Unit 5 Overview: Indigenous Americas, 1000 BCE-1980 CE

6 min readjanuary 19, 2023

Laurie Accede

Laurie Accede

Charly Castillo

Charly Castillo

AP Art History 🖼

34 resources
See Units

We're finally done with Unit 4 (whew 😅), and now, we're going to move on to some of the cultures that weren't covered in that section. In Unit 5, we'll be exploring works made by indigenous (native) American artists, both before and after European colonization (pre-Columbian and post-Columbian), and see how the region's distinctive cultures have influenced the art made there.
As we go through this unit, be sure to make note of the similarities and differences that you see between these works and those made by mestizo (part indigenous, part European) artists in Unit 4. Some examples include the Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrera, Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Central Park by Diego Rivera, and The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo.
So, now that you have an idea of what to expect and what to do, let's get into the history of Unit 5!

Contextualization (AKA the Historical Background)

When talking about the indigenous Americas, we're referring to the nations that are in present-day North, South, and Central America. In the AP Art History course, these continents are split into two chronological and geographical regions called Ancient America and Native North America. Ancient America refers to works made in Mexico, Central America, and South America that were created before 1550 CE (the end of the Age of Discovery ⛵). All works made after that belong to the Later Americas (AKA Unit 4). This region is further divided into subregions called Mesoamerica, Central America, and Andean South America, which we'll get into more later. Native North America refers to the indigenous people of the United States and Canada. As you can see, geography is super important in this unit, so be sure to take notes on everything we've gone over so far.
Before European expansion into the Americas, each of these sub-regions had thriving empires and civilizations, but most of them were overthrown by Spanish conquistadors (conquerors) from Spain, and explorers from other (mainly European) nations. Although these conquerors brought negative things to the Americas, like diseases and enslavement, they also introduced European artistic traditions. Eventually, these distinct cultures fused together in a process called syncretism (the merging of different beliefs and ideas) and began to influence the art made in the Americas. We see this in both Unit 4 and several later works of Unit 5.

Overview of Indigenous America Art by Region


Due to the mountainous terrain of Chavín ⛰️ (located in the Andes in Peru), many of its architecture was built in elevated areas. It is common for buildings from this civilization to be built around a u-shaped plan with a plaza (meeting space) in the center, facing a a large, open part of nature. It is not known whether or not this was for aesthetic purposes. Nevertheless, most buildings are aligned with cardinal directions or a nearby river, demonstrating the importance of water to the people that lived in Chavín. The region's ideal location in an Andean valley, rather than on a mountain top, near both the Huachecsa and Mosna Rivers, allowed for easy travel. The majority of Chavín sculptures combined both human and animal forms. They were also zoomorphic (animal-like) in appearance but worn by humans. This is similar to many works from Unit 1, where artists combined both animal and human motifs (features or designs) to emphasize their relationship and importance in each other's lives (⬅️ good example of a cross-unit and cross-geographical connection). Most sculptures from Chavín also have left-right symmetry.


The Mayans were well-known for constructing pyramids and temples, which were usually built near one another in plazas (similar to the ones in Chavín) or on top of one another. These buildings were built using the corbelled vaulting technique, which are arch-like structures that are placed to support the roof. They were especially important in the construction of Mayan buildings because many of them have roof combs (a structure placed on top of a temple-pyramid), which gave the architecture additional height and weight. Although they made the construction process more difficult, roof combs were important to Mayan architects because they accentuated the verticality of their buildings. Many Mayan sculptures portray humans depicted with protruding brow bones, full lips, and crossed eyes (⬅️ this completely contradicts the European standards of beauty in previous units). The majority of sculptures depict well-respected figures (gods, goddesses, historical people, etc.) and display different events to tell a story (narrative art). The Mayans were particularly fond of relief sculptures, which is when the sculpture is still attached to its media (materials), rather than carved away.


The Anasazi in the US were known for their pueblos (adobe homes that are stacked onto one another). These pueblos were built into the side of a cliff, similar to Petra and the Bamiyan Buddhas in Unit 7. In front of the homes is a plaza, where their inhabitants would gather, complete daily tasks together and have religious ceremonies. Since the pueblos were built beneath cliffs, the residents of the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings had to farm and gather water on the plateau above and bring it down to their community.


