This is a very expressive example of the pottery from the Jama Coaque culture in Ecuador (circa 350 B.C. - 500 C.E.), showing superb craftsmanship. The figure depicts a shaman in a deep trance, in the process of transforming into a jaguar. His hands are becoming the claws of the predator and a tail can be seen emerging.
The finely detailed figure is wearing an elaborate headdress and extensive jewellery, including a large nose ornament, ear ornaments, a multi-strand necklace with a pendant or pectoral, bracelets or armbands, and anklets. A multilayered belt around his waist is adorned with small circular objects, which may or may not represent shells. It is known that during ritual ceremonies, the shaman would wear small shells, which jingled as they moved against one another, a sound which was associated with rain; the shells were especially worn when the shaman appealed to the gods for rain.
The shaman had the task to ensure the spiritual and social order of a community. Believed to possess supernatural powers, he would do this through rituals and ceremonies throughout the year, acting as a mediator between the ordinary people and the divinities, powerful animals or mythical beings.
Such rituals aimed to establish and re-establish the connection between three worlds. First of all there was the celestial world, dominated by the stars. The ancients also knew the infraworld, populated by deceased ancestors and by spirits of mountains, caves and waterfalls, which were represented by mythical beings; this world was shaped by symbolic representations of the natural elements such as the eagle (associated with the air), the jaguar (fire) and the snake (water). And lastly there was, in the middle, the earthly world of human beings and animals.
The shaman would be invested with powers attributed to the sacred animals, and transformed into one of these or into a mythical being, symbolising one of the other worlds of the cosmos.
As explained by professor Rebecca Stone (Humanities Professor, Associate Professor in Art History, and Faculty Curator of Art of the Ancient Americas in the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia):
"Normal" experiences, basic to human existence, can be called into question by going into other modes of perception, such as trance consciousness. During trances, the corporeal is reported to fall away, and gravity's weight is replaced by a feeling of soaring flight. Plants, animals, and humans merge and exchange identities. Through trances, shamans feel they directly communicate with spirits and often transform into other beings to acquire esoteric knowledge, songs, and information about herbal cures, the future, and distant situations. (Stone 2011, p. 1-2).
Trance could be induced not only by music and dance, but also by using some hallucinogen (or more correctly entheogen). Here the latter may be the case, witness the wide open eyes, often considered an indication of the use of drugs.
The Jama-Coaque culture developed in the lowlands on the Pacific coast of Ecuador between Cabo de San Francisco and Bahía de Caráquez, in the Manabí Province; the culture is named for the modern towns of Jama and Coaque, which define its archaeological limits.
The ancient authenticity of the vessel was confirmed by a thermoluminescence test. A copy of the TL test report accompanies the object.
Rebecca Stone, The Jaguar Within. Shamanic Trance in Ancient Central and South American Art (Austin, Texas, University of Texas Press, 2011);
Francisco Valdez - Santiago Ontaneda (eds.), Chamanes et divinités de l’Équateur précolombien. Les sociétés du nord de la côte entre 1000 av. J.-C. et 500 apr. J.-C. (Paris, Musée du Quai Branly; Arles, Paris, Actes Sud, 2016).
Circa 350 B.C. - 350 C.E.
Height circa 19 cm.
Dutch private collection, acquired in 2006 from Malter Galleries, Encino California; before that US private collection, Northern California, early 1970s.
Some minor losses, especially to the proper left hand and to the right hand side back of the headdress, as shown; a small corner of the proper left foot reattached, one of the small circular objects on the lower part of the belt missing; else in marvellous condition, with the original pigments showing vibrant colours. Two tiny holes from the TL test.