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One of the two stone monuments found in Guatemala.

Monuments Depicting Olmec 'Descent of the Grandfather' Myth and the Rise of Mayan Writing Found in Guatemala

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Two large carved stone monuments found in an archaeological park in the Central American country of Guatemala have proven to be more significant than originally believed. The finds were made in the Tak'alik Ab'aj archaeological park and it is believed that they come from the great Olmec Civilization. It is expected that the large monuments can provide more insights into this historically important culture and the rise of their successors, the famous Maya. For one thing, it is helping experts to better understand the development of writing in Mesoamerica.

Stela 5 at Takalik Abaj, El Asintal, Retalhuleu, Guatemala. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Stela 5 at Takalik Abaj, El Asintal, Retalhuleu, Guatemala. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Revealing Mysteries of Mayan Writing

Specifically, Stele 87 has been recently named as key to unravelling the mystery of the development of Mayan writing. German epigrapher Nikolai Grube explained:

“It is an example of the genesis of Mayan writing. The great importance of stele 87 is that it is an early example of the development of writing in Mesoamerica (…) Tak’alik Ab’aj was a place of experimentation with Mayan writing.”

Stele 87 may help unravel the mystery of the development of Mayan writing. ( Cultura y Deportes )

Experts have yet to achieve a linguistic reading of the hieroglyphs, but Grube says that the stele has evidence of “an early Maya text” and shows a ruler with his name.

The Mysterious Olmecs

The Olmecs were probably among the first civilizations in Mesoamerica, flourishing from approximately 1500 to 400 BC. These enigmatic people created a very sophisticated society and culture and are best-known for their monumental stone heads that are probably portraits of rulers or ancestors. There is also speculation that they developed their own form of writing as indicated in the Cascajal block.

The finds were made in 2018 in the ancient city of Tak'alik Ab'aj that was built by the Olmecs perhaps around 1200 BC and later inhabited by the Maya people from 800 to 300 BC. It is believed that even though the Maya replaced the Olmecs, they were profoundly influenced by the predecessor's culture and civilization.

José Luis Chea Urruela of the Minister for Culture & Sports inspects the find. (Image: Ministry for Sport and Culture of Guatemala)

José Luis Chea Urruela, Minister for Culture & Sports inspects the find. (Image: Ministry for Sport and Culture of Guatemala )

The Find

The find was made by a local team of archaeologists, one of whose leaders is Christa Schieber. They were working in the Tak'alik Ab'aj area as part of an ongoing project that has unearthed many important artifacts in recent years, including the tomb of an Olmec king or noble. Tak'alik Ab'aj park is located in Alnistal municipality, which is some 100 miles south-west of the Guatemalan capital. The exact location of the Olmec finds and how they were revealed has not been disclosed.

The investigators discovered two large carved pumice stones along with a smooth stele. A preliminary investigation of the well-preserved symbols and carvings allowed them to determine that they were Olmec in origin. The stone monuments have been provisionally dated to be over 2,500 years old, a time that was crucial in Olmec and Maya history.

The two monuments are thought to represent the myth of ‘The descent of the grandfather’ (Image: Ministry for Sport and Culture of Guatemala)

The two monuments are thought to represent the myth of ‘The descent of the grandfather’ (Image: Ministry for Sport and Culture of Guatemala )

The Olmec Monuments

The two monumental objects are ornately decorated with intricate carvings and symbols. The first Olmec monument has a carved head and a great many traditional symbols of authority, that are related to a figure called ‘avô’, which can be translated as "Grandfather", who appears to have been an important ancestor. On the monument the figure is shown apparently falling head first. According to biobiochile.cl, Scriber has stated that the monument was carved " to show the descent from the heavens of the ancestor."

The second monument is very large and could weigh up to five tons (11000 lbs). It is carved with many symbols of a ritualistic nature. They indicate something of the Olmec worldview that was to prove to be so influential on later cultures.

The two stone monuments are believed together to show the myth of ‘The Descent of the Grandfather," according to the Telesur, website. Among all the Olmec signs is the K'an cross, which was widely used in Maya iconography.

Carved Altar 48 from Takalik Abaj. Late Pre-classic sculpture in the Early Maya style. 400-200 BC. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Carved Altar 48 from Takalik Abaj. Late Pre-classic sculpture in the Early Maya style. 400-200 BC. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The News Network Archaeology blog reports that the Guatemalan minister of culture stated ‘that the pieces found were part of other "monumental" structures which were mutilated’. The deliberate damaging of the monuments was probably linked to the end of the Olmec control of Tak'alik Ab'aj.

It was possibly carried out to mark a new cycle in history, based on the Maya worldview. The find is supporting those who argue that Tak'alik Ab'aj witnessed a transition from the Olmec to the Maya people. The carving of a K’an cross on one of the monuments indicates that the Maya put their own stamp on their predecessors’ works.

The Importance of the Monuments

This discovery in the archaeology park indicates that there is the real possibility of new Olmec and Maya finds and demonstrates the importance of Tak'alik Ab'aj. They are also revealing more about the Olmec belief system and mythology and the development of the Mayan language. Most importantly they are adding to the evidence of the close relationship between the Olmecs and the Maya.

It’s for all of these reasons that the Guatemalan president, Alejandro Giammattei, has decided to request UNESCO declare Tak'alik Ab'aj a World Heritage Site.

Top image: One of the two stone monuments found in Guatemala. Source: Johan Ordoñez, Agence France-Presse

By Ed Whelan

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