Native Americans--South and Central America: Historic Background

Although many different peoples lived in Central and South America before the coming of Europeans, the most sophisticated cultures were the civilizations of Central America and the Andean region of South America. In Central America a series of Empires arose, the most recent being the Mayan and the Toltec civilizations, centered in what is now Mexico and Guatemala. The Mayan people still can be found in Mexico and Guatemala. The Central American empires were based on agricultural traditions, with corn a major crop, and the maintenance of fertility through the cycle of seasons the central theme of religious practice. Rulers were revered as descendants of the gods.

The Andean region of South America was the site of many high civilizations centering in what is now Peru and Bolivia. The dominant civilization at the time of first European contact was the Inca civilization. Today, the people of the Andes consist mainly of Quechua speakers and Aymara speakers, descendants of ancient Andean kingdoms.

At its peak, the Inca Empire covered much of the South American Highlands, and included a sophisticated system of highways and runners that could deliver messages over distances of more than a thousand miles in a matter of days. Like the Mayan civilization, the Inca civilization was agriculturally based, ruled by a god-king.

Visual Arts of South and Central America

The humid tropical climate of Central America has destroyed most of the evidence of the past, except for the great stone pyramids, sculptures, and other structures, many of which were lost for centuries in the jungles. Ceramics have also survived. The images of people seen in sculpture and ceramics show elaborate costume, and suggest textile and dress forms that are similar to those worn by Mayan people today. Textiles remain an important aspect of Mayan culture. The designs woven into the cloth, and the forms of dress differ from village to village in Guatemala. Recently there has been a revival of the wearing of traditional dress as a sign of pride and solidarity, and a protest against the oppression experienced by Mayan people.

Textiles were also of great importance in Andean civilizations. They were a form of wealth, and designated status. Ceremonial uses of cloth gave it spiritual significance as well. The making of cloth was a state concern, and the best weavers from among the young girls of the land were brought to the capital to weave in royal workshops. Early examples of textiles were found at burial sites on the western coastal deserts. These burials involved the dressing and wrapping of the body in elaborate textiles. The woven textiles of the Andes are among the most complex weavings in the world, and yet the loom used is among the simplest.

Today the Quechua and Aymara peoples of the Andes continue to weave. Although many are forsaking old ways, the traditions survive in some regions. Cloth remains at the center of the spiritual life of the community; special bundles of cloth are kept and revered as embodiments of their ancestors. Some of these cloths may be centuries old. On certain occasions the cloths are taken out from their storage, and displayed during festivals, or carried around the bounds of the village lands, as if taking the ancestors for an outing. The details of pattern, color, structure, and even the twist of the thread carries symbolic meaning that identifies the locality, the function, the gender and status of the user.

In recent years, Andean cloth, both pre-Columbian and more recent, has been the object of collectors. As the supply of old textiles in the markets has been depleted, sacred cloth bundles have been sold or stolen from their home villages, to the consternation of community members, for whom these are embodiments of ancestors. At the same time, foreign interest in these textiles has also engendered a renewed interest in weaving. This has occasionally led to the reintroduction of weaving in places where the traditions had been abandoned.

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