Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/April 1884/Prehistoric Art in America

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PREHISTORIC ART IN AMERICA.

By the Marquis de NADAILLAC.

THE world of science was astonished a quarter of a century ago by the discovery made in the caves of Vézère, France, of works of art executed by the prehistoric troglodytes. The specimens consisted of representations of mammals, birds, fishes, and of man himself, sculptured in relief or engraved upon elephants' tusks, bears' teeth, the shoulder-blade of a reindeer, the long bones of deer, or on stones or beach-pebbles, and included the huge cave-bear, the mammoth with its heavy mane and upturned tusks, the seal, the crocodile, and the horse. These drawings, the first efforts of man, are crude in shape, but suggestive of vital action. One of the stag-horns, engraved with representations of reindeer and fishes, is a almost a masterpiece. The deer are following one another, and one of them has turned to look back, doubtless so as to see her fawn; the heads are all drawn in profile and without foreshortening, as in the Egyptian paintings and sculptures; sometimes the lines are light, at other times they are cut deeply to bring out certain parts. By a curious caprice the artist, after having completed his first design, has put fishes in all the vacant spaces, and they too are wonderfully truthful. M. Massenat has discovered, at Laugerie Basse, a piece of reindeer-horn about ten inches long, on which was plainly engraved an aurochs running from a young man who is about to shoot an arrow at it. The animal has its head down with its horns in a position of menace, expanded nostrils, and tail raised and curved, all being signs of terror and irritation. The man is naked and has a round head, with coarse hair, which is brought up over the top of his head, and an obvious beard on the chin. His whole physiognomy expresses joyousness and the excitement of the chase. The women have flat breasts and prominent hips. One of them, very hairy, is drawn between the legs of a deer, and wears a collar around her neck. Unfortunately, her head is wanting.

A considerable number of engraved stones and bones have been brought to light in the excavations of the cave of Thayngen, Switzerland. Among them is a reindeer, standing with its head inclined toward the ground, and drawn with a precision showing a really remarkable acquaintance with the form of the animal. The artist had attained such perfection that observers were at first tempted to ask if they had not been invited to look at one of the archaeological frauds that have unhappily become so common. But the excavations had been watched with unremitting care; the witnesses of the discovery were honorable men of science; the calcareous deposit of more than a yard thick had been taken up under their eyes; there were found in the cave reproductions of animals which had disappeared centuries ago—the musk-ox, for instance; and the engraving was so faithful that it could have been made only from nature. It was necessary, then, to surrender to the evidence. Away back in the quaternary ages, in the midst of the hardest conditions of life, of the struggle for existence, and of incessant conflicts against the great pachyderms, the bears, and the feline animals that swarmed around him, man already had the feeling or the instinct of art. He tried to draw the likenesses of the animals he saw and of the trees that shaded the cave he lived in; and the productions of his industry, found again after so many ages, are all the more interesting from the fact that the extemporizing artist had, to assist him in his work, only some wretched flints or roughly-sharpened bones. The inquiry whether these discoveries made in the west of Europe are verified in other countries, and whether this art-feeling was innate in man and has characterized him always and everywhere, is one of much interest. The excavations in Asia and Africa are still too few, and the discoveries that have been made there are of too little importance, to warrant the drawing of serious conclusions respecting those quarters. We must, then, turn to America, where eminent archaeologists and enthusiastic collectors have eagerly studied all that relates to the past of the human race. With the aid of their publications and the photographs they have distributed with rare liberality, we are able to follow the ancient populations in their migrations from the shores of the Atlantic and the Pacific, to study their habits and their progress, and to show that among them also art was born at a very early epoch, and that it grew up with the generations.

