Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed, is a exhibit showcased on a rotational basis at the National Museum of the American Indian. It is located in the West Gallery of the museum’s second level. This exhibition serves to celebrate the diverse and dynamic ancestral heritage and rich history of Central America, featuring a selection of over 150 objects. For thousands of years, this region has been home to vibrant civilizations, each with unique, sophisticated ways of life, value systems, and arts. The ceramics displayed in this exhibition, i.e. objects that are the remnants of this civilization, combined with supplementary anecdotes about these native cultures, offer tantalizing glimpses of the people that once lived in Central America.
What I found fascinating about the ceramics from Central America was the exceptional artistry that appeared very early on and continued until the European arrival in the 16th century CE. The objects in this exhibit are not only visually striking, but also seeped in rich symbolism and meaning. One theme that arose recurrently was animal forms, and emerged something I was deeply interested in. Hence, for this post, I decided to conduct a thematic analysis, with a focus on animal symbolism.
Images and symbols on ceramics can tell us about peoples’ lives in past eras. Native people were keen observers of the natural world, and animals played varied roles in their lives. Central American potters often depict animals with incredible detail and realism. They were indicative of human personality traits of the individual which held it in possession. Maya rulers, for example, would wear jaguar skins to represent their possession of jaguar-like strength, cunning, stealth, dominance, and knowledge of the ecosystem (and therefore of human society). It is important to note that these objects were created in a time period long before the written word, and so these images and symbols essentially form a language employed by natives to communicate ideas that carried a myriad of meanings.
The centipede, like the one expressively rendered on the ceramic above, is speculated to be the Amazonian Giant Centipede of northern South America and the Caribbean. Giant Centipedes can reach twelve inches in length and are aggressive hunters of lizards, frogs, bats and birds. It is a fast moving creature with many legs, its bite is poisonous, and because of threatening characteristics, suggesting power and authority, it is often the symbol of Panamanian chiefs.
The King Vulture
For king vultures, a strong element of recognition is the flap of skin that hangs over its beak. As scavengers, their unique eating habits usually associate vultures with death and the afterlife. They are also associated with religious specialists who prepared the dead for burial. They were often buried alongside important members of ancient villages. In terms of its cultural significance, the king vulture was considered the ultimate connection to the spirit world. Seeing one soaring on the wind meant that your prayers were being carried to heaven. King vultures were believed to have healing powers and the bird's blood and feathers are still integral ingredients in healing potions throughout much of Central America.
The American crocodile lives throughout Central America in costal rivers and lagoons. On ceramics, it may appear in a very abstract form; distinctive elements include prominent teeth, ridged back, and bumps all over the snout. In many Native American tribes, alligators are symbols of status and power. Because it is easily comfortable on land and water, many tribes consider them as creatures responsible for creation. The alligator is a mediator in many Native legends, because it emerged from primordial waters in creation myths and brought forth the sun and the earth.
Jaguars are the largest Central American predator and symbolize power and leadership. On ceramics, they are often represented by their paws, spots, or fangs. As previously mentioned, the jaguar is, in Central American culture, a symbol of strength, divinity, and general domain over all things.
The monkeys on Central American ceramics may be spider monkeys, or squirrel monkeys, both of which are common in Central America. Usually they are playfully posed, like on the plate above, which an emphasis on their tails. They are frequently shown as artists, musicians, and scribes in the ancient art of Mesoamerica and Central America. They appear as trickster characters, comedic characters, using their cleverness to outwit other animals or humans.
On ceramics, the ocelot can be recognized by its round spots and the black bands that extend from its forehead to its nose. In contrast to jaguar imagery, ocelot depictions lack bared fangs and tend to be more playful or whimsical.