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UT Ancient Americas

Animals of the Sky, Sea, Highland Mountains, and Lowland Forest Landscapes

[A flock of birds flying over Salaverry's rocky coast]

A flock of birds flying over Salaverry's rocky coast, 1920s.

[A llama train walking up the mountain trails in Peru]

A llama train walking up the mountain trails in Peru, 1920s.

Ancient Andean cultures paid great attention to the animals in their immediate environments, and even in environments beyond their local ecosystems. Animals provided food, fibers for textiles, other materials for tools and craft, and transport for goods. They also symbolized aspects of their environments by signaling, through their patterns of behavior, the changing of seasons and the arrival of rain, or different types of ecosystems: some dry and hot at low elevations, others dry and cold at high elevations, or wet and humid in tropical forest landscapes. The characteristics of animals and the environments they symbolized were also incorporated into religion, mythology, and ideology, connecting them with human as well as supernatural contexts.

While drastically different in style, many Chimu blackwares and Nasca polychrome vessels represent the natural world in ceramic artworks. Both cultures displayed themes relevant to their everyday lives in their visual culture. Often, the Nasca people chose to portray not just nature in broad terms, but more specifically what humans interacted with, such as food sources like crops or fish, spiritually significant animals, and other aspects of the surrounding environment. The admiration for the bounty of nature is manifested in many ceramics with themes that hold fertility and abundance in high regard in contexts where changing patterns in nature and weather phenomena, such as El Niño events, could cause scarcity that resulted in death. The struggle between life and death was often depicted in Nasca ceramics through animals, further reinforcing the idea that humans used nature as a representation of their own lives. Many museums across the world showcase variations of thematic naturalism, both in Nasca as well as in Chimu ceramics.

Ancient Andean cultures not only depicted the animals of their landscapes, but also utilized their surroundings in their artworks, depending on wool from camelids and cotton from crops for their textiles, as well as feathers from birds, and reeds for weaving baskets and nets. These materials played important roles in the coastal societies of the Nasca and the Chimu, who saw animals and nature as carrying both practical and spiritual meanings.


Nasca Hummingbird and Flower Polychrome Bowl

This polychrome ceramic is a Nasca bowl from the Early Intermediate Period, which dates to between 200 BCE-600 CE.  Decorated by slip painting prior to the firing, a process typical of this culture, this bowl has as its central focus a series of hummingbirds with their beaks touching a flower.  Each figure is outlined in black as is characteristic of Nasca ceramics especially of the early and middle phases, and is naturalistic in style.  Of note are the large white eyes of the birds, which are atypical for this species, but consistent in depictions of hummingbirds throughout all phases of Nasca history and may be indicative of some supernatural force.

[A view of the zoological garden's lake and birds in Lima]

A view of the zoological garden’s lake and birds in Lima, 1920s.

Nasca bowl with birds

Nasca style has been divided into two main phases, known as the “Berkeley Scheme,” which has been used by most scholars since, and refined into further subdivisions. Early Nasca, also known as the “monumental Nasca,” is the phase to which this bowl belongs. The later and more abstract stage towards Late Nasca history is known as the “proliferous” stage and is less characterized by naturalism and figurative representations. Nasca polychromes during the monumental phase exhibit a sparseness of design and generally an expanse of background. The outlines are used not only to surround the figures, but also to divide the vessel into different registers and surfaces for painted designs, such as the lines of the rim around the top and the lines around the bottom in this object.1

Birds as motifs are prolific in Andean art; examples can be found in numerous museum collections that cover this period and region. Hummingbirds and vultures are amongst the most esteemed, as they were thought to have the power to move back and forth between life and death, symbolizing birth and renewal.2 Birds such as condors and vultures as well as hummingbirds were sometimes portrayed as supernatural winged creatures: while Andean people attentively observed the natural world,  the various roles attributed to birds in religions and artistic representations could also be imbued with symbolic meanings.3 For example, the use of polychrome pottery was the principal medium of Nasca ideology, and ceramic vessels served as highly revered ritual paraphernalia that chiefs and shamans employed during the Early Nasca period and onwards. The pottery played an essential role in the dissemination of symbols, the knowledge of  which was used by the chiefs and shamans to display power.4

Nasca double spout and bridge with hummingbirds around flowers

Naturalistic depictions of animals, including the hummingbird, can be found in other art media of this culture including the well-known Nazca Lines, geoglyphs that mark the desert of the Nasca heartland.  Ceremonial practices included the “ritual killing” of elaborate vessels by smashing them and metaphorically sacrificing them as an offering.  These rituals add to the mystique of both the Lines and the meaning behind the motifs used on the vessels, as the Lines share much of the same figurative iconography as the polychrome pottery.5 The hummingbird is one of the more remarkable animals in these biomorphs on the landscape, but other birds, a monkey, spider, and lizard also underscore the cohesive visual culture that links the makers of the lines with the porters and painters of polychrome designs. In summary, in pursuing research on Nasca pottery, there is more than meets the eye in a beautiful naturalistic polychrome bowl. From manufacturing technique, to painted decor and ritual use, there is meaningful insight into the culture of the Nasca peoples.


