An Olmec style face adorns the side of the Mask Temple at the Mayan site of Lamanai in Belize

The mysterious civilization of the Olmecs

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Mexico is perhaps most well-known, archaeologically speaking, as the home of the Aztec civilization. Yet, before the arrival of the Aztecs, another sophisticated civilization, the Olmecs, ruled the region for almost 1000 years. Although pre-Olmec cultures had already existed in the region, the Olmecs have been called the cultura madre , meaning the ‘mother culture’, of Central America. In other words, many of the distinctive features of later Central American civilizations can be traced to the Olmecs. So, who were the Olmecs, and what was their culture like?    

The Olmec civilization flourished roughly between 1200 BC and 400 BC, an era commonly known as Central America’s Formative Period. Sites containing traces of the Olmec civilization are found mainly on the southern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, specifically in the states of Veracruz and Tabasco. Although the Olmecs did have a system of writing, only few of their inscriptions are available to archaeologists at present. Moreover, there is not enough continuous Olmec script for archaeologist to decipher the language. As a result, much of what we know about the Olmec civilization is dependent on the archaeological evidence.

The Olmec/Zapotec center, Monte Alban, near the city of Oaxaca, Mexico

The Olmec/Zapotec center, Monte Albán, near the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. Source: BigStockPhoto

For a start, the Olmecs left behind much of their artwork. The most famous of these are arguably the so-called ‘colossal heads’. These representations of human heads are carved from basalt boulders, and at present, at least seventeen of such objects have been found. The colossal heads measure between one and three metres in height, and seem to represent a common subject, i.e. mature men with fleshy cheeks, flat noses, and slightly crossed eyes. Incidentally, such physical features are still common amongst the people of Veracruz and Tabasco, indicating the colossal heads may be representations of the Olmecs themselves. Given the amount of resources needed to produce such objects, it may be speculated that these heads depict the Olmec elites or rulers, and were used as a symbol of power, perhaps like the colossal heads of Jayavarman VII at Angkor Thom in Cambodia.

Colossal stone head of the Olmecs

Colossal stone head of the Olmecs. Source: BigStockPhoto

In addition, the Olmecs also produced miniature versions of these giant heads. One such object is a ‘stone mask’ in the British Museum. In contrast to the colossal heads, this mask, which is made of serpentine, is only 13 cm high. This mask has similar facial features to the colossal heads.

Although such features can be seen in the descendants of the Olmecs, some scholars have speculated that the mask represented an African, Chinese or even a Mediterranean face. The mask also has four holes on its front, speculated to represent the four cardinal points of the compass. As the Olmec ruler was believed to be the most important axis in the world centre, it has been suggested that the mask represented an Olmec ruler. Furthermore, there are numerous circular holes on the face, indicating that face piercings and plugs were used by the Olmecs. Due to the lack of Olmec skeletons (they have been dissolved by the acidic soil of the rainforest), this mask may be the closest we can get to seeing what the Olmecs looked like.     

Olmec crawling baby sculpture (1200-900 BC), Las Bocas, Mexico

Olmec c rawling baby sculpture (1200-900 BC), Las Bocas, Mexico. ( Wikimedia Commons )

By 400 B.C., the Olmecs mysteriously vanished, the cause of which is still unknown. Although the Olmecs were only rediscovered by archaeologists relatively recently, i.e. after the Second World War, they were by no means a forgotten civilization. After all, the word Olmec itself (meaning ‘rubber people’) can be found in the Aztec language. It seems that the ‘Mesoamerican ballgame’, which was observed by the Spanish when they encountered the Aztecs, was invented by the Olmecs. As this game involved the use of a rubber ball, this may be the reason why the Olmecs were named as such by the Aztecs. This ballgame and several other features of Olmec civilization may be found in subsequent Central American civilizations. Thus, the Olmecs had a considerable amount of influence on these later cultures. As so little is known about the Olmecs today, it would require much more work and research to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of their importance to succeeding Central American societies.

Artist’s depiction of a Mesoamerican ball game

Artist’s depiction of a Mesoamerican ball game ( Image source )

Featured image: An Olmec style face adorns the side of the Mask Temple at the Mayan site of Lamanai in Belize. Source: BigStockPhoto

References

Cartwright, M., 2013. Olmec Civilization. [Online]
Available at: http://www.ancient.eu/Olmec_Civilization/

Comments

Roberto Peron's picture

I have seen a few of the colossal heads and they are very interesting.  I'm split between them being depictions of Africans or Chinese explorers who may have come to the Americas and began a new civilization which, thus, gave birth to the Aztecs and Mayans, et al.  The broad nose and large lips and other facial features depicted in these giant heads very much resemble facial features we see in people from Africa.  Yet, one can also detect Oriental facial features in them.  There is little doubt in my mind that the Olmecs were the "cultura madre" (mother culture) of Mexico and Central America.  The question is who were they and where did they come from?

