BRIEF DESCRIPTIONThis is a ceramic La Tolita figure with a tail and a feline mask.WHERE WAS IT MADE?This figure is from what is now Ecuador. The La Tolita people occupied areas in both Ecuador and Colombia.HOW WAS IT MADE?This figure was made by pressing soft clay into a mold, a method that allowed potters to make multiple copies of one figure. After the figure was fired in a pit it was painted, although most of the paint has since worn away.HOW WAS IT USED?The original function of archaeological figurines found in museum collections is uncertain. Today archeologists carefully record information about the associations between artifacts and the circumstances of their burial as they are unearthed, and we can draw many conclusions about object function. However, very few of the archaeological objects found in museums today were excavated in a careful, scientific manner, so we have fewer clues about their past associations and function.A wide range of people and objects are shown in pre-Columbian pottery vessels. Although obviously decorative, figurines could also have been used to make offerings to supernatural powers, to serve as good luck charms, or to accompany the dead as grave goods.WHY DOES IT LOOK LIKE THIS?This figure has distinct feline features. Notice the snarling mouth with fangs and the thick tail that props up the figure. The face is surrounded by rounded ruff with flaring conical projections very typical of La Tolita. The eyes are rounded, bulbous, and the figure wears a loincloth, evidence of its male gender. Another La Tolita artifact in the Johnson Museum’s collection, a gold-alloy breastplate, features the face of a snarling feline. To see this object, search for object number 2006.070.369 in the keyword search box.Feline (or cat) imagery is seen on many pre-Columbian artifacts, including pottery, textiles, metalwork, and even in site planning (the archaeological ruins on the slopes of Mount Sangay, Ecuador, consist of tolas mounds arranged in the shape of a jaguar, and the Inca capital city of Cuzco, Peru, was laid out in the form of a puma). Recognizable by a typically snarling face with prominent fangs, cat-like elements are often blended with human characteristics as well as features from other animals such as snakes and birds to form a variety of fantasy creatures, including “monsters” and “dragons.”ABOUT THE LA TOLITA (OR TUMACO) CULTURE:Known as La Tolita on the Ecuadorian side of the border and Tumaco on the Colombian side of the border, the Tumaco/La Tolita culture area straddles the Ecuador/Colombia border near the Pacific coast. Living on tops of mounds (called tolas) in a series of semi-urban centers, La Tolita was a ranked society led by the chiefly elite, with craft specialists such as potters and goldsmiths (who were the first in the world to learn to work platinum). The people of La Tolita exploited coastal resources but also engaged in hunting and in farming maize and manioc (also known as yuca, cassava, or tapioca). Some excavated manioc graters are shaped like fish, a testament to the importance of marine foods. La Tolita ceramics are typically pale gray or white in color, and were frequently painted after firing in vivid colors such as red-orange. Figures often embody elements of both animals and people, creating mythical “monsters,” although many include naturalistic representations of animals such as jaguars, snakes, monkeys, and frogs. The La Tolita/Tumaco culture shares many characteristics with the neighboring Regional Development Period (500 BC-AD 500) cultures of Bahía, Guangala, and Jama-Coaque, all of which are local successors to the earlier, more widespread Chorrera cultural horizon.