Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Birds of the Andes

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Birds were precious resources in the economy of Andean societies. Merchants traded brilliantly colored parrot and macaw feathers in long-distance networks connecting the Amazonian rainforest, the Cordillera, and the remote Pacific coast, where they adorned the sumptuous garments of rulers and kings (59.135.8). Coastal agriculturalists used guano to enrich their fields. Sailors collected the valuable fertilizer offshore on sacred islands, where they left prestigious offerings. On the coast, domesticated muscovy ducks may have been part of the subsistence.


Andean people attentively observed the natural world and the various roles attributed to birds in religions and artistic representations often seem to derive from their properties and behaviors in nature.

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Beyond their economic importance, birds inspired craftsmen creating colorful textiles, elegant metal adornments, and ceramic vessels. Pelicans, cormorants, waders, owls, condors, vultures, ducks, and hummingbirds were sometimes depicted with great realism and beauty, other times portrayed as supernatural winged creatures. The prominence of birds in art reflects their importance in mythologies and ritual performances. Andean people attentively observed the natural world and the various roles attributed to birds in religions and artistic representations often seem to derive from their properties and behaviors in nature. Even when depicted with realism (66.30.5; 1978.412.91; 1979.206.1245,.1246), birds are imbued with complex symbolic meanings.


Artists of coastal societies sometimes associated anthropomorphized birds with war, battle, headhunting, and ritual activities. In Moche ceramic art (1–800 A.D.), raptorial birds were portrayed as warriors and sacrificers (67.167.1). As their human counterparts, they handle shields, maces, and tumi knives. Hummingbirds also appear in combat scenes, where they metaphorically symbolize flying spears. Owls played a significant role in Moche religion. In art, they carry defeated warriors to the world of the dead, as they would carry their catch to the nest. Owls occasionally personify shamans or folk healers, whose power of curing supernatural illness is strengthened by the acute vision of the nocturnal birds. Ritual runners also take the shape of birds with spread wings on Moche painted ceramics and elaborate jewelry (66.196.40–.41). In painted scenes, runners are shown in long lines and carry small bags in their hands. They are interpreted as messengers traveling from one site or from one valley to another.


Further south, anthropomorphized birds had strong associations with human trophy heads in Nazca society (100–700 A.D.) (1978.412.63). In Nazca art, plants often sprout from the mouth of trophy heads, showing the strong connection between death and agricultural fertility for people living in a desiccated landscape. In Nazca religion, which highly valued plants, animals, and fertility, birds as headhunters participate in the regeneration of life. Many of the Nazca geoglyphs take the shape of birds in flight. These monumental figures traced on the surface of the desert have been successively interpreted as boundary markers, water spring markers, and ritual paths suitable for processions. New interpretations suggest that the location and orientation of geoglyphs are connected with geological faults and channels of underground water, which were exploited by Nazca agriculturalists. Nazca painted ceramics and precious gold ornaments represent creatures in flight echoing the shape and style of geoglyphs (1979.206.511,.512).


In the art of the Chimú coastal empire (1100–1470), birds were not associated with war or headhunting, but rather with prestige and abundance. Chimú birds were not anthropomorphized; they appear in naturalistic form on ceramics and undergo various degrees of geometricization on textiles and architectural friezes. In the urban capital of Chan Chan, the inner walls of palaces were decorated with clay friezes representing different species of fish, shells, and sea birds, among which pelicans were particularily frequent. Pelicans, which were thought to have the ability to dive into the watery world of the ancestors, also decorated portable objects such as fine vessels, tunics, and wooden implements. Sea birds, providers of guano and emblems of fertility, were venerated in Chimú religion, where life originated and ended in the ocean. Sea birds are often represented head down, imitated by human divers in search of precious spondylus shells that would enhance the fertility of the land and the power of the kings (1979.206.601). In art, pelicans also have the human privileges of wearing crescent-shaped headdresses and being carried on litters (63.163).


Highland societies also gave great importance to birds. At Chavín de Huantar, the ceremonial center at the heart of the Chavín territory (1000–500 B.C.), stone monuments and engraved slabs adorning the monumental architecture show composite creatures that include body parts of wild, carnivorous animals: caymans, snakes, felines, eagles, and vultures. The claws, fangs, and hooked beaks of these creatures give the viewer an impression of ferocity and likely materialize the power of the deities worshipped in the temple of Chavín de Huantar. Chavín textiles found on the coast depict similar supernatural beings (1987.394.704).


In Wari and Tiwanaku art (400–1000), geometricized winged figures decorate tapestry tunics, where they flank the Staff God, a major deity that has its roots in Chavín art. The Staff God is shown as a frontal figure with a rayed head and staffs held in outstretched hands. Stylized, profile heads of raptorial birds are also privileged motifs on high-status garments such as four-cornered hats (1994.35.158), as well as painted ceramic vessels used on the occasion of feasts involving the conspicuous consumption of corn beer and the ritual destruction of wealth. Raptorial birds perhaps symbolized the civil and religious power of rulers, who were seen as providers of resources and mediators with the spiritual forces of nature. On ceramics, sacred plants such as corn and the hallucinogenic vilca flower ornament the bird heads (1979.206.385).


In coastal and highland societies of the Andes, artists were inspired by different species of birds and their natural behavior in the creation of portable objects and architectural decoration. Throughout Andean prehistory, birds and birdlike human actors modeled the myths, rituals, and power strategies of the interwoven sacred and secular realms.

Hélène Bernier
Andrew W. Mellon Fellow 2008–2009, Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art