The Omnipresence of Zoomorphic Figure in
Pre-Columbian Arts


The sculptures of the Andes are renowned for their surreal yet animated rendering of earthly beings and a transformational blending with zoomorphic imagery which is connected to the Andean’s sacred rituals of this life and spiritual beliefs of the afterlife. The omnipresence of zoomorphic figures can be observed in artworks dated from 3500BC in the Valdivia culture to the Moche period in 1000 AD. There is further evidence that many of these shamanic transmutations occurred under the influence of hallucinogenic induced experiences as is clear from these prime examples.


In the Pre-Columbian cosmology, human and other zoomorphic beings are equally transformative and spiritual, who serve as mortal forms of the divine nature. Part anatomical, part transcendental in its fluidity, the floating body parts and facials represents a vital link to the Pre-Columbian visual lexicon that transfers the spiritual powers to the works' owner.

The owl was widely symbolic in the Pre-Columbian world. Owls were considered Shamanic, guiding humans on their journeys to other world, the divine, and the death. As a nocturnal bird of prey, the owl was also associated with night hunters, seeing in darkness and the Underworld of the spirit.

Height 20cm, c.3500~2500 BC

Height 30cm, c.3500~2500 BC

Its timeless abstract aesthetic is so in tune with our modern sensibilities despite the fact that it is over 4,000 years old, that legendary collectors across all periods have been avid admirers of these ancient hidden gems.

(Image: “Confluences,” (2009), published Paul Hughes Fine Arts, p22~23)


Blackware, Chavin culture
28 x 16 x 16 cm, c.500 BC

This vessel with incised feline deity, face, body and hands on one side, curvilinear devices on the reverse. The arts of the Chavín is full of imagery of felines (especially jaguars), snakes, and raptors, as well as supernatural beings, often with ferocious-looking fangs.

Creatures are often transformational - presented in two states at once - and designed to both confuse and surprise. Images are also very often anatropous - they may be viewed from different directions. Felines in Chavín art and culture were associated with the ruling houses. In nature, such animals are often excellent hunters who occupy the top of the food chain, qualities that were also valued in human rulers. Felines, like jaguars and pumas, were also thought to enjoy great spiritual force; shamans were believed to transform into such creatures.

Chavín ceramic art is known for its complex iconography and its “mythical realism”. There is consistent evidence within all types of art (ceramics, pottery, sculptures, etc.) of human-animal interactions, which was reflective of societal interconnections and how the Chavín people viewed themselves connected with “the other world.”


Ceramic, Moche culture
29 x 18 x 7 cm, c.1000 AD

This powerful Moche ceramic is a fully hallucinogenic imagery associated with a set of universal and redundant sensory phenomena which often include the appearance of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic images of fish, birds and felines. These are most probably resulting from drug intoxication, a ritual commonly associated with Moche shamans in order to achieve ecstatic communion with their spirits. An excellent example to highlight the intrinsic connection between the natural world and the human world as continuously portrayed by the Pre-Columbia Andean.


Pachacamac Janus Headed Painted Textile, c.1200 AD
Pachacamac culture, 213 x 67 cm
Pigment on camelid fibres 

The ancient Andean artists were masters of comedy, perhaps divine comedy, which is epitomised in painted textiles from the Huari/Chancay culture. The practice of painted textiles has transformed into the abundant sense of humour with its free-of-perspective figurative rendering in the most delightful and child- like manner.

Many anthropomorphic rendering found in painted textiles, such as the two arms up-raised figures or the Janus headed centipedes are a continuation from the icon “the Ocucaje object” of the Ocucaje culture in 100 BC.

However, its method of execution--painted pigment on cotton--allows a rather freestyle and celebratory manner of representation that is typical of the cultures. The decorative elements surrounded the figures might refer to a diversity of patterns found in woven textiles in the pre-Columbian period.
The beauty and originality of Chancay painted textiles also resonates greatly with the masterpieces in 20th centuries. Notably, European modernists such as Joan Miro, Paul Klee, and the Albers were familiar to these collections.

Similar examples could be found in the study collection of Anni Albers, an instrumental figure in the development of Bauhaus, American modernism and Fiber Arts throughout the 20th century. Anni made several trips to Mexico and Peru during her professorship in Black Mountain College, and helped built some of the most important Pre-Columbian collections in the U.S., such as the Harriet Engelhardt Collection in the 1950s, and the Josef and Anni Albers collection.