Hunchback Leaning on Staff


Not on view

This figure of a hunchbacked man grasping a staff belongs to a category of sculpture known from the Huasteca region in northeastern Mexico. The hunchback type, also known as encorvado or jorobado in Spanish, dates to the Postclassic period (A.D. 900–1521) when the production of figural stone sculptures in the region flourished. This category stands in contrast to the other dominant sculptural type representing high-status men and women often shown with elaborate headdresses and costuming (Richter 2015). Conversely, encorvados exclusively represent men, either completely nude or simply with a maxlatl (loincloth). Many are shown with wrinkled faces indicating, together with the hunched back, an advanced age; this sculpture shows ridges on the forehead and creases around the nose. The hunched man grasps the large staff with two hands and rests his chin on its top. Usually interpreted as a planting stick (Familiar Ferrer 2011, 9; Ochoa 1991, 214, 221), the staff serves to provide structural support to the extended parts of the sculpture, especially the head and the arms.

At 35 inches in height, this sculpture ranges in the middle spectrum of size—smaller encorvados can be as short as 6 inches, while larger ones measure up to 48 inches (Familiar Ferrer 2012, 153–178; Fuente and Gutiérrez Solana 1980, 201–248; Ochoa 1991, 215). The carving style of encorvados varies from naturalistic to abstract. In this case the artist(s) opted for a more abstracted and stylized approach, boldly hewing blocky body parts from yellow- and rose-colored sandstone. Postclassic Huastec sculptures are carved from shallow slabs of either sand- or limestone, which determine their overall shape. While sculptures of the high-status figural type are carved with their front aligned with the face of the stone slab, this encorvado is oriented the other way, with the man’s face oriented toward the stone’s bedding planes (the successive layers of stratified rock). This technique gave the sculptor(s) the ability to extend the figure’s body more fully into three-dimensional space, allowing for a more dynamic composition compared to the sculptures of the other type, which usually have rigid poses and very flat profiles, as though they had been cut out with a cookie-cutter.

The variability of hunchback sculptures also extends to iconographic elements. Although the staff and wrinkled face are typical features of encorvados, some are shown without signs of aging, and the staff may be substituted for a smaller, secondary figure, for a serpent, or omitted (Familiar Ferrer 2012, 5–6). In some cases, the hunchbacked man carries the secondary figure, which can assume the appearance of either a small child or a skeletal figure. Although we do not know the exact meaning of these secondary figures, one theory is that they underscore the primary figure’s authority (Flores 2020).

As is typical for Huastec sculpture, the main compositional principle is symmetry, here most strikingly visible in hands clasping the staff. Anatomical accuracy is forgone in favor of carefully aligning the fingertips of each hand. Deep ridges between the five blocky fingers create a dramatic play of shadow and light that calls attention to the sculpture’s vertical axis. The head is the other focal point, for it is the part of the sculpture that is carved with the most detail and care. The man’s features are stylized: eyebrows echoing the ripples on the forehead, sunken eyes in deep round sockets, an oval mouth with wide closed lips forming a straight line, and two elongated ears sticking out perpendicularly from the side of the head. All features are simplified to their most basic shapes without an attempt at articulating individualizing traits. Oversized and oddly shaped, the head projects out from the neck, with the elongated chin extending to reach the top of the staff, the two fusing together as if the latter were part of the body. The wide head with a flattened crown may indicate the common Precolumbian Huastec practice of cranial modification by which the back of the head is artificially flattened at birth when the cranium is still malleable. It is clear that this sculpture is not a portrait of a man; rather, it presents the archetypal features of an old deity.

The staff and the age provide clues to the figure’s identity, that is, a deity associated with maize agriculture, thunder, and rain. Unfortunately, we know little about Precolumbian religious practices in the Huasteca because neither pictographic nor epigraphic writing was practiced and early colonial written sources are scant. Another complicating factor is that the region is multiethnic with Teeneks, Nahuas, Pames, Otomis, and other ethnic groups comingling and exchanging cultural traits since long before the Spanish conquest—but we do not exactly know which group produced these sculptures (Sandstrom and García Valencia 2005; Ruvalcaba Mercado 2015). Still, some contemporary religious beliefs have evident roots in the Precolumbian past, with the use of deity names and ceremonial rituals continuing over the centuries, and shed light on the sculpture’s meaning. For instance, the Teeneks, one of the dominant linguistic groups in the Huasteca related to the Mayan language family, venerate an ancient deity of earth, rain, and thunder named Muxi, whose identifying features are a hunched back and a staff (Familiar 2011, 10; Ochoa and Gutiérrez 2000, 114). He is one of three Maams, rain-bringing deities associated with the East, North, and West (Alcorn 1984, 58). Muxi is the powerful, dangerous deity of the East associated with the ocean and the sierra, who begins the New Year as a baby and turns into an old man by year’s end when the sun reaches the winter solstice (Alcorn 1984, 59, 85).

To date, a corpus of over two hundred Huastec encorvado sculptures has been identified (Familiar Ferrer 2011, 2012). Though many are in museum collections today with little information about their original context, those for which the find-spot is known indicate that they were used across the entire Huasteca. Consequently, the cult associated with this deity must have been deeply rooted in the region, practiced for many centuries, and provided a level of cultural cohesion across ethnic and political lines. In addition to being multiethnic, the region was politically fragmented during the Postclassic period, as we know from a letter written in 1554 by the Flemish friar Nicolás de Witte, who describes the Huasteca as lacking a universal lord but having many small city-states governed by independent rulers who either formed alliances or waged war against others (Cuevas 1975:224). Much as in Renaissance Italy, to which the friar compared the Huasteca, artistic production thrived in this competitive political environment, giving rise to one of the most significant sculptural traditions of ancient Mesoamerica.

Kim N. Richter, 2019

Further Reading

Alcorn, Janis B. 1984. Huastec Mayan Ethnobotany. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Cuevas, Mariano. 1975. Documentos inéditos del siglo XVI para la historia de México. Mexico City: Porrúa.

Familiar Ferrer, Gerardo. 2011. “Las esculturas de encorvados: Concepciones de seres ctónicos en la cosmovisión huaxteca.” Estudios Mesoamericanos, nueva época, 11:5–15.

Familiar Ferrer, Gerardo. 2012. “Las representaciones de ancianos encorvados de la Huaxteca: Una propuesta de interpretación.” MA thesis, Estudios Mesoamericanos, Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Flores García, Irad. 2020. “Análisis del elemento iconográfico “figura a cuestas” en la escultura huasteca prehispánica.” PhD thesis, Estudios Mesoamericanos, Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Fuente, Beatriz de la, and Nelly Gutiérrez Solana. 1980. Escultura huasteca en piedra, Cuadernos de historia del arte. Mexico City: Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Fuente, Beatriz de la, ed. 1976. Arte huaxteco prehispánico. Mexico City: Artes de México.

Richter, Kim N. 2015. "Postclassic Huastec Sculpture: Constructing International Elite Identity in the Huasteca." In The Huasteca: Culture, History, and Interregional Exchange, edited by Katherine A. Faust and Kim N. Richter, 75–97. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Ruvalcaba Mercado, Jesús. 2015. “Linguistic Diversity, Cultural Unity, and the Question of Maize and Religion in the History of the Huasteca.” In The Huasteca: Culture, History, and Interregional Exchange, edited by Katherine A. Faust and Kim N. Richter, 195–213. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Sandstrom, Alan R., and Enrique Hugo García Valencia, eds. 2005. Native Peoples of the Gulf Coast of Mexico, Native Peoples of the Americas Series. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Hunchback Leaning on Staff, Sandstone, Huastec

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