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The History of Jewellery: Pre-Columbian



Pre-Columbian Civlizations (7th BC to 15th century AD)


Article Copyright © 2012 AllAboutGemstones.com

For over 22 centuries, the indigenous Pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas lived in the Central American region that is referred to as "Meso-America" (Spanish: Mesoamérica), which extends from from central Mexico to Honduras and Nicaragua; and in the South American, or Andean/Peruvian regions of modern-day Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, as well as norther Argentina and Chile.



The Mesoamerican cultures consisted of many sub-cultures beginning with the early Paleo-Indian peoples (10,000—3500 BC) who were nomadic hunter-gatherers, subsisting prior to the advent of agriculture and organized societies. The "Archaic" agricultural settlements (3500—1800 BC) were the first organized communities that were the precursor to the "Early Preclassic" cultures (2000—1000 BC) of the Olmec, the "Middle to Late Preclassic" cultures (BC 1000—200 AD) of the Mayan civilization, and the Postclassic to Post Conquest cultures (100—1500 AD) of the Moche, Aztec, and Inca civilizations.



Mesoamerican Map

   Pre-Columbian Andean-Peruvian Map


The Peruvian/Andean Valdivia (Chavin) culture was the oldest in all of the Americas, concentrated on the eastern slopes of the Andes mountains, and along coastal Ecuador. These cultures spanned from around 3500 to 1800 BCE. The Valdivia were followed by the Norte Chico culture which lived in modern-day Peru around 3000 BCE. The Valdivia culture's religious center was at Chavin de Huantar, on the eastern slopes of the Andes, over 3,200 meters above sea level.

The first highly-organized civilization of Mesoamerica's "formative period" was the Olmec. Virtually all of the pre-Columbian Maya, Aztec and Inca societies vanished, or were assimilated during the Spanish conquests under Pizarro in 1532, and the subsequent colonization of the Americas during the 16th and 17th centuries.


Pre-Columbian Jewellery Motifs & Materials

All pre-Columbian cultures were polytheistic, practicing some form of paganism. A recurring theme in pre-Columbian crafts was the use of anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and plant-like imagery in their art, glyph-carvings, pottery and jewelry. Crocodiles, deer, jaguars, and serpents, as well as aviary forms were particularly prevalent.



Mesoamerican Clay Figurines

Mesoamerican clay figurines

   Inca Gold Nose-Ring Pendant

Inca gold nose-ring pendant


Pottery, glyph art, figurines, and jewelry of any kind were not designed solely for their aesthetic value, but typically had a specific ceremonial, spiritual or secular function to perform. Unlike the Peruvian/Andean tribal cultures of the period, eroticism was not particularly prevalent in Mesoamerican art [2]. Humor however, and a fascination with "grotesque" iconography were recurring themes throughout most pre-Columbian cultures.

Although the Pre-Columbian civilizations had a great deal of natural resources in terms of precious metals, there was a rather limited selection of precious gems. Metals included copper, gold, silver, and an alloy of copper and gold tumbago. Bead work and glyptic carvings were mostly confined to shells, terra-cotta, jade (jadeite, nephrite), or so-called "greenstone" (chlorastrolite, chrysoprase, greenschist, omphacite, or serpentine), as well as chert, flint, obsidian, hematite, turquoise, and small amounts of lapis lazuli from Chile. Precious gems such as emerald were confined to the Magdalena Valley, near Bogotá, Colombia.

There was also an amber-like substance called copal which is a solidified (polymerized) tree-resin from the genus Copaifera, that is native to Mesoamerica. Copal was primarily used by pre-Columbian cultures as an aromatic ceremonial incense.


Annular Rings

The Mesoamericans were accomplished astronomers, and their preoccupation with counting and calculating the repetitive cycles of the sun, moon, planets and stars was heavily reflected in their art and jewelry. The annular ring was just such an object, being a flat, disc-shaped stone (jade or greenstone) with a hole drilled through its center. The annular ring was typically engraved with glyph-carvings that had mathematical or astronomic significance.