Chimu stirrup spout bottle with wave pattern and bird applique

This ceramic vessel is from the Chimu culture of ancient Peru, which existed between ca. 900 and 1470 CE along the Andean northern coast. It is decorated with images of a maritime theme, referencing the wildlife and landscape that would have surrounded this culture along the Pacific Ocean.6 This object is marked by a curvilinear pattern that creates a stylized wave dividing the upper and lower parts of the vessel body into two registers, the bottom half plainly finished with a shiny, almost reflective mirror-like surface produced by burnishing. The upper register is marked by the wave design rendered in a raised dot pattern, creating a contrasting texture with the smooth bottom and and top section above the waves. This is a reversal of how wave motifs typically appear in Chimu pottery: as a shiny burnished wave pattern usually defining the bottom registers, and a dot-pattern background above and around the stylized wave motif. The vessel also features a figurative element in the applqué bird at the base of the spout. In Chimu pottery, bird forms often appear placed on or around the spout and shoulders of a vessel accompanied by a similar wave pattern on the body of the vessel. Appliqués like this are a common feature in Chimu pottery, in the shape of birds, monkeys, and human figures, and they may function as separate iconographic elements from the rest of the vessels’ decorative composition. Alternatively, there may be a connection between the occurrence of wave patterns and bird appliqués, perhaps mimicking the way seabirds fly over the coast or float on top of the water.

Chimu stirrup spout bottle with a modeled bird on the stirrup

This vessel is decorated in accordance with conventions of Chimu pottery. Nearly all Chimu ceramics are blackwares, meaning that they have monochrome black surfaces as a result of choices made during firing: to create the all-black appearance, Chimu potters fired ceramics in an environment with reduced oxygen, causing the clay to turn black.7 This object is no exception, and it is a saturated black all the way through. Also common practice among Chimu ceramics artists, the use of burnishing was employed to bring out the shine on the clay surface, emphasizing the textural contrast between elements of the design, such as the waves of this example rendered in the raised-dot pattern, also characteristic of Chimu pottery. This clever technique mimics the contrasting textures of water and sky, varying the way light is reflected off the surface of the vessel and making the designs more noticeable despite the dark monochromatic coloring. Lastly, also characteristic of Chimu ceramics is the handle and mouth opening of this type of bottle shape, in the form of a stirrup-spout immensely common to Chimu as well as earlier Moche ceramics, partially as a result of the use of molds to replicate pottery forms.

Chimu stirrup spout bottle with a modeled bird on the stirrup

Chimu ceramic production employed molds to create pottery in large quantities, as in processes of mass production, in which quantity may have been more prized than the individual quality of a single vessel. The Chimu civilization was organized as an empire with expansionist aims, resulting in a largely hierarchical and stratified society.8 Because of this structure, elites may have employed the accumulation and distribution of quantities of goods as a marker of their status and wealth, perhaps indicating that the production of pottery was in the hands of the state. There is sometimes a “carelessness in production that can be observed in some vessels”, as well as many simply being of lower quality or more simple designs.9 The goal of this type of pottery making, while it remained decorative, often became less focused on unique artworks, and more on efficient production. This mold-based production process is why many Chimu objects exhibit the same or similar shapes and designs.


Chimu sculptural blackware reclining llama jar
[A vicuña standing outside near plants] [A few llamas resting near a smelter in a mountain village in Peru] [A llama pack train in the low mountains in Casapalca] [Llamas walking through a street in La Paz with sitting merchants near] [A llama pack train on a mountain road passing by a shrine]

