What did ancient Latin Americans eat? What did they wear? What games did they play? This exhibition takes on these and other questions through a careful look at ceramics, sculpture, jewelry, and textiles from pre-Columbian Central and South America. These objects introduce important themes like the jaguar as a universal symbol of power, the role of transformation in ancient systems of belief, the practice of trading both exotic goods and new technologies between distant peoples, and even the origins and early significance of chocolate.
Beginning approximately fifteen thousand years ago, the Western Hemisphere slowly became populated through a series of migrations of Asiatic peoples across a land bridge connecting Siberia with present-day Alaska. The excellent resources for hunting and fishing in the Western Hemisphere, along with the development of agriculture, eventually resulted in population concentrations, especially in Central and South America, where complex cultures with significant architectural monuments emerged as long ago as 3000 BC, simultaneous with the rise of civilization in ancient Mesopotamia. By the time of Columbus’s arrival in 1492, indigenous populations were sizable all over the Western Hemisphere, with some urban centers rivaling or even dwarfing major European cities.
The devastation wrought on the indigenous peoples of America after contact with Europeans—through war, social dislocation, and overwhelmingly through exposure to disease—resulted in the death of up to 90 percent of indigenous peoples in many areas. This, in addition to the relative scarcity of systems of writing among pre-Columbian peoples, has resulted in the loss of untold information about ancient American civilizations. Archaeologists and other scientists are only now becoming aware of the number, scale, and complexity of ancient societies prior to contact with Europe. For these reasons, the objects left by ancient peoples are often our only means of learning about the past. Such objects can be examined in many ways—in their archaeological context, or, if that context is not known, in their physical makeup, form, style, iconography, and function, which is what this exhibition attempts to present.
Our thanks to all those who helped bring about this exhibition, especially Professor Fred Gleach and graduate student Kathryn Hudson of Cornell’s Anthropology department, and Tony DeLaurentiis, of Cornell’s Hospital for Animals, for providing radiography of the Johnson’s were-jaguar vessel.
Associate Curator / Master Teacher
Professor of Anthropology