Pre-Columbian Ear Spools

Facial ornamentation was very popular in the Pre-Columbian world, and for the most part, jewellery was unisex being worn by both men and women. The one exception to this was the use of lip and nose plugs, which were worn exclusively by men of rank. The ear-spool was a popular item of ornamentation in most Pre-Columbian (Mesoamerican) civilizations, worn in the earlobe of men or women. Ear spools were a funnel-shaped disc typically made of pottery, stone, jadeite, greenstone, obsidian or shells. The narrow end of the flared spool would penetrate the earlobe, and was held in place by a backing plate. The ear-spool would sometimes weighing enough to stretch the earlobe downward, a desired characteristic.



Inca Gold Ear-Spool

Inca gold ear-spool

   Mesoamerican Inca Gold Bracelet

Mesoamerican Inca gold bracelet


The ear-spool theme was also carried through in larger annular rings that were used as belt ornaments, and these flared spools sometime contained engraved glyphs on the polished stone background. Other common jewellery items included bracelets or cuffs (wristlets), ritual belts, era plugs, nose guards, conventional earrings, multi-strand beaded collars, headbands, necklaces and pendants. An ear-plug was a two-piece earring which was secured to the ear with a thick stone plug, typically made of jade, serpentine or shell.


Pre-Columbian Cultures and the Ritual Mask

Through all the successive cultures of Mesoamerica, from the Classic Maya to the Olmecs, the wearing of masks was an integral part of both religious, and secular ritualism or spirituality. The mask was intended to transform the wearer, obliterating his own persona, and taking on the attributes of animals, deities, monsters or the sacrificed and deceased.

Olmec and Mayan masks are elaborately decorated with intricate mosaics of jade, turquoise and mother-of-pearl. The ancient city of Guerrero was the center for mask manufacturing in ancient Mesoamerica, and to this day, villagers in this region still make masks of animal and human forms for use in festivals [3].



Inca Ritual Mask

Inca funerary ritual death mask

   Tairona tumbaga figurine

Tairona tumbaga figurine


In the Andean-Peruvian world of the Sicán and Incas, the so-called "Sicán Deity" mask is depicted in human form with upturned eyes and nose, but may be shown with avian features, such as beaks, talons and/or wings.

Many ritual Andean masks are designed to conceal the mouth, being tooled from gold or silver metal foil, and designed to be hung from the nose. In Incan graves, mummies were dressed death masks (funeral masks) that are also covered with mouth masks. The Incas also made "Sun Masks," which were made of copper or gold, featuring radiating waves of metal-foil strips.






Olmec Jewellery (c.1000 BC to c.100 AD)

The Olmec were a Mesoamerican culture that lived in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, in the area of the modern-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco, Mexico. The Olmec civilization became known for a tradition that would continue throughout all pre-Columbian cultures: namley, the ritual practice of human sacrifice, or bloodletting. The ancient form of the modern "ball game" was also a Olmec creation that would endure, as would their "colossal head" stone sculptures that dot the landscape of this region.

The name "Olmec," meaning "rubber people" in the Aztec Nahuatl language (referring to the rubber balls used in their games), is not the name that this civilization used for itself, and ther is no known record of their actual name, but there are references to the Olmec being referred to as the Tamoanchan people. The modern name was coined by Marshall H Saville, Director of the Museum of American Indian in New York, in 1929, identifying the Olmec as a completely unique and separate culture from the Maya. The Olmecs had no known written language, but they did use a form of hieroglyphs known as "Epi-Olmec."



Teotihuacán in Veracruz

Mayan city of Teotihuacán, Veracruz (photo: public dom)

   Olmec Art

Olmec art: mask, Kunz axe (photo: public domain)


The Olmecs were accomplished builders, constructing elaborate pyramid complexes, and drainage systems. The first Olmec/Mesoamerican cities may have been El Manati and San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán in the present-day state of Veracruz, Mexican, and La Venta, in the present-day Mexican state of Tabasco. A significant archaeological site in the region is Las Bocas, which became known as a treasure-trove for Olmec artifacts, figurines and pottery.