This ceramic vessel is a Chimu jar that depicts a camelid, and dates from ca. 900 to 1470 CE. This ancient blackware object is monochrome and has an overall bulbous shape, further defined by the head and tail of a camelid. This Late Intermediate Period jar is a representation of the reliance on nature for resources crucial to survival in a challenging environment. There is a frequent theme of animal representations in Chimu ceramics, the most common of which are birds, in particular seabirds, and monkeys, although llamas are also frequent.10 Camelids were significant in Andean societies, as shown in the ceramic iconography of Chimu and other ancient South American cultures; however, camelids did not originate in the coastal areas of Peru, so their representation is not just a depiction of the local environment. Rather, it is reflective of the concept of the “vertigo archipelago,” which encompasses the trading of resources between various eco-zones and the circulations of goods, information, and aspects of visual culture from many different ecosystems.11 There are three main distinct environments in the Andes: the arid coastal deserts, the highland mountain areas, and the humid tropical forests, all of which are home to a wide array of different resources. Camelids originated in the highlands of the Andes and were brought to coastal areas as pack animals for transporting goods. The merging of highland and coastal cultural resources is documented by the use of camelids for the trading of cloth and other materials.12 Camelids were used for wool fiber for textiles, as food sources, and as pack animals, which justifies their persistent appearance as subject matter in artworks, within all regions.13 These animals were essential to the Chimu culture, and they were treated with the same regards as human children in ritual sacrificial contexts.14 Archaeologist Oscar Gabriel Prieto excavated a mass grave in the North Coast of Peru, specifically in Huanchaquito, an area occupied by the Chimu people and dating approximately to 1200-1400 CE. His team uncovered several hundred human and camelid skeletons and identified them as sacrificial offerings in the context of environmental upheavals caused by El Niño events.15 

Chimu sculptural blackware reclining llama jar Chimu sculptural blackware reclining llama jar

The formal aspects of this object are also interesting elements of the ceramic vessel. Blackware is a technique used extensively by the Chimu during firing, by reducing oxygen to create a dark surface that could also be made very shiny by burnishing it prior to firing.16 The bulbous shape of the jar equates the body of the vessel with the body of the llama, laid down on its left side, with its head, tail, and legs all visible from the front of the vessel. It is not uncommon for Chimu potters to depict llamas lying down in the act of giving birth, or with a harness, or both. In the first case, the composition could reference the cycle of life, fertility, and the reproduction of important resources. The depictions of llamas with a harness clearly reference their role as pack animals. In this case the llama has no harness, perhaps signaling its role in contexts other than transport, and while it is not showing the act of giving birth, the pose is the same, lying down and emphasizing the size of its swollen belly at the widest point in the vessel’s body, suggesting this might be a portrait of a pregnant llama. This interpretation would include this object into the same subject category as llamas giving birth, and as llamas symbolizing fertility and reproduction.


Chimu stirrup spout bottle with a monkey applique

With its smooth, bulbous body burnished but left plain, and extending into a narrow-mouthed spout, this blackware ceramic of the Chimu culture may appear minimalist in its decorative composition compared to ceramics of other Andean cultures: the focal point of decoration is at the base of the vessel and at the shoulder, where the body meets the base of the spout. At this juncture is a modeled monkey, larger than the common monkey appliqués that appear frequently on Chimu ceramics on stirrup-spouts. The scale of this monkey suggests that it has more emphasis in this composition than the smaller appliqués, and may be the main subject matter of this vessel, rather than a decorative detail.

In ancient Andean societies monkeys had mythological significance through a creation story for the origins of the sky, the earth, and the sea: man was turned into a monkey for misbehaving when he spilled water from a jar, which in turn became the sea. The chronicles by Juan Cristóbal Calvete de Estrella, Rebelión De Pizarro en El Perú y Vida De D. Pedro Gasca (1889), narrate Andean myths like this one, which reveal a direct link between monkeys and vessels, perhaps even referencing the precious quality of the liquids that these vessels held.17 Abundant throughout Chimu art, the motif of the monkey maintains spiritual significance, passed down through the generations by oral storytelling of ancient myths and creation stories, linking monkeys both to the natural and supernatural worlds. 

Chimu stirrup spout bottle with a monkey applique

Monkeys are not limited to Chimu art: somewhat like camelids, they appear in the visual culture of most Andean societies, whether monkeys were typical of the local environment or not. These are animals that are most abundant in the lowland environments and tropical forests, suggesting an association also between monkeys and wet, humid, water-rich ecosystems. This association may in part explain the appearance of monkeys in the art of the Nasca as well - another culture that developed in the arid desert environment of coastal Peru. A large-scale image of a monkey with an elaborate spiraling tail is part of the corpus of images in the Nazca Lines, impressive for the planning time, effort, and resources it took to create it. With the spiral’s radius several hundred feet wide, this geoglyph in the Nasca desert is a monumental work that implies the intense significance for this culture of the monkey and of other animals depicted, many of which also have associations with water.  The use of the monkey, from a rainforest climate, as a symbol of the fertility brought about by abundant water, contrasts starkly with the Nasca and the Chimu desert environments.

Such significance also justifies the mass production of Chimu ceramics that incorporate animal appliqués. Typically applied after the molding of the vessel, the addition of animal appliques varies but tends to feature primarily monkeys and seabirds. The body of this ceramic, a plain globular shape with a shiny burnished surface, might symbolize the sea created by the monkey’s mistake in spilling a jar of precious water.