Great article btw!

 

I agree with you, Roberto, about them being the Mother Culture. I knew a guy from down there who is a real Mayan and he has that square,broad face and the similar full, unique lips. Its true, some see the statue heads  as Black African, but that is superficial.

      When looking at ancient art, I would like to point out what I believe are important side notes. People often see  artistic realism as their objective measure of its creators' sophistication level. You can't do that from the get go, even when it is often the case. The way those heads look may be a way of telling us what they thought was desirable and admired rather than a factual representation of how your average Olmecian looked like. We do that with cartoons and comics in our time. we blow out of proportion  or accentuate what we either like or don't.

       Of the group reading these articles, who thinks the Olmecs are a home grown culture from their geographical arena and who thinks they came, as an already structured culture from parts yet unknown? Could they be a composite of the two?

     Funny, I have not yet seen any elongated olmec heads on the very large basalt statues. Are there any?

Just to let you know the reason they believe african orgin ancestry has nothing to do with features. They found the same head in africa.

Tsurugi's picture

If you're serious, I'd like to see that...got links?
If you're trolling....well....stop it (><)

You make some most interesting and accurate observations that we see what we want to see. As a matter of interest for those who are enjoying the various assertions are there any publically available works discussing the early days of the Olmec Civilization? Thanks all. Most interesting comments.

To me, Olmecs looked like Cambodgian peoples

"...certainly the colossal heads do not represent individuals of the Negro or Ethiopian race... We have to agree that in them are recorded, on a heroic scale, the ethnic characteristics of the ancient inhabitants of Mesoamerica, characteristics that are still preserved in some contemporaneous natives..."

- Beatriz de la Fuente, Mexican Olmec scholar.

When Rocks Cry Out by Horace Butler says otherwise Beatriz de la Fuente

Of course these colossal heads are not what they clearly represent, that would be insane. Certainly the first people that walk the earth were not travelers of the land or navigators of the the oceans. I think Negro people feared going anywhere outside the continent of Africa for all eternity. If it weren't for the great Spanish conquerers, the poor Africans may still be stuck in Africa today. Except for the fact that Africans (Moors) ruled Spain for close to eight hundred years before the Spanish even came to the
Americas. Whoops! Wonder were the Spanish learned how to navigate the oceans. Let's see, if the Olmec's were Africans and the Mayan and Inca cultures came later. My goodness, well one would surmise that the Olmec mixed into those cultures as well. Hmm... they may even have traveled to Northern America. No, you are probably right, that could never have happened. African's due to their color, probably couldn't accomplish such a feat.

"The people of Mexico are extremely proud of their Olmec heritage... Such distortion of the archaelogical record takes advantage of public ignorance regarding archaelogical method and theory... Constant rebuttals to pseudoscience are essential to alert the public to its perils... The present refutation of Van Sertima is much needed because of the pervasiveness and the insidious quality of his work..."
- Ann Cyphers, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropologicas, UNAM.

"As someone who has worked many decades with the Preclassic or Formative cultures of Mesoamerica and spent three field seasons excavating the great Olmec center of San Lorenzo, I would like to state unequivocally that there is nothing in these Olmec sites that looks African, Chinese, European, or Near Eastern. The Olmec culture was created and maintained by American Indian peoples with a completely Mesoamerican way of life centered on the cultivation of maize and other New World cutigens... The creation of Mesoamerica's first civilization, the Olmecs, was a mighty achievement, and to attempt to take this away from the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica on the flimsiest basis is an unworthy exercise."

- Michael D. Coe, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University.

Racism is very prelevent in your comments and to be a educated person on the subject makes your statements even more alarming. it sounds to me that even if they did prove the facial features to be african or negroid you wouldn't be able to except it
and you would do everything in your spirit and psychological thought process to surpress it. It would not take away from a people if you prove that their heritage is rooted with another culture. Why couldn't it enrich the people instead of take away? The truth is the truth whether you like it or not One day I gurantee you it will show that those lips,face, and nose belong only to one race of Ethiopian, nubian, hamite, african, black, Egyptian, cushite race and your whole campaign of denial would have all been in vain and bad for your mental and spiritual health. You see when racist people find out that Africans played a part in their educational history they get sick and start the campaign of denial and then try to look for substantial evidence to surpress or cover up their findings Of what ever it may be. They believe in the lie because it makes them feel relieved that they aren't decedent's from black Africans. Blacks shaped the world then and they will again just remember that when you hear your children mimicking blacks and listening to hip hop or you using curling irons,pushing your baby in a baby carriage or need open heart surgery or use mathematics or chemistry black Africans did that not Greeks or Native Americans. Africans navigated the seas long before Europeans or Spaniards did we ruled Spain, Italy etc and since then Europeans have crusaded to remove Africans from history and make other people feel less than human if the are decedent's from that continent. We are entering a new age and Era and the truth will come out soon. History is history no matter who did what the argument is just tell the truth in your findings and share all aspects of your finding whether you believe it or not. Not all history is of African decent however the ones that are you refuse to admit because of racism and ignorance

