The Olmec culture is generally defined as the “Mother Culture” or first great civilization in Mesoamerica, an area encompassing most of Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and parts of Honduras, and Costa Rica. Olmec cities flourished on the Gulf Coast of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrow neck of southern Mexico.
However, Olmec influence and trade routes spread over a much larger area. New research shows extensive trade connections between Gulf Coast Olmec cities and Oaxaca, closer to the Pacific side, as well as the Basin of Mexico, particularly Teotihuacan, and into what is now Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and parts of western South America.
The earliest Olmec sites presently known date to 4000 years ago ( about 2000 BC). By 1400 BC, Olmec artisans were creating amazing earthworks, stonework, and ceramics that still captivate the viewer. To their 19th century discoverers, Olmec cities seemed to have sprouted full-blown out of the earth, complete with sophisticated directional alignment, symbolic writing (which we still can’t decipher), a complex set of spiritual beliefs, and finely crafted stonework, much of which was imitated by the Maya and other peoples who came to prominence after the Olmec faded.
Because of this belief, alien theorists claimed Olmec art was the work of extra-terrestrials. Some religious sects claimed the cities were founded by a lost tribe of Israel. Today, if you read about Olmec cities, you’ll come across all kinds of bizarre theories.
The problem with Olmec research is that we know so little about these people, including where they came from, when they arrived and what made them organize their society the way they did. Some sites lie buried off the coast, often in areas now populated by oil rigs. Others were discovered in the 1800s, when there was little interest in carefully uncovering the layers. People just wanted curiosities for their collections. Indeed, many unprovenanced Olmec artifacts now live in museums around the world. Looters still use crude methods, including digging trenches through possible sites, looking for portable pieces they can sell on the black market. So much valuable information has been lost.
People often associate the Olmec culture with colossal basalt heads, strange greenstone figurines, and hollow ceramic babies.
The first colossal head was discovered in 1862, when workers found what they thought was a giant cook-pot turned upside down and buried in the ground. It turned out to the top of a stone head, about 4’ (1.47 meters) tall. The local geologist thought it depicted a male of African descent. This head turned out to be one of the smallest of the seventeen discovered so far. The largest is over 11’ (3.4 meters) tall. Interestingly, some of the heads appear to be purposely mutilated and buried, either by the people themselves or by those who followed.
In 2009, three members of an evangelical church entered the Olmec archaeological site at La Venta, near Villahermosa, Mexico, and vandalized about thirty pieces, including four colossal heads. Clearly the heads are still threatening to some people.
More curious to me is the refusal of the archaeological community to recognize the African features on these giant heads. Though it’s entirely possible that people came to the Americas from West Africa, scholars have stuck to the idea that everyone came across the land bridge from Asia to Alaska. Therefore, they reasoned, the heads couldn’t look like Africans because the people all came from Asia. Circular thinking at its worst.
The only people talking about the African origins that resulted in these stunning basalt portraits are Afrocentric historians like Ivan van Sertima, who published They Came Before Columbus in 1978, in which he pointed to the Olmec heads as evidence of African presence in the Americas long before Europeans arrived. Unfortunately, his theories have been largely ignored or dismissed by the academic community.
The same can be said for Pedra Furada, a collection of over 800 archaeological sites in northeastern Brazil, where Niede Guidon, a Belgian archaeologist, claimed she found evidence of human activity dating between 32,000 and 60,000 years old. American scholars refused to accept her data, partly because they were convinced of the Alaska land bridge theory, so no one could possibly be in the Americas before 13,000 years ago.
If the Pedra Furada site findings are finally accepted, especially now with the 130,000 year old site near San Diego proposed, it would open the door to more possibilities.
Most Olmec scholars now see the cities as important trade centers, especially for jade, obsidian, malachite, rock crystal, basalt, schist, andesite, and serpentine. Trade might have invited people from all over to the cities. Some experts now suggest that ceramic production in the Olmec world was inspired by pottery from Ecuador (over 2,000 miles/ 3200 km away) as far back as 1900 BC.
A remarkably consistent design drove the making of many Olmec figurines. One of the first to have extensive publicity was a jade “axe” obtained by George Kunz in 1889, a wedge-shaped piece carved with a face featuring almond-shaped, lidless eyes, a flat nose, and a strange mouth that seemed to have a puffy upper lip and fangs. In 1929, Marshall Seville of the American Museum of Natural History declared the figure to be “the conventionalized mask of the tiger” on the shoulders of a man. By 1955, Mathew Stirling decided the figures showed the offspring of a female human-male jaguar sexual encounter. Seriously. Michael Coe, at one time the pre-eminent Mesoamerican scholar, agreed. Given the popularity of were-wolves in European literature, Coe used the term “were-jaguar” to describe the figures. When he curated an exhibit of Olmec art in New York in 1956, he called it “The Jaguar’s Children.” The mysterious figures were identified as “were-jaguars.” Now, unfortunately, the term won’t come unstuck.
