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

By George Kubler | Go to book overview

PART THREE
THE ANDEAN CIVILIZATIONS

CHAPTER II
THE NORTHERN ANDES: COLOMBIA AND ECUADOR

THE urban societies of the South American continent all flourished in the Andes, along a strip of mountainous coast less than a hundred miles wide, extending from the Caribbean façade of Venezuela and Colombia southward along the Pacific to northern Chile. Nomadic hunters of the southern Andes and plains and the tropical tribespeople of Amazonia will be treated, as will the Indian tribes of North America, in another volume of the Pelican History of Art. Here we deal only with those parts of the mountainous northern and western rim of the South American continent1 where durable artistic traditions flourished.

The geographic conditions for civilization in the Andes are unlike those of Mesoamerica. Instead of the lakes and rivers of highland Mexico, spreading across the continent to the tropical Atlantic and the and Pacific coasts, the Andean region is a narrow system of corridors between mountain ranges, rising abruptly from the coastal plains, and bounded on the east by oceans of tropical vegetation where the highlanders descended unwillingly. On the Pacific side major civilizations flourished in the river valleys separated by forbidding deserts. Conflict and interchange between the highlanders and the coastal peoples were continual: the only Mexican parallel for the Andean situation is the relation between the Gulf Coast peoples and the central plateau dwellers. There is no South American analogy for Maya civilization, and there is no close Andean parallel for the sedentary farming peoples of western Mexico. Conversely Mexico and Central America have no equivalent for the river-bank civilizations of the arid coast of Peru, nor have they any societies adapted to high altitudes like those of Southern Peru and Bolivia.

These differences are clearly evident in the arts of Mesoamerica and the Andes. The anthropomorphic or humanist bent of all Mesoamerican expression is carried by innumerable representations of the human figure. In the Andes a humanistic style appears only intermittently, as in Colombia and Ecuador, or on the north coast of Peru; elsewhere the human figure is subjected to complex deformations tending either to the emergence of monster-like combinations or to the dissolution of the human form in geometric abstractions. Throughout the Andes a dominant concern for technological control over the hostile environment is apparent. It can be seen in great works of irrigation on the coast, or in stupendous agricultural terracing in the highlands. Andean metallurgy is at least a thousand years older than that of Mexico and the Maya region. Another

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