Consider the jaguar.
Oft overshadowed by its more regal and striped cousins, this big cat is just as impressive. As the dominant non-human predator in most of the Western Hemisphere, jaguars have been held in esteem for thousands of years, resulting in a wide-range of artwork … but you would never know it by visiting most museums. Tigers dominate the Asian art scene and lions are ever-present in African, European and Near Eastern art, but where are all of the jaguars?
A handful of American museums, particularly those with wide-spread collections have some jaguars on display, but the basic problem is one of geography: the jaguar is based in Central and South America and Precolumbian artwork is rarely displayed as prominently as the others.
We are lucky enough to have worked with some great communities and scholars over our 125 years and have acquired a handful of great jaguars – like this gold pendant from Panama or this very polite Maya censer lid from Guatemala – but none are as cool as the Andean Jaguar Mortar (Museum No. SA4627).
In most Central and South American cultures, the jaguar was a symbol of the gods and would regularly be used by priests to signify their status as the bridge between the sacred and profane, which appears to be the exact use for this ritual tool from the Chavín culture. It’s believed that priests would put some sort of hallucinogenic in the bowl, most likely the San Pedro cactus, which would then be used by priests and their devout followers to commune with the gods. Some even argue that the ritualized drug use was so important that it actually served as a way to manipulate the people, all while under the guise of a legitimate ritual.
If you look at this artifact closely, it is heavily decorated with crosses and geometric designs that would look at home in a VW Westphalia, but super tough and deceptively heavy (unlike the old Volkswagen). Looking down into the mortar area, there are stains and signs of abrasion that indicate this was heavily used in the past, but 2,500 years of wear have made it difficult to distinguish what exactly it once held.
However, if there is one component of this piece that speaks to me the most, it is the face. Crazy and intense patterns, large eyes and a wide mouth of teeth remind me of another psychedelic feline.
You can see lions and tigers anywhere, but drug-soaked jaguars are a diamond in the rough.
See this and other objects like it on Penn Museum’s Online Collection Database.