One of the most significant semiprecious gemstones for the Olmecs was jade, which they used to carve ear spools, necklace beads, and figurines. They also used rock crystal, obsidian, serpentine, turquoise, onyx, bone, mother-of-pearl and shells.

An archetypical Olmec motif was the depiction of infant, or child-like "baby-face" figurines in the "Las Bocas" or "Xochipala-style;" dwarf or fetal-position figurines; and the "elongated man" motif with unnaturally elongated, flat-topped heads and stretched bodies. The ears on these figurines typically have small holes that would accommodate ear spool ornamentation, and the heads are crowned with a tight-fitting helmet or headdress.

The Olmecs were also avid astronomers and mathematicians, devising the first true "zero" shell-glyph several centuries before Ptolemy, which would become an integral part of the Maya numerals.


Moche Jewellery (100 AD to 800 AD)

The Peruvian region has been inhabited for over 14,000 years, beginning with nomadic hunters and gatherers, but would ultimately congeal into a group of autonomous societies known as the agriculturally-based "Moche culture" in around 100 AD. The Moche (Mochica) civilization was highly regarded for its complex iconography, elaborate painted ceramics and gold metalwork, monumental architecture and constructions called "huacas," and sophisticated irrigation systems.

Moche history was divided into three distinct periods: Early Moche (100—300 AD), Middle Moche (300—600 AD), and the collapse of the culture in Late Moche (500—750 AD). Without a written language, knowledge of the Moche would not be possible without the pictograms on their ceramic pottery which tell of their traditions, rituals, practices of human sacrifice or blood-drinking, sexual practices, metalwork and textile weaving, and ordinary daily life.



Moche Gold

Moche gold ear-spool, Sipan tomb (photo: public dom)

   Moche Decapitator

Moche 'decapitator' figure of human sacrifice


The Huaca del Sol, which was a pyramidal adobe structure on the Rio Moche, was once the largest pre-Columbian structure in Peru, but it was partly destroyed when Spanish Conquistadors mined its graves in search of hidden gold. One of the greatest known Moche treasures was a gold mask depicting a sea goddess with spirals radiating from her stone-inlaid face. Another notable piece of Moche artwork is the gilded-gold "Ulluchu Man," which is a deity with the head and legs of a human, and the caparace, legs, and claws of a crab.

The Moche were adept metalworkers, fashioning elaborate objects in gold, silver and copper. These were sometimes decorated with Peruvian-style "stone incrustations" of turquoise as well as chrysocolla, jade, lapis lazuli, mother-of-pearl, obsidian, sodalite, and a red oyster-shell from the coast of Peru called spondylus.

The Moche shared the Peruvian/Andean region with inhabitants of the Paracas civilization (BC 600—300 AD), and the Nazca civilization, which thrived from AD 1 to around AD 750. Like the Moche culture, the Nazca were known for their beautifully decorated polychrome pottery, and for their enormous geoglyphs called the "Nazca lines." Their Paracas were known for their colorful textiles which employed more than 200 hues of dyed or natural fiber. Paracas motifs included the pampa cat, parrots, sharks and snails.


Mayan Jewellery (c.1000 BC to 900 AD)

The Mesoamerican Maya civilization is noted for having one of the only fully-developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas, but they also used glyphs and pictograms to record historical records, astronomical data, mathematical systems, and scientific discoveries. Although the Maya reached their highest level of development during their "Classic period" between 250 AD and 900 AD, the culture continued all the way until the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s.



Mayan Jade Pectoral

Mayan jade pectoral (photo: John Hill/GNU)

   Azul Maya

Azul Maya ballgame, Dresden codex detail (right)


In the Mayan culture jewelry was an important aspect to royal dress, and an important measure part of social class. Pendants shaped like animals were especially popular, as was the Mayan headdresses which was an important sign of power. Mayan masks were made from gold, obsidian, stone, wood, and even shell, which would be inlayed, or encrusted with tiny pieces of jade arranged in a mosaic pattern.