Unlike its name suggests, the Mississippian culture did not originate in the state of Mississippi, but instead, in a large section of the Midwest, Southern, and Eastern parts of the United States, near the Mississippi River. The people of the easternmost part were Mound-Builders, or people who build mounds for various reasons, including religion and ceremonies.


The Aztec civilization in Mexico had artwork centered around the culture's polytheistic (more than one god or goddess) religion. Most of the Aztec works in this unit depict mythological stories and deal with religious ceremonies such as blood-letting and routine human sacrifices. For example, the Coyolxauhqui Stone that was placed at the bottom of a pyramid depicts a human sacrifice.

Coyolxauhqui Stone. Image Courtesy of: Art History Project


The Inca built their capital city, Cusco, using the ashlar masonry technique (similarly-shaped stones connected together with mortar). Usually, the edges of the rocks are slightly curved and do not form a straight line, constituting the trapezoidal shape of Incan buildings. Although many of these cultures are distinct, a common theme throughout all indigenous American architecture are the pyramids and trapezoid-shaped buildings. It is unknown whether the Inca created these architectural structures for aesthetic purposes, or religious purposes like the Aztec and Maya.

Native North America

The media used in Native North American art varies greatly by region. These regions include the Arctic, Pacific Northwest, Southwest, Plains, and Eastern Woodlands. When European explorers came to these regions and introduced their artistic traditions, Native American artists began to use European mediums such as beads and brighter pigments, incorporating them in their traditional artworks. Eventually, European settlers and tourists gained interest in Native American art. They became the main market for these works, like the Black-on-Black Ceramic Vessel.

Black on Black Vessel. Image Courtesy of: Khan Academy

As previously mentioned, be sure to look out for both traditional, indigenous American techniques and European influence. Hopefully, this review helped you prepare for your class and the AP Art History exam. Happy studying, art historians! 🎨

Summary of the Works

Chavín de HuántarChavín de Huántar District, PeruGranite900-200 BCE
Yaxchilán Lintel 25, Structure 23Chiapas, MexicoLimestone725 CE
Mesa Verde Cliff DwellingsMontezuma County, ColoradoSandstone450-1300 CE
Great Serpent MoundAdams County, OhioEarthworkc. 1070 CE
Templo MayorMexico City, MexicoStone1375-1520
Ruler's Feather HeaddressMexicoFeathers and gold1428-1520
Maize CobsCusco, PeruSheet metal and gold and silver alloysc. 1400-1533
City of CuscoCusco, PeruSandstonec. 1440
Machu PicchuCusco Region, PeruGranite1450-1540
All-T'oqapu TunicPeruCamelid fiber and cotton1450-1540
Bandolier BagOklahoma, USABeads and leatherc. 1850
Transformation MaskAlert Bay, CanadaPaint, wood, and stringlate 19th century
Painted Elk Hide (Hide Painting of a Sun Dance)Wind River Reservation, WyomingElk hide and paintc. 1890-1900
Black-on-Black Ceramic VesselSan Ildefonso Pueblo, New MexicoCeramicmid 20th century
Browse Study Guides By Unit
🗿Unit 1 – Global Prehistoric Art, 30,000-500 BCE
🏛Unit 2 – Ancient Mediterranean Art, 3500-300 BCE
⛪️Unit 3 – Early European and Colonial American Art, 200-1750 CE
⚔️Unit 4 – Later European and American Art, 1750-1980 CE
🌽Unit 5 – Indigenous American Art, 1000 BCE-1980 CE
⚱️Unit 6 – African Art, 1100-1980 CE
🕌Unit 7 – West and Central Asian Art, 500 BCE-1980 CE
🛕Unit 8 – South, East, and Southeast Asian Art, 300 BCE-1980 CE
🐚Unit 9: The Pacific, 700–1980 ce
🏢Unit 10 – Global Contemporary Art, 1980 CE to Present
🙏Exam Reviews

Stay Connected

© 2023 Fiveable Inc. All rights reserved.

© 2023 Fiveable Inc. All rights reserved.