Climate in Crisis: Environmental Change in the Indigenous Americas (Part II)

For millennia, Indigenous communities throughout the Americas have maintained profound and expansive relationships with the natural world.

Continuing from Part I of this exhibition, learn about ancient Indigenous cultures from Mexico, Central, and South America, and how Indigenous communities today are affected by climate change.

For millennia, Indigenous communities throughout the Americas have maintained profound and expansive relationships with the natural world. However, beginning in the 1500s, Europe’s conquest and colonization of the Americas forced ways of using natural resources that clashed with traditional Indigenous modes of relating to the world.

This fundamental difference in worldviews—one that sees animals, plants, and the land as interrelated and equal, and another that privileges human needs above everything else—has resulted in ever-escalating threats to Indigenous homelands, ways of life, and survival, as well as the unprecedented level of climate change affecting the planet today.

Huastec Life-Death Figure (0900/1250)Brooklyn Museum

Mexico and Guatemala

Between about 1200 B.C.E. and the Spanish conquest in 1521 C.E., groups such as the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec established civilizations with monumental art and architecture, large-scale farming, and complex calendars and writing systems.

For three millennia, these Indigenous cultures residing primarily in present-day Mexico and Guatemala created a vast array of aesthetic, functional, and sacred objects. These works testify to the diversity of artistic expression in the region and demonstrate a close interplay between the spiritual and natural worlds.

Huastec Life-Death Figure (0900/1250)Brooklyn Museum

The Museum’s iconic Huastec Life-Death sculpture of a male figure carrying a human skeleton on his back epitomizes the interplay between supernatural and natural worlds.

The primary figure is the Aztec wind god Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, who created humankind and is identified by his J-shaped ear pendants.

Huastec Life-Death Figure (0900/1250)Brooklyn Museum

The skeletal figure with a protruding heart represents death and wears a collar and skirt decorated with semicircular motifs that were associated with the sun and the planet Venus, the morning star. 

 Venus was another important god, thought to pull the sun across the sky and down into the underworld. 

Densely patterned designs on the primary figure’s arms and legs include ears of corn...

...which are symbolically related to agriculture, fertility, life, and death.

Aztec Reclining Jaguar (1400/1521)Brooklyn Museum

This reclining jaguar is an excellent example of Aztec naturalistic sculpture. Every part of the animal is carefully rendered, including the underside, where the paw pads are carved in low relief. 

 To the Aztecs, the jaguar symbolized power, courage and a warlike attitude, and some of the highest-ranking warriors were called jaguar warriors.

In the five hundred years since Spain’s deadly conquest and occupation of Indigenous lands, the region’s climate and ecosystems have experienced significant changes that have destabilized and displaced Native populations. During the 1500s and 1600s, increased fluctuations in temperature and rainfall disrupted the region’s biodiversity and Indigenous agricultural traditions, the effects of which continue to shape the natural environments of Mexico and Guatemala.

Today, Indigenous activists are advocating for environmental reform and land rights in an attempt to overcome the violent actions against people and the environment perpetrated by logging and mining profiteers.

Central Caribbean Warrior Wearing a Crocodile Mask (0700/1000)Brooklyn Museum

Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia

Ancient objects from present-day Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia represent different cultures, all of which shared a common belief in the connection between the natural and spiritual worlds. 

Central Caribbean Warrior Wearing a Crocodile Mask (0700/1000)Brooklyn Museum

Representations of rulers, warriors, shamans, and supernatural beings incorporate attributes of animals that were revered for their strength and other abilities.

This carved stone warrior figure from Costa Rica wears a fearsome crocodile mask, as an actual warrior may have done in the hope of attaining the animal’s power. The figure carries a severed human head, representing a decapitated enemy, which probably enhanced his power.

Coclé Plaque with Crocodile Deity (ca. 700–900)Brooklyn Museum

Certain qualities of materials reinforce connections to the natural world, whether it is the hardness of volcanic stone or the lustrous appearance of gold, which is associated with the sun and Native cosmologies. 

