“Fat Boys,” Magnetism, and Magic

The “fat boys” are sculptures usually associated with Olmec/Maya/Izapan sites in southern Mexico and Guatemala, especially near the Pacific coast.  They look very different from the sophisticated sculptures we usually associate with the ancient cities of that area.  They’re stumpy stone figures of very fat humans, with a big ball for the bottom and a smaller, flattened ball for the top.  The arms can barely stretch across the wide belly. fat boys Takalik

I first saw one of these sculptures at Takalik Abaj (See photo), an Olmec/early Maya major trade site near Chocola, where I was part of an Earthwatch team helping with a dig.  The basalt figure stood about 4’ tall, with a flattened head and an enormous belly. Kaminaljuyu, just down the way from Takalik Abaj and now mostly absorbed by Guatemala City, had the greatest number of “fat boy” sculptures discovered at a single site.

Some of the fat boy sculptures are so worn, they look like blobs, with no indication of features.  Tourists often pass them by without a second glance.

Olmec map

Yet hundreds of large and small versions of the “fat boys,” as the sculptures became known after their discovery, have been found across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico, through modern Guatemala, and down into Honduras, Belize, and El Salvador.  Why were they so popular over such a wide area?

Some of the sculptures, also called “potbellies,” featured a collar around the figure’s neck, possibly a sign of wealth.  Many were situated on pedestals.  Some had a prominent navel.  None had specific genitals that would identify it as male or female, though a few had a bulge at the bottom.

fat boy sculpture

fatboys

Date

Dating stonework is always difficult, but researchers found the task even more difficult when they realized that many of these sculptures had been moved from their original location and reused or perhaps traded. The ones near La Democracia, Guatemala, (See photo with a fat boy, a fat boy-style head, and local traffic) had been moved and buried.  They were discovered when workers were digging up a sugarcane field.  Official guesses about their age have varied from 1500 BC to 500 BC.

 View-of-fat boy Monte-Alto-Monuments-in-the-town-square-of-La-Democracia-Guatemala

Source

The stone itself may have come from the Pacific Piedmont area near the border of Guatemala and Mexico, or from the Tuxtla Mountains on the Gulf Coast side.

Meaning

Interpretations are varied and conflicting.  Some experts said the sculptures represented dead people with bloated bodies.  Or burial markers, although only three examples were found associated with burials.  Or rulers whose corpulence showed their wealth.  Or ancestors.

History

Although it’s hard to date these figures, it seems the earliest versions were numerous, quite small, and found in individual households, not public spaces.  The one found in Tikal (MS 81), which Michael Coe described as “an incomplete, minor pot belly sculpture,” is an example.  What purpose could this sculpture have had that made it important to have in regular households?

fatboy goddess

A new find provides a clue

In 1996, a previously unreported pot belly sculpture was found near Teopan, on an island in the caldera of volcanic Lake Cotepeque in western El Salvador.  What made this sculpture so important was its excellent condition that made it possible to see that the figure was clearly a very pregnant woman, probably engaged in giving birth. (See photo)  In a letter dated 1576, Spanish official Diego Garcia de Palacio described a “large stone idol in the form of a woman” on an island in the same lake.

Archaeologists are slow to change their minds, but the evidence seems to be piling up that the “fat boys” were neither fat nor boys, at least in some cases.  They were females embodying the concept of fecundity.  Perhaps they functioned as charms for safe and successful childbirth, or as an Earth Mother figures.  Certainly, figurines of pregnant women giving birth are quite common in ancient Mesoamerica and South America.  The Santarem pottery piece featured in the photos below shows a pregnant woman giving birth.  woman pregnant, Santarem pottery

But there’s also a whole different side to the potbellied figures.

Magnetism

Some of the potbellies are lodestones!  A lodestone is a natural magnet, and like any magnet, is capable of attracting or repelling other ferrous metals as well as temporarily magnetizing other objects with iron content.

The lodestone “potbellies” are, like their non-lodestone cousins, carved out of magnetite, a kind of iron ore.  But only a small percentage of magnetite stones are lodestones.  Geologists do not completely understand how some stones become magnetized, but the most common theory is through a lightning strike. Perhaps a bolt of lightning is enough to align all the charges of the ions in the stone. (Interesting that the ancient Maya often pictured black stones at the bottom of lightning bolts.)

fatboy turtle head

In 1976, Vincent Malmstrom and his assistant, Paul Dunn, discovered that when a compass was held up to one of the “potbellies” at Monte Alto, the needle reacted.  It swung away from true north and pointed to the stone.  When they tested others potbellies and giant heads on site, they found the needle was sharply attracted when they held a compass to the navel of some statues and to the right temple in others.  The magnetic force of the stone was far stronger than the magnetic field of the earth.