However, Carolyn E. Tate has described a new possibility in her book, Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture: The Unborn, Women, and Creation (University of Texas Press, 2012). Her argument for a new interpretation of the figurines is compelling. She describes them as embryo, fetus, and baby forms stylized for some important purpose.
To try out her theory, she showed pictures of Olmec figurines to a cardiologist friend. He thought they looked like human fetuses but recommended she talk to specialists in human gestation. Of the eleven experts who responded, all felt several images represented fetuses. Some said they showed specific congenital abnormalities such as neural tube defects which would cause spontaneous abortion (miscarriage). Several said the images were so naturalistic, they could identify the age of the fetus.
In the book, Tate develops that idea. Specifically, she suggests that the abnormalities shown in these sculptures of embryos, fetuses, and babies show the effects of a diet of untreated maize. It’s a compelling argument when you consider the evidence.
Two diagrams from her book shows developmental stages of the human embryo’s face. The second shows an Olmec sculpture corresponding to the stage.
The Olmec figure pictured below, often described as a dwarf, looks more like a 14-week old fetus. Note the symbols on its head and back.
Tate blames untreated maize for a disastrous number of miscarriages among the Olmec that led to the creation of these statutes. Clearly the Olmec understood insemination and gestation. However, they had to learn that unless maize (corn) is treated with ash or lime, it does not provide enough nutrients, especially niacin (Vitamin B3). A diet heavy in untreated corn can cause birth defects and pellagra. Eventually, they learned how to solve the problem, but when the Spanish brought maize back to the Old World, widespread pellagra followed its introduction.
We don’t know why the Olmec found these images so important they repeated different versions of them in their masks and figurines, but perhaps, like so many people who suffer through the pain of a stillbirth or a miscarriage today, they felt those unborn children had become “angels” – powerful spirit beings capable of interceding on their behalf. The Las Limas sculpture from La Venta shows an adult holding a baby (two views shown in photo).
Several monuments in La Venta seem to show people wearing an “embryo” mask. (See head with mask carving pictured above.) The image is also conflated with sprouting seed, as in La Merced monument 1 (pictured). At some point, the Olmec may have seen the death of the child as an offering that could bring life, just as the seed must be buried in order for the plant to rise. It’s a common theme in later Maya art.
While many of these figurines are identified in art history sources as “dwarfs,” some seem to be, as Tate suggests, figures of the unborn. However, it’s important to note that others are statues of dwarfs. And some show jaguars. But maybe we can back away from the “were-jaguar” description.
The Hollow Babies
Another strange feature of Olmec art is the ceramic hollow baby. Examples have been found in the Olmec heartland and across the Isthmus to Oaxaca and Chiapas, down into Guatemala. The baby can range from tiny to life-size. It’s usually made of thin, light-colored clay that is highly burnished. The babies are usually seated with legs spread, so it’s clear that they have no genitals. Some have a star/fontanel shape pierced into the back of the head. Some have symbols on their back. Michael Coe referred to them as “the jaguar’s children,” but there is nothing jaguar-like about them. Other scholars have described them as a stand-in for human sacrifice, a way to fill a house with powerful spiritual force, or a ritual object that was carefully curated by a society, along the lines of holy statues that are carefully tended and dressed according to the liturgical season.
Tate refers to them as the “seed state” of humans. They seem to be happy and healthy. Perhaps that is their power.
Tate’s book provides a new and interesting view of Olmec art. It doesn’t answer all the big questions, but it gives us lots of new possibilities
Sources and other interesting reading:
“Aflatoxin,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aflatoxin
“Afrocentrism,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afrocentrism/
“Basalt Olmec Mask,” The Barakat Collction, London, Beverly Hills, Abu Dhabi. http://www.barakatgallery.com/Store
“Infant Jesus of Prague,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infant_Jesus_of_Prague
“La Venta, monument 44,” Smithsonian Olmec Legacy: Images Database, http://anthrolopology.si.edu/olmc/cfml/site_images/
“La Venta: Stone Sculpture,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, October 2001, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/vent3/hd_vent3.htm/
Minster, Christopher, “Olmec Art and Sculpture,” ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/olmec-art-and-sculpture-2136298
“Nixtamalization,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nixtamalization
“Olmec,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olmec
“Olmec Art,” Heilburnn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/olmc/hd_olmc.htm/
“Olmec Civilization,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. http://www.ancient.eu/Olmec_Civilization/
“Olmec Colossal Heads,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olmec_clossal_heads/
“Olmec Jade ‘Corn Cob’ Found in Veracruz, ”New Fire: The University of Texas at Austin’s Blog on Mesoamerica News and Research,” 23 March 2015, https://newfire.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/olmec-jade-corn-cob-found-in-veracruz/
“The Olmecs,” The Olmec Civilization. https://sites.google.com/site/theolmeccivilization/home (map)
“Pedra Furada,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pedra_Furada
“Pelagra,” World Health Organization, 2000, http://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/en/pellagra_prevention_control.pdf
Tate, Carolyn E. Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture: The Unborn, Women, and Creation. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.