Chichen Itza

High Priest's Temple at Chichén-Itzá (photo: public)

   Stone Encrusted Mayan Mask

Stone encrusted Mayan mask


Mayan artwork was very vibrant, made so by color pigments like "Maya blue" (Spanish: azul Maya) which was a deep-blue pigment composed of indigo dye that was derived from the leaves of the añil plant (Indigofera suffruticosa), combined with a natural clay called palygorskite (see: "ballgame artwork" above, left). At the Mayan Rosalila temple in Copan, Honduras, mica was applied over the monument's red-painted stucco masks, adding a dramatic shimmering effect [8].

Towards the end of the "early post-classic" period (900—1200 CE), the Mesoamerican sources for jade (jadeite) had run out. During this period, other types of "greenstone" such as serpentine, as well as turquoise, shell and even hardwoods were being used to fashion ear spools, beads and carved figurines [15].


Mixtec Jewellery (500 AD to 750 AD)

The name of "Mixtec," or "Mixteca" (derived from the Nahuatl word Mixtecapan, or "place of the cloud-people") refers to a Mesoamerican culture from the La Mixteca region, around modern-day Oaxaca. The Mixtec peoples were accomplished goldsmiths, producing complex, and delicate jewelry with elaborate filigree work. Mixtec necklaces were very ornate, comprised of hundreds of tiny pear-shaped drop pendants. The Mixtec, Tarascan, Toltec and Huastec cultures of the Classic and Post-Classic periods (AD 250-1250) were the precursors to the Aztec.


Aztec Jewellery (1300 AD to 1535 AD)

The name of "Aztec" typically refers to the Tenochtitlan peoples that lived along Lake Texcoco, calling themselves "Colhua-Mexica," or "Mexica Tenochca." Alternativly, the "Aztec" name can also be a generic term that is used to identify multiple Mesoamerican ethnic groups who all shared the common Nahuatl language, and lived in Central Mexico during the late Post-Classic Period of the 14th, through 16th centuries.



Aztec Chalchihuitl Jadite Beads

Aztec Chalchihuitl jadite beads (AD1400—1600)

   Aztec Human Sacrifice

Aztec Mendoza human sacrifice


In the Early, Middle, and Late Preclassic periods, many carved figurines were of women who are depicted naked, typically wearing some type of necklaces and/or headdresses. Certain non-human forms also became popular in the Late Pre-Classic Period, including bird-like figurines with large eyes.


Sicán Inca & Tairona Jewellery (750 AD to 1535 AD)

Following on the heals of the Moche, the Sicán civilization (aka Lambayeque culture) inhabited the northern coast of Peru from around 750 AD to 1375 AD. The Sicán (meaning "temple of the moon") dwelled in the Batán Grande, which is a river valley in the Andean foothills, near the La Leche and Lambayeque Rivers.

Being a desert culture, the Sicán were highly adaptable and innovative, constructing extensive irrigation systems, and elaborate quadrangular funerary complexes. The Sicán also maintained an extensive trading network, importing rare materials such as lapis lazuli from Chile, and exotic avian feathers from the Amazonian rainforest [12]. The Wari culture (AD 500—800) was a sub-group of the Sicán, living in the Central Peruvian Highlands, and at Tiwanaku, near the shores of Lake Titicaca. The Sicán civilization was the precursor to the Incan Empire, which would be the last of the "pre-Conquest" civilizations of ancient Peru.

The Incan Empire was the largest empire in pre-Columbian America, but certainly not the longest lived at only a single century (1400 AD—1532 AD). The Empire was centered around the modern-day city of Cuzco (Qosqo) in the highlands of Peru. The Incas are most famous for their extensive use of gold, and the attraction that this display of wealth had on the Spanish explorers who were determined to take it from them.