Four of the five “potbellies” in La Democracia, Guatemala were found to have these magnetic arrangements, as well as four of the six giant heads. Though he searched, Malmstrom found no spot indicating material had been inserted into any of the sculptures he tested, so he concluded that the skilled carvers were aware of magnetism, could identify lodestones, were able to work them, and knew exactly where the poles were in the rock, so they carved the statues to take advantage of that arrangement.  He found other magnetic sculptures in the Soconusco region, including a turtle/frog head, a rearing jaguar, and two men seated on a bench. Malmstrom thought the sculptures were pre-Olmec in origin, dating them to 2000 BC.  That date has not held up well under scrutiny by archaeologists.

Olmec-Lodestone

What has lasted is Michael Coe’s extraordinary 1968 find at the Olmec site of San Lorenzo, (photo by John B. Carlson) much closer to the Gulf of Mexico side of the Isthmus – a small, carefully-shaped, polished rectangular bar of hematite, dubbed M-160.  It was broken in ancient times and broken again in the course of study.  However, it showed remarkable refinement in its construction and, when floated in water or liquid mercury, it consistently aligned to the same point, west of magnetic north, the same orientation as the buildings in the Olmec sites of San Lorenzo, La Venta and others.

If M-160 indicates an Olmec understanding of magnetism as a direction finder, it predates the Greek discovery of magnetism (600 AD), perhaps by a thousand years.  Other groups claiming the first understanding of magnetism as a directional force include the Vikings, the Arabs, the Persians, and the Chinese.  If you read different sources, you’ll find widely different dates and accounts, and they all claim they’re the first.

The magic of magnetism

It’s interesting to guess how this knowledge might have been used.  In addition to direction finding, especially when combined with star lore, magnetism had to appear to be magic.  It still does.

Lodestone 2

For about ten dollars, you can get a set of small lodestones and do your own experiments.  You can magnetize pins and paper clips and make them move other pins without touching them.  Or make some move toward the lodestone and others scoot away.  (You can also ruin your electronics if you pass the lodestone over them!)  If you hold a paperclip on a string near a pole on the lodestone but not touching it, the paperclip will swing back and forth as if it’s frantic to reach the pole.  It doesn’t take much imagination to see all of this being used in a show of magic and power in ancient times.

In that sense, then, with the introduction of magnetism, the “potbellies” may well have morphed from a Mother Goddess/ birthing figure to a general power figure, one rulers would want to possess, display, and manipulate.  As Preclassic expert Julia Guernsey notes, “Importantly, rotund bellies were a frequent and long-standing attribute of Preclassic figurines, sometimes alluding to pregnancy and in other cases appearing to reference obesity.”

Unfortunately, we have very little data on how many of the figures were constructed to take advantage of magnetic poles and almost no information on their use.  It does seem that the cluster of finds near Soconusco/Monte Alto/ La Democracia suggests a large-scale production of the figures from lodestone magnetite found in the area, perhaps for trade.

Another theoryPTLI new cover

Some experts believe that the ability to find and use lodestones as well as how to use them came from Asia and the Pacific islands, carried across the sea by long-distance sailors who already knew about their uses as a navigational aid.  While the idea is often dismissed as far-fetched, it’s a possibility I pursue in Past the Last Island.

 

 

Sources and interesting reading:

Amarolli, Paul. “A Newly Discovered Potbelly Sculpture from El Salvador and a Reinterpretation of the Genre,” www.fundar.org.su/referencias/teopan.pdf

Barreto, Christina, ed. “Figurine Traditions from the Amazon,” Oxford Handbook of Prehistoric Figurines, Oxford University Press, 2016, https://www.reasearchgate.net/figure/Santarem-figurine-of-pregnant-woman-left-and-back-of-seated-figurine-with-perforated_273134801

“Aztec ‘Birthing Figure’” Aztecs, Mexicolore, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/artifacts/birthding-figure

Carlson, J. B. “Lodestone Compass: Chinese or Olmec Primacy?” Science 189 (1975) p. 753.

Coe, Michael D. America’s First Civilization. New York: American Heritage/Smithsonian Library, 1968. New Word City e-book, 2017

Review of Coe, Michael D. America’s First Civilization. Science, 2 May 1969, 164:538-539.