It has now been ascertained that man lived in America during the quaternary ages, contemporaneously with the mastodons and the huge edentates and pachyderms, which had no other resemblances with the mammals of the Eastern continents than those of size. Like their contemporaries in Europe, the primitive Americans wandered in the solitary wilderness, and disputed with animals for the prey on which they fed and the caves that sheltered them, having for weapons of offense and defense only the flints that lay at their feet. Their barbarism appears to have been lower than that of the troglodytes of Europe, and to have been destitute of all artistic feeling and taste for ornament. Ages passed, the duration of which we can not compute; the quaternary animals disappeared, and man became sedentary; and he has left as evidences of his long abode in the same place the heaps of refuse exemplified in the shell-mounds and kitchen-middens of the Atlantic coast, the Gulf of Mexico, the banks of the Mississippi and the Amazon, the Pacific coast, and Tierra del Fuego. Excavations made at several points have brought out hatchets, knives, harpoons, and tools of every shape, of stone, bone, and horn, all bearing witness to a backward social condition, fragments of carbonized wood, bones of animals, and fish-bones, all having evidently been accumulated by men who knew nothing of agriculture and lived by hunting and fishing. Occasionally a few shards of pottery have been found among the remains, made of clay mixed with pounded shells, fashioned by hand, and dried in the sun. Sometimes plaited vines or canna-stems have been impressed on the wet parts, or lines have been scratched on the vessel with the point of a shell or a flint. These are the first efforts at ornamentation, and are singularly like those of the most ancient potteries of Europe. Ornaments designed for the decoration of the person are more rare than the potteries. We can only cite a few bears' or cats' teeth and shells bored for the purpose of being hung from the neck, except in the sambaquis or kitchen-middens of Brazil, where a few figures of fishes and idols in gold and silver have been found in very ancient deposits of guano.

We can form only the most imperfect estimates of the dates of these remains. Geological evidences give no definite clew. The growth of trees over the kitchen-middens may fix dates previous to which they certainly existed, but when we have admitted the five or six centuries it took the trees from the time the wind wafted the seed to the spot, how are we to compute the number of generations of plants that were required to furnish the soil on which they could grow? One point only is ascertained, and that is that no bones of quaternary animals have been met under the kitchen-middens, and, with the exception of the figures we have mentioned, no metallic objects. The remains must, then, have been accumulated between the period of the disappearance of the larger animals and the time when the metals came into habitual use. Must we say, then, that during that long series of ages no artistic tendency revealed itself in man? Yes, if we judge by the individual objects that have been collected; no, if we attribute to that epoch the pictographs, or the figures, scenes, hieroglyphics, or rebuses, as we might call them, which are painted, engraved, and sculptured on the cliffs, the sides of caves, the bowlders, and erratic rocks, or wherever a vacant space may have been offered to the artist. Men have at all times with a childish vanity endeavored to delineate their migrations, their contests, their hunts, and their victories. Egypt has transmitted its ancient history to us on granite; the rocks of Scandinavia still wear the likeness of the Vikings' vessels; and those around the lac des Merveilles, near Nice, bear pictures of men extremely primitive in design; curious engravings have been noticed in Algeria; the Bushmen, who are among the most degraded populations of the globe, have drawn on stone, with wonderful fidelity, their hunting scenes and their loves; and the rock-paintings of New Zealand, the work also of a barbarous race, but evidently superior in execution to the scratches of the Bushmen, have been described before the London Society of Anthropology. These are isolated facts, though curious ones; but in the two Americas the number of pictographs and the extent of surface they cover give them an exceptional importance. The desire, not only to reproduce striking events, but also to give precision to their sense by conventional signs, by graphic strokes, or by hieroglyphics or phonetic or symbolical characters, is one of the most remarkable traits of the different races that have succeeded each other on the new continent. Although the initial date of these engravings is unknown, we can nevertheless affirm that they continued to be executed through many ages, and that while the most ancient ones ascend to remote epochs, in some instances these historic drawings only a little while preceded the arrival of the Europeans. Pictographs are especially abundant in the regions that formerly constituted Spanish America: in Nicaragua, near the extinct volcano of Masaya; in the United States of Colombia, on the banks of the Orinoco; and in Venezuela, where in consequence of their antiquated condition they will soon cease to be distinguishable. The rocks of Honduras are covered with sharply-cut designs; the conquistadores, in 1520, remarked similar works in the Isthmus of Darien; and in the State of Panama entire cliffs were charged with hieroglyphics that might afford matter for very interesting studies. In the Sierra Nevada, between Columbus, Nevada, and Benton, California, are hosts of figures of men and animals and uninterpretable signs. About twenty miles south of Benton, the road follows a narrow defile, bounded on both sides by nearly perpendicular rocks, and these are covered with figures in respect to which no clew exists as to the people that designed them.

