Claws of the Jaguar: Representations of Plant Medicine in the Iconography of Formative South America

The Formative Era (~2500 BCE – 250 CE) in the Americas was a time that featured widespread establishment of agriculture and large regional ceremonial centers accompanied by artistic styles used to present the most potent symbols of the diverse societies who built them. One of the central themes that adorn ceramics are representations of plants, especially plants that were considered to have medicinal properties. Dr. Dubois has hypothesized elsewhere that certain vessels from Northwest South America bear iconography related to cacao and has argued that they should be tested for the chemical remains of Theobroma, an active compound found in cacao. This presentation will expand on that idea to examine plant representations in iconographic collections from Northwest South America more broadly. Upon examination, it becomes apparent that plant related iconography from the region makes up a large proportion of the iconographic sample and can be seen in collections drawn from multiple regions and time periods. There is archaeological precedent from Mesoamerica that suggests that the plants being depicted on ceramic vessels were often the plants that composed the beverages contained within them. Based on shared themes across regions, Jonathan concludes that there was widespread interaction; it was likely that ceremonial specialists were the bearers and subjects of the images that adorned fancy ceramics, and there was widespread interaction between them. The vessels discussed here are also likely candidates for plant residues and need to be tested for the active compounds of the plants that adorn Formative vessels.