Dill, J. Gregory, “Lodestone and needle: The rise of the magnetic compass,” Ocean Navigator, January/February 2003, http://www.oceannavigator.com/January-February-2003/Lodestone-and-needle-the-rise-of-the-magnetic-compass/

Guernsey, Julia, “Rulers, Gods, and Potbellies,” The Place of Stone Monuments: Context, Use and Meaning in Mesoamerica’s Preclassic Tradition. Dumbarton Oaks, 2010

Guernsey, Julia. Sculpture and Social Dynamics in Preclassic Mesoamerica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

“Izapa,” Mundo Maya.  http://mundomaya.travel/en/arqueologia/top-10/Izapa.html

“Izapa,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Izapa

“Enigma of the Ancient Magnetic ‘Fat Boys’ and Their Curious Magnetic Properties,” MessagetoEagle.com, 19 April 2014, http://www.messagetoeagle.com/enigma-of-the-ancient-magnetic-fat-boys-and-their-curious-magnetic-properties/

Jenkins, John Major, “Some Iconographic and Dosmological Observations of the Symbolism of the new Stela 48 from Takalik Abaj,” Alignment, 22 April 2008, http://alignment2012.com/Takalik48.html

“Kaminaljuyu,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaminaljuyu

“Lodestone,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lodestone

“Lodestone – 600 BC” Magnet Academy, History of Electricity, magnetism, National MagLab, the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, 2014

“Lodestone – Physical Properties and Healing Properties,” Kidzrocks. http://www.kidzrocks.com/v/education/LODESTONE

“Magnetite and Lodestone,” Geology.com, https://geology.com/minerals/magnetite.shtml

“Magnetism in the New World,” Second Look Magazine, 1979, p. 8.

Malmstrom, Vincent H. “Chapter 3, Strange Attraction: The Mystery of Magnetism,” from Izapa: Birthplace of Time.  Dartmouth College, 1997.

Mills, Allan A. “The Lodestone: History, Physics, and Formation,” Annals of Science, (61) 2004

“Olmec,” Encyclopedia Britannica online, https://www.britannica.com/print/article/427846

“Olmec,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olmec (an excellent source)

“Potbelly sculpture,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potbelly_sculpture

Selin, Helaine. “From Second to Third Age: Olmec Origin,” Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997.

Stern, David P. “The Lodestone,” Earth mag, http://www.phy6.org/earthmag/lodeston.htm

Thompson, Lauri McInnis and Fred Valdez, ” Potbelly Sculpture: An Inventory and Analysis,” Ancient Mesoamerica, Spring 2008, 13 – 27.

Wilford, John Noble, “Oldest Pottery in Americas Is Found in Amazon Basin,” The New York Times, 13 December 1991, http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/13/world/oldest-pottery-in-americas-is-found-in-amazon-basin.html

Another book, Another controversy

MV migration_map

 

The Misfits and Heroes novels were born out of my belief that humans arrived in the Americas by many different routes at different times.  That went against the theory widely taught in school: that the first humans to reach the Americas walked across the land bridge from Russia to Alaska about 13,000 years ago. They followed big game and wandered down an ice-free corridor between mile-high ice sheets.  Eventually they populated all of the Americas.

I never doubted that some people arrived that way, but not many.  The land simply couldn’t support many.

Then I read about other finds – in Chile, Mexico, Brazil, Texas, South Carolina, Delaware, Florida.  They all seemed to predate that ice-free corridor in Alaska and the Yukon.  Further, some prominent geologists and paleo-anthropologists claimed the ice-free corridor, if it ever existed, wasn’t passable until 10-12,000 years ago, long after the first settlements in North America.  Consider Topper Hill, South Carolina (50,000 years old), Pedra Furada, Brazil (32,000 – 48,000 years old), Monte Verde II, Chile (at least 18,500 years old), Meadowcroft Rock Shelter, Pennsylvania (17,000 years old), and Huaca Prieta, Peru (15,000 years old).  Given the antiquity and sophistication of these sites, it seems absurd to hold onto the theory that development and culture moved solely from the north to the south, beginning 13,000 years ago.