Well it is not racist to have an opposing view. We can't accept the Olmecs were Black just because Black say so. You have to have facts and proof. And to this day there is no proof that the Olmecs were Africa blacks.What is really harmful to everyone is arguments and theories that are based on nothing more than opinions. We have to stop the spread of lies from whom ever tells them and in this case it is afrocentric people with a mean spirit just as racism.Of course there are Eurocentrics but they are not claiming to be Olmec.

Of course it is not racist to have an opposing view. Your comment is very bias about Afrocentrism view regarding the Olmec. Not one person claim that the Olmec were African Orgin. You need to carefully read the comment. Mickey Mouse wrote something very prejudicial about Blacks and he shouldn't have because his comments were totally outrageous and his views on Africans were very Racist. I will say this to you. What was Mexico before the Europeans ariive? Columbus, The Conquestador rape, robbed, pilferage and spreaded diseases throughout the Americas. Sanchez, it seems as though you are throwing stones without definitive proof. You need to admit when someone attack another Culture based on their ignorance is complete racism and racial prejudice. There is only one Race and that is the Human Race. There are many cultures, but one Race. We built America, but we were never given our just dues. Please google Dr. Joyce De Gury, just maybe you will learn the truth. Biologicaly you came from Black because you cannot get white from Black. I am sure you took Biology, if you graduated from college. I would love to challenge you in an open forum, whether in English or Spanish because I am fluent in both languages.

Tsurugi's picture

What? "You cannot get white from black" ?? What the hell does that mean?

And no, black people did not "build America". They definitely had a hand in building it, but so did everyone else. Perhaps you are unaware of the fact that the vast majority of people who came here were poor and had to work for a living.

As for "what was Mexico before the Conquistadore arrive", that's a pretty broad question but if you mean right before they arrived, Mexico was a recently conquered and subdued conglomerate of city-states merged into a single Aztec empire, similar to what the Inca did farther south. Had that not happened, the Conquistadores wouldn't have stood a chance. Did they rape and pillage and murder their way across the land? Yep. Just like the Aztecs had recently done, and the Inca, and pretty much every invading force ever in the history of man. That is not to excuse such behaviour, but you want to act like only Europeans have ever acted that way. Please. Have a look at Africa today, my friend. It makes the Conquistadores look like flower maidens.

I'd be happy to debate you.

cortez was the guy who destroyed the natives, not columbus.

In virtually their own tongues, they claim to spring from the Mother culture. Albeit simple terms as possible. All culture come from Africa in one shape or another. As for the civilization, no one is arguing that MesoAmerican culture began long before The Olmecs. What we do propose is That The Olmecs were Nubian from a lost advanced civilization that came back to MesoAmerica . Probably hunting large Crystal as Mexico is rich in Bus sized Quartz crystal.

"...these works see the world easily in yes-or-no terms and rely heavily on establishing evidence by mere repeated assertion... The assumption of a wide range of pseudoscholars, as well as others, seems to be one of 'mentally handicapped First Americans'. Prehistoric New World peoples seem to be consistently seen not as having the intellectual capacity to invent or develop technology on their own, but as waiting with open arms for some poor lost African, or Asian, or European to make a transoceanic voyage to bring them one or another cultural idea. This kind of thinking is repugnant to me and is the reason that many of us disregard the publications of Van Sertima and others of similar approaches... while the faults of Van Sertima are self-evident to most readers of this journal, they will not be equally so to the audience he has targeted."

- David L. Browman, Department of Anthropology, Washington University.

Mr Browman,  I dont think most people here have that attitude. Its one thing to think ancient Americans had contact and exchanged ideas with other Peoples and another thing To think native Americans had no culture until it was given to them. As a matter of fact, I personally believe ancient America to have played a vital role in the world's civilization, more than it gets credit for. Just one example; Maize. Mesoamerica introduced corn to the rest of the world through contact with Europeans hundreds of years ago, but that is not the real begining. Before there was one ear of big , plump, juicy sweet corn, There was a spindly small wild corn, followed by centuries of selective breeding, showing that native Americans were pioneers in agricultural science, on par with any wheat or barley domesticated in the Middle East. The native American "Three Sisters" of  planting system shows a deep understanding of Botony and the interactive  and symbionic role of crop selection. The list goes on and on.

