The Earliest Uses of Masks in Mexico

Masks played an important role in indigenous cultures in Mexico and the Americas long before colonization by European peoples. One of the earliest pieces of evidence of art among peoples in the New World is a carved sacrum (pelvic bone) from an extinct camel-like animal. Shaped into the form of an animal skull, it was found in the Valley of Mexico and dates to circa 14,000 to 7,000 BCE. Because contemporary ceremonial masks today are often made from animal pelvic bones, scholars have speculated that this object was used as a mask. Masks made from bone have been found in many pre-Hispanic sites and are associated with ceremonies, dances, and rituals, much like their use in contemporary cultures. Funeral masks of hematite, jade, obsidian, shell, and other precious materials have been found in elite burials from the major pre-Hispanic civilizations.

Head of an animal carved from an extinct camelid
Unknown artist
Ca. 7000 BCE
Tequixquiac, State of Mexico
National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico.
Photo © Jorge Pérez de Lara
Jade Portrait Mask
Olmec Culture
Artist unknown
Gulf Lowlands of Eastern Mexico
Ca. 900 BCE
Joel Aaronson and Claire Keyes Collection

Murals from many pre-Hispanic sites show that masks, often accompanied by elaborate feather headdresses, were used by priests and in community ceremonies and celebrations. The incredible painted murals of the Maya at Bonampak in the modern Mexican state of Chiapas are dated to circa 790 CE and show musicians and entertainers wearing fanciful masks. At the site of Edzna on the Yucatan Peninsula, the Temple of the Masks (ca. 250-600 CE) is an incredible architectural wonder that shows the importance accorded to masks among the Maya.

National Geographic Magazine, February 1995
Maya Masterpiece Revealed at Bonampak by Mary Miller
Photo by Enrico Ferorelli and computer reconstructions by Doug Stern
Mask at the Maya Temple of the Masks
Unknown artist
Edzná, Campeche
Ca. 250-600 CE
Paint on stucco
Photo by Guadalupe Rojas 2021