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Art History: Indigenous South America

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Read Time: 4 mins
This post is part of a series called A Beginner's Guide to Art History.
History of Art: Renaissance
Art History: African Art

Welcome back to our series on art history! From the native lands of North America, we now venture onward to experience the world of art from indigenous South America. Let's see how history significantly affected the art of this time.

Golden Muisca MaskGolden Muisca MaskGolden Muisca Mask
Golden Muisca Mask

The Pre-Colombian World

Present day Colombia and Peru were once the sites of the native civilizations of South America. Tribes of hunters and gatherers established cities where they developed the tools and resources to survive the elements while passing down incredible ancient traditions.

For centuries they lived uninterrupted from European invasion, creating exceptional architectural monuments and everyday objects by hand. Their exquisite work became a reflection of their life and varied belief systems with precious metals, textiles, and sculptures at the center of their craft.

Chavin Feline and Cactus Stirrup VesselChavin Feline and Cactus Stirrup VesselChavin Feline and Cactus Stirrup Vessel
Chavin Feline and Cactus Stirrup Vessel

Let's take a look at some of the most common types of art that originated from this era to learn more about these incredibly resilient people.


A native tradition spanning nearly 10,000 years, Andean textiles were known worldwide for their beauty and exceptional craftsmanship. Using an ancient backstrap loom, Andeans wove their textiles by leaning back and forth to create and release tension on the loom.

Chimu Mantle TextileChimu Mantle TextileChimu Mantle Textile
Chimu Mantle Textile

This laborious technique resulted in a beautiful textile often featuring their love of supernatural creatures or shamans. Made from Alpaca wool and cotton, the textiles were then dyed with vibrant colors that were unusually preserved due to the area's dry weather conditions.

The Chimu, an ancient South American culture originating from the location of present-day Peru, were expert textile makers who used a spindle to create their work. Spinning a long thread that would later be interwoven into complex combinations, artists would embellish their work with brocades, embroidery, and painted fabrics.

Similar to the Andean culture, the Chimu used natural dyes created from plants and minerals to color their materials. Notice their exquisite work in retrieved mantle pieces, which were elaborately decorated fabrics used for clothing.

Chimu Tapestry ShirtChimu Tapestry ShirtChimu Tapestry Shirt
Chimu Tapestry Shirt

Sculpture and Architecture

In a society where tools were created by hand, sculpture became a significant part of early South American civilizations. The Sican, or Lambayeque culture, created gorgeous sculptures and everyday objects out of precious metals native to the area.

Sican Gold Beaker CupsSican Gold Beaker CupsSican Gold Beaker Cups
Sican Gold Beaker Cups

Their large-scale practice of smelting and metal working meant that metal tools and objects permeated all levels of society, and even created a hierarchy of individuals who could afford more precious metals. Metalsmithing became a way of life, and large workshops bloomed with the work of native artists featuring beautiful ceramics, cooking vessels, and architectural ornaments.

Chancay Vessel with Sican GodChancay Vessel with Sican GodChancay Vessel with Sican God
Chancay Vessel with Sican God

Speaking of architecture, we can't talk about the indigenous art of South America without mentioning the ancient architecture of the Incas and Mesoamerican Mayans. Most widely known is Machu Picchu, an Inca citadel situated on the mountaintops of Peru.

Machu PicchuMachu PicchuMachu Picchu
Machu Picchu

Comprised of several temples and ancient monuments, the buildings of Machu Picchu were created using a classic Incan architectural technique called Ashlar. Using stones that were mined from their own quarry site, the Incas then lined up the stones and fitted them together using stabilizing structural details like trapezoidal windows and rounded corners. These incredible engineers managed to create buildings that not only lasted over several centuries, but also survived the heavy rainfall and volcanic activity forever present in the area.

Machu Picchu BuildingMachu Picchu BuildingMachu Picchu Building
Machu Picchu Building


When we think about jewelry today, it is often the well-established and esteemed individuals of society who adorn themselves with this expensive art. But the Muisca civilization of Colombia had a more egalitarian approach.

They were famous for their exquisite work with gold, although it could only be obtained by trading along the Magdalena River. Common people were less jewelry, of course, but mighty warriors and priests wore everything from gold nose rings to gold bracelets and masks.

Golden Muisca BraceletsGolden Muisca BraceletsGolden Muisca Bracelets
Golden Muisca Bracelets

People from the ancient Chavin culture were also talented in the realm of precious metalwork. Though only the elite adorned themselves in exotic jewelry, they wore their jewelry with pride and had a preference for beautiful sea shells and intricate gold pieces.

Chavin Gold CrownChavin Gold CrownChavin Gold Crown
Chavin Gold Crown


The period of Indigenous South American art was a mysterious time of ancient tradition. Its wide range of culture and influence is a true testament to the evolution of art, and I hope you continue to learn more about these amazing timelines on your own.

For more wondrous tales of art history from South America, dive into the links below for further reading. And join me next month when we discuss the amazing art from Africa.

The following sources were also included in this article:

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