The American Indian/Chapter 4

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The American Indian Fig 25.jpg
American Museum of Natural History Photograph

Fig. 25. A Pueblo Indian Potter



The first point to demand our attention is the distribution of pottery in general. As nearly as can be told, at the time of discovery, North America had but one large area in which no pottery was made. If we draw a line from Ottawa to the mouth of the St. Lawrence and another to Edmonton, and then one from Edmonton to Los Angeles, we shall have, in the rough, the northern boundary to pottery making. There seems to have been a narrow strip down into the bison area that should be excepted. This extended down through the country of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Comanche. On the other hand, certain early information for the Ojibway, Cree, and Blackfoot westward from Winnipeg, indicates that they made pottery; but this about exhausts the exceptions. Practically the whole of the Pacific belt and the great sweep of the caribou area is without pottery, but the Eskimo of Alaska and eastward at least as far as Coronation Gulf made it. Archæological evidence does not change the boundary; hence, we may infer that the distribution of pottery was still in progress at the opening of the period of discovery and that it was distributed from the South. In Siberia we find a pottery somewhat like that of the Eskimo, which suggests that in this case the trait is intrusive from Asia. Yet, we must not overlook the possibility of contact with North American potters around Hudson Bay, a region whose archæology is absolutely unknown. The improbability of this arises from the absence of the trait from the greater part of the caribou-hunting peoples, its tendency to fail the most typical bison hunters, and that its encroachment in each case resembles the fringe of an adjoining area. We see that its extension out into Saskatchewan and Alberta is coincident with the distribution of Algonkian-speaking tribes: the Blackfoot, Cree, and Ojibway.
The American Indian Fig 26.jpg

Fig. 26. Distribution of Pottery

In the bison area the encroachments are chiefly among the Siouan-speaking tribes. Then, if we recall the limits of maize culture, we note a rather close agreement between the distributions for the two traits. As we know that maize came up from the South, it is reasonable to suppose that pottery came by the same road. As to their time relations, we cannot be so sure, for though pottery has gone a little farther than maize culture, there is a climatic limit to the latter.

Over the Antilles, through Mexico, and on into South America was the great pottery region. In some places archæologists have uncovered deposits of sherds many feet thick, suggesting an intensive pursuit of the art similar to that for textiles (p. 59). Outside of the Andean area pottery is less intense. It has been reported from sections of the manioc area throughout, from which we may infer that its distribution there is approximately continuous. In the South, somewhere near the 30° of latitude, it disappears altogether, so that about the only part of the southern continent that did not make some pretense of pottery was lower Patagonia and a portion of the Brazilian highlands.


The process of manufacture varied according to locality, but one general characteristic applies to all, no wheel was used in the New World. It is true that large vessels were often built up on shallow baskets and turned slowly to bring the successive parts within easy reach, but this does not involve the principle of the wheel. Even the Lacandone (Guatemala) method of supporting the pot upon a block which is turned by the feet, is not a true wheel, for the turning is merely for the sake of bringing all parts of the surface to the potter's hand.[1]

As a rule, all the New World potters used the coil method; i.e., slender rods of clay were rolled out to convenient lengths and the vessel built up spirally. In some vessels from the Pueblo area the original traces of the coils were retained as decorative motives, but as a rule, the surfaces were afterwards scraped smooth and to the requisite thinness. So far as we have data, the coil method was used in all of the Amazon area of South America and in southwestern and eastern United States, except in the general area about the Great Lakes. In this northern section, we have the Mandan-Hidatsa type, fully described by G. L. Wilson,[2] in which the vessel is worked

The American Indian Fig 27.jpg

Fig. 27. Lower Mississippi Pottery. Holmes, 1903. I

out from a single block of clay, then beaten into shape with a paddle, fired, rubbed with grease, and coated with a solution of boiled maize. Less complete, but still adequate, data from the Blackfoot, Menomini, and Pawnee indicate that in the upper Mississippi area we had a generalized type of this process in contrast to the coil method. Eastward in the northern Algonkin area our data are not so good, but it is generally believed that the coil process prevailed, except in the farthest north where the pottery was very crude.

