Times & Places

Andes, South America

In South America, the greatest concentration of cultural development occurred along the western edge of the continent. This geographic area is often referred to as the Andes, and distinctive cultural characteristics include: 1) the preservation of fragile materials—textiles, wood, and feathers—through burial or storage in one of the world’s driest deserts; 2) art styles that relied on materials and themes from diverse and geographically distant environments including the coast, highlands, and tropical forests; 3) the importance of camelid species (llama, alpaca, guanaco, and vicuña); 4) an early mastery of working precious metals (gold, silver, and copper); and 5) a system of recording information using knotted cords or strings. The countries of Colombia and Ecuador are often described as the Northern Andes with shared influences extending from the Central Andes, especially under the Inca Empire, during the Late Horizon (1400-1532 CE).

In the Andes, there was no recognizable writing system prior to the Spanish arrival in the 16th century. Contemporary understanding about pre-Hispanic Andean cultures thus derives principally from three approaches: archaeology, material analysis, and ethnohistory. While ethno-historical sources (such as Spanish chronicles) offer insight about cultures at the Spanish conquest from a colonial perspective, archaeological and visual analyses engage the material evidence of pre-Hispanic cultures. Scientific excavation of these archaeological contexts is thus fundamental to advancing our understanding, providing information on object associations, ritual practices, and lifeways (diet, hygiene, migrations). Nothing can replace contextual information once lost through looting and destruction of ancient sites. Building on available archaeological research, material and visual analyses can offer further information about cultural artifacts. That is, an object may convey information about its medium (cotton, bronze), production (cast, woven), function (weapon, headgear), and cultural period (form, technique), as well as clues regarding its creator, owner, audience, and significance. As the artworks demonstrate, such analyses may elucidate rather complex cultural interactions. Through stewardship of cultural arts, museums perform a crucial role in such analyses, supporting field research and public awareness. The Andes today draw visitors from around the globe, defining a region replete with visible cultural heritage, ritual traditions, and artistic production.

Drawn from

  • Kimberly L. Jones, PhD, Inca: Conquests of the Andes / Los Incas y las conquistas de los Andes, Gallery text, 2015.
  • Ken Kelsey, Gail Davitt, Mary Ann Allday, Barbara Barrett, and Dana DeLoach, DMA Teaching Packet, 1995.
  • Michael Coe, Dean Snow, and Elizabeth Benson, Atlas of Ancient America (New York and Oxford: Facts on File Publications, 1986): 157.

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