The Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino (at Calle Bandera 361, Metro Plaza des Armas) is a great museum, an essential visit if you are in town. It’s quite small so it only takes a couple of hours to get round it but I learned a lot in that time.
For example, from about 1,000 BC, the Pre-Colombian peoples of Central America used to play a ball game called Tlatchtli. It was often used to solve disputes between neighbouring cultures as a way of avoiding all out war, with the losing side often being decapitated as a result! A bit like Rollerball but without the skates.
However, it seems the wheel had been invented independently by the Olmec, as can be seen from the slide of a children’s toy, but was not developed due to the absence of large domesticated animals that could pull a carriage.
The use of hallucinogens for Shamanistic rituals was commonplace (Mexico has more psychoactive plants than any other country), for instance, a small mushroom called ‘water child’ which sprouts in the fields after rain is still used today by indigenous people. Eating it produces visions of small people who are able to resolve problems c.f. the slide of a human form with a half-sphere above its head.
There were lots of other fascinating facts about funerary rights, such as mummification and evisceration of flesh after death, but I’ll let you find out about those yourself if you’re interested!
Visually the best things are the sculptures, depicted in so many different artistic styles, some highly abstract. It seems the Mesoamericans had thought of most things before the arrival of Colombus and the subsequent colonialism wiped their civilisations out.
This is a fascinating museum, do go if you get the opportunity. Entrance in 2011 was about $3,000, just over £4.