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Art of the Ancient Americas



Nature inspired abstract patterns.
Two large round eyes help us see the curves and lines on this pot from Costa Rica as an owl, admired for its keen eyesight.
zoom Two large round eyes help us see the curves and lines on this pot from Costa Rica as an owl, admired for its keen eyesight.

 

Much of the art of the ancient Americas is easy to recognize as a human figure or a particular animal. The decorations on some objects, however, seem at first glance to be nothing more than abstract patterns. That is, they do not resemble the world we see around us.

Many of these patterns are in fact inspired by nature. Sometimes an important detail helps us understand what the pattern represents. For example, large round eyes identify the shapes on the pot at left as an owl. In other cases we can understand the pattern's connection to the natural world by learning more about the people who made the object. For example, the Ancient Puebloan (or Anasazi [ah-nah-SAH-zee]) people lived in the dry American Southwest. The three-step shape commonly found in their art represented the tall thunder clouds that brought needed rain, as seen in the pot below.

Different cultural groups developed unique styles of abstraction. Today those different styles help archeologists identify who made the objects they study.


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1. The zigzags and step shapes of this pot refer to lightning and storm clouds. The Ancient Puebloan people of the American Southwest eagerly awaited the rain brought by storms.
2. The spiral shapes commonly used by the Caddo people of the southern United States suggest gently flowing water, a reminder of the many rivers and streams found in that area.
3. The patterns on this plate combine features of snakes, lizards, fish, and birds. All these animals, common in tropical Panama, have qualities the maker of this plate found magical.

 

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November 2003