Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History: The Ancient Americas

Ancient AmericasWhen I offered to take my cousin to the Field Museum, showing off my new membership, and suggested that we see the permanent exhibition “The Ancient Americas,” she said, “What’s that?” “Indians,” I said, “from Day One.” She said later that it wasn’t what she was expecting. (What? Cowboys?) To allay any mistaken assumptions about the exhibition, read on.

At the entrance to the exhibit, the we are greeted by three video monitors showing Native speakers giving variations on “These are our ancestors” in their own languages — Quechua, Navajo, Aymara, Hopi, and a number of others. Between the monitors are display cases with groups of mostly small artifacts from various North and South American cultures, which, as you study them, reveal not only the differences among the various groups, but their commonalities.

Then we enter the exhibit proper, where we encounter a large, three-panel animation of Chicago at the end of the last glaciation: a swampy taiga forest. We hear a flock of geese flying by, and can just make out a herd of deer thundering through the background, and finally, a herd of mammoths, one of which walks up to the front of the scene and challenges us.

This is followed by a brief video that discusses the prevailing theories of how humans came to the Americas, prefaced by several creation stories from various peoples. Once again, as in the “Where did organic molecules come from?” display in the “Evolving Planet” exhibition, we are given an either/or choice: either people came across the Bering land bridge, or they came by sea, following the coast. And once again, I note that these are not mutually exclusive. The video does summarize the various means by which scientists examine the origins and connections of the Native peoples — archaeological (artifacts and campsites), biological (DNA matching), and linguistic, which are all summarized as well on the wall behind us. one thing that is firmly established is that the Native Americans originated in Asia.

Then we enter a gallery that starts with examples of the two dominant styles of toolmaking, Clovis (in North America) and Fishtail (in South America). The focus is on the Clovis cultures, I suspect because the Museum doesn’t have that much in the way of artifacts from South America in this period. The gallery also examines the lifeways of the hunter-gatherer societies of the original peoples.

This is followed up by a large gallery detailing the progression of societies from hunter-gatherer to more settled groups in four locations: Coastal California, the Eastern Woodlands of what is now the U.S., the Andes, and Tehuacán (Mexico). Each section also includes a free-standing pillar that on one side has a brief overview of the location and on the other side, a video showing important developments among each group — for example, the Indians of the California Coast learned to process acorns so they could eat them without poisoning themselves. On the opposite wall is a group of screens next to questions on where various plants (and animals) originated — a quiz, if you will, on the origin of things like popcorn and tomatoes and guinea pigs. It’s just one of many interactive elements in the exhibition.

We are now in the era of farming communities, illustrated in the next gallery by an examination of the pueblos of the American Southwest. First is a walk-through replica of a two-room dwelling in the pueblo, with a few artifacts and a view into a storage area. (And one thing I find rather funny: in the second room there is a fire pit in the center of the floor; above it is a smoke detector, undoubtedly required by the city fire code. Don’t ever think that anthropologists don’t have a sense of humor.) The rest of the gallery is devoted to displays of artifacts used by a farming people — mano and metate for grinding maize, cradle boards for carrying babies, stone and wooden tools, and the like. There are videos discussing the idea of “community” as the foundation of these farming villages and the causes and results of inter-group warfare, generally sparked by scarcity of resources.

To one side of this section is a large circular gallery devoted to examples of pottery from four groups, Mesa Verde, Kayenta, Cibola, and Chaco. The expressed purpose is to show the variations of style, but quite honestly, the variations are often subtle, and the sheer wealth of examples leads to input overload.

Next comes the beginning of a series of galleries devoted to the rise of state societies, the result of the development of hierarchies and central decision-making (as opposed to the communal decision-making of earlier, smaller groups). This is first illustrated by a video on the means by which the Taino culture of Puerto Rico became a centralized state, followed by a gallery with an extensive collection of artifacts from Colombia — ceremonial tools and weapons and ornaments — illustrating the types of status symbols in use.

Next come examinations of the Hopewell and Mississippian cultures of North America as examples of the state society, marked by monumental architecture and large cities, followed by a video on the development of states and the means by which rulers maintained control, a combination of religion, economy, and military. (Sound familiar?) And then a series of galleries detailing the state cultures of pre-Columbian America: the Zapotec, Maya, Teotihuacan, Moche — and the rise of empires: the Wari, Aztecs and Incas.

There are several exhibits noting the diversity of peoples in these empires, which, in the case of the Incas, for example, stretched for several hundred miles and included a number of different tribes. It will probably come as no surprise that in the cities (and some of them rivaled the major cities of Europe at the time in size and complexity — although the Americans’ city planning seems to have been more sophisticated), people from different groups tended to settle in particular areas, much as they do today.

One thing that I found interesting, and that I hadn’t known before, is that several peoples — the Maya, Aztecs, and Incas — had written histories and created books detailing daily life. As the video detailing this phenomenon points out, the European invaders took these as “owner’s manuals” and used them to subvert the Native societies.

One small gallery notes the arrival of Europeans and the destruction of the Native cultures by war, disease, and slavery. It is estimated that only one of four Natives survived the European invasions.

The final gallery is a viewing area with a wrap-around video showing examples of how Native people have adjusted to the contemporary world, whether by passing on their traditions or adapting those traditions to the prevailing society.

At the end of the exhibition, one exits into the Alsdorf Hall of Northwest Coast and Arctic Peoples, but that’s for another visit.

A couple of notes: the exhibition includes a number of videos expanding on some of the phenomena in the displays and re-creations shown, subtitled in English and Spanish. There are also panels showing comments on various aspect of Native societies by contemporary Indians, ranging from anthropologists and sociologists to dancers to activists.

Allow yourself a couple of hours for this one — there’s a lot to see and a lot of information to digest. And yes, there are benches at intervals, where you can sit down and rest your feet. And the best part is, it’s included in your general admission.

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.