But the belief persisted, mainly because it’d been repeated so many times people assumed it had been proven beyond any doubt.  At one point, I questioned the whole concept of the “Clovis People” and “Clovis Culture,” since Clovis points were a lithic style, a technological improvement that spread from the southeastern US across North America and down to Venezuela.  My argument was that iPhones have spread across the globe, but their presence does not indicate either a “people” or a “culture.”  It’s simply a very useful bit of technology.  However, my opinion struck a nerve among archaeologists, some of whom claimed they had a bookshelf full of volumes explaining the Clovis people and their culture.  So I let it go.  But in my heart, I think the Clovis points were a valuable trade item that was held in such high esteem it was included in grave goods.  (I’m not sure there’s an equivalent today since technology changes so rapidly. When I started working, really rich people had huge speakers for their component sound system.  Today, a system the size of a shoe-box delivers far better sound.)

Olmec head unearthed

When I visited the Olmec site at La Venta (at least 3500 years old), near Villahermosa, Mexico, I was struck by the amazing sculptures there.  Later, in an attempt to drum up interest in my new Latin American Literature class, I took pictures from La Venta into my composition classes at Mott College in Flint, Michigan.  Without telling the students anything more than dimensions, materials, and probable age of the pieces, I asked what they thought of them. Olmec mask 4

Every group had the same responses: “They’re African” or “They’re Asian.”  It was so consistent, it made me wonder.  What if African explorers came across the Atlantic to the Americas?  What if Asian explorers came across the Pacific?  What if they met somewhere – perhaps in the narrow Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico, and the fusion of cultures created the fire that forged a brand new civilization?

Those questions (and one more) became the basis of the Misfits and Heroes novels.

West Africa

 

Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa

The first book in the series, Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa, tells a tale of people forced to learn quickly when their boat is swept out into the open sea.  They end up heroes not because they were born with special powers but because they rose to the challenge and made a new life in a new world.

The journey itself has been repeated many times.  Katie Spotz rowed a bow across the Atlantic – solo.  Axel Busch sailed across the Atlantic – solo – in 21 days.  You can watch his video on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPL35Ul0Ses  In 1970, Thor Heyerdahl took Ra II, a reed boat modeled after Egyptian sailing vessels, from Morocco to Barbados, in the Caribbean.

In 2006, English adventurer Anthony Smith put an ad in The Daily Telegraph, reading “Fancy rafting cross the Atlantic?  Famous traveler requires three crew Must be OAP (Old Age Pensioners).  Serious adventurers only.”  Smith, with a bit of whimsy and a nod to Heyerdahl, named his raft the An-tiki.  In 2011, the group floated 2,763 miles across the Atlantic, surviving storms and a lost rudder, and ending up on St. Martin, in the Caribbean.  Smith did exactly what he wanted to do – replicate the journey of two British seamen who survived drifting for 70 days in a lifeboat after their ship was sunk by a German warship in 1940.

Clearly, all these people were able to cross the Atlantic from West Africa because the current and winds were in their favor. Why then wouldn’t it be possible for ancient people to make the same journey, carried by the same currents?  Long-standing prejudice held that ancient people couldn’t take boats across open water, but new evidence shows that our cousins, the Neanderthals, did exactly that, crossing the Mediterranean Sea as early as 175,000 years ago.

Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa – Click on the picture for the Amazon link.

 

The South Pacific

The second book in the series, Past the Last Island, takes an even bigger leap: it says that the great navigators of the South Pacific found their way across the Pacific Ocean to the Americas in ancient times – not by going all the way north and following the coast down North America, but by traversing open water.  The boat in the illustration is Polynesian.

map Polynesian boat

 

Clearly their ancestors learned to use boats early on.  Homo Floresiensis, or The Hobbit People as they’re known because of their short stature, occupied an island on the far eastern edge of what is now Indonesia between 50,000 and 190,000 years ago.  Getting there required crossing deep ocean water.

For island people, water was the road, the connection, the wide world.  They had to learn how to use it.

Polynesian star compass

The area encompassing Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Australia, New Guinea, Melanesia, and Polynesia would have been a melting pot of peoples and cultures, in which sea prowess would have played an important role in identifying leaders.  The person who could use the wind and waves to travel was admirable.  The voyager who could find a way back, even at night, was probably worth elevating to the status of leader.  Knowledge was power.  A Polynesian star compass is pictured.

Even after Europeans colonized the South Pacific islands and forced people to stay put, native knowledge of the winds, stars, and currents was passed on, sometimes in secret.  When a famous European sailor agreed to sail hundred of miles with native Polynesian navigators, the European was so worried he brought his sextants and charts with him and hid them, but he never needed to use them.  Despite the European characterization of the people as “primitives,” their knowledge of the sea astounded seasoned European sailors.

