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Glossary for AP Content Area 5: Indigenous Americas

by Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Sarahh Scher
A glossary of basic terminology that is often used in discussions about Indigenous art of the Americas.
acllaA “chosen woman” in the Inka Empire who weaved fine cloth for gods and nobles.
accoutrementsAccoutrements are additional items, such as jewelry, that are worn or used by a person.
adobeAdobe buildings are typically earthen brick structures commonly made of clay, sand, silt, and straw.
adzesAn adze is similar to an axe but its blade is turned 90 degrees so it is at a right angle to the handle. Some so called stone adze reference the shape of the blade but were not intended for cutting.
Votive Adze "Kunz Axe," c. 1200-500 B.C.E., jadeite, 31 x 16 x 11 cm, Olmec Formative Period
alpacaA type of camelid found in the Andean region. Alpacas have soft wool and were sheared to make textiles.
amantecaThe name for Nahua featherworkers, who comprised their own special social class. In the Mexica capital of Tenochtitlan, they lived in a neighborhood called Amantla, which is why they were called amanteca.
ancestral PuebloansThe ancestral Puebloans were an ancient culture residing in the Four Corners region. Many Pueblo people today consider themselves descendants of this culture. The ancestral Puebloans have sometimes been referred to as the Anasazi, but this term, which is a Navajo word meaning "enemy ancestors," is considered objectionable by many modern Pueblo people.
The Andes“The Andes” can refer to the mountain range that stretches along the west coast of South America, but is also used to refer to a broader geographic area that includes the coastal deserts to the west and into the tropical jungles to the east of those mountains. This region is seen as home to a distinct cultural area—dating from around the fourth millennium B.C.E. to the time of the Spanish conquest—and many of these cultures still persist today in various forms.
Map of South America showing the Andes
Andean highlandsLocated between the coastal deserts and snow-capped Andean mountains, the highlands are home to fertile valleys, plateaus, and grasslands. The highlands are above 8,000 feet. Valleys can have temperate climates, while the plateaus and grasslands can have much colder, more severe weather.
anthropomorphicAnthropomorphic means having a human form.
archaicThe word "archaic" refers to art of earlier cultures.
art for art's sakeThis term refers to art made purely for the purpose of enjoyment.
atl-tlachinolliFire and water, known in Nahuatl as atl-tlachinolli (“burnt water”; pronunciation: at-ul tlach-ee-no-lee), symbolized war, which was essential to the expansion of the Mexica empire.
aylluA Quechua word that denotes a network of families that often have a common ancestor.
axis mundiAxis mundi is a Latin term that refers to the concept of a central pole or axis that connects heaven and earth.
AztecThey formed part of a larger ethnic group known as the Nahua from Central Mexico whose pre-Hispanic empire was defeated by the Spanish in 1521. This group of people actually called themselves the Mexica. The name Aztec comes from the word Aztlan (their homeland), and it was appended to this group by the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt in the 19th century.
bloodlettingThe act of shedding one's own blood, often in a ritual context. Reasons for doing it include to honor deities, and to maintain the cosmos and power.
blackwareVessels fired in a kiln deprived of oxygen (referred to as a “reducing atmosphere”), causing the iron compounds in the clay to turn black. The general term for Andean ceramics made this way is “blackware.”
camelidA camelid is a member of the Camelidae family—think camels, llamas, and alpacas.
cequeImaginary lines, called ceques, connected the Inka Qorikancha to shrines throughout the Cusco valley.
Chiapas regionChiapas is a southern Mexican state bordering Guatemala.
chichaA type of beer made from maize that was an integral part of Inka social rituals.
chinampasChinampas, or floating gardens, provided the food necessary to sustain the Aztec empire. They consisted of human-made islands where crops could be grown. Food staples included maize, squash, and beans.
cocaThere are several species of coca plants. Erythroxylum coca is the variety typically cultivated in the Andean regions discussed here. Coca leaves are the source of the drug cocaine, but when consumed in its organic form, it has less extreme effects. Because of drug trafficking, the cultivation of coca plants is now strictly regulated.
cochinealThe cochineal is an insect that lives as a parasite on the prickly pear cactus. When dried and ground, it was used as a red pigment.
Dried cochineal insects
codexA word commonly used for screenfold manuscript books.
conquistadorsConquistador means conqueror, and in this case refers to the Spaniards who invaded Mesoamerica.
contour rivalryContour rivalry occurs when an image can be interpreted in multiple ways, for instance, when a particular figure can be seen when looked at one way, and a different one appears when the image is turned another way.
Raimondi Stele, Chavin de Haunter, Peru, c. 400 B.C.E.
cornicesA cornice is an architectural element that projects from the top of a wall, either where a wall meets the ceiling, or at the top edge of the exterior of a building.
cosmologyCosmology refers to belief about the order and structure of the universe.
crest symbolSometimes called a clan emblem, a crest symbol represents a specific clan. These symbols can take the form of animals, ancestors, or supernatural beings, and are important for the history of First Nations peoples across North America. They can help to encode a family's lineage, among other things.
