Surveying the Pre-Columbian

Pyramid of the Sun, 2nd-3rd c.

Teotihuacan, Mexico.

Don Marcos Chiquathopa, ca. 1740-45.

Museo Inka, Cuzco, Peru.

Planting scene, New Chronicle and Good Government, ca. 1615.
Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala.

Royal Library, Copenhagen, Denmark.


When Christopher Columbus guided his ships west out of the Spanish port of Palos, near Cadiz, perhaps twenty-five million people made their home in the Americas. Two empires were at their apogee, controlling enormous swaths of territory. In the north was the Aztec and the south, the Inka. Their peoples carried on sophisticated lives in cities and towns, producing elaborate objects and monuments. Within each empire, peoples of distinct languages and customs—Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Guaraní, Chocho, and Cañari, to name just a few—made their lives in spaces defined by the capital cities of Tenochtitlan and Cuzco, their existences shaped by complex trade networks and local

In Vistas, the colonial period is understood as the staging ground for constructing and re-constructing pre-Columbian history, from 16th-century initial memories to 19th-century proto-national concepts. In considering the many ways in which colonial peoples made sense of the pre-Columbian, the interpretations presented here rest on the premise that there was no single, stable pre-Columbian past in colonial Spanish America (just as there is no single, stable pre-Columbian or colonial past today). And it is precisely this diversity and fluidity that Vistas seeks to highlight, for it was precisely this diversity and fluidity that characterized the pre-Columbian in colonial times.

Across the Americas, the history of indigenous cultures is so long and so vibrant that by 1500, hundreds of histories could be found inscribed in abandoned cities and half-buried settlements. In the Yucatán, the landscape was punctuated by crumbling ruins that had once been the center of dazzling whitewashed cities. Built by the ancestors of the Maya, many sites still held hieroglyphic texts carved in stone or painted inside upon building walls. In the highlands of Peru, Machu Picchu had been an Inka royal retreat. The city was abandoned probably in the early 16th century; its walls overgrown with orchid and bromeliad, even as vibrant Andean communities made their living nearby.

Living peoples anchored their own pasts to these ancient places, sustained and reshaped histories through their own oral narratives, animated them through ritual practice. For instance, the city of Teotihuacan was abandoned many centuries before European conquest and colonization. Once the most populous city with the largest structures in North America, Teotihuacan was a ghost town in 1521 when Hernán Cortés and his allies marched on the Aztecs. Yet the ruined pyramids had not been forgotten. The Aztecs called Teotihuacan “The City of the Gods,” after those they thought responsible for the monumental architecture, and every twenty days the Aztec king and his high priests made a ritual pilgrimage there.

Before the arrival of Europeans, then, the indigenous past was both well honored and open to reinterpretation by the descendants of those who came before. This was a process that depended upon and lent new meanings to visual culture, as peoples actively recast old forms and places, reworking and reinterpreting them. It was also a process that continued after the arrival of Europeans, but was made more difficult by the profound and devastating changes that were unleashed soon after 1492. The conquistadors had little interest in indigenous histories: many an Inka witnessed the Spanish conquistadors destroying ancient shrines—places where the dead could speak to the living—in their zealous search for silver and gold. Often Spaniards viewed local history—embedded in objects and architectural spaces—as an impediment to evangelization. Thus, Aztecs saw parts of their glorious capital city reduced to rubble, the life-size portraits of the Aztec kings gouged off the living rock, and sacred objects and manuscripts put to the torch. The transmission of oral histories and living memories was severely reduced by the countless deaths brought by new diseases. While about twenty-five million Americans witnessed the dawn of the 16th century, fewer than one million would see the 17th.

Spanish conquerors and colonial officials tried to overwrite these multiple histories with one of their own making. To begin, they invented a new category of indio, a name they gave to any native person from the Indies, as Spanish possessions in the New World were called (“natural” was also used).Indio was far more than convenient shorthand; in Spanish America, an indio was someone of different rights, a different order of personhood. Indios were legal minors, cultural children. And as they forced the status of indio upon millions of dissimilar and distinct peoples, Spaniards tried to fashion a common history for the Indies, and connect it to Christian ideas about the shape of history. Writers of the time called this history a narrative “of the Indies.” It often began with the creation of the earth, proceeded rapidly to the indigenous empires of the 14th and 15th centuries, and then climaxed with a successful Spanish conquest and imposition of a universal Christianity. Today, a fuller sense of the scope and depth of America’s past exists, yet the blanket term “pre-Hispanic” or “pre-Columbian” (that is, before Columbus) is still used to describe the history of America before the arrival of Europeans.

The interpretations and images presented in Vistas explore some of the most important ways peoples living in Europe and Spanish America made sense of this pre-Columbian history, especially through visual culture. Europe had little grasp of the depth and complexity of indigenous histories, and the Indies and their indio inhabitants could be a source of awe and amusement. This was particularly true in the 16th century, when native peoples were imported to Europe as wondrous performers. Their crafted works were taken from America as gifts for kings and cardinals. Clearly European perspectives on the New World were complex. Some defended the rights and privileges of native peoples, yet prejudice and rumors of devil-worship and cannibalism also became fixed in the European imagination. And images of such evils circulated widely, in books, prints, and the salons of the wealthy.

As early as 1550, when Europeans first began to stabilize, and indeed create a pre-Columbian past that paralleled their own sense of history, they often collaborated with native elders. Educated natives and mestizos—some of whom had moved to Europe, others who remained in Spanish America—also took up the pen to write accounts of the past. Yet legions of others, be they Zapotec, Nahua, Otomí, Chuncho, or Inka, held on to their specific histories, in part through the preservation and creation of objects and rituals. At times, the iconography of images—their depiction of ancient rites or ancestors—directly referenced the past. In other instances, it was the craftsmanship or choice of materials that kept pre-Columbian traditions and memories alive.

Throughout the history of Spanish America, indigenous peoples used visual things to both remember and represent their past. Through the threads of memory and ancestry—at times animated by oral recitations and performances on feast days or other public occasions—a special connection to the pre-Columbian past was claimed. This connection could be quite literal, as when native historians of the 16th and 17th centuries had the knowledge to interpret khipus and ancient pictorial manuscripts. Such objects, with their origins in pre-Hispanic times, were often safeguarded in local towns in the colonial period or else were copied. Through written words and painted imagery, often in alphabetic script and in paper and inks introduced by friars, indigenous people also recalled and remade the past for their own purposes.

Just as they had before the arrival of the Spanish, indigenous histories always took form and meaning in ways useful for the present. For instance, the Andean writer Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala (who wrote and painted in the 17th century) did not merely register the glories of pre-Columbian times. Rather he shaped his history as a call to reestablish native Andean rule, in part by picturing practices with long histories in the Andes. Descendants of the Inka and the Aztec also invoked imperial histories for the express purpose of holding onto threatened rights and properties. Yet others represented their ancestral past as something distinctly not Spanish and not Aztec (or not Inka)—in a new, hybrid style that drew from multiple traditions. And in this way they reaffirmed their separate ethnic or town identities.

By the time of independence in the early 19th century, Creoles—not only native people—considered pre-Columbian history as their own. Creole nationalists were drawn to the imperial cultures encountered by the conquerors, the Inka and Aztec, as illustrious models and ancestral heroes of their homeland. And while the images that Creoles generated of ancient rulers in Cuzco or sculptures of the rulers of Tenochtitlan were more often fanciful than factual, these representations must be taken seriously as a set of practices through which pre-Columbian history and visual culture were invested with meaning in the late colonial period.



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