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UT Ancient Americas

Human Representations: Naturalistic and Mythical Beings

Nasca double spout and bridge with anthropomorphic masked being and chilli peppers

The Nasca and Chimu cultures share a design strategy of composing images of human figures in their ceramics. The former culture displays a pattern of rendering Anthropomorphic Mythical Beings (AMBs), which are a combination of human faces and bodies synthesized with features of different types of animals.1 Anthropomorphic mythical beings are often depicted as killer whales, horrific birds, snakes and sometimes human beings with feline features. In almost every case, an Anthropomorphic Mythical Being is portrayed with a set of whiskers in yellow colors that represents a mask around the mouth or an elaborate nose-ring. Many examples of these, made of gold, have been found archaeologically and suggest that AMBs might be human actors dressed in accessories and clothing that transforms them into other creatures or supernatural beings.

AMBs are typically accompanied by different sets of motifs depending on various iconographic themes on a vessel. One of the most commonly present motif is the trophy head. Trophy heads are ritual sacrifices depicted as stylized heads often in a repeated pattern, usually with their eyes closed to signal that they are deceased beings.

In addition to AMBs, which mostly reference the supernatural realm, the Nasca also captured aspects of their day-to-day lives in highly naturalistic renderings of humans engaged in food-procuring activities like farming and fishing. While not specific and individualized, these human actors are actively engaged in planting, harvesting, or hauling nets full of fish, making it possible for us to imagine the life of the Nasca people despite nearly two millennia of time.

Chimu spout-and-handle vessel with human effigy.

Although the Chimu also utilize representations of human beings in their ceramics, they are not created with the same intentions as the Nasca. The most apparent difference between these cultures’ compositions of human form is the Chimu’s generic, yet still naturalistic, depiction of the human anatomy, mostly restricted to faces. The use of these generic anthropomorphic forms does not include portraiture; it is unlikely that Chimu human figures depict literal rulers, warriors, or deities.2 However, some features of human representations in Chimu art are suspected to signify positions in society, such as crescent headdresses indicating upper classes and royalty leaders.3 Unlike Nasca ceramic iconography, which is painted by artists on individual ceramics, most Chimu ceramics are made with molds, so the rendering of a single human face form is likely to have recurred multiple times on several ceramics made with the same mold. The recurring molding of human faces and bodies into Chimu ceramics most likely communicates aspects of Chimu hierarchical society and wealth.

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Dating back to the first centuries of the first millennium CE, this double-spout-and-bridge ceramic is a typical form found in the Nasca culture. The vessel does not show many signs of wear from usage, meaning that these types of vessels were not made for daily tasks, but rather for drinking and pouring liquids in the context of ceremonial events and rituals. The bulbous vessel renders an Anthropomorphic Mythical Being (AMB), which is a very prevalent theme portrayed throughout Nasca ceramics. This creature has both human and feline features and is proposed to be indicative of supernatural events such as shamanic transformations. The mythical being on this ceramic has wide, almond shaped eyes, a long cape that covers its back, a gold crown, a gold mouth mask that is shaped like cat whiskers, and also a pair of disc-shaped ear accessories that hang from either side of the creature’s head. Other Nasca ceramics and bowls that render AMBs very regularly depict similar accessories. Archaeological discoveries in the south coast of Peru have uncovered mummies donning similar gold mouth and face accessories; this points to a hypothesis that elite individuals or shamans could have dressed up like these mythical creatures during rituals.4 Many excavations of Nasca sites have revealed similar gold and copper metal accessories and objects which show that the Nasca were very proficient at gold and copper metalwork.5

[A view of Casapalca and copper smelters from the mountains]

A view of Casapalca and copper smelters from the mountains, 1920s.

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

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

The Nasca believed in the spiritual relationship between human life and nature. Their religion was influenced by the adverse climatic conditions (arid desert environment) that were characteristic of the region.6 Nasca religion centered on controlling nature through ritual practices. Natural phenomena had symbolic meaning to the Nasca who are known to have used hallucinogenic drugs to converse with spirits through shamanic rituals.7 This ceramic vessel might depict a similar hallucinogenic drug-induced shamanic transformation of a human into an animal-like hybrid creature.

Nasca double spout and bridge with anthropomorphic masked being Nasca double spout and bridge with anthropomorphic masked being

The cloak that extends from the back of the AMB’s head has many geometric elements, which are characteristic of Nasca art and occur on many other ceramic works. The cloak has several gold and beige circles as well as spikes that border the cloak, ending in two long fringes or tassels. These two fringes frame the body, draped across the top of the vessel, and the AMB’s human legs, on the side opposite the face, as well as a few severed heads bearing pendant eyes and emotionless expressions. This alludes to the ‘trophy head’ theme or the ‘Nasca decapitator’ theme that is well documented in other ceramics and textiles excavated in the context of this culture. These decapitated heads could signify men lost at war or human sacrifice during shamanic transformation rituals. Another iconographic element of this ceramic is the arm-like protrusion coming out of either side of the AMB’s head. These protrusions have triangular spikes around them and end in a very sharp claw or talon. Each talon is holding a bird that is often featured in Nasca art, a swift or vencejo, with large circular eyes, long pointed wings, and white feathers on the breast resembling bibs. Birds are depicted often in Nasca art, both in naturalistic style and as mythical beings, symbolizing creatures of the air that contribute to agricultural fertility. In this depiction, the AMB is accompanied by birds but has human legs, and the fact that they are not resting on the line that separates the lower register of the composition from the upper space might indicate that this AMB is floating in the air, in the same realm as the birds.