Pictographs are little less numerous in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado—in parts of the country which, though now desolate, were formerly inhabited by a considerable population. The glacier-polished bowlders of the valley of the Gila River have figures that may be compared with those of Thuringia. On the banks of the Mancos and the San Juan, and in the deep canons stretching up toward the east, the figures are visible at dizzy heights, some deeply engraved, others drawn in red or white. Among them is a procession of men, animals, and birds with long necks and legs, all going in the same direction. Two of the men are standing on a sledge drawn by a deer, while others direct the march of the drove. The artist evidently intended to represent a migration of his tribe. In another pictograph on the banks of the San Juan, among figures of strange forms and of drawing incorrect but full of movement and life, may be recognized a number of flint hatchets, exactly similar in pattern to the symbolical hatchets that are cut on the megaliths of Brittany. At another spot, a cliff is covered, for a space of more than sixty square feet, with figures of men, deer, and lizards; and M. Bandelier has seen, near the ruins of Pecos, pictographs, the high antiquity of which is attested by the degree of effacement they have undergone. They represent the tracks of men or children, a human figure, and a tolerably regular circle. On the banks of the Puerco and the Zuni, two of the affluents of the Colorado Chiquito, designs have been remarked having the appearance of hieroglyphics, but their significance is unknown, and we can not even affirm that they had any. The cliffs near Salt Lake in Utah are adorned with sculptures, among which are human figures of the natural size, cut in a hard rock more than thirty feet above the ground. All together show an amount of labor of which the Indians are incapable, and a sum of difficulties which they could not have overcome; and the height at which some of the sculptures appear allows the supposition that some geological phenomenon, perhaps a depression of the lake, may have occurred since they were executed. Many drawings on stone have also been observed in the eastern parts of the United States.

Pictographs to which we are disposed to accord a great antiquity are to be seen on the sides of caves in Nicaragua. Some grottoes in the mountains of Oajaca also bear witness to the labor of man, in the shape of coarse paintings in red ochre. Among them is frequently repeated the imprint in black of a human hand. This imprint, which is probably borrowed from some myth, seems to have played a great part in America. It is found reproduced in regions very remote from one another, standing out on the potteries, sometimes in red on a black ground, sometimes in black on a red ground. In our own days it is occasionally found in use among Indians as a totem or coat-of-arms.

All that we have just said bears witness to a still primitive condition of art. The men who executed the works, barbarous as they seem to have been, were capable of rising higher. This is proved by works of a manifestly later epoch. Guatemala, the ancient land of the Quiches and the Cakchiquels, abounds in ruins. Bas-reliefs, statues, and monoliths covered with arabesques to the height of twenty feet, meet the traveler frequently. At Quirigua, a small port on the Bay of Honduras, a statue of a woman has been found, footless and handless, with a crowned idol on its head; excavations by the side of it have brought to light a tiger's head in porphyry. At Santa Lucia Cosumalhuapa, at the foot of the Volcan de Fuego, among the cyclopean stones and the statues of tapirs and caymans, lie colossal stone heads, of a strange type, hitherto unknown. Two of these heads wear the immense ear-rings peculiar to the ancient Peruvians, and a head- dress similar to the Asiatic turbans. Farther on are bas-reliefs in hard porphyry, larger than nature, representing personages as odd in conception as in execution, and mythological scenes that have no relation to any known form of worship. The most interesting bas-relief represents a human sacrifice. The principal personage is a priest; he is naked and, according to the custom of the Aztec priests, wears a garter around his left leg; only the left foot is shod. The head-dress is a crab. One hand holds a flint, doubtless the sacrificial knife, while the other hand grasps the head of the victim to be slain. On a second plane, two acolytes are carrying human heads. One of them is a skeleton, a sinister symbol of death. Its head is of a simian shape, mingling the grotesque with the terrible. To cite more similar facts would merely involve unpleasant repetitions. We shall only add, then, that the figures are of a grinning aspect and a repulsive ugliness. The ancient American races did not seek for the beautiful, or, rather, did not comprehend it as we do, who have been taught by the immortal creators of the high art of Greece.

