Ancient Andean Art & Culture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Andes Mountains compose a formidable landscape, but were nevertheless home to some incredible civilizations. In this lesson, we'll explore the arts and cultures of the ancient Andes, and see what trends united them.

The Ancient Andes

If you've ever lived near mountains, you know how treacherous they can be. Harsh weather conditions, steep slopes, and sparse shelter can make these places formidable environments. These challenges only increase as you go higher in elevation. It may seem surprising then that some of the most complex civilizations of the Western Hemisphere thrived at 11,000 feet above sea level. The Andes Mountains are the backbone of South America, and the longest continental mountain range in the world. With peaks at over 22,000 feet high, it's an imposing landscape, but one with deep and fertile valleys that nourished the rise of ancient civilizations.

Cultures of the Andes

Let's get to know some of these ancient Andean cultures. This rich landscape was home to dozens of cultures at any given time, but we can divide the region's history into a few phases, each dominated by a powerful civilization. The earliest culture to control large portions of the Andes were the Chavin people, who appeared as early as 1,000 BCE. They developed an urban society filled with crafts like stonework and pottery and laid the foundations for civilizations yet to come.

The next groups to control wide areas of the mountains were the Moche and Nazca cultures. They developed advanced pottery and monumental arts, including the famous Nazca lines, massive outlines of shapes and objects. After roughly 500 CE, they were replaced by the Wari and Tiwanaku cultures, noted for megalithic stone pillars and gateways. Next came the Chimu culture, during which urban development reached new heights (literally and metaphorically). Finally, we arrive at the Andean civilization most people are familiar with: the Inca. The Inca controlled one of the world's most formidable empires and developed advanced science, architecture, and arts.

Forms of Andean Art

While each of these dominant cultures were unique, they did build upon each other and develop some consistent forms of art. This is just a brief overview of Andean arts, but each of these forms did hold a special place in most Andean civilizations.

Let's start with ceramics. Andean societies put a lot of effort into ceramic vases and figurines. Most of these were functional objects, but were also symbols of status and objects of ritualistic importance. We can tell this through the great number of ceramics found in Andean graves, and in the high amount of artistry that went into them. Some were carefully painted with representational figures from history, mythology or daily life, while others carried geometric patterns. Many ceramics were actually made in the shapes of important people or symbols. Llamas and alpacas were common motifs, unsurprising considering how much these pack animals were used by Andean cultures.

Andean ceramics could get pretty complex

Another common art form of the Andes was monumental stonework. The steep slopes of the mountains may not seem like a great place to develop an architectural tradition, but the Andean societies managed. From the complex Nazca lines to massive Inca cities like Machu Picchu, Andean stoneworkers knew how to cut stone, assemble it, and decorate it with unparalleled skill. In fact, many Andean buildings are made of stones so perfectly cut that they could be assemble without mortar.

The size and scale of the Nazca lines indicates sophisticated planning

Perhaps the most important art form to the Andes, however, was something very different from ceramics of stonework. Weaving was among the most venerated and practiced cultural productions of many Andean civilizations. Andean weavers created blankets, clothing, and items for daily use on a massive scale. Everyone, from the emperor to the servants, was defined by the textiles in their homes and on their bodies. In fact, to this day textiles are among the most important art forms practiced by Quechua and Aymara speaking people of the Andes, making this one of the oldest continually developed traditions in the word.

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