Kwakwaka’wakw artist, Eagle Mask open, late 19th c., from Alert Bay, Vancouver Island, British Columbia
effigy moundA raised pile of earth built in the shape of a stylized animal, symbol, religious figure, human, or other figures that were common among Indigenous cultures in what is today the U.S. (primarily the eastern half) between about c. 300–1300 C.E.
Aerial view of the Great Serpent Mound, c. 1070, Adams County, Ohio
El NiñoEl Niño and La Niña are the warm and cool phases of a recurring climate pattern across the tropical Pacific, the El Niño-Southern Oscillation.
flowery warThe flowery wars were ritual wars fought by the Aztecs.
Four CornersThe Four Corners region includes southeastern Utah, northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado.
gessoGesso is a white mixture consisting of a binder, often glue, mixed with chalk, gypsum, or pigment.
glossesGlosses are explanations or interpretations of texts.
glyphA glyph is a symbolic figure or a written character that is based on a picture.
Detail of Codex Telleriano-Remensis, folio 45v, showing the glyph for Chapultepec
hananUpper. The city of Cuzco was divided into hanan and hurin.
Highland Maya regionLocated in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. The Maya highlands are above 2,600 ft above sea level. The highlands are located south of the lowlands. See also Lowland Maya region.
Map of the Maya region
huey tlatoaniThe Mexica ruler was known as the huey tlatoani (“chief speaker”; pronunciation: whey-tla-toe-anee). There were eleven tlatoque (the plural form of tlatoani) of Tenochtitlan, beginning with Acamapichtli in 1375 and ending with Cuauhtemoc in 1525.
huipilA square-cut blouse worn by indigenous women in Mexico and Central America.
HuitzilopochtliHuitzilopochtli, a god of war who was associated with the sun, is pronounced "Wheat-zil-oh-poach-lee."
hurinLower. The city of Cuzco was divided into hanan and hurin.
indigoIndigo is a natural dye derived from the leaves of certain plants. In South America, this is usually the anil plant.
IntiThe Inka sun deity.
IsthmianThe Isthmian region refers to the North American Isthmus‚ today, Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.
keru/keroA ceremonial drinking vessel used by the Inka.
Keru, Inka, 15th – early 16th c., wood
KivaCircular, subterranean rooms that were often at the center of architectural units in the Southwestern U.S. A kiva typically had a wood-beamed roof held up by six engaged support columns made of masonry above a shelf-like banquette. Other typical features of a kiva include a firepit (or hearth), a ventilation shaft, a deflector (a low wall designed to prevent air drawn from the ventilation shaft from reaching the fire directly), and a sipapu, a small hole in the floor that is ceremonial in purpose. See an example at Mesa Verde.
lintelThe beam at the top of a doorway.
Lowland Maya regionLocated in the northern part of Central America, in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. The Maya Lowlands range from 25 feet to 2,600 ft above sea level. The lowlands are divided into the northern and southern lowland region. See also Highland Maya region.
magueyMaguey is a type of agave plant. It had several uses, including as an alcoholic beverage and as a glue.
maizeAnother word word for corn that originally derives from Spanish.
MesoamericaThe region of Mesoamerica—which today includes central and south Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador—consists of a diverse geographic landscape of highlands, jungles, valleys, and coastlines. Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures shared certain characteristics such as the ritual ballgame, pyramid building, human sacrifice, maize as an agricultural staple, and deities dedicated to natural forces. Some Mesoamerican societies developed sophisticated systems of writing, as well as an advanced understanding of astronomy. Many of these cultural trademarks persisted for more than 2,000 years across civilizations as distinct as the Olmec (c. 1200–400 B.C.E.) and the Aztec (c. 1345 to 1521 C.E.). Read more here.
Map of Mesoamerica, with the borders of modern countries
MexicaThe Mexica (or Aztecs) formed part of a larger ethnic group known as the Nahua from Central Mexico whose pre-Hispanic empire, the Aztec empire, was defeated by the Spanish in 1521. Mexica is pronounced "Mesh-ee-ka."
mit'aOriginally an Inka tax paid in labor, it was adopted by the Spanish but without the social reciprocity it originally included.
mnemonic deviceA mnemonic device is a memory aid.
mummy bundleIn the Andes, mummy bundles could be wrapped in textiles, and could be buried with offerings of food and jewelry to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. Some of the most elaborate mummy bundles come from Paracas.
Illustration of mummy bundles at the bottom of a shaft-type tomb in Paracas
NahuaThe Mexica (or Aztecs) formed part of a larger ethnic group known as the Nahua from Central Mexico whose pre-Hispanic empire was defeated by the Spanish in 1521.
