Depicting Fauna

Birds abound in the arts of the ancient Americas. Soaring falcons, fish-eating sea birds, hovering hummingbirds, and brilliantly colored parrots captured the imagination of peoples from Mesoamerica to the Andes.

Birds have long been esteemed for their plumage, song, and remarkable ability to fly. In the Pre-Columbian world, some species were observed and depicted in their native habitats. Others were rare specimens acquired by trade from distant places. Inka, Aztec, and Maya rulers received birds as gifts and kept them as pets and mascots. They wore clothing and jewelry with avian motifs, and in their royal gardens, they erected avian effigies in gold, silver, and precious stone. The variety of species represented in their arts suggests a wide ranging interest in local and exotic fauna.

Birds carried a rich symbolism in ancient American cultures. Birds of prey like the eagle, hawk, and falcon were metaphors of the sun, cosmological time, and military power. Waterfowl and shorebirds that dive or dip below the water's surface were associated with fish, fertility, and the underworld. Colorful birds, such as macaws and quetzals, were favored for their beauty and claimed as mythical ancestors by some groups.

Sea birds are depicted on many textiles from Peru's central coast. Here, two pelicans are rendered in a geometric style, with large tails and outstretched wings. The long beaks, black-lined necks, and posture are characteristic of the largest sea birds breeding in Peru. Pelicans are also one of the main guano-producing species, and therefore an integral part of human livelihood. Guano was—and continues to be—collected and traded over great distances for use as an agricultural fertilizer.

This gold bird has the striped body, patterned wings, and pointed beak of a falcon. Associated with Andean royalty, falcon feathers are said to have been worn by all descendants of Inka rulers.

A parrot or parakeet stands over a maize plant at the top of this pin. Birds' appetite for corn was a constant concern in Andean agricultural societies, and the pin offers an amusing allusion to competition over food resources.

This tiny spoon was probably used to consume hallucinogens in ritual contexts. In the Andes, the hummingbirds' habit of sucking nectar from flowers was associated with the shamanic ability to conjure visions or spirits.

Water birds decorate finials that once topped staffs held by Sinú dignitaries. The triple-crested bird, probably a type of duck, is hollow and doubles as a rattle. The long neck and curved beak of the second bird are suggestive of an ibis.

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