Chimu stirrup spout bottle with a monkey applique

The base is the most intricately detailed aspect of the entire object. Overall the shape of this vessel, with spout and handle, and a raised base, is very reminiscent of Sicán vessel forms rather than Chimu ones, but the details on the base link the decorative pattern both to Chimu architectural art as well as to Chimu textiles. The use of stamping techniques typical in Chimu ceramic decoration, such as raised-dots patterns and other iconographic elements, creates repeating designs, including geometric ones like the step-fret motif that covers the base of this vessel, and is used extensively on the monumental adobe walls of the Chimu imperial capital city of Chan Chan.18 The scale of the walls of Chan Chan and of the base of this vessel differ dramatically, but the iconographic motifs here are a miniature version of those that appear typically on the walls: most are related to water, in the form of curvilinear waves, or step-fret wave motifs, lines of water canals for irrigation, and even nets for fishing. If the designs at the base of this vessel are associated with water, the overall composition connects both the base and the monkey at the top with water. Exhibiting the consequences of the monkey’s actions, the geometric pattern covers the base of the vessel, like water in the creation story covered the earth and formed the sea.

Text for interpretive object profiles contributed by Deborah Harkins, Emily Mastronardi, Monique Chapela-Perez, Gracie Gilchriest, and Astrid Runggaldier.


1 Donald A. Proulx. “Nasca Ceramic Iconography: An Overview”. The Studio Potter 29, no. 1 (December 2000): 36–43.

2 Nicole Sault. “How Hummingbird and Vulture Mediate Between Life and Death in Latin America” Journal of Ethnobiology 36, no. 4 (2016): 783-806.

3 Hélène Bernier. “Birds of the Andes.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, June 2009)

4 Helaine Silverman and Donald Proulx. The Nasca. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2002).

5 Rebecca R. Stone. Art of the Andes: from Chavin to Inca. (London: Thames and Hudson, 2012).

6 Ricardo M. Sabogal-Suji. "Symbolic Meanings of the Pacific Ocean among the Peruvian Fishermen-Surfers from Huanchaco Beach." (PhD diss., Florida Atlantic University, 2019).

7 Valentine Wauters. “Imperial Needs, Imperial Methods: Chimú Ceramic Manufacturing Process Through CT Scan Analysis of Stirrup-Spout Bottles.” Latin American Antiquity 27, no. 2 (2016): 238–56.

8 Richard W. Keatinge and Kent C. Day. “Socio-Economic Organization of the Moche Valley, Peru, During the Chimu Occupation of Chan Chan.” Journal of Anthropological Research 29, no. 4 (December 1, 1973): 275–295.

9 H. Tschauner and U. Wagner, “Pottery from a Chimu Workshop Studied by Mössbauer Spectroscopy” Hyperfine Interactions 150 (2003), 165-186.

10 Rebecca R. Stone-Miller.  Art of the Andes: from Chavin to Inca. (London: Thames and Hudson, 2012).

11 Rebecca R. Stone-Miller.  Art of the Andes: from Chavin to Inca. (London: Thames and Hudson, 2012).

12 Richard W. Keatinge and Kent C. Day. “Socio-Economic Organization of the Moche Valley, Peru, During the Chimu Occupation of Chan Chan.” Journal of Anthropological Research 29, no. 4 (December 1, 1973): 275–295.

13 Rebecca R. Stone-Miller.  Art of the Andes: from Chavin to Inca. (London: Thames and Hudson, 2012).

14 Jarrett A. Lobell. “A Society’s sacrifice.” Archaeology 65, no. 1 (January 1, 2012): 43–47.

15 Jarrett A. Lobell. “A Society’s sacrifice.” Archaeology 65, no. 1 (January 1, 2012): 43–47.

16 Valentine Wauters. “Imperial Needs, Imperial Methods : Chimú Ceramic Manufacturing Process through CT Scan Analysis of Stirrup-Spout Bottles.” Latin American Antiquity 27 (June 1, 2016): 238–256.

17 Juan Cristóbal Calvete de Estrella, Paz y Melia, A. (Antonio)., Gasca, P. de la., Pizarro, F. Rebelión de Pizarro en el Perú y vida de D. Pedro Gasca, escritas por Juan Cristóbal Calvete de Estrella, y publicadas. (Madrid: Impr. de M. Tello, 1889).

18 “Hallan Murales Milenarios En Ciudad Prehispánica Peruana.” June 21, 2018. Milenio. Milenio, Accessed 21 May 2020.

Animals of the Sky, Sea, Highland Mountains, and Lowland Forest Landscapes