Highlights Humanities

Dismissing Archaeological Myths: the America-Near East Connection

Many myths regarding the ancients, usually propagated by shows such as Ancient Aliens or nationalist/identity groups, can be easily dismissed; however, the idea that the civilizations in the Near East and America had been in contact, supported by anthropologists such as Thor Heyerdahl, has managed to stick on — despite having too little basis to be considered with much seriousness. Here, I will be diagnosing the common idea that a connection can be seen through sculpture.

To begin, take two examples of monumental sculpture:

Aztec Jaguar

Hittite Lion

Although they may not look entirely similar, they have many similar characteristics: the head and body is largely rectangular,  the mouths are open with teeth showing, both have distinct noses and small round ears. This is a bit of a weak example on my part, for the Aztec and Hittite empires proper never coincided; however, it does show how pieces of sculpture could potentially look similar, although they were made in completely different periods of time, had different subjects, and were made in completely different cultures.

Comparative art analysis is a great way to show connections between different civilizations and even between different artists. Take for example a Daedalic Greek cult statue (fig. 2) and an Egyptian monumental statue (fig. 1). Here, comparative art analysis does these two works justice: an apt art historian would point imediately to their very similar stance (contraposto), how their arms hug their body, their rigidity, and their clear depiction of muscles and facial features. Additionally, the strong tradition of Greek men being depicted as nude and Egyptian as clothed make provides further proof to fig. 1 being Egyptian and fig. 2 being clearly Greek.

fig. 1

fig. 2

Unfortunately, as seen in the Hittite and Aztec sculptures above, comparative art analysis can also lead some to draw links where none actually exist. Whereas connections between Greek art and Egyptian art can be clearly supported artistically, through geographical proximity, and Egyptian texts talking about Greek traders and settlers. The America-Near East connection rests almost entirely on comparative art, and faulty comparative art at that.

The reason why American art and Near Eastern art can look similar boils down to one aspect: medium (that is, what the piece is made of). The cultures of South and Central America largely worked in hard stone, much like the Hittites. It is because of this hard stone that many pieces look somewhat similar, the level of detail seen in the sculptures of Assyria was possible because the stone was soft and thus able to be easily worked with great detail. Meanwhile, Hittite and many American sculptors worked with harder stones that were more conducive to geometric shapes and required less work.

An example of Assyrian sculpture

In conclusion, comparative art analysis can be misleading and, when paired with the anthropological work of Thor Heyerdahl, convince some that there was contact between the ancient Near East and the early civilizations in South and Central America. As has been shown, this is a misconception.