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Pre Columbian Art and Pottery

 Throughout Mexico and Latin America, art and crafts are still created in the tradition of the pre Columbian cultures, using the same materials and methods. Many pre Columbian objects were plain and simple, being only intended for practical purposes, but the pre Columbian artisans also created intricate pieces for use in trade, for paying tribute and to serve religious functions. In the same way, modern inhabitants of Latin America, especially in tribal villages which have largely avoided mechanization and modernization, allowing the traditional techniques to be preserved, still make common art and elaborate, decorative ones by hand using natural materials.

Pre Columbian potters created many plain, functional pottery for common use, but they also formed elaborate and intricate art for religious use that required great skill to produce. The pre Columbian cultures buried pottery with their dead to accompany them into the afterlife, thereby demonstrating the predominance of pottery in their culture and their skill at creating it to modern archeologists. Many modern communities still use pre Columbian techniques to make beautiful pottery, especially for utilitarian pieces. Clay is still gathered from local areas, and pieces are formed either exclusively by hand or by using a wooden wheel that is turned by the potter.  In pre Columbian times, kilns were not used; pieces of pottery were fired in an open fire or a pit in the ground. Potters did not use any type of glaze, but they did burnish the surface of their pots with stones.  The creation of blackware is still practiced in Latin America. When the oxygen is removed during the firing process, the iron in the clay oxidizes, turning the pot black or dark gray.  Though many modern potters use a kiln, pre-Columbian potters achieved this effect without the use of a kiln. Pots were decorated with gods, animals, plants, everyday scenes and geometric designs.

Weaving was essential to the ancient cultures, just as it is today. In small villages, ancient methods still survive, and women spend large amounts of time creating textiles and clothing on hand-made looms. A back-strap loom, so named because of the strap that passes behind the weaver's back to keep the warp taut, was used in ancient times and is still used widely today to create beautiful textiles.

Though few pre Columbian examples of basketry, weaving and other uses of natural reeds have survived because of the fragility of the fiber, many Latin American tribes continue this traditional form of art in much the same way as the ancient cultures.  The art of Peruvian pre Columbian cultures depicts reed boats, and modern Peruvian fishermen still make and utilize reed boats. In Ecuador, totora reeds are woven into large mats using simple methods that have been employed for thousands of years. The ancient peoples used their woven creations for everyday use and for trading, and modern Latin Americans use the skills that have been handed down for generations to create useful items that are also beautiful in appearance.  Reeds are often hand-dyed using aniline and other natural dyes before they are woven into a basket, a bag, a hat or one of the many other shapes created by these fine craftsmen and women, producing vibrant yet functional pieces.

Music was central to the Pre Columbian cultures as a form of religious expression. It was highly developed, including a system of perfect harmony before the West developed anything similar. Because the instruments were for a religious purpose, they were often elaborately decorated with pictures of gods, whether by painting or carving.  They were also decorated with natural subjects, especially the animals to which the peoples were accustomed, and many smaller instruments were formed into animal shapes.

Drums, whistles, ocarinas, trumpets, bells, rattles and single, double, triple and even quadruple flutes were made from wood, clay, reeds, bone or shells. Peruvians, because of their skill in metallurgy, made trumpets of gold, silver and copper, though few have survived being melted down for their valuable metal. In the Aztec culture, a horizontal drum, the huehuetl or tlapanhuehuetl, was played with the hands, and a vertical drum, the teponaztli, was played with rubber-tipped drumsticks. Rain sticks were used in many cultures to plead with the rain god to send rain by simulating the sound of rain.  Panpipes were popular in the Andean region, though some have also been found in Veracruz, Mexico.

--Lisa Graff

Bibliography:

Davies, Lucy and Mo Fini. Arts and Crafts of South America (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994).

Marti, Samuel. Music before Columbus (Mexico City: Gunhild Nilsson, Ediciones Euroamericanas Klaus Thiele, 1978).

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