Art Historical Background
The title really tells you the surface of the piece: it is a canine-like head made out of the sacrum (in the pelvic region) bone of a camelid (camel-like animal). The real question is why and as we have seen, that is the biggest mystery with Prehistoric art. The most prevalent theory to date is that the sacrum is a sacred bone that “connects” this world to the next. That’s a big jump, so let’s break this down:
Although I took Anatomy in high school I wanted to brush up on the structure of the sacrum bone. The image above is really as good as I could find out in the world wide web. You can clearly see that the artist used the natural shape of the sacrum bone to “draw out” the canine features in the final representation.
Secondly, the theory is that the sacrum bone in and of itself was considered sacred. So that bone was not just randomly picked as a material because of its likeness to a canine skull. Most of the evidence of the sacrum being sacred comes from later evidence in Mesoamerican culture. Although those literate cultures were certainly based in the Prehistoric one, we cannot be sure they kept the same linguistic and spiritual symbolism seen in this piece. (FYI the English word “sacrum” comes from the Latin for “sacred bone.”)
Interesting sidenote: This Khan Academy article brings up a whole host of issues with this piece (see!? I’m not the only one!). A few being the fact that this was in private hands for so long and has not been reliably studied by a lot of scholars, the site of its discovery was not kept intact, and there was one scholar from 1923 that said this might be a fossil of an unknown animal (ehh I feel that the evidence of human carving on reshaping the bone disagrees with that).
Overall, most of the (indirect) evidence and theories for this piece comes from a thesis from the University of Texas (link in the Resources section below). I’m going to be honest, I haven’t read the whole thing (yet) because a) I hate this piece and b) most of it is over the heads and irrelevant to my high school students.
- Khan Academy: Camelid sacrum in the shape of a canine
- Brian Stross: Mesoamerican Sacrum Bone: Doorway to the Otherworld
- Taylorsville Art: Camelid sacrum in the shape of a canine
- The Photographs of Jorge Perez de Lara: Camelid sacrum
- aparthistory: 3. Camelid sacrum in the shape of a canine
- The New Advanced Placement* Art History Curriculum in the Indigenous Americas: A Teacher’s Guide to the Required Monuments from Mesoamerica (Ancient Mexico) by Rebecca R. Stone, pg. 35-42
- Valerie Parks, AP Art History: Global Prehistory
- Kuntz AP Art History: Global Prehistory