The Art and Architecture of Ancient America: The Mexican, Maya, and Andean Peoples

By George Kubler | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I
INTRODUCTION

THE purpose of an introduction is to identify its bearer to his host in a phrase or two that solicit mutual understanding. In this book, products of aesthetic value are the principal theme. I have at all points sought to avoid the suggestion that works of art are mere illustrations to civilizations, preferring to present the artistic object itself as the unit of study. I have written about 'cultures' only when such topics were required to illuminate the objects, which are after all the principal proof of the 'culture's' existence. Hence my text will not satisfy students of 'cultures' alone; it is written for people whose main interest attaches to works of art.


THE LANDS AND THE PEOPLES

With this proviso in mind, we can approach the history of the various peoples of ancient America. Only their works tell us about them. We deduce that some were simple villagers, while others were priestly rulers or professional warriors. A few literary sources of pre-Conquest date confirm these rarefied deductions. Occasionally a city like Chanchan (p. 266) speaks to us of complicated dynastic politics; Palenque must have been a courtly centre of exquisite refinement (p. 130). But beyond these affirmations we cannot reconstruct any web of events without written records. Chanchan came into being without benefit of writing, and more than half the written signs of Maya civilization are still undeciphered. Only very occasionally the traces of an identifiable individual artist are legible; for instance in the sculpture of Palenque (p. 156) or in the pottery portraits of the north coast of Peru (p. 257). Hence the artistic identities are remote and unclear: they emerge indistinctly from their works, and if it were not for these works, we could not apprehend personalities at all.

The lands to be omitted are far more extensive than the ones to be discussed. There is nothing here about North America above the 24th north parallel of latitude, nor in South America below 20 degrees south. Our western limit lies on the Pacific coast of Mexico at about longitude 105 degrees west. Our eastern boundary, in the Andean altiplano of Bolivia at longitude 75 degrees west, excludes all lowland South America. The reason for these exclusions is a simple one: in the vast lands of eastern South America and of ancient North America there were few people. Less than 20,000,000 persons were alive in America in 1492,1 and half of these lived in the region defined by the scope of this book. Only the Mexican, Maya, and Andean peoples were numerous enough to live in large cities, producing the economic surplus that allows specialized craftsmen to build great temples and to fashion works of art. The rest enjoyed the protective isolation of aboriginal living to the point of producing very few things for us to

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