Pre-Columbian art

The name pre-Columbian art is attributed to all those cultural expressions that have been created within the American continent , during the time known as pre-Columbian America.

Related topics

Colonial art ,  indigenous art

What is pre-Columbian art?

This is the name given to the group of artistic manifestations produced during the periods prior to Columbus’ arrival in America.

  • Characteristics of pre-Columbian art
  • Origin
  • History
  • Types
  • Inca pre-Columbian art
  • Aztec pre-Columbian art
  • Sculpture
  • Architecture
  • Painting
  • Pre-Columbian art by country
  • Importance
  • Example works

Characteristics of pre-Columbian art

Before Columbus arrived in America , many were the peoples that made life on that continent. America was populated by several very important civilizations. Mayas, Incas, Aztecas were just some of the best known in popular culture. As you will surely know, as long as there is civilization, there are people willing to create.

Creating is an abstract concept that can be easily confused if it is not specified. For the purposes of this article, we must always understand that by ” creation “ we speak, of course, of ” artistic creation “ . The arts are the main way that human beings manifest themselves. They express their feeling, their thinking and their desire in a way that is, many times, beyond words. And contrary to popular belief, indigenous peoples before the arrival of Europe were no exception.

By Pre-Columbian Art we are referring to all those aesthetic manifestations elaborated in the times prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus . These may involve works such as sculptures, painting, ceramics, goldsmithing, metalworking, among many others.

Let’s see some of the characteristics that distinguish this art from others that have been in the world:

  • They had an important tendency to sculpture , which was expressed in sculptural manifestations with a high level of symbolism and religious abstractions.
  • At the level of goldsmithing , it was common to see, as was the Aztec case, the use and work of metals such as gold and silver. This, in turn, has led to well-known necklaces, jewelry and pendant productions within this cultural group.
  • It was common, at least among the Aztecs, to see works that involved the use of beautiful plumages .
  • The pottery has been one of the forms used by these people. Normally, it was used for the representation of religious or divine figures.


The origin of pre-Columbian art can be understood from its etymological root.

On the one hand, we understand that Art is a word whose source is found in the other Latin word artis , which speaks of ” a job of great creativity “. Artis , in turn, is rooted in some Indo-European word. This involves some of the “ Make, adjust and place. 

Pre-Columbian , on the other hand, is a Latin conjugation that in its translation reads: ” What happened before Christopher Columbus .”

A conjugation based on the etymological would then tell us that these are the creative works prepared prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus.


In Pre-Columbian America , different historical changes have occurred. Along with these changes, others also happened at the cultural and artistic level. One could say that it was in the Formative Period of America (which includes between the periods of 1500 BC and the year 292 AD) that the first artistic manifestations through the Olmec culture began . However, it would be in the American Classic Period (between 292 and 900 AD) where the Amerindian culture would find its greatest splendor. This point, however, has also been the subject of discussion by historians.


One might think that the art that was manifested in these times was as varied as it was overflowing with complexity. However, we could say that the most outstanding elements would be

  • The architectural.
  • The sculptural.
  • The ceramic.
  • Textiles.

Inca pre-Columbian art

Here are some of its most outstanding features:

  • It was an art with representations mainly abstract , even though there was a certain tendency to naturalism .
  • It was a type of art that gave priority to painting , ceramics and textiles .
  • They had a clear preference for practical and functional ones .

Aztec pre-Columbian art

The Aztecs, on the other hand, were a civilization located a little further north than their Inca neighbors. His arts stood out rather for architecture, painting and sculpture. They were more expressive representations and with a tendency to demonstrate warlike or divine scenes , where anthropomorphic and animal elements were combined . In this sense, it should be noted that the capital of the empire, Tenochtitlán , was a sample of the artistic wonder of its time.


Pre-Columbian sculpture could be understood if it is divided into its two maximum cultural exponents:

  • Mayan sculpture : considered as a sculpture with a high level of baroque, that is, a high level of complexity and detail. They are very ornamental sculptures and with a high level of symbolism.
  • Quechua sculpture : on the contrary, scarcer and more tending towards minimalism. Quechua sculpture was not characterized by its baroque style, but by its sculptural simplicity.


The constructions of this period were either wood or stone, without the use of advanced instruments for their elaboration. Evidence of this can be found, for example, in the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan .


They were generally elaborated on murals and walls of large buildings. Rule generally , were abstract or naturalistic depictions of scenes from real or mythological life. They were not paintings that took into account the depth perspective .

Pre-Columbian art by country

  • Chile : This country has been an important influence of the Inca, Atacameña and Araucano peoples.
  • Colombia : in which there would be a high participation of gold, ceramic and sculpture goldsmithing.
  • Panama : country in which the Kuna were very famous for their textile works.
  • Argentina : This country has the particularity of lacking the grandeur of its northern neighbors in terms of the arts; however, they make up for it in diversity and richness.
  • Peru : His art was mainly sculptural and architectural, with a tendency to minimalism.
  • Bolivia : This country also had an important influence on Inca culture , although it would not be the only one.
  • Mexico : where we can find artistic wonders such as the Temple of the Sun, the Sanctuary of La Venta or the Mural Painting of the Temple of Agriculture.


The importance of pre-Columbian art can be rooted in the fact that, being one of the forms of expression of the peoples, the pre-Columbians used these as a way to express their capacities and potentialities. Such manifestations allow us to know the level of development that these civilizations reached.

Example works

  • Temple of the Sun of Tenochtitlán.
  • The Lord of the Olmec Files.
  • Quetzalcóatl Stone Head.
  • Kukulkan Temple.
  • Cave of the Argentine Hands.


Leave a Comment