It’s now clear that South Pacific seafarers reached Hawaii (possibly following migrating flocks of golden plovers) and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) long before European sailors even knew the places existed.  Recent studies of sweet potato DNA suggest trade existed between Polynesia and South America long before the conquistadors arrived.

Botocudo man, South American natives of eastern Brazil, historical portrait, 1875Ancient Polynesian DNA retrieved from some Botocudo skulls in a Brazilian museum seems to indicate the presence of Polynesians in Brazil long before the 13,000 BP land bridge was supposed to have opened up in Alaska. (Drawings of Botocudo man shown)

In 2015, Harvard geneticist Pontus Skoglund discovered DNA links between Amazon Indians and the indigenous peoples of Australia and New Guinea.

 

The site at Monte Verde, in southern Chile, supports this claim.  Despite ferocious resistance from American archaeologists, the site is now recognized as being at least 18,500 years old.  Further, finds at the site suggest that the settlement was one of several that enjoyed a trade network.  So, how did people get to southern Chile?  Either they went all the way down the coast from Alaska, a very long journey, or they came across the southern Pacific.

As with the first book, I’m suggesting that some people would purposely seek out the unknown.  Perhaps they were outcasts, thrown out of their villages and left to survive if they could.  Many probably died, but some didn’t.  Or perhaps, just like modern people, some simply wanted to know what lay beyond the edge of the world.

Past the Last Island – Click on the picture for the Amazon link.

 

The Merger of Asian and African

The third book takes the biggest risk of all – suggesting a merger of the two groups.  But that seems to be what happens when different groups of people occupy the same area.  For many years, scientists claimed it wasn’t possible for Neanderthals and modern humans to mate, but most of us carry Neanderthal DNA, so clearly, they could and did mate.  And they probably learned a great deal from each other.

If a small group arrived in the Americas and started a settlement, they’d eventually fail unless they found new blood to add to the tribe.  I’m guessing that a group of 12 or 15 people couldn’t thrive.  In that case, a stranger would be both a threat and a promise.  A Meeting of Clans shows both responses.

Complicating this story is the presence of yet another group – outcasts who have become so violent they understand nothing else.

A Meeting of Clans

 

 

The Outsiders

MV Solutrean

The fourth book grew out of a strange theme in Mesoamerican and South American art – the bearded stranger who looks nothing like the others in the group.  Yet he (and it’s usually a male) is clearly in a position of authority.  So I combined this idea with part of the Solutrean Hypothesis put forth by Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution and Bruce Bradley of the University of Exeter.  Their theory suggests that humans from what is now northern Spain and southern France reached the Americas and brought several technological innovations with them, including the dart thrower (atlatl – illustrated below), eyed needles, and a thin, bi-faced point that supporters claim became the inspiration for the famous Clovis points that spread across North America.

Atlatl-illustration-1024x460

 

As you would expect, detractors abound.  Many complain about Stanford’s proposed route, which went north from Europe, skirted the ice and ended up in northern North America.  Since most of the very promising sites on the eastern coast of North America are in the south, I agree that the ice route is unlikely.  However, the idea of people crossing from northern Spain to the Americas is still very possible.  For one thing, the vast majority of the Clovis-style points have been found in the southeastern US.

clovis_continent_647kb

If the originators came from Asia, the majority should have been in the northwest.  For another, the travelers in my book would be following approximately the same route Columbus did, except a whole lot earlier!  It seems fitting somehow.

So the theory is a wild one, but it’s the basis of the newest book in the series.  And the hero is truly a misfit!

A Family of Strangers 

 

The Misfits and Heroes series

All the books are the children of controversy.  And that’s fine, at least with me.  They’re fiction.  They’re meant to open up new ideas for the reader’s consideration.  For too long we’ve repeated a story about everyone coming to the Americas across the Land Bridge from Asia about 13,000 years ago.  But with so much evidence to the contrary, we can no longer cling to that tale.  So the books present another possibility.

Much of what we thought we knew is changing.  New studies suggest modern humans may have arisen as far back as 300,000 years ago, perhaps in more than one place.  The story of human origins seems to have a great many subplots.

In the next ten or twenty years, the dates of very early settlements in the Americas will probably keep leaping backward as new finds surface.

