Ancient America: South American Art


Prior to the European invasion, South America was the home to many highly developed civilizations. Homo sapiens have lived in South America for at least 15,000 years and possibly longer. By 2000 BCE some highly developed civilizations had emerged in the region. There was a dramatic increase in population during this time and the economies became more dependent on stable, intensive agricultural systems.

The Inka Empire was the dominant state at the time of the Spanish conquest. The Inka had expanded out of their home in Cuzco to control an empire which spread from modern Ecuador in the north to central Chile in the south. The expansion of the Inka Empire began about 1438 and grew by military conquest.

The ancient civilizations of South American are well-known for their metalwork, particularly their work in gold which the Spanish often melted down; their pottery, which includes realistic portrayals of men and women (including men and women engaged in sexual intercourse); and finely woven textiles. Shown below are some of the items from these ancient South American cultures which are on display at the Portland Museum of Art.













Shown above are clothing pins.  

Ancient America: Tiwanaku

While the Inka are the best-known pre-Columbian civilization in South America, there were other earlier and longer-lasting highly developed civilizations. Tiwanaku (also spelled Tiahuanaco and Tiahuanacu) is generally recognized by archaeologists as an important precursor of the Inka Empire. Tiwanaku, located on the southeastern shore of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, was a major city-state that controlled parts of the Andean highlands for about five centuries.  

Tiwanaku Map

Tiwanaku is at an elevation of 3,850 meters (2.4 miles) which makes it one of the highest imperial cities in the world.

About 1500 BCE, Tiwanaku was a small, agricultural village. By about 300 BCE, the village appears to have grown into a religious site which attracted pilgrims from the surrounding area. The religious or cosmological power of Tiwanaku seems to have provided the basis for its later development into a powerful city-state.


While Tiwanaku is located in an area which has abundant wild resources-fish, birds, wild plants-its rise to power, like that of other city-states, was based on agriculture. The Titicaca Basin has predictable and abundant rainfall. The people of Tiwanaku developed an agricultural system which utilized this rainfall. The people of the Titicaca Basin developed a farming technique which used a flooded-raised field type of agriculture.

The agricultural fields were created by cutting deep canals in the soils next to the lake. Then soils were thrown up to form long, low mounds which improved the drainage of the fields. The canals supply moisture for growing crops, and in addition they also absorb heat from solar radiation during the day. Nights in the Titicaca Basin can be bitterly cold, often producing frost. At night, the heat that had been absorbed in the shallow canals is emitted which provides thermal insulation for the crops.

The canals also had another use: they were used to farm edible fish. Then the resulting canal sludge was dredged up and used for fertilizer.

The fields were used for growing potatoes and quinoa.

This type of agriculture, known as suka kollus, is very labor intensive, but it produces good yields. Traditional agricultural methods in this region can produce 2.4 metric tons of potatoes per hectare, and modern agriculture-which uses artificial fertilizers and pesticides-produces about 14.5 metric tons. On the other hand, the ancient suka kollus agriculture can produce 21 tons per hectare.

Social Stratification:

The productive agricultural system of Tiwanaku contributed to and supported population growth. The population consequently became more complex, with specialized jobs for each member of the society. At the top of the social hierarchy were the elite who lived separated from the commoners by walls which were surrounded by a moat. Some archaeologists have suggested that the moat created the image of a sacred island on which the elite lived. Commoners may have been allowed to enter the elite complex only for ceremonial purposes.

The Empire:

About 300 CE, Tiwanaku was making the transition from a regionally dominant culture force, to an actual empire. It expanded its culture, its way of life, and its religion into other areas of modern-day Peru, Bolivia, and Chile.

Like empires throughout the world, Tiwanku grew through a combination of political, economic, religious, and military power. It used politics to negotiate trade agreements which made other cultures dependent upon them. It reinforced this dependence through religion, as Tiwanaku was always seen as a religious center. Some of the religious statues from these other cultures were taken back to Tiwanaku where they were placed in a subordinate position to the gods of Tiwanaku. In this way, they displayed their religious superiority over these cultures.

The primary Tiwanaku diety, which is shown on reliefs and in statues, is represented as a male figure with a rayed headdress and two staves. This figure seems to have been derived from the Staff God of the earlier Chavin culture.

Control over the empire often involved colonization and migration. Small groups of colonists from Tiwanaku would settle in key resource areas and thus provide Tiwanaku with access to these resources. In addition, people from the outlying areas were resettled closer to the city. The result was a series of multiethnic communities.

Violence may have reinforced the religious and cultural superiority of Tiwanaku. The archaeological evidence suggests that on top of a building known as the Akipana people were disemboweled and torn apart shortly after death. The disarticulated remains appear to have been laid out for all to see. Some archaeologists have suggested that this was a ritual offering to the gods. The person who was sacrificed was not native to the Titicaca Basin.

The hallucinogenic snuff complex also served to help integrate the empire. This complex involved the use of hallucinogenics in religious ceremonies and manifest themselves in the archaeological record in the form of snuff trays, bone tube inhalers, and decorated mortars and pestles which were used for processing the snuff.

