Nazca
South coast, Peru
Vessel Depicting a Composite Shark, Feline, and Human Figure
180 B.C./A.D. 500

Ceramic and pigment
18.6 x 17.2 cm (7 5/16 x 6 3/4 in.)
Kate S. Buckingham Endowment, 1955.2100

The image painted on this vessel is one of the most common in the repertoire of the Nazca people, who inhabited the south of Peru from around 200 B.C. to 600 A.D. The image is a pictogram combining abstracted human and animal features to form a new, fantastic creature. The face of this figure combines human and feline traits, reminiscent of Olmec art from the Mexican Gulf Coast. The figure is wearing a catlike mask with large whiskers, a crown, and dangling discs. There are also signs of war and rulership, such as the trophy head and baton in the figure’s hands.

The figure’s powerful, curving body has the spiky fins of a shark or killer whale. The Nazca knew that both the jaguar and the killer whale were fierce predators at the top of the food chain. Nazca warriors associated themselves with these fearsome animals when they raided their enemies and defended their own territories. The vessel was probably used in military ceremonies marking either the beginning of hostilities or the final victory.