NahuatlNahuatl was the language of the Mexica. Approximately 1.5 million people speak it today, making it one of the most widely-spoken indigenous languages of the Americas.
numayn (or 'na'mina)Loosely translated, this Kwakwaka’wakw word means “group of fellows of the same kind” (essentially groups that shared a common ancestor). Numayns were responsible for safe-guarding crest symbols and for conveying their specific rights—which might include access to natural resources and rights to sacred names and dances that related to a numayn’s ancestor or the group’s origins.
ollaA rounded pot often associated with the Pueblos of the Southwestern U.S.
petroglyphAn engraving on a rock.
pictographVisual representations of people, places, and events act like writing.
pigmentsPigments are substances used in paint to give it a particular hue. They are often derived from minerals.
Prairie StyleThe Prairie Style used colorful glass beads fashioned in floral patterns. The patterns could be either naturalistic flowers or abstract floral designs. Read about it with the Bandolier Bag.
Bandolier Bag (detail at right), 1880s, Winnebago (?)
pre-Columbian“Pre-Columbian” refers to the period in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. It is a problematic term, discussed in more depth here.
potlatchA ceremony among Northwest Coastal Indigenous peoples where the host displayed their status, in part by giving away gifts to those in attendance.
pututuCarved Strombus shells turned into trumpets, some of which have been found at Chavín.
pyroengravingA technique used to decorate wood or other materials like gourds with burn marks created with a heated object used to engrave or incise the surface of the object.
Qhapac ÑanThe Inka Empire was connected by a road system—the Qhapaq Ñan—that was used for official Inka business only.
qompiThe highest quality woven textiles of the Inka Empire.
QuechuaThe primary language of the Inka, Quechua is still spoken today by approximately 10 million people in South America, primarily Peru and Bolivia.
quetzalQuetzals are colorful birds native to Mexico and the southern United States.
quillworkA form of embellishment, often on textiles, that is made most often of porcupine quills.
quipuA quipu (or khipu in Quechua) is a knotted string implement that recorded narratives and other types of information.
Inka quipu
Raimondi SteleThe stele is named after the Italian-Peruvian geographer and scientist Antonio Raimondi, who first documented the stele in 1874.
reliefRelief sculpture remains attached to a surface.
repousséRepoussé is the technique of hammering silver or other metal into relief from the back side.
roof combA roof comb is a decorative element on the roof of many Maya structures, sometimes solid stone and decorated with mosaic or stucco and sometimes an open lattice.
sapoteA fruit-bearing tree found in Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America.
schistoseA form of metamorphic rock prone to flaking.
screenfoldA single sheet of paper that is then folded like an accordion. The screenfold is a Mesoamerican construction, strikingly different from European manuscripts whose pages are bound on the left side so the reader sees two pages at a time.
Diagram showing a screenfold book
sherdsPottery sherds, or potsherds, are broken pieces of ceramic material.
slipSlip is a liquid mixture of clay and/or other materials suspended in water, it can be used as a paint to decorate ceramics before they are fired.
Spondylus shellSpondylus shells are not native to Peru; they thrive in the warm coastal waters of what is now Ecuador, hundreds of kilometers from Chavín.
Spondylus Princeps shell
stela (or stele)An upright flat slab of stone worked in relief.
Sun DanceThe sacred Sun Dance of the Plains tribes was intended to honor the Creator Deity for the earth’s bounty and to ensure this bounty continued. It was a sacred ceremony that tourists and anthropologists often witnessed in the later 19th century, and was outlawed by the U.S. government in 1935.
Strombus shellStrombus can be found in Peruvian waters, but that is the southernmost reach of their range—they are more common in the north.
Carved Strombus shell trumpet (pututu), Chavín
TawantinsuyuThe Inka called their empire Tawantinsuyu, usually translated as “Land of the Four Quarters” in their language, Quechua.
TenochtitlanTenochtitlan was the capital of the Mexica empire. Today it is known today as Mexico City. It is pronounced "Ten-oach-teet-lan."
teocalliA teocalli is a Mesoamerican pyramid with a temple on top.
thatchThatch roofs are usually made of straw, leaves, or a similar organic material.
TlalocTlaloc, a rain and agricultural god.
Tlaloc (detail), from the Codex Borgia, original c. 1500, reproduction 1825–1831
TlaxcalaTlaxcala was a city-state in central Mexico.
tocapu/t'qapuTocapu are compartmentalized geometric designs found in Inca textiles.
tonalpohualliThe Aztecs had two different calendars: a 260-day ritual calendar called the tonalpohualli (day count), and a 360-day (plus 5 extra days) calendar called the xiuhpohualli (year count).
tributeTribute is a form of payment made to a ruling power or state.
tumiA ceremonial knife used in the Andean region.
Knife (tumi) with Removable Figural Handle
xiuhpohualliThe Aztecs had two different calendars: a 260-day ritual calendar and a 360-day (plus 5 extra days) calendar called the xiuhpohualli (year count). The xiuhpohualli was divided into eighteen months of twenty days each, and each of these months had a festival that honored a specific deity or deities.

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