All  
The colossal stone head is a major icon of the culture of the Olmecs

The Olmecs: Mesoamerican Mother Culture of Colossal Heads and Giant Mysteries

Print

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?

Where and When Did the Olmecs Live?

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.

Pre-Hispanic Olmec stone altar in the La Venta archaeological park in Villahermosa, Mexico. (Barna Tanko /Adobe Stock)

Pre-Hispanic Olmec stone altar in the La Venta archaeological park in Villahermosa, Mexico. ( Barna Tanko /Adobe Stock)

A few of the key Olmec sites are San Lorenzo, La Venta, and Tres Zapotes. San Lorenzo, located in the Veracruz state, was possibly the first true Mesoamerican city and the major center for Olmec politics, religion, and commerce from 1200-400 BC. The most important sector of this site is known as the ridge and is where the nobility and priests probably lived. Several sculptures have been found in this part of the site.

La Venta is located in Huimanguillo, Tabasco and was the major Olmec center following San Lorenzo. It was occupied from roughly 900-400 BC and contains many elements demonstrating Olmec wealth and power, such as four colossal heads, the Great Pyramid, and smooth serpentine blocks as a mosaic or possibly offerings. Altars, stelae, and stone monuments have also been identified at this rich archaeological site.

Olmec stone mosaic in the La Venta archeological park in Villahermosa, Mexico. (Barna Tanko /Adobe Stock)

Olmec stone mosaic in the La Venta archeological park in Villahermosa, Mexico. ( Barna Tanko /Adobe Stock)

After La Venta, the Olmecs focused their center on the site now known as Tres Zapotes, in Veracruz. They were there in the Late Formative or Late Preclassic period (after 400 BC) and this is one of the sites which saw the decline of the Olmec culture, though it continued to be used for centuries after they were gone. Two colossal heads and an important stela are the most important archaeological finds at this site.

Mysteries of Olmec Writing

Although the Olmecs did have a system of writing , only a few of their inscriptions are available to archaeologists at present. One of the best known examples of probable Olmec writing is the Cascajal Block, which was first discovered at a gravel quarry in 1999 in the village of Lomas de Tacamichapa, in Veracruz, Mexico. This is a stone tablet dating to 900 BC, making it the oldest known writing found in the Western Hemisphere.

The nature of the writing on the Cascajal Block is described in another Ancient Origins article as:

“It is blank except for one side, which has been ground smooth and inscribed with 62 symbols of a hieroglyphic script.  The symbols are arranged in rows, which are repeated, similar to other written languages. The tablet shows other signs of writing including syntax patterns, word order, and repetition. The signs appear to be representational of insects, plants, animals, pineapple, an ear of corn and various objects.  Many of the symbols appear as abstract boxes or blobs. Another interesting observation reveals that the block may have been cleared or erased several times.”

A drawing of the hieroglyphs on the Cascajal block. (Michael Everson/CC BY 3.0)

A drawing of the hieroglyphs on the Cascajal block. (Michael Everson/ CC BY 3.0 )

The Famous Colossal Heads (And a Very Special Mask) Left by the Olmecs

However, there is not enough continuous Olmec script for archaeologists to decipher the language. As a result, much of what we know about the Olmec civilization is dependent on the archaeological evidence.

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 17 of such objects have been found.

The colossal heads measure between one and three meters (3-11 ft.) 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 among 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 example of this 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 (5.12 inches) 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 center, 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 crawling baby sculpture (1200-900 BC), Las Bocas, Mexico. ( CC0)

An Olmec Legacy – The Mesoamerican Ball Game

By 400 BC, 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 ball game’ , 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 ball game and several other features of Olmec civilization may be found in subsequent Central American civilizations.

Ball player disc from Chinkultic, Chiapas. (LRafael /Adobe Stock)

Ball player disc from Chinkultic, Chiapas. ( LRafael /Adobe Stock)

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.

Top Image: Olmec sculpture carved from stone. Big stone head statue in a jungle . Source: marmoset /Adobe Stock

By Ḏḥwty

References

MacGregor, N., 2012. A History of the World in 100 Objects. London: Penguin Books.

www.aztec-history.com, 2013. The Ancient Olmec Civilization. [Online]
Available at: http://www.aztec-history.com/olmec-civilization.html

www.crystalinks.com, 2015. Olmec Civilization. [Online]
Available at: http://www.crystalinks.com/olmec.html

www.latinamericanstudies.org, 2015. The Olmecs. [Online]
Available at: http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/olmecs.htm

Comments

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.

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.

 

+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

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.

"...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.

Pages

Next article