We have just occasion to be surprised when we think of the time that was required to execute these works, and consider what inefficient mechanical means the artists had to use. They had to detach blocks of hard stone by means of wretched tools of quartzite and obsidian, and to saw granite and porphyry with agave-fibers and emery. A coarse outline design indicated the part to be removed. The labor was executed either by sawing partly through the stone and deftly breaking off the fragment, or by pecking it away with a flint-point. Lastly, the surface of the planes was rubbed with flat stones or polishers to remove the traces of the chippings. Other processes also appear to have been employed. The artist drew his figure in coarse tracings, and covered with ashes the lines he desired to bring out in relief. The whole surface was then heated with fire; the parts which were sub- jected to the direct action of the flames were decomposed, and left hollow places, while those that were protected by the ashes remained intact.[1]

For finishing his work, the sculptor had nothing better than a flint-point or a copper chisel,[2] the only tools in use, for iron was unknown. He was obliged, in order to execute those colossal figures and the bas-reliefs which now make such an impression of astonishment upon us, to cut with those imperfect tools in a very hard rock to a depth of three or four centimetres. The fact of the performance of a labor of such length is a certain indication of the infancy of the society in which it was done, where man had not yet learned to appreciate the value of time.

The region of the piedras pintadas (painted stones) in South America extends from Guiana to Patagonia. They are found in the wilds of Brazil and La Plata as well as in the more civilized districts of Peru and Chili, and they betray everywhere a remarkable analogy. In the solitudes of Pará and Piauhy, Brazil, are numerous intaglio-sculptures, executed by unknown peoples; they represent animals, birds, and men, in various attitudes. Some of the men are tattooed; others wear crowns of feathers; and the picture is finished off with arabesques and scrolls. At la Sierra da Onça are drawings in red ochre, isolated and in groups, without apparent order, and the rocks of the province of Ceara and those of Tejuco are covered with tracings not unlike those on the rocks of Scandinavia. Humboldt describes intaglios on the right bank of the Orinoco, representing the sun and moon, pumas, crocodiles, and serpents, ill-formed figures defined most frequently by a simple outline and declaring little advancement in art. Nevertheless, since they are cut in the hardest kind of granite, it is impossible to attribute them to the barbarous tribes that inhabited the country at the time of the arrival of the Europeans. These tribes were incapable of executing works of this kind, and even of comprehending any art, however crude it may appear to us. Who, then, were the peoples to whom we can attribute the painted stones? What was their origin? The illustrious German traveler tells us nothing that can diminish our ignorance on this point.

There are mentioned as among the works in the country of the Chibkas, in the United States of Colombia, a stone probably designed for sacrificial purposes, and sustained by caryatides, a jaguar sculptured at the entrance to a cave near Neyba, and gigantic llamas. In the land of the allied tribe of the Muiscao, the granitic and syenitic rocks are adorned with colossal figures of crocodiles and tigers, guardians doubtless of the images of the sun and moon, the supreme gods of the South American natives. All of these figures are coarsely executed, and betray, like the North American figures, an extreme absence of taste and an absolute inability to reproduce objects faithfully.