Tiwanaku Snuff Stone

A stone snuff tray is shown above.

By about 600 CE, Tiwanaku could be considered an urban center. At this time, the city covered about 6.5 square kilometers and had a population estimated between 15,000 and 30,000 inhabitants. The three primary valleys dominated by Tiwanaku had an estimated population of 285,000 to 1,482,000.


One of the important features in holding the wide-spread empire together was the control of the llama herds. These herds were essential for carrying goods between the urban center of the empire and its periphery. Large caravans of llamas travelled the Tiwanaku road system. The animals may have also served as a symbol of the social and economic distance between the commoners and the elites.

The most important luxury trade item was textiles. Throughout the empire, the people wore characteristic Tiwanku textiles which helped unify the empire, at least during ceremonies. The large herds of alpaca provided the weavers at Tiwanaku with an important raw material. The alpaca and the llama herds were one of the major sources of wealth in the empire.


Between 600 and 700 CE, as Tiwanaku grew as a city, there was a significant increase in monumental architecture. The urban center contains a ceremonial core with several huge temples, a pyramid, and a number of palace structures decorated with cut stone lintels. The palace structures are also decorated with large statues which have been carved in a distinctive style.

Tiwanaku Wall

Tiwanaku monumental architecture is characterized by its use of large stones. Tiwanaku stone architecture used rectangular blocks which were laid out in regular courses. One of the characteristic features is the use of elaborate drainage systems. Drainage systems are sometimes made of red limestone conduits which are held together by bronze architectural cramps.

In some cases I-shaped architectural cramps were made by cold hammering. In other cases, the cramps were created by pouring molten metal into I-shaped sockets which had been carved into the stone.

Some of the stone blocks were decorated with carved images and designs. There are also carved doorways and large stone monoliths.

Gateway to the Sun

The feature known as the Gateway to the Sun is shown above.

The stone blocks used at Tiwanaku were quarried some distance from the site. The red sandstone used at the site came from a quarry about 10 kilometers (6 miles) away. The largest of these stones weighs 131 metric tons and transporting them without wheeled vehicles or draft animals was a challenge.

The elaborate carvings and monoliths at Tiwanaku were created from green andesite stone that originated on the Copacabana peninsula, located across the lake from the city. The large andesite stones, some of which weighed over 40 tons, were probably transported across Lake Titicaca by means of reed boats. This is a distance of about 90 kilometers (55 miles). They were then dragged another 10 kilometers to the city itself.

Tiwanaku Pottery


Among the buildings which have been excavated by archaeologists and which are visible to modern visitors are the stepped platforms known as the Akapana, Akapana East, and Pumapunku; the enclosures known as the Kalasasaya and Putuni; and the Semi-Subterranean Temple.

The Akapana is a cross-shaped pyramid which stands nearly 17 meters in height. At its center there appears to have been a sunken court (this has been almost entirely destroyed by looters). There is a staircase with sculptures on the western side. The entire structure is an artificial earthen mound that was faced with a combination of large and small stone blocks. The dirt for the structure appears to have come from the moat which surrounds the site.

The feature designated as Akapana East marks the boundary for the ceremonial center and urban area. It was made from a floor of sand and clay that supported a group of buildings.

The platform mound designated as the Pumapunku was built on an east-west axis like the Akapana. It is a rectangular, terraced earthen mound which was faced with megalithic blocks. While it is only five meters tall, it measures 167 meters by 117 meters. One of the prominent features of the Pumapunka is a stone terrace which was paved with large stone blocks. One of these blocks is estimated to weigh 131 metric tons.

The Kalasasaya is a large courtyard which is outlined by a high gateway. It is located to the north of the Akapana. Near this courtyard is the Semi-Subterrean Temple-a square, sunken courtyard that was constructed on a north-south axis rather than an east-west axis. The walls are covered with tenon heads of many different styles.

Tiwanaku Head


About 950 CE, there was a climatic change: the amount of precipitation in the Titicaca Basin dropped significantly. As the rain decreased, the political and religious power of Tiwanaku and its elites also declined. As food became more scarce, the power of the elite waned. Fifty years later Tiwanaku was abandoned.

The city of Tiwanaku and its empire left no written history. What we know about Tiwanaku comes from later historical accounts and from archaeology.  

Ancient America: The Moche

While the Inka (Inca) are probably the best-known of the ancient civilizations of South America because they were flourishing when the Spanish arrived, there were many ancient civilizations which preceded them and provided the cultural foundations for the Inka. One of these was Moche who began to flourish about 2000 years ago.  

The Moche flourished from about 1 to 700 CE on the north Peruvian desert margin between the Andes and the Pacific. Their realm extended for at least 250 miles between the Lambayeque and Nepeña Valleys. In each of the river valleys they established ceremonial centers with large platform mounds. Each of the major Moche settlements seems to have been ruled by hereditary rulers who held religious and political power. Unlike the later Inka, the Moche were not an empire, but more closely resembled city-states unified by common cultural features.