This circular gold plaque from Sitio Conte, Panama, depicts the crocodile god, who was likely associated with strength, the sun, water, and fertility. 

The ruling elite probably wore prestige ornaments such as this one to appropriate the power of crocodiles, fierce predators connected to the underworld for their ability to float on water and drown their prey.

Indigenous peoples in Panama have had to combat the spread of logging and other causes of deforestation, which are displacing communities from their ancestral homelands. In addition, the increasing frequency of hurricanes and other extreme-weather events threatens the well-being of Indigenous communities.

Maya Cylindrical Vessel (ca. 550–950)Brooklyn Museum

Climate Change and Immigration

Maya Cylindrical Vessel (ca. 550–950)Brooklyn Museum

Climate change is increasingly recognized as a significant factor in human displacement. 

As the climate crisis intensifies, migration is escalating across the globe, and it is estimated that by the year 2050, two hundred million climate refugees will have left their homelands in search of new places to live. 

Encompassing Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the “Northern Triangle” of Central America is one of the regions most vulnerable to climate change.

 In recent years, floods along the coastlines and droughts in the highlands have multiplied, affecting rural communities and their economies and forcing millions of people to immigrate.

Paracas Cavernas Funerary Mask (300 B.C.E.–1 C.E.)Brooklyn Museum


Approximately two thousand Indigenous cultures flourished along the Andes Mountains and the nearby coasts in the millennia prior to European colonization. 

Paracas Cavernas Funerary Mask (300 B.C.E.–1 C.E.)Brooklyn Museum

Works dating from 500 B.C.E. to 1000 C.E. are associated with different cultures that inhabited the region known today as Peru, and demonstrate interconnections with the natural and supernatural worlds.

This colorful Paracas mask, which would have been attached to a mummy bundle, depicts the Oculate Being, named for its large, round eyes. This being may have been an early fertility-cult deity.

The mask has a long, projecting nose and four undulating, double-headed snakes painted across its surface. Snakes are associated with water, and the heads serve as projecting tabs that further animate the mask.

Nasca Double-Spout Vessel (0325/0400)Brooklyn Museum

This Nasca polychrome vessel illustrates the importance of agriculture in one of the driest regions of the world with the depiction of a supernatural fertility being decorated with multicolored peppers and holding two trophy heads in one hand and a club and peppers in the other.

Decapitation and the shedding of blood were associated with cultivation and the regeneration of plants. 

In the ecologically diverse country of Peru, with mountainous highlands, an arid coastline, and vast tropical forests, the effects of climate change manifest themselves in myriad interconnected ways. 

For example, melting glaciers in the high Andes not only affect rainfall but also lead to an increase in floods and landslides toward the coast. 

This complex situation is exacerbated by companies’ attempts to seize land from farmers and herders for the purposes of oil and gas extraction, illegal logging, and gold mining.

Shuar or Achuar Headband (20th century)Brooklyn Museum

Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru

Prior to European colonization in the 1500s, several million Indigenous people inhabited the Amazon rainforest, which spreads across a sizable area of South America, including parts of present-day Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.

Shuar or Achuar Headband (20th century)Brooklyn Museum

About two thousand tribes once inhabited the ecologically diverse region within the current borders of Brazil alone, and more than three hundred survive today. 

The Shuar and Achuar, who live in the mountainous tropical regions of southeastern Ecuador and northern Peru, produce dazzling feathered headbands, which are called tawasap in Shuar and etzengrutay in Achuar.

Attached to a woven cotton band, the red and yellow toucan feathers surround a narrower band of black and radiant blue cotinga feathers. These striking headdresses are worn for special occasions by older men and political leaders as symbols of their authority. 

Today, Shuar leaders are fighting to ban large-scale mining projects in their territory.

Credits: Story

Curated by Nancy Rosoff, Andrew W. Mellon Senior Curator, Arts of the Americas, with assistance from Joseph Shaikewitz and Shea Spiller, Curatorial Assistants, Arts of the Americas and Europe

Author: Nancy Rosoff with assistance from Christina Marinelli, Monica Park, Michael Reeback, and Joelle Seligson

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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