD 700. The major part of the site and the height of its artistic expression belong to the periods Teotihuacán II and Teotihuacán III (c.300–700). Teotihuacán is an urban center, perhaps the greatest in Mexico; its monumental pyramids, temples, and royal processional roads are an extraordinary architectural achievement.

In the latter part of Maya Early Classic (c.AD 400–c.AD 600) there is evidence of great influence from Teotihuacán, as exemplified at the site of Kaminaljuyú and in varying degrees at other sites, including Tikal and Uaxactún. Erected on high land above the surrounding swamps, the latter two sites reveal their massive, richly decorated temples in the midst of tropical jungles. The site of Teotihuacán apparently was deliberately destroyed by invaders c.700 and thereafter ceased to be a factor in Maya civilization.

After the fall of Teotihuacán, a period of nearly two centuries (700–900) seems to have ensued during which there was no single dominant force, but a number of warring factions. One of these, the Toltec, made their capital at Tula (c.900–1200), northwest of Teotihuacán. The Toltec achieved power and dominated much of N and central Mexico until they were vanquished in 1156 or 1168. They invaded Maya country, principally Chichén Itzá (c.987). There they had a profound influence as revealed by the pyramids at Tula and Chichén Itzá, with their deep colonnades (an unusual feature in Mesoamerican architecture) and their decorative bas-relief and sculptured structural elements, e.g., the 15-ft-tall (4.5 m) caryatids at Tula. Toltec occupation has also been identified at other sites in the Yucatán. Indications are that Chichén Itzá was abandoned by the Toltec around 1224.

The final great native conquest in Mesoamerica was by the Aztec, who rose to power following a period of anarchy after the destruction of the Toltec's Tula. By 1344 the Aztecs had founded their magnificent capital, Tenochtitlán, at the site of present-day Mexico City in the Valley of Mexico, which became one of the architectural wonders of ancient America. Aztec art was eclectic, drawing on the traditions of conquered areas; but under the influence of the harsh Aztec religion, it developed a unique character. The importance of human sacrifice in the cult of the war god, Huitzilopochtli, permeated life and art, and representations of skulls, hearts, hands, and sacrificial scenes were common.

Much of the stone sculpture was huge and elaborate, a remarkable example being the statue of the earth goddess Coatlicue. Masses of intertwined serpents dominate the statue, which bears a necklace of human hearts and hands. Less ominous subjects, such as the plumed serpent, Quetzalcoatl, and various animals, were often beautifully carved in a smooth, compact style. Featherwork, jade carving, goldwork, extraordinary ceremonial vases, and superb textiles were produced by the artisans of subjugated groups, especially the Mixtec. Aztec power over Central Mexico extended until the arrival of Cortés in 1519.

The area of the Mixtec and Zapotec in Oaxaca, Mexico, was not completely conquered by the Aztecs. The Zapotec originally occupied the site of Monte Albán from late Olmec times (c.600 BC) until about AD 900. Then a new seat of Zapotec civilization was founded at Mitla. Later the Mixtec began to infiltrate, intermarry with, occupy, and absorb the Zapotec. Apart from architecture, the Mixtec also excelled at the minor arts: goldwork, jewelry, vessels fashioned with semiprecious stones, turquoise and feather mosaics, extremely fine polychrome pottery, and painted books known as codices.

Many of the Mexican cultures produced ceramic figurines and pottery, often of superior artistic merit. The site of Tlatilco, in the Valley of Mexico, has yielded famous ceramics of remarkably early date, about 500 BC Delicacy of detail characterizes the figurines of Teotihuacán, and the finely decorated funerary urns of Monte Albán (c.400 BC) are particularly well wrought. In the western states of Nayarit, Jalisco, and Colima, early cultures produced an enormously varied array of fanciful and often grotesque terra-cotta figurines and pottery during the Classic period, AD 300 to 900. The Tarascan of Lake Pátzcuaro were one of these groups; they still produce excellent lacquerware. In the jungle states of Veracruz, Campeche, and Tabasco many sites, particularly Remojadas, have yielded fine examples of clay sculpture.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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