+John Dale;; we know your terminology when you say ''native American'' - you means mongols / indians;;-- but it's the Olmecs ( african ) who breeded Maize/corn

Roberto Peron's picture

It must be noted that when we see depictions of the giant Olmec heads we typically see them from a front facial view.  However, for those who have actually seen the heads in person one of the first things you notice is the back of the head.  Monument Q has Ethiopian (African) style braided hair.  In my opinion we have made a very big mistake thinking that everything in the Americas is Native American when there is plenty of archaeological evidence to suggest it is not.  To think that the Americas were this pristine land, untouched land is laughable!  

Native American peoples were intelligent and built some fantastic cultures such as the Mayan, Aztec, Inca, etc.  But they were not alone.  I believe they had contact and possible ancestry from other peoples of the world.   The isolation theory is old hat and no longer suffices!  Get over it already.

 

Braids is very common in Indians. Africans are not the only ones with the capabilities to do braids.Whites also do braids. Most people do braids.Why even use the idea of Olmecs with braids as proof that they are African is really immature.

Monte Alban is an Olmec/Zapotec ruin? In the 7-8 times I've been there, I have never heard it referred to as such. Only - Zapotec. From where does this information generate?

I have heard some archeologists refer to it as originally being an Olmec site. I have never been there just going off of armchair archeology.

I appreciate the comments dismantling this myth of the outside origin to the Olmecs. This is not just about the Olmecs, but it is relevant to a wide scope of interpretation that pervades archeology, new-age, science, prejudice and ignorance. This is worth talking about.

The same strange ideas repeat themselves to other cultures, when aesthetic aspects of a society provoke our imediate judgement and create the wildest claims from laymen that then proceeds to spread them. The sky-man is an alien, Jesus was Chinese, this image means that, etc. This is not about favouring mainstream ideas, far from it. The point is that when you engage in a more professional analysis of these images, objects and documents, you refrain from judging it a bit and stay a little bit longer in the realm of simple description. You don't say "the heads look African", you say "the heads had this nose and these eyes..." because you're yet to compare and contextualize this image. Perhaps there is something about the iconography of the culture, or their habits and so on that justify and even explain the imagery. Otherwise, you'll compare it anyway, you'll jump to assuming it has to do with that which you already know. "A wide nose like that? African people have it, so that must be it". In this way, we remain clashing hypothesis and assumptions and conclusions. This is quite harmful to a field that requires patience and observation. Sometimes it is as simple as confusing a hairstyle on a sculpture for a hat, or mistaking social roles because one believes it is just the same as for us (the leader, the priest, the teacher...).

These theories can be quite fun to discuss and I really want to stress how this is not about claiming what is contrary to them. Rather, to have in mind when talking about what is different from yourself by giving it a little more time and being humble enough to gather information from other sources. That is, ultimately, to be patient and make less claims. To connect less, not because connecting information is bad (that is how knowledge arise), but because this might harm your way to gather more information, more hints and clues on how those people lived.

The Olmec Head Discoveries is a the History that the Western World wants to stay suppressed because Europeans has suppressed any information about the is a latter day one that comes after all knowledge of advanced , mathematics.Science,Architecture,Animal husbandry,Government, space travel, and Social society was well in place on the Earth before they came into existence.What angers them the most is having been reveal as the Greatest frauds as caretakers of What has been discovered about past Civilization on Earth and further the Race of people they most despise were far more advanced Scientifically and culturally than they are even today.The Olmec heads have the same dynamics in construction as the finest Example of Ancient Egyptian Sculpture.The best European Design Engineers have stated that the dynamics of symmetry in the identical facial structure representing half of the facial profile of these monoliths could not have been produced by a stone chiseler ,It would take a cutting tool of machine drive 3d imaging Computer technology that has only recently been discovered in the late 20th century

I'm a big supporter that the ancient Egyptians were black Africans. But I truly think that when afrocentrists start claiming everything on this planet as having been done by them. It sorta hurts the movement. People will say "see them afrocentrists they think Greece is black and Olmecs were black". And then they will think "and that the Egyptians were black" so people will stop taking them seriously on the real issue which is were the Anciemt Egyptians black? Which is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbows anyway. Everything pales in comparison to Egypt. But claiming everything else in fact hurts the movement.

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