Prehistoric Origins of American Design

The first Americans, a few wandering hunters on the paleolithic culture level, probably reached this continent about 7,000 years ago. Archaeologists in general agree that these primitive people either crossed the frozen ice or a land bridge then connecting Alaska with Siberia. During succeeding centuries, other groups followed in canoes traveling along the coast or using the old route. Throughout the North, where a rigorous climate prevented cultural development, the various Asiatic people now known to us as Eskimos and Indians remained on a paleolithic hunting level.

Their Central American relatives gradually developed agriculture during the thousand years before Christ. Baked painted pottery, weaving, and basketry appear at that time, along with those crude clay figurines from which this culture takes the name "archaic." By the first century before Christ, the archaic culture can be found from northwestern Mexico throughout Central America and as far south as Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. The faces of the figurines indicate that their creators included a diversity of Asiatic and Oceanic ethnical types. Most of them have the slant eyes, round faces, and thin lips of the Mongoloid people. Many either have profiles with retreating brows and chins, like those of the Javanese, or are bearded, like some of the Polynesians and Chinese. Some of the earliest archaic figures are clothed with turbans and skirts; others have hair styles like those shown on early Hindu sculpture. Some wear bird'shead helmets, like the wooden masks of the Alaskan Indians; but few have the elaborate feathered headdress later associated with Mayan and Aztec cultures. The archaic people also worked shell and precious stones for their jewelry. Pottery whorls for spinning, as well as bone and stone implements, abound. Archaic pottery made of coarsely kneaded clay, baked to a reddish brown, repeats most of the shapes found in Chinese neolithic ware. The decoration is in red, white, or black geometric lines.

Until the 1st century B.C., archaic art shows little sign of aesthetic development, remaining upon a level as low as that of the earliest Susian or predynastic Egyptian. There exist no signs from which the complicated hieroglyphic system of the Mayans could have been evolved. Overnight, so it seems, a rich culture appeared in Central America. Almost simultaneously, the Chimu and Nazca cultures arose along the coast of Peru.

Despite the remarkable evidence of this unexplained appearance of complex culture forms and design motives so closely paralleling those of contemporaneous Southeastern Asia, most American archaeologists persist, as the ethnologists did for many years before them, in trying to interpret all Indian design in terms of a wholly indigenous development, pointing to the great divergence of styles as against any single Asiatic origin. European ethnologists and archaeologists explain this divergence of types by pointing out that as in historic times there have been several well-known instances of boats and canoes being carried by the Japanese current down the west coast of America, so probably at various times in the last 3,000 years small groups of people from Polynesia, IndoChina, China, Korea, and Mongolia reached the American shores by the water route. These brought a few designed articles, with various techniques like bronze casting, pottery inlaying, and wood carving, as well as their Asiatic customs and gods. The earliest and most obviously Asiatic designs disappeared because carried by people who, like the present-day Indian tribes of the Northwest coast, carved their totem poles, great war canoes, thrones, and chests in wood, which disintegrated in the moist climate of the tropics.

Some European scholars suggest definite cultural influences from China, pointing to the fact that Shih Huang Ti, the Ts'in emperor, who built the Great Wall of China, sent expeditions across the eastern sea for the drug of immortality, which supposedly grew on the legendary three islands of the blest. Between 140 and 85 B.C., the Han emperor Wu Ti also sent out expeditions over the eastern sea. Considering that some of these expeditions might have missed the blessed islands and been caught in the Japanese current, it is conceivable that one or more ships manned by highly intelligent, cultured people could have reached the western shores of Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, and Peru just before the time of Christ.

These men would have understood the art of bronze casting by the lost wax process, the art of building great walled cities, circular and square pagodas, pyramids like those of IndoChina, with sky temples. They would have brought with them a pantheon, including the winged skyserpent, the feline goddess with the serpents, or the Tao Tieh mask and more humane conceptions of the Deity associated with Confucianism and Taoism. They would also have had an elementary system of writing, with signs designed like those on Chou-dynasty bronzes. Most of these things appear in prehistoric American art after the first century.

Important it is to notice that in both the South American and the Central American cultures the quality of the aesthetic production slowly degenerated after the first two or three hundred years of the first millennium. In so elementary a study as ours, there can be no room for more than a glimpse into this fascinating field, the last frontier of archaeological research where the great problems of the origin of the American style are still to be solved.

Archaeologists differ as to the exact time when the Chimu and Nazca cultures appeared in Peru. S. G. Morley and D. Herbert Spinden would date the statuette from Tuxtla, an early Mayan monument, around 100 B.C.; others, like J. Eric Thompson, around 60 A.D. Throughout this chapter the later dates will be used. The first datable city, Uaxactun in Guatemala, was built between A.D. 160 and 320. Shortly after that time, the Mayans had cities at Palenque in Southern Mexico and at Tikal, Copan, Piedras Negras, and Quirigua.

The earliest cities of the old Mayan empire, like Palenque, show that the Mayan architects had an excellent feeling for mass, a genius for designing great complex structures, and a sense for city planning. The buildings of Palenque include ziggurats, pagodalike towers several stories in height, passageways covered with horseshoe vaults similar to those in the Hindu cave temples, and other advanced refinements of the builder's art. The appropriate, skillful design of the architectural sculpture so quickly reached a state of perfection in the earliest stone buildings of the old Mayan cities that one concludes it followed a long practice in wooden sculpture, now lost, or else that seafaring people related to the Polynesians, with skill in wood carving and many advanced motifs, brought new ideas to the receptive archaic culture, along with the advanced hieroglyphic writing which then appears in stone.

In several of the cities, particularly Yaxchilan and Tikal, fragmentary remains of richly carved wooden lintels and doorposts have been found. One from Tikal pictures in complex form the feathered serpent associated with the worship of Quetzalcoatl. It is similar in many points to the Tao-Tieh mask on Chou-dynasty bronzes. All the spaces are completely filled with an intricate interweave of colored areas in absolute balance. Most Mayan sculpture, like this lintel from Tikal, is carved in low relief, so as to harmonize with the surfaces of the rectangular structures. Some of the architects developed a degree of refinement in their design which called for less primitive conceptions than this, as can be seen by studying some of the early pottery and the relief panel from Piedras Negras.

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