Cerámica de los Ancestros - Central America's Past Revealed

Smithsonian Latino Center (SLC)

  Centroamericanos—they are the backbone of the Latino communities surrounding Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian’s own backyard. They hail from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Belize, Panama, and Costa Rica. This online exhibition looks at a sampling of artifacts from seven regions representing distinct Central American cultural areas. A number of cultures occupied each region. These regions are today part of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.

This online sampling is based on original Smithsonian research organized into key archeological zones: Maya Region, Ulúa River Region, Lempa River Region, Greater Nicoya Region, Greater Coclé,Greater Chiriquí, Central Caribbean. The figures on the map represent the people of a region explored in Cerámica de los Ancestros research project. Together, they offer tantalizing glimpses of the diverse peoples who once lived in Central America. Click here to interact with map.

Centroamericanos -have a growing presence throughout the United States, yet representation of their cultural and social legacies in Latin American scholarship has remained largely marginalized by earlier focus on the political dominance, riches, and the epic drama of Mesoamerican and Andean empires.

Surviving Native traditions and historical documents help us interpret these earlier civilizations. Connections between Central America and other regions also allow us to draw on information about closely related peoples in Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico.

Native peoples began arriving in Central American over 10,000 years ago, over time developing diverse ways of organizing their communities and living off the land and water.

Quickly adopting new pottery technologies, they molded and coiled clay to create figurines, cooking pots, whistles, design stamps, incense burners, and other complex ceramic objects.

The people of ancestral Central America were connected to each other through travel, trade, and indirect knowledge of distant peoples and lands. Honduras provides examples of a long history of material connections reaching as far north as central Mexico and south to Panama and Costa Rica.

Residents of Ulúa River Valley villages developed new forms of locally rooted visual culture after 900 BC. Hand modeled figurines (as seen here) highlighing stages in the life course, from birth to old age underline the importance of family connections in farming villages like these.

Spiritual life within the household and the community were highly developed, reflected in the images seen on serving vessels recovered in other places in El Salvador.
Page 31 Revealing Ancestral Central America, Exhibition Catalogue,2013.

Viewing these objects closely, you will see scenes from parenthood, representations of male and female leaders, images related to magic and power, as well as depictions of important plants and animals.

Visit the 3D Base Camp to learn more about the artifacts and regions.

Between beliefs and rituals: Material cultures of ancestrial Costa Rica.
In some ceramic figurines, it is possible to identify the wearing of ear spools, necklaces, and headdresses of magnificent fabrication, as well as clothing and body painting. 

In image: Greater Nicoya female figure on a feline-effigy bench. AD 800–1200.
Linea Vieja area, Costa Rica.
Pottery, clay slip, paint.

Throughout the region, we see evidence that social and religious or spiritual authority were intimately related. The products of skilled artisans, with imagery reflecting religious and spiritual concepts, were used by people who established and exercised their authority through the things they did with these objects.   Today, we can use these things to help us understand the many forms of authority that existed in pre-Hispanic Central America.

These objects connect us to the ancestors of the indigenous, mestizo, and afromestizo peoples of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.

Download our free bilingual activity and coloring book "Revealing Ancestral Central America" featuring objects made by the Central American ancestors.

Authority was accompanied by the manipulation of symbols used to represent and exercise power.
Image: Greater Coclé (Conté style) footed plate with human-crocodile design. Page 46 Revealing Ancestral Central America, Exhibition Catalogue, 2013.

These objects testify to the complexity of long-lived
governments and social systems, and to the importance and sophistication of the art and science in the communities where they were made. Page 7, Revealing Ancestral Central America, Exhibition Catalogue, 2013.

Most of these objects were acquired in the early-mid 20th Century by a mix of amateur archeologists, explorers, businessmen, and ultimately, collectors based in the United States.

Watch interview with Central American Anthropologists and Archaeologists

Today, archeology, history, and consultation with contemporary Native peoples can make these objects and the Central American past come alive.

By emphasizing notions of heritage and connection to our pre-Hispanic collections we then have the potential to engage surrounding Central American communities and introduce them to the Smithsonian’s broader panoply of cultural resources.

For the newly initiated or the most devoted aficionado familiar with the history and cultures of the region, the experience of seeing our exhibition, or reading our exhibition catalogue,is meant to engender new paradigms for understanding the pre-Hispanic past.

Seeing People in Ceramics
Credits: Story

This exhibition is a collaboration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center.

Ceramica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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