The early inhabitants of the New World migrated to North America from Asia more than thirty thousand years ago. Their descendants reached the Southernmost inhabited regions of South America at least eleven thousand years ago.

Yet when Europeans reached the Guiana Coast, they found a stone age people, with no written language and a primitive art, some of which has persisted to the present day. These people lived at the subsistence level and found little leisure to devote themselves to study themselves. Their art consisted chiefly of decoration and decorative designs on implements and articles in every day use, such as pots and baskets and the use of animal and legendary designs for various purposes. Much of it displays much imagination and skill but must still be classed as primitive. Body painting was also practised.

Other forms of art consisted of Rock Paintings and Carvings. These are distributed over a wide area of Northern South America. They display some definite form and creative ability but their purpose has not been discovered; present-day Amerindians know nothing of their origin or their meaning. Significant differences tend to show that they were done by different groups. Animal and human figures are common and they seem to depict legends, myths or significant events in tribal history.

Amerindian art still represents early stages of man’s history. Painting of the body and the use of bright pigments are still common in some tribes. Tattooing is less common. These are some of the simplest forms of Primitive Art and are common in many parts of the world. This tendency is also reflected in certain practices in advanced societies. Among the Guiana tribes, designs vary from simple geometrical forms to rather intricate patterns often showing an appreciation of symmetry and effect. Tribal dances and other festive occasions call for much ornamentation and body painting. Here as elsewhere, early articles were simple and often rough. As the tribes advanced and acquired some leisure, more effort was devoted to decoration; even stone articles were more finely finished and polished. Punctured designs in pottery gave way to incisions and painted designs. Clay figures of legendary beasts and creatures of the wild or the supernatural were used to decorate pottery. Animal designs were also used in basketry work. Designs were fashioned after animals and as civilization developed domestic and other articles ceased to be plain. As contact with other tribes led to trade, design and decoration acquired an added importance and creative art received a new stimulus. This effect is very obvious up to the present day in many forms of Amerindian art. Especially so in scraped and incised decoration on pottery. Clay figurines of legendary and mythic creatures were also used as ornaments on trade pottery.

Generally a higher degree of ornament is apparent in the manufacture of the interior tribes (Schomburghk). More elaborate patterns are seen in paddles, pottery of all sorts, some colourful feathers are worn and even hammocks are coloured, Throughout, ornaments painted on pottery, weapons and walls are simple, mostly curved lines, drawn free hand and according to the will of the artist. Sometimes the figures are even childish.

Amerindian baskets work is particularly neat and of a high order. Materials of different colours are used and skilfully woven to produce patterns of animal or geometrical designs. Baskets are made for different purposes. Some are also adorned with cotton and feathers. Cassava graters are also made in elaborate designs, the chips of stone being arranged in definite patterns. Working in wood is also an admirable Amerindian art. Canoes, stools, bows, arrows and other articles are very skilfully worked. Head-dresses, ornaments, necklaces, and musical instruments are well finished and often elaborately decorated.

As an illustration of the themes outlined above rock carvings are the most striking and mysterious example of Amerindian art; they are spread over a wide area of South America, being found locally at Waraputa and Timehri and certain other sites. They consisted of human and animal figures and line drawings.

Unlike these carvings, paintings done in red and black pigments on shaded sandstone surfaces are of comparatively recent origin. Here again various figures are depicted. Human hand-prints predominate.

There are also articles made of clay, in very common use, and even today these are used by remoter tribes; pottery decoration is of a high order.

The burial urns used by the interior tribes were constructed very simply; household articles of clay were often decorated with patterns. Some of the coastal regions were famous for decorated pottery.

The pottery of the early and less advanced tribes was plain and simple; as a higher stage of civilization was reached, much skill was devoted to finishing and decorating.

When the earlier settlers arrived pottery making had reached a fairly high level and often the articles were quite artistically decorated. Decoration was either punched, scraped, incised or painted, and often clay figures were added as further decoration.

The musical instruments of the Amerindians were made at the cost of much labour; drums were made of hollowed trunks and the skins of animals preferably the Howler Monkey. Flutes, rattles and pipes were also used.

Among the Guiana Tribes the Akawais were the most fond of painting various patterns on their bodies and of using ornaments. These habits continue to the present day and can be seen in tribes from the upland region of the Mazaruni.

The warlike tribes of the Coast were particularly proud of their clubs, which they spent much time decorating. After an enemy had been felled by a blow with the sharp edge, he was finished off by punching the pointed end into his ear.

Perhaps the greatest skill of the Amerindian was exercised in the art of weaving hammocks; several native fibres were used and hammocks often took several months to finish; decorations consisted of patterns woven with coloured threads and balls of wool.

Among most tribes, basket making was, and still is the work of the men who are very skilful, turning them out in different shapes and for different purposes.

Ornaments were used particularly during festive occasions and those made of bird skins are rather attractive.

Head-dresses of feathers were used by most tribes and feathers of several colourful birds were used. Unfortunately, they are no longer used by the majority of tribes and the art of making this attractive article is now lost.

Bead aprons in intricate designs are still used by many tribes.

It is unfortunate that enough is not being done to encourage and preserve Amerindian art which could make a significant contribution to Guianese Culture. Much of it is lost, probably forever. The trade store, the tourist trade and misguided civilizing influences are acting like a disease on the Ancient Art of the Guiana Indian.

Reproduced with permission

* (N.O. Poonai was a well-known writer who published numerous articles under the title "A Naturalist's Notebook" The article above was first pubished in Kaie, official organ of the National History and Arts Council of Guyana -Special Expo '67 issue, July 1967)


by N. 0. Poonai *

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Amerindian head-ress on Guyana’s coat-of-arms.

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Caribbean Creole Languages