In addition to AMBs with human characteristics like this one, Nasca vessels also depict AMBs with fewer human characteristics besides the face, and with the bodies of other animals or hybrid creatures, like killer whales and raptorial birds: they are known to be the controllers of land, sea, and the sky respectively. These mythical beings, often depicted with trophy heads, represent ritual practices to exert control on the environment and agriculture.8

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Chimu spout-and-handle vessel with human effigy.

This vessel is a bottle with a sculptural anthropomorphic head at the base of the stirrup-spout. Having the head at the end of the spout is not uncommon in Chimu ceramics. The human head is generic, which is characteristic of Chimu depictions of humans in art. The entire vessel is a portrayal of a human as the designs on the body of the vessel could represent textile patterns on clothing so that the body of the vessel is at the same time the body of the human figure. Other similar vessels show arms at the sides of the body, further suggesting that the whole vessel depicts an anthropomorphic being. Additionally, the spout rising directly from the top of the human head could be seen as a headdress of some sort. However, to indicate high status, human figures are usually depicted with a “crescent-headdress.”9 Therefore, the human represented by the vessel is most likely not one of royal standing.

The raised dot design on the top half of the vessel is also a common characteristic of Chimu ceramics. They are applied using paddle-and-anvil impressions, creating the multitude of dots around the object. The body of the vessel has four step-fret-wave designs on separate quadrants of the upper half of the vessel. On this object, the pattern consists of a step-fret line ascending upwards and then cascading to the right before curving inwards. The design is burnished, giving it a noticeable sheen when the light reflects off the vessel. The step-fret-wave design is not as common as the simpler step-fret design or the wave pattern, but the combination of these often-used designs make this motif stand apart from the other two. Similar step-fret-wave patterns are also seen on Moche ceramics, and, as both cultures were in the same geographical region, this could hint that the Chimu borrowed some of the earlier Moche art patterns. 

Modeled seated male Moche stirrup spout bottle

Additionally, a pattern more similar to the one on this Chimu vessel appears on a Moche textile, IV as well as on other Chimu textiles.10 Lastly, textiles typically depict designs stylized geometrically because of the constraints of warp and weft, which result in intersecting vertical and horizontal lines.11 The geometricity of the step-fret-wave pattern and other Moche and Chimu examples support the notion that the entire vessel represents a human figure wearing clothing with distinctive textile designs. The step-fret-wave design is not just unique to textiles and ceramics, however, as it also appears on Chimu metalwork. While the motif may have started as a textile design, the multiple art mediums this design occurs suggest that this pattern is not unique to only one artwork or art form.

Text for interpretive object profiles contributed by Sahithi Adduri, Sophia Cespedes, and Astrid Runggaldier.

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1 “Andean Artifacts”, Latin American Archaeology Ethnography, Florida Museum. August 10, 2018. University of Florida. Accessed 21 May 2020. https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/latinarch/catalog/andean-artifacts/

2 Margaret A. Jackson, “The Chimú Sculptures of Huacas Tacaynamo and El Dragon, Moche Valley, Perú,” Latin American Antiquity 15, no. 3 (Sep., 2004): 314.

3 Rebecca Stone-Miller, Art of the Andes: from Chavín to Inca (London: Thames & Hudson, 2012), 182.

4 Donald A. Proulx “Nasca Iconography.” In Inca-Peru ́: 3000 Ans d’Histoire ed. Sergio Purin, (Musees Royaux d'art et d'Histoire, January 1990): 384–99.

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

6 Marlene Dobkin De Rios and Mercedes Cardenas. “Plant Hallucinogens, Shamanism and NazcaCeramics.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 2, no. 3 (1980): 233–46.

7 Donald A. Proulx “Nasca Iconography.” In Inca-Peru ́: 3000 Ans d’Histoire ed. Sergio Purin, (Musees Royaux d'art et d'Histoire, January 1990): 384–99.

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

9 Rebecca Stone-Miller, Art of the Andes: from Chavín to Inca (London: Thames & Hudson, 2012), 182.

10 “textile,” textile, 900-1430, The British Museum, London, https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/E_Am1954-05-488.

11 George Kubler,. “The Upper North: Mochica and Chimu.” In The Art and Architecture of Ancient America : the Mexican, Maya, and Andean Peoples. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).