Machu Picchu in Peru

Inca Empire city of Machu Picchu in Peru

   Sicán Gold Mask

Sicán gold funeral mask (Metropolitan Museum)


The Incas were prolific artisans who had a penchant for the making of gold and silver containers - some in human form, and doll-like male or female human effigies and figurines which were dedicated to the gods [10]. The Incas worshiped the sun (Inti), which was the most important of their six major gods of the moon, sun, earth, thunde, lightning and the sea. The highest point in an Incan village was reserved for religious purposes, as it was the closest to the sun.

The Tairona was a group of chiefdoms who lived in the region of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (present-day Cesar, La Guajira and Magdalena) in Colombia, South America from 200 BCE to 1650 AD. One of the best-known Tairona archaeological sites is known as Ciudad Perdida (Spanish for "Lost City").

The Tairona were known for their ornamental cast gold jewelry and figurines known as caciques, which depicted noblemen or chiefs in ornate dresses and with a large animal mask covering their face. Tairona jewelry was comprised of earrings, ear spools, lip-plugs, necklaces, nose ornaments, and pendants.


Arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors

The legend of El Dorado and el rey dorado or "the golden king" fueled Spanish Conquistadors like Hernando Cortés, Francisco Pizarro, and Sebastian de Belalcazar to explore, and ultimately conquer this region in the early 1500s. The "golden city" of El Dorado is believed to have been either the Incan city of Coricancha (meaning "Golden Courtyard") in modern-day Cusco, Peru, or at the location of the Incan city of Tomipamba, which later became the Colonial city of Cuenca ( Santa Ana de los cuatro ríos de Cuenca), in Azuay Province, Ecuador.

The Andean Cañaris and Muisca peoples of the Boyacá and Cundinamarca highlands of Colombia were also the target of the Spanish Conquistadors who were in search of the source for Muzo emeralds.



During the early 1500s the Spaniards would melt down the plundered gold figurines, jewelry and other objects, forming them into gold ingots called tumbaga (an alloy of gold, copper and silver) for easy transport back to Europe. These gold tumbaga bars were then used to make Spanish currency.



Gold Tumbaga Ingot

Gold tumbaga ingot made by Cortés

   Spanish Gold Coin

Spanish gold coin (c. 1500s)


With the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors in the early 1500s, this marked the end of the last great indigenous Andean (pre-Columbian) population in the Americas. At the time of the Spaniard's arrival, there were over 40,000 Incan soldiers, but they were overwhelmed by as few as 180 Spaniards, not because of their military superiority, but because of an invisible invader known as smallpox [14]. In 1535, Francisco Pizarro González moved the capital from the Incan city of Cuzco, to Lima, Peru.





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Bibliography on Pre-Columbian Jewelry


1. Oppi Untracht, Jewelry Concepts & Technology - Complete Reference Guide . Doubleday

2. Frederick J. Dockstader, Indian Art in Middle America. National Geographic Publishers, Ltd.

3. Olivia Vlahos, Masks and Meaning in Mesoamerica culture. www.worldandi.com

4. Carnegie Mellon, Olmec Jewelry . www.latinamericanstudies.org

5. Olmec Civilization . www.crystalinks.com

6. Carnegie Mellon, Moche Artwork . www.andrew.cmu.edu

7. Moche Culture . www.geocities.com

8. Maya Masks Enhanced with Sparkling Mica . www.sciencedaily.com

9. Bruce Owen, Nazca Culture . www.bruceowen.com

10. From Tiahuanaco through Inca . www.infinity.cos.edu

11. Proyecto Arqueológico Sicán, Sican Archaeological Project . www.sican.org

12. Linda Kreft, The Sicán: Treasure Tomb From Peru's Desert Coast . www.lindakreft.com

13. Museum of Pre-Columbian Gold . www.precolumbiangold.com

14. MSU, The Inca Civilization . www.mnsu.edu

15. Lynn V. Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World

16. V. Catherall, Maya culture, Classic Period . www.cartage.org.lb

17. Clare Phillips, Jewelry: From Antiquity to the Present . Thames & Hudson

18. Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian . www.nmai.si.edu




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