Abundant examples occur on the Pacific coast of an art which we can best compare with that of Guatemala. A granite block near Macaya, known as the Piedra de Leon, is covered with sculptures which all are agreed are very ancient. The most important group represents a face-to-face struggle of a man and a puma. The figures suggest movement, and the man and the animal appear to be really struggling. Near the little city of Nepen may be seen a colossal serpent; a short distance from Arequipa, trees and flowers; farther on, bisons with bored noses are wearing movable rings cut in the same stone. At the Pintados de las Rayas, geometrical figures, circles, and rectangles, the meaning of which can not be defined, take the place of figures from life. In the province of Tarapacá, considerable surfaces are covered with figures of men and animals mostly fairly good specimens of work, and with a kind of characters arranged vertically. The lines are from twelve to eighteen feet long, and each character is quite deeply engraved. This is not an isolated instance. Inscriptions very much worn have been found near Huara, and between Mendoza and La Punta, Chili, is a large pillar on which letters have been imagined analogous in some respects with the Chinese alphabet. These evidences are very vague, and, however well disposed to discover in them the beginnings of graphic art, we can not as yet found so important a conclusion upon them.

The use of colors was certainly known to the Americans from the most remote antiquity. The ochres, soot-black, and lime doubtless furnished them their first coloring elements, and there was nothing in the idea of using these pigments above the most primitive conceptions. Experiment induced a rapid progress, and men learned to extract vegetable colors from leaves, fruits, roots, stems, and seeds. A coloring-matter was also borrowed, like the Tyrian purple, from sea- mollusks. The Peruvians and the Mexicans knew how to place the colors upon their cloths. The goods were then exposed to the action of the light, and tints varying from a delicate rose-color to a dark violet were obtained. The colors were so well fixed that they were not even modified by the decomposition of dead bodies. In the collection of cloths from the Peruvian huacas at the museum of the Trocadéro, in Paris, wrappings of mummies that have been buried for centuries still retain the primitive color on their time-eaten threads.

The Mexicans probably obtained the remarkably brilliant coloring of their pictographs by somewhat analogous processes. These pictographs, manuscripts of which only a smaller number have reached us, embrace the history of the country, its national traditions, the genealogies of its kings and nobles, the rolls of provincial tributes, the laws, the calendar, religious festivals, and the education of the children—a complete summary, in fact, of all that concerns the manners, customs, and life of the people. They were painted in various colors on cotton cloth, on prepared skins, or on a strong and tough paper made from the fibers of the agave. At times the artist depicts scenes from real life; at other times he records facts by means of hieroglyphical, symbolical, or phonetic characters, conventional signs that have been handed down for generations, and on which innovation is prohibited. Another series of pictures illustrates the education of children and their food and punishments. The father teaches his son to carry burdens, to steer a canoe, or to manage the fishing-tackle. The mother instructs her daughter in domestic duties; she sweeps the house, prepares tortillas, and weaves cloths. These pictures present the distinct outlines and bright colors which the Americans sought first of everything. Evidently we must not ask them for models of decorative painting. Their complete ignorance of proportions and the laws of perspective demonstrates that their art was the exclusive product of their own genius, or of the instinct of their race, and that they had not been subject to any foreign influence.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue des Deux Mondes.


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  1. Mr. Wiener saw the natives excavating an irrigation canal in the valley of Chicama de Sausal, through a rock which stood in the way. The workmen piled ashes along the line of the edges of the canal, covered them with dried manure and burned it. After eight days they succeeded in forming by this process a channel through a granite rock containing a vein of basalt 1·20 metre wide, 0·80 metre deep, and 2·30 metres long.
  2. There has been found near Quito a chisel that was used in working the large blocks of trachyte employed in paving the roads of the Incas' empire. It weighed 198 grammes. The surface was worn, the edge was nicked, and the head appeared to have been hammered upon, all indicating that it had been subjected to long use. An analysis of a piece of it by M. Damour gave ninety-five parts of copper, a little more than four parts of tin, and slight traces of iron, lead, and silver.