Exploring timeless creativity: A peek at Peru’s Paracas culture

Have you ever come across a piece of art that captures the essence of modern whimsy, yet it dates back centuries? That’s exactly the case with a charming jar currently showcased at the Art Institute of Chicago. This isn’t just any jar—it’s a window into the ancient Paracas culture of Peru, thriving from 650 BCE to 150 BCE in the region now known as the Ica Valley.

What’s truly delightful about this artifact is the anthropomorphic figure painted on it. With its round, engaging eyes and a smile that could light up a room, it exudes a certain cheerfulness that transcends time. It’s amazing to think that what we might consider a contemporary cartoonish style was also part of an artist’s palette over two millennia ago!

But here’s a thought to tickle your curiosity: why have we not seen more of this large-headed, wide-eyed style in the interim? It’s a fascinating reminder of how certain artistic expressions can be unique to a time, a place, or a people.

The Paracas didn’t just stop at pottery; they are also the culture behind the enigmatic Nazca lines. These are enormous geoglyphs that sprawl across the desert, only fully visible from the skies. Among these, the images of a cat and a monkey are particularly striking—imagine creating art that stretches across 190 feet and can be best appreciated from an aerial view!

Jhony Islas/AP

This jar, with its simple yet expressive design, and the colossal Nazca lines are testaments to the enduring human spirit of creativity. They invite us to reflect on the universality of artistic expression and how, despite the passage of time, the desire to create and delight remains unchanged.

Isn’t it wonderful to know that the joy sparked by a playful design is something we share with people from ages past? It’s a little reminder that some aspects of humanity are indeed timeless.

A few more fun Paracas artworks at the Art Institute of Chicago

Mummy Mask” by Paracas, 100/1 B.C. (1957.76)

Check out the crazy hairdo on this person. It’s curly and bending around. Little happy ladybugs at the ends. This little person appears to be dancing to a fun groove.

This character seems to be dancing to the rhythm of ancient beats. With its arms raised, it’s almost as if the figure is caught mid-twirl, celebrating under the sun of a long-gone festive day. Perhaps this is a depiction of a joyful spirit, a guardian of good vibes from the Paracas culture, always ready to kick off the festivities. It’s having fun because it embodies the spirit of celebration, reminding us that joy and dance are as old as culture itself!


Bottle with Incised Geometric Figure” by Paracas, 650–150 BCE (1960.894)

This fellow is very jolly! Long geometric arms holding his big belly. The style of these arms reminds me of bitmap art. The face is even self-aware as it peers upwards to the jar’s opening. What will you fill this jar with?

Once upon a time, it was the centerpiece of a lively gathering, filled to the brim with a refreshing brew. The bold patterns might have been the talk of the town, with each symbol a topic of discussion. “What’s the latest news?” one might ask, and the vase, standing tall and proud, would silently hold the secrets of the ancients within its curved walls, only spilling the tea – quite literally – when it’s time to refill the cups of eager listeners.


Mummy Mask” by Paracas, 200/100 B.C. (1957.77)

This textile piece seems to be grinning back at us through the threads of time! With its whimsical tassels that could pass for a funky hairdo, this artifact might have been the ancient trendsetter of its day.

Today’s joyful challenge: Create your own pocketful of cheer!

Why not carry a little piece of history’s smile with you today? Here’s what you can do:

  1. Grab a scrap of paper or cardboard.
  2. Draw a simple, happy face on it—think big eyes and a wide grin, inspired by the ancient Paracas artwork.
  3. Tuck it into your pocket.

Anytime you need a little pick-me-up, pull out your hand-drawn smile. It’s not just a doodle; it’s a reminder that happiness and creativity are timeless, portable, and always at your fingertips. Share it with someone who could use a smile, and you’ll be part of a chain of joy that stretches back thousands of years!

Who knew a simple scrap of cardboard could hold so much power?

I drew this face onto a piece of yogurt packaging. Before recycling boxes, I cut the cardboard into 2.5″ × 3.5″ pieces for random doodles like this. The cardboard texture is a bit like the texture of the 2,200-year-old Peruvian jar. Go digging in your recycle bin to uncover canvases for your doodles.

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