The New World

The New World

Indigenous visual arts traditions in the Americas span thousands of years, representing cultures from Mesoamerica to the Arctic.

Learning Objectives

Gain an appreciation for the breadth and diversity of indigenous peoples and cultures of the Americas

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The New World refers to the western hemisphere, especially the Americas, after the European “age of discovery” beginning in the early 16th century. The indigenous peoples of the Americas are the pre-Columbian (before European contact) inhabitants of North America, Mesoamerica , and South America as well as Greenland.
  • Scientists believe that the most recent migration of humans from Eurasia to the Americas took place around 12,000 years ago via a land bridge that connected the two continents.
  • Indigenous populations across the Americas created monumental architecture, large-scale cities, chiefdoms, states, and empires.
  • Indigenous Americans also created pottery, paintings, jewelry, weaving and textiles, sculptures , basketry, carvings, beadwork, and other objects that comprise a major category in world art history.

Key Terms

  • Mesoamerica: A region and cultural area in the Americas, extending approximately from central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica, where pre-Columbian societies flourished before the Spanish colonization of the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries.
  • pre-Columbian: The inhabitants, societies, and culture of the Americas prior to European contact, colonization, and influence; literally “pre-(Christopher)Columbus.”
  • Paleo-Indians: The first people to inhabit the Americas from Eurasia more than 11,000 years ago.
  • New World: The term used by Europeans to describe the western hemisphere, specifically the Americas, during the “age of discovery” beginning in the early 16th century.
  • indigenous peoples: People defined in international or national legislation as having a set of specific rights based on their historical ties to a particular territory, and their cultural or historical distinctiveness from other populations that are often politically dominant.

The New World refers to the western hemisphere, especially the Americas, which was almost entirely unknown to Europeans before the “age of discovery” beginning in the early 16th century. The Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was one of the earliest and most well-known of these European explorers; the first of his four famous voyages from Spain to the Americas began in 1492.

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Sebastian Munster’s Map of the New World, first published in 1540: A colorful map of what the German cartographer, Munster, and his contemporaries believed the Americas looked like during the European “age of discovery.”

The indigenous peoples of the Americas are the pre-Columbian inhabitants of North America, Mesoamerica, and South America as well as Greenland. There are almost as many terms for indigenous people in the Americas as there are geographic regions. For example, “pueblos indígenas” is a common term in Spanish-speaking countries such as Mexico, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. “Aborigen”  is used in Argentina; “Amerindian” is used in Guyana. Indigenous peoples are commonly known in Canada as Aboriginal peoples, which includes First Nations, Inuit , and Métis peoples. Indigenous peoples of the United States are commonly known as Native Americans or American Indians, and Alaskan Natives.

Scientists believe that migrations of humans from Eurasia (the combined continental landmass of Europe and Asia) to the Americas first took place via Beringia, a land bridge which formerly connected the two continents across what is now the Bering Strait. The most recent migration probably took place around 12,000 years ago, but the earliest period remains somewhat of a mystery. These early Paleo-Indians soon spread throughout the continent, diversifying into many hundreds of culturally distinct nations and tribes. According to the oral histories of many indigenous peoples of the Americas, they have been living there since their genesis, represented in a wide range of traditional creation stories.

Indigenous Cultures

While some indigenous peoples of the Americas were traditionally hunter-gatherers — and many, especially in Amazonia, still are — many groups practiced aquaculture and agriculture. The impact of their agricultural endowment to the world is a testament to their time and work in reshaping and cultivating the flora indigenous to the Americas. While some societies depended heavily on agriculture, others practiced a mix of farming, hunting, and gathering. In some regions, the indigenous peoples created monumental architecture, large-scale cities, chiefdoms (with hierarchies based on kinship), states, and empires. Many parts of the Americas are still populated by indigenous Americans, and some countries have sizable populations, including Belize, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Greenland, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru.

At least a thousand different indigenous languages are spoken in the Americas. Some, such as Quechua languages, Aymara, Guaraní, Mayan languages, and Nahuatl, count their speakers in millions. Many indigenous people also maintain aspects of their traditional cultural practices, including religion, social organization, and subsistence economies. Some indigenous peoples still live in relative isolation from Western society.

Cultural practices in the Americas seem to have been shared mostly within geographical zones where unrelated peoples adopted similar technologies and social organizations. An example of such a cultural area is Mesoamerica, where millennia of coexistence and shared development among the peoples of the region produced a fairly homogeneous culture with complex agricultural and social patterns. Another well-known example is the North American plains where until the 19th century, Native American groups such as Blackfoot, Crow,and Sioux existed as nomadic hunter-gatherers (primarily buffalo hunting).

Indigenous visual arts traditions in the Americas span thousands of years, representing cultures from Mesoamerica to the Arctic. Visual arts by indigenous peoples of the Americas comprise a major category in world art history. Their contributions include pottery, paintings, jewelry, weavings and textiles, sculptures, basketry, carvings, and beadwork. Much of this artwork provides insight into the values , beliefs, and ceremonial rituals of early cultures of the Americas. In the following chapter, we will examine in detail the artworks of indigenous groups throughout North and South America prior to 1300.

This urn is decorated with geometric shapes and a face at the top.

Mayan Funerary Urn: Ceramics such as this urn provide insight into the values, beliefs, and ceremonial rituals of early cultures of the Americas.