A translucent, larger-than-life hand with long, tapering fingers lends an air of mystery to a new exhibit of ancient and little-known tribal art at the Art Institute of Chicago...

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CHICAGO — A translucent, larger-than-life hand with long, tapering fingers lends an air of mystery to a new exhibit of ancient and little-known tribal art at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The image of the open hand suggests communication between the human community and a world of spirits beyond, says exhibit curator Richard F. Townsend. But it’s the ancient carving’s origins that tell a less well-known story of how early North Americans lived, providing evidence of what once must have been an extensive trade network.

The hand can be traced to the early Hopewell American Indian culture that spread from Ohio before 400 A.D.

Although the hand was found in Ohio and is believed to have been made there some 2,000 years ago, it was cut from sheet mica that probably originated in North Carolina, Townsend said. Other artifacts in the exhibit — titled “Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South” — were cut from seashells, hammered from Lake Superior copper, or chipped out of obsidian from the mountain West.

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“It really wasn’t a wilderness here,” Townsend said, noting the trade and the impressive earthworks left by large tribal communities that once dotted the region.

A roughly 2,000-year-old hand cut out of sheet mica is among the artifacts in “Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand.”

In setting up the exhibit, Townsend assembled a team of archaeologists, art historians, anthropologists and representatives from Indian tribes descended from the creators of the artifacts on display. The tribes were invaluable in interpreting the symbolism and connecting it with the beliefs of modern Native American groups, he said.

Townsend cited, in particular, the recurring open hand image, the pervasive hawk or falcon motif associated with the sky and the sun, and the dramatic figures of a lone hero, which gave the exhibit its name.

Although many of the sites of the ancient people have been lost to 19th-century plows and 20th-century subdivisions, their belief systems and imagery remain with their present-day descendants.

The works are not the easily recognizable Indian art of the Great Plains and Southwest; they are older and more unknowable. Some of the images, such as the “piasas,” or underwater panthers, and other mythic beasts from the deep waters and the underworld, baffle even the experts.

The oldest objects on display are banner stones from spear-throwing sticks and stone axes dating to about 3000 B.C.

The artifacts from later cultures, such as the Adena/Hopewell (Ohio), Etowah (Georgia-Tennessee), Spiro (Arkansas-Oklahoma) and Moundville (Alabama), are more elaborate and deliberately decorative.

“This work is intelligent and beautiful,” said James Cuno, the Art Institute’s new director. “It follows the basic human impulse to ornament basic objects with beauty and imbue them with power.”

Some of the most sophisticated work comes from the culture centered on the Cahokia Mounds in southwestern Illinois. That culture, which reached its peak shortly after A.D. 1000, created what are believed to be the New World’s biggest city and largest structure (Monks Mound) north of the Valley of Mexico.

But Cahokia and most of the other Midwestern and Southern cities were abandoned long before European settlers trickled into the area in the 18th century.

Those settlers were unable to connect the artworks and massive earthworks with the depleted Indian tribes they encountered. Some 19th-century antiquarians credited the structures to vanished non-Indian “Mound Builders,” an idea long since discredited.

“Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand” is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through Jan. 30. It is scheduled to be shown at The St. Louis Art Museum from March 4 to May 30 and at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History from early July to late September.