In the river valleys, they were able to transform the land into verdant oasis. The agricultural crops which they raised included beans, cotton, corn, squash, chilies, and peanuts. The fields were often fertilized with guano which they collected from islands off the coast. In order to provide water to their agricultural fields, they developed extensive irrigation networks. One canal ran for 900km.

In addition to agriculture, they also fished and hunted. They fished in the ocean using reed boats and cotton nets. They hunted deer in the valleys and hills. Their domesticated animals included the Muscovy duck and the llama. The llama served as a pack animal and as a source for wool.

Part of the Moche wealth came from their ability to exploit gold and other metal resources. The Moche were expert metal workers. They made jewelry and other ornaments of gold, silver, copper, and alloys. These were often inlaid with lapis lazuli and turquoise. In addition to using metal for ornaments, they also made metal tools, including chisels, spear points, and fishhooks.

They were also experts in ceramics and weaving. In their ceramics, they used molds to cast wonderful shapes which they then painted. Their pottery provides an interesting and realistic insight into their lives. The portrait pots are amazingly realistic portrayals of real people showing a variety of emotions. Much to the chagrin of many American museum curators, their pots sometimes show sexual acts which cannot be shown in many museums.

Moche 1

Moche 2

Moche 3

Moche 4

Moche 5

The Moche maintained a fairly elaborate trading network. Feathers from the Amazon basin in the Moche sites show that their trading connections led across the Andes and into the rainforests on the other side.

Warfare may have been an important part of Moche culture as warriors are often shown in the pottery and in the murals which lined the temples and pyramids.

Moche religion seems to have centered on ideas of dualistic opposition: gold/silver, day/night, land/sea. One of the figures that appears in their religious pantheon is the Decapitator. This god (?) is often shown as part cat (the teeth) and part octopus (the wavy tentacles) with bulging eyes and huge ear spools. His outstretched arms wield a scepter or knife in one hand and an open-mouthed severed head in the others.

Decapitator 1

Decapitator 2

Shown above are some of the images of the Decapitator.

Other Moche deities included a goddess who wore a jester-like headdress, and a bird god. One of the principle rituals involved the drinking of blood taken from sacrificial victims. According to images from the pottery and murals, the priests would offer the blood in chalices to the gods before drinking it. By adding the juice of the ulluchu fruit to the blood it would not coagulate.

Moche monumental architecture is characterized by large adobe (mud brick) pyramids with platforms. They often decorated the pyramids and temples with friezes depicting Moche deities. Tombs of the rulers were placed inside the pyramids with elaborate ceremonies which are depicted on the Moche pottery.

Residential areas were located adjacent to the major pyramids and in the smaller towns up and down the river valleys.

One example of Moche monumental architecture is found at the El Brujo Complex, located about 4 km south of the present-day town of Trujillo, Peru. This site contains three large huacas (mounds or pyramids). One of these is the pyramid of Cao Viejo which is about 30 meters (100 feet) in height. This massive monument was built and rebuilt in four major phases between 200 and 650 CE. In each phase, the builders intentionally and carefully buried the previous temple, thus creating an even larger and higher pyramid. Each phase tended to repeat the same art and murals of the previous era.

On the lower level of the pyramid is a mural showing 10 naked men tethered together by a rope around their necks. Some archaeologists have interpreted this as an illustration of war captives, an indication that the Moche were not totally a peaceful people.

One of the major burials excavated at Cao Viejo has been named the Lady of Cao. She was a woman who died in her twenties around 400 CE. She was buried with a host of ceremonial items, including typical Moche gold jewelry and headdresses. In her grave were sewing needles, weaving spools, and raw cotton. She was also buried with weapons of war: two ceremonial clubs and 23 spears. Was she a warrior?

The well-preserved mummy of the Lady of Cao reveals that she had complex tattoos of spiders, seahorses, and snakes which covered her arms. The tattoo designs are distinct from the usual Moche designs. Skeletal analysis shows that she gave birth at least once. Beside her a teenaged girl had been sacrificed by strangulation.

The Temple (Pyramid) of the Sun (Huaca del Sol) at the El Brujo Complex is a stepped pyramid about 40 meters (130 feet) in height and about 350 meters (1,150 feet) in length. It is the tallest adobe structure in the Americas. It has four major platforms and was erected about 600 CE using an estimated 50 million adobe bricks.

The Spanish later mined the Temple of the Sun for its gold and silver objects which they melted down into bars. During this process they destroyed about two-thirds of the pyramid.

The third huaca at the El Brujo Complex is the Temple of the Moon (Huaca de la Luna). This large mound has three platforms and was built in five construction phases between 300 and 600. Its base is 300 meters by 250 meters. There are at least 70 sacrifices within the Huaca: all are adult males with their throats cut. Many have broken arm and hand bones. The pathology suggests the men died fighting: their arms hold crushed shields, their fingers broken with maces. While this seems to suggest actual combat, DNA tests show that the men were related to the people living in the city. Thus, they were not invading warriors.

Huaca de la Luna

The Huaca de la Luna is shown above.

The demise of the Moche was brought about by a Mega El Niño that led to 30 years of intense rain followed by 30 years of drought.