This upper Mississippi, or Mandan-Hidatsa type has a striking resemblance to Alaska-Siberian pottery. The studies of Jochelson and Bogoras[3] show one general method for Alaska and eastern Siberia, a method closely paralleling the

The American Indian Fig 28.jpg

Fig. 28. South Atlantic Pottery. Holmes, 1903. I

Mandan-Hidatsa type. The Blackfoot, Menomini, Cree, and some of the adjacent tribes fired their pots by putting them over the fire, as in use, after first soaking them with fat. This is also the usual method among the Chukchee and Alaskan Eskimo. The archæological specimens collected by Stefánsson at Cape Parry also show this crude firing. We thus have two regions of similar pottery traits, which as previously stated, may, after all, be connected west of Hudson Bay.

In Mexico, Central America, and the Andean region the coil method seems to have been in use, but as to its relative position we cannot be sure. Traces of molding are seen in prehistoric pottery from Central America and Peru, where the potter's art ceased to be mere woman's work and rose to the level of a profession. On a priori grounds the coil method

 The American Indian Fig 29.jpg

Fig. 29. North Atlantic and Upper Mississippi Pottery. Holmes, 1903. I

seems ill adapted to the fine modeling found here, yet it is clear that it is the fundamental method throughout the greater part of the pottery area. That it is the most primitive way may be doubted, since we find the crude pottery of the upper Mississippi and the trans-Bering region simply worked out from a mass. Such questions, however, must await chronological studies of the ceramic art.

The methods of tempering clay with sand, gravel, pulverized stone, or shell, used in the New World, are not essentially different from those employed in the Old. The use of "slips," or thin washes of such clays as will give pleasing color tones was understood in most places, the exceptions being the southern coast of Brazil and Patagonia, the greater part of eastern United States, the upper Mississippi, and Alaska. In short, the use of "slips" is found wherever pottery rises above the mere utilitarian level.

The principle of glaze, highly characteristic of later Old World pottery, was not understood in the New. Yet, in the Pueblo area, a true glaze was used for decoration, giving us what is known as the glazed type.[4] Since this glaze does not cover the entire surface, its use could not have been to make vessels water-tight. Glazed ware has also been reported from Totonac sites near Vera Cruz and also from the vicinity of Coban, Guatemala.

The American Indian Fig 30.jpg

Fig. 30. Pottery from Southwestern United States

However, when we turn to pottery paints the New World takes high rank. A brief visit to a museum will make this point clear. The only place where aboriginal pottery of the higher type survived the Conquest is in southwestern United States, and it is from here that most of our knowledge of processes comes. Here we find the paints of both vegetable and mineral origin, the reds and yellows from iron, the blacks from juices of plants. By proper firing, the desired colors could be made permanent. On the whole, aboriginal clay work was almost exclusively limited to ornamental and useful

The American Indian Fig 31.jpg

Fig. 31. Mexican Pottery

vessels, though in a few localities in the United States the stone pipe gave way to one of clay and in certain parts of Mexico true bricks were made.


Our consideration of pottery forms may properly begin with the United States.[5] On the whole, wherever pottery is extensively manufactured, there is considerable variety of form, but still the preference is given to two or three forms which may be taken as the distinguishing characteristics of the several areas. For example, in the lower Mississippi Valley the most distinctive forms are the bottle-like vases and effigy bowls. Among the latter are some remarkable human heads.[6]

In the South Atlantic region, the bowl is the prevailing form and one type approaches the olla of the Southwest. In the North Atlantic area is the well-known pointed-bottomed jar of the Algonkin, and inland the highly original Iroquois square-topped pot. Finally, in the upper Mississippi, we find

The American Indian Fig 32.jpg

Fig. 32. Central American Pottery. MacCurdy, 1911. I

a simple, globular, narrow-rimmed pot. The greatest variety of form is in the lower Mississippi area, where ceramics rises to the level of a true art.

