In 1492, Columbus established the first European contact with the pre-Columbian civilization when he accidentally discovered a "New World" on behalf of the Spanish Crown. The pre-Columbian civilization encompasses the entire cultural development that occurred before the Spanish conquest in the area covering the modern states of Mexico and Guatemala, as other Central American republics, and Colombia, Ecuador, Peru as well. Across this great territory there were numerous ethnic groups apparently of Asian origin that, having entered into the continent through a now lost land bridge from Siberia and speaking diverse languages (Nahuatl, Quechua, etc.), built a stratified mosaic of cultures, each with its own peculiarities. As a whole, such groups shared a similar technological level. They also had related rites and beliefs. The pre-Columbian civilization was characterized by impressive urban centers, a feature which differentiates it from other, somehow simpler cultures in the Americancontinent (e.g., those of Alaska, Amazonia, and Patagonia).
At the time of the discovery, the pre-Columbian civilization was at a paradoxical stage of technological and socio-cultural development—at once behind and ahead of its European counterpart. Its tools and weapons were made of stone, the plough was not used, there were no draught animals, the wheel was used for unpractical purposes, and an economy of exchange was practiced. However, the pre-Columbian world developed highly organized state systems, prosperous agriculture, elaborated welfare programs, achieving an astonishing level of mathematical and astronomical knowledge, mastering difficult problems of public engineering, and leaving a rich artistic heritage.
Less than forty years after the discovery, two powerful empires of the American continent, the Aztec in Mexico and the Inca in Peru, were vanquished. An area many times larger than Europe became Spanish territory. The millions of people who survived the horrors of the conquest lost first their freedom and later their collective consciousness. Their cultures were systematically erased. Only artworks that survived that historical catastrophe permit us to understand what was once one of the most elaborate civilizations of humankind.
The force of religious beliefs and a powerful social discipline enabled pre-Columbian artists to reach a high level of excellence. Despite the low technological stage of their civilization, pre-Columbian artists built magnificent cities on difficult sites, carved sanctuaries in living rock, painted monumental frescoes with impressive imagery, gave shape to various languages, created remarkable pottery, wove refined fabrics in colorful patterns, and enriched deserts with giant symbols.
Inca Culture: Gold and turquoise figurine
Museo de Oro del Perú, Lima
The origin of pre-Columbian art is obscure. For many years, opinions were divided as to whether it developed locally or was rooted in foreign, East Asian traditions. Two fully developed artistic styles, that of the Olmec in Mexico and the one of the Chavin in Peru, seem to have irrupted from nowhere at a very early stage of the pre-Columbian civilization (1200 B.C.E.). Today there is evidence supporting the theory that pre-Columbian art was the entire achievement through local cultural developments that took place very briefly. Art in the pre-Columbian civilizations had multiple and interconnected functions: religious, socio-political, decorative, and informative. Art objects often portrayed gods and were thus worshiped. Numerous art objects, used as funerary offerings, bore imagery related to the death and the afterlife, and were usually deposited in tombs. Other objects served as status symbols indicating the social importance of their owner. When possessed by rulers, they were inaddition associated with dynastic matters, such as genealogy and accession to the throne. In many instances, however, art objects and art techniques had a purely decorative function. Such was the case with personal ornamentation and the embellishment of public buildings. Art objects as a whole had also an informative quality. In a partly non-literate civilization, they conveyed basic ideas from one generation to the next.