- Historic Sites
“Savages Never Carved These Stones”
Magnificent Central American ruins, overgrown by the thickening jungle, testify to a sophisticated culture already ancient when Columbus sailed
February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
Notwithstanding these great handicaps—no major domestic animals, no herds, no draft animals, no wheel, and no useful metals—the monuments of the ancient Indians rival those of Greece, Egypt, and Mesopotamia in size, in splendor, and in the awe they still evoke in us when we see them. For example, at Monte Alban in southern Mexico the Zapotec Indians leveled the top of a mountain rising in the midst of a wide valley, and on this man-made plateau built a group of temples, pyramids, astronomical observatories, and ceremonial ball courts which in their grandeur easily rival the Roman Forum.
One of the most extraordinary things about the art of these ancient cultures is their surprisingly “modern” feeling. Often their artists’ conception of forms, and the way they experienced the world around them, are similar to those of many twentieth-century artists. Other objects speak to us with such spontaneity and immediacy that we feel we have had a personal contact with their creators.
This has helped to cause a tremendous upsurge of interest in pre-Columbian art during the past few years. In part this has been stimulated by our growing concern with history, especially the history of this continent. Even more important has been the way in which modern art has taught our eyes to respond with pleasure and excitement to the art of these ancient cultures. Until a few years ago the only places one could find examples of pre-Columbian art were on the dusty shelves of museums of natural history and ethnography. But now, quite suddenly, one major art museum after another has begun to display the artifacts of the ancient American cultures—as works of art.
After 400 years of looking at them as little but scientific curiosities, western man has suddenly rediscovered the sense of awe and wonder in these ancient arts, produced by a chain of cultures on this continent whose glories approach the triumphs of ancient Egypt.