Proceeding southward, the next great pottery area is southwestern United States, where the leading forms are the shallow bowl and the bulging olla.

Notwithstanding the great complexity of ceramic culture in Mexico and Central America, there is at least one characteristic form throughout, viz., a support of three long legs. There is also a tendency toward flat bottoms and cylindrical bodies in vessels not supported by legs.

In Colombia and Ecuador, hourglass shapes abound, while in Peru, we find the pointed jar, the double jar of which "whistling jars" are an example, and the effigy vase, the latter reminding one of the lower Mississippi group. In southern and eastern Brazil, the most distinctive shape is the bulging burial urn, in some cases with a hood. Frequently, these urns take an hourglass form which is also the leading form for household pottery north of the Amazon. In addition, throughout the whole of the Amazon pottery area we find an extraordinarily large tub-shaped vessel, and in eastern Brazil a local development of effigy jars quite parallel to that of the lower Mississippi.[7]

An interesting theoretical problem lies in these pottery

The American Indian Fig 33.jpg

Fig. 33. Peruvian Pottery

forms. It appears that almost everywhere the cooking pot tends toward the oval or hemispherical form and that the regional distinctions we have drawn are in vessels for other purposes, often largely ornamental. Thus, when we move northward from the lower Mississippi, pottery becomes strictly a vessel for cooking, or specifically utilitarian. In the North Atlantic area, pottery has a rival in soapstone, but vessels of this material have a form of their own which seems to have

The American Indian Fig 34.jpg

Fig. 34. Pottery Forms from Eastern South America. Joyce, 1912. I.; Von den Steinen, 1897. I.; Im Thurn, 1883. I

something in common with the cooking kettle of the eastern Eskimo. Some pottery vessels collected by Stefánsson and Anderson between Hudson Bay and the Mackenzie River have corners quite like Eskimo soapstone kettles, but the better type of Alaskan ware has a shape like that common in Aleutian baskets; yet, if there is a fundamental ceramic container concept in the New World, it is that of the globular cooking pot. The strong claims for the recognition of this form appear when we examine the animal-like vessels of Central America and the lower Mississippi in which we usually see the globular part with ornamental appendages.


Decorations of pottery fall into two groups, those produced by secondary modeling, and true designs. The former is a prominent feature in Peru, Colombia, Central America, the lower Mississippi, and eastern Brazil. Elsewhere it is relatively infrequent, the preference being given to painted or incised designs. The secondary modeling of the so-called Chiriqui pottery from Panama has been carefully studied by MacCurdy[8] who finds that practically all consists of efforts to represent the armadillo and the alligator. Von den Steinen has given an illuminating discussion of animal forms in eastern Brazil, in some cases so reduced by conventionalization as to appear symbolic.[9] A somewhat similar study has been made of lower Mississippi pottery,[10] but without the help of the makers, the specimens being prehistoric. In Colombia we find frog and monkey-like creatures represented as peeping over the rims of jars, but it is in Peru that ceramic modeling reaches its highest level. Here, we not only have animals and natural objects faithfully represented, but human heads so executed as to suggest their being portrait jars.

Painted and incised ceramic decorations tend to be geometric and often closely parallel textile designs, to be discussed under the next head. We shall, therefore, defer their discussion until the whole subject of design has been considered.

  1. Tozzer, 1907. I.
  2. Wilson, G. L., Am. Mus. Mss.
  3. Bogoras, 1904. I; Jochelson, 1908. I.
  4. Kidder, 1915. I; Nelson, N. C., 1916. I.
  5. Holmes, 1903. I.
  6. Moore, 1911. I.
  7. Von den Steinen, 1897. I.
  8. MacCurdy, 1911. I.
  9. Von den Steinen, 1897. I, p. 264.
  10. Holmes, 1903. I.