 

If you haven’t already read the books, I hope you’ll check them out on Amazon or other on-line sellers or ask your local bookseller to get them.  Whether or not you subscribe to any of these theories, you can enjoy the books.  They’re just good stories, full of human drama and adventure. If you like them, tell others or leave a review – or both.  And thanks to those who have!

 

Sources and interesting reading:

Many of these topics are also covered in earlier posts on this blog, and sources are listed for each.

“Anthony Smith (explorer)” Wikipedia, htps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Smith_(explorer)

Axel Busch sail across the Atlantic video, You Tube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPL35Ul0Ses

Botkin-Kowacki, Eva. “A final blow to myth of how people arrived in the Americas,” Christian Science Monitor, 10 August 2016,  https://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2016/0810/A-final-blow-to-myth-of-how-people-arrived-in-the-Americas

Bower, Bruce.  “People may have lived in Brazil more than 20,000 years ago,” Science News, 5 September 2017, https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/science-ticker-stone/stone-age-people-brazil-20000-years-ago?utm_content=buffer8976dd&utm_medium=social&utm_sour

Doucleff, Michaeleen.  “How the sweet potato crossed the Pacific way before the Europeans did,” NPR, Food, History, and Culture, 22 January 2013, http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/01/22/16998044/how-the-sweet-potato-crossed-the-pacific-before-columbus

Gannon, Megan. “Study: The First Americans Didn’t Arrive by the Bering Land Bridge,” Mental Floss, 10 August 2016, http://mentalfloss.com/article/84506/first-americans-didnt-arrive-bering-land-bridge-study-says

Hawks, John. “Did humans approach the southern tip of South America more than 18,000 years ago?” John Hawks blog, http://johnhawks.net/weblog/reviews/archaeology/america/dillehay-monte-verde-2015.html

“Homo Floresiensis”  Wikipedia.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_floresiensis

Hilleary, Cecily.  “Native Americans Call for Rethink of Bering Strait Theory,” VOA news, 19 June 2017, https://www.voanews.com/a/native-americans-call-rethink-of-bering-strait-theory/3901792.html

“New Evidence Puts Man in North America 50,000 Years Ago,” Science Daily, 18 November 2004, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/11/041118104010.htm

Perkins, Sid. “DNA study links indigenous Brazilians to Polynesians: Sequences shared by far-away populations stir up a Palaeoamerican mystery,” Nature, 01 April 2013. http:///www.nature.com/news/dna-study-links-indigenous-brazilians-to-polynesians-1.12710

Pringle, Heather. “Primitive Humans Conquered Sea, Surprising Finds Suggest: Prehistoric axes found on a Greek island suggest that seafaring existed in the Mediterranean more than a hundred thousand years earlier than thought,” National Geographic, 17 February 2010, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/02/100217-crete-primitive-humans-mariners-seafarers-mediterranean-sea/

“Solutrean Hypothesis,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solutrean_hypothesis

Vialou, Denis, Mohammed Benabdelbadi, James Feathers, Michel Fontugne, “Peopling South America’s center: the late Pleistocene site of Santa Elina, Antiquity, 08 August 2017, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/peopling-south-americas-centre-the-late-pleistocene-site-of-santa-elina/04FF561EBC1883B6

Yirka, Bob. “Evidence suggests Neanderthals took to boats before modern humans,” Phys.org   1 March 2012, https://phys.org/news/2012-03-evidence-neanderthals-boats-modern-humans.html

Wade, Lizzie.  “Traces of some of South America’s earliest people found under ancient dirt pyramid,” Science, 24 May 2017, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/traces-some-south-amercias-s-earliest-people-found-under-ancient-dirt-pyramid

New Thoughts on Olmec Art

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. Olmec Map 2

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.   Olmec map

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.

Olmec art

People often associate the Olmec culture with colossal basalt heads, strange greenstone figurines, and hollow ceramic babies.

Giant Heads  Olmec head unearthed

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.

Olmec giant head b

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.

 

The Figurines

Olmec Kunz axe

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. Tate book cover

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.

Olmec face images

 

Olmec embryo

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.

Olmec figure 2

 

And another:

Olmec figurine identified as dwarf

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maize

Tate blames untreated maize for a disastrous number of miscarriages among the Olmec that led to the creation of these statutes.  Olmec mother and fetusClearly 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.

Olmec Las Limas (2) 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).

Olmec head with mask

 

olmecs figure with seed

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

Olmec_baby-face_figurine_(Bookgrrrl)   Olmec baby Hern back

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.

Olmec-hollow baby 2

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.