Patricia A. Gilman – “What is the Meaning of Mimbres Art”

Mimbres Classic Black-on-white bowl from the Osborn site, Luna County, New Mexico (J. W. Fewkes 1923:28, Designs on Prehistoric Pottery from the Mimbres Valley, New Mexico, Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, vol.74, no.6). This image may represent the Mimbres equivalent of the monster Seven Macaw in the form of a bear and the younger Hero Twin who is blinding the monster during the retrieval of his elder brother’s arm, part of the Mesoamerican creation story in the Popul Vuh.

The paintings of people and animals on Classic Mimbres pottery are very popular, appearing in and on everything from museum exhibits to refrigerator magnets.  Archaeologists and the public have both often assumed that these images were simple representations of an animal or activity.  Several investigators, however, have noted parallels between some of the images and characters and narratives in the creation story explicated in the Popul Vuh and other Mesoamerican sources.

I will extend this interpretation of the narrative bowls by linking Mesoamerican images and creation story to a wider historical context – the Classic Mimbres period (A.D. 1000-1130) in southwestern New Mexico.  I argue that the introduction of this iconography is related to other dramatic changes that include the introduction of scarlet macaws from lowland Mesoamerica and the end of the Great Kiva religion as suggested by the deliberate burning of those large buildings.  For more than a century, a new religion in the Mimbres region replaced the old one and focused on the Mesoamerican creation story, using Mesoamerican symbols and scarlet macaws.  This transition was not permanent, and the new religion was apparently gone at the end of the Classic period.

This scenario has implications for the use of powerful foreign symbols – the macaws and the creation story – by individuals or families for their own ends and the success and then failure of the use of these symbols.  As well, there are implications for the social geography of interaction between Mesoamerica and the North American Southwest with people in the Mimbres region being important players in these relationships.

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