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Painting in the Americas Before Colonization was a relatively widespread, popular and diverse means of communication for both religious and utilitarian purpose throughout the regions of the Western Hemisphere. During the period before and after European exploration and settlement of the Americas; including North America, Central America, South America and the islands of the Caribbean, the Bahamas, the West Indies, the Antilles, the Lesser Antilles and other island groups, indigenous native cultures produced creative works including architecture, pottery, ceramics, weaving, carving, sculpture, painting and murals as well as other religious and utilitarian objects.

The oldest known paintings in the South America are the cave paintings of Caverna da Pedra Pintada, in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest that date back 11,200 years.[1] The earliest known painting in North America is the Cooper Bison Skull found near Fort Supply, Oklahoma, dated to 10,200 BCE.[2]


Painting in the Americas Before Colonization

Each continent of the Americas hosted societies that were unique and individually developed cultures; that produced totems, works of religious symbolism, and decorative and expressive painted works. African influence was especially strong in the art of the Caribbean and South America. The arts of the indigenous people of the Americas had an enormous impact and influence on European art and vice-versa during and after the Age of Exploration. Spain, Portugal, France, The Netherlands and England were all powerful and influential colonial powers in the Americas during and after the 15th century. By the 19th century cultural influence began to flow both ways across the Atlantic.



The murals of Teotihuacan that adorn the archaeological site (and others, like the Wagner Murals, found in private collections) and from hieroglyphic inscriptions made by the Maya describing their encounters with Teotihuacano conquerors are the source of most of what is understood about that ancient civilization. The painting of the murals, perhaps thousands of them, reached its zenith between 450 and 650 CE. The painters' artistry was unrivalled in Mesoamerica and has been compared with that of Florence, Italy.[3]

The Great Goddess

A series of murals were found in the Tepantitla compound in Teotihuacan. In 1942, archaeologist Alfonso Caso identified the central figures as a Teotihuacan equivalent of Tlaloc, the Mesoamerican god of rain and warfare. During the 1970s researcher Esther Pasztory re-examined the murals and concluded that many paintings of "Tlaloc" instead showed a feminine deity, an analysis based on a number of factors including the gender of accompanying figures, the green bird in the headdress, and the spiders seen above the figure.[4] Pasztory concluded that the figures represented a vegetation and fertility goddess that was a predecessor of the much later Aztec goddess Xochiquetzal.

The Great Goddess has since been identified at locations other than Tepantitla – including Teotihuacan's Tetitla compound, the Palace of the Jaguars, and the Temple of Agriculture – as well as on several vessels.[5]

The Temple of the Murals

Large painted Mayan murals were found in the archaeological site Bonampak, in the Mexican state of Chiapas near the border with Guatemala. What is referred to as The Temple of the Murals is a long narrow building with 3 rooms atop a low-stepped pyramid base. The interior walls preserve the finest examples of classic Maya painting. Huge paintings cover the walls of one of the structure's three rooms. The paintings show the story of a single battle and its victorious outcome. [6]

South America

Nazca culture

The Nazca culture of Peru produced painted pottery and painted ceramics depicting religious and symbolic characters as well as imagery of personages within the culture. [7]They produced in addition to ceramics, highly complex textiles and Geoglyphs. The period from 1-700 A.D is generally considered when this group thrived. Modern knowledge about the culture of the Nazca is built upon the study of Cahuachi the ceremonial center from (1-500 AD).

North America

United States

In the area that is now the United States many different and diverse tribes of people created painting and ornamental painted objects of a large variety. The Pueblos from the Southwestern region of what is now the USA are believed to be descended from the three major cultures that dominated the region before European contact. The Mogollon, also believed to be related to the Zuni and Hopi tribes lived in an area near the Gila Wilderness, populated today by the Apache. The Fremont, the Patayan, and the Hohokam, are archaeological terms for the prehistoric people who formed settlements in the Southwest. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is the best known monument of Hohokam culture. Like the modern day Zuni and Hopi tribes and the mysterious Ancient Pueblo Peoples or the Anasazi, a term coined by the Navajos describing an ancient culture that has since disappeared, the Fremont, the Hohokam and the Patayan formed villages and settlements. [8].



See also


  1. ^ Wilford, John Noble. Scientist at Work: Anna C. Roosevelt; Sharp and To the Point In Amazonia. New York Times. 23 April 1996
  2. ^ Bement, 176
  3. ^ Davies, p. 78.
  4. ^ Pasztory (1977, pp.83–85).
  5. ^ Pasztory (1977, pp.87–91).
  6. ^ Coe, Michael D. (1999). The Maya, Sixth edition, New York: Thames & Hudson, pp. 125-129. ISBN 0-500-28066-5
  7. ^ [1]On Nazca ceramics retrieved May 12, 2009
  8. ^ Cordell, Linda S. Ancient Pueblo Peoples. St. Remy Press and Smithsonian Institution, 1994. ISBN 0-89599-038-5.


  • Millon, Clara; Millon, Rene; Pasztory, Esther; Seligman, Thomas K. (1988) Feathered Serpents and Flowering Trees: Reconstructing the Murals of Teotihuacan, Kathleen Berrin, ed., Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.
  • Dale M. Brown ed. Lost Civilizations: The Magnificent Maya. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life books, 1993.
  • Carol Kaufmann. 2003. "Maya Masterwork". National Geographic December 2003: 70-77.
  • Constantino Reyes-Valerio, "De Bonampak al Templo Mayor, Historia del Azul Maya en Mesoamerica", Siglo XXI Editores, 1993.
  • Davies, Nigel (1982). The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico. England: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-013587-1.
Pasztory, Esther (1971) (PhD thesis). The Murals of Tepantitla, Teotihuacan. Columbia University. 
Pasztory, Esther (1977). "The Gods of Teotihuacan: A Synthetic Approach in Teotihuacan Iconography". in Alana Cordy-Collins and Jean Stern (eds.). Pre-Columbian Art History: Selected Readings. Palo Alto, CA: Peek Publications. pp. pp.81–95. ISBN 0-917962-41-9. OCLC 3843930. .

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