Friday, March 19, 2010

The Olmecs: "Mother of cultures"

Colossal head known as "The Young Warrior" is part of Olmec heritage. The Omecs, a people who inhabited the Gulf Coast area of Mexico south of Vera Cruz, are best known for carving colossal basalt heads weighing as much as 55 tons. After visiting Carnaval in Vera Cruz, our Caravan Tour proceeded south along the low, swampy Gulf Coast plains to Villa Hermosa, in Tabasco State, where we visited La Venta Park. The huge basalt boulder used to carve the head above was hauled from the volcanic Tuxtla Mountains more than 50 miles away. Scientists estimate that it took up to 1,500 men 3 to 4 months to get the stone to the Olmec city of La Venta, during the period approximately 700-600 BC. La Venta lies outside modern day Villa Hermosa. One must remember that this society possessed neither the wheel nor draft animals, so the feat they accomplished just moving the stone was extraordinary. The head was sculpted wearing the typical "football helmet" of colossal Olmec heads, and with the usual flat nose and full lips which suggest to some a West African influence.

La Venta Park was created as a showplace for the Olmec culture. Carlos Pelliger Camara (1897-1977), creator of the park, was a famous Mexican poet and patron of archaeology. After its excavation, the original site of the Olmec city of La Venta was mostly destroyed by the development of the oil industry in the area. However, Pelliger Camara brought many of the most important artifacts from La Venta and other Olmec centers here to be displayed when La Venta Park opened in 1958. The park is remarkable because the great stone sculptures are displayed along wandering paths surrounded by dense jungle inhabited by a variety of creatures. The effect is magical. For a map of La Venta Park, click here.

One of the stars of the show, ancient and modern. This jaguar was one of several of these big cats we found in large habitats interspersed through the park. The Olmecs considered the jaguar sacred, and the animal appears in numerous sculptures and relief carvings in the park. A jaguar, the major predator of the jungle, appears to represent strength, leadership and sometimes victory in battle. Some of the most interesting sculptural representations are the "were-jaguars", half-human, half-jaguar, usually in the form of children or babies.

Altar of the children. This large stone may have been either an altar or a throne. Its original orientation in La Venta may have been associated with the sun's trajectory. As with several of the other altar/thrones we saw, this one shows a figure emerging from a cave while cradling a sleeping, unconscious or possibly dead child. On the sides are relief carvings of figures who hold extraordinarily active were-jaguar children. The meaning of the cave is complex and is thought to be associated both with death and re-birth.

Kids can be a handful. A seated Olmec wearing what appears to be a top hat struggles to control a were-jaguar child. There were several other lively carvings of Olmecs engaged in similar activity on other sides of the altar/throne. Were-jaguars nearly always appear as children with snarling faces and cleft heads. There are a wide variety of archaeological interpretations of the meaning were-jaguars. Some archaeologists believe they represent a mythological mating between a male jaguar with a female human. Other scientists note that some of the were-jaguar's characteristics resemble the effects of various human deformities such as Down syndrome, spina bifida, and encephaloceles. Still others have postulated that were-jaguars represent victory in battle and conquest. Mexican artist, archaeologist and ethnographer Miguel Covarrubias made a strong case that were-jaguars were related to the Olmec rain god. Why the Olmecs would need such a god, in this rain-soaked and swampy coastal plain, is a mystery to me. Possibly they needed a deity to help make it stop.

Classic Olmec head. This particular head has probably been photographed more often than any other. Several years ago it was deliberately defaced on the right side, an action equivalent to a similar attempt to deface the Mona Lisa. The Olmecs are one of the most mysterious of ancient cultures, although they are also one of the most important. They flourished from approximately 1400-400 BC, making them contemporaries of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. Written glyphs on their monuments have never been deciphered, and we don't know what they called themselves, or their cities, or what language they used. "Olmec" means rubber and is a name given by later people. It refers to their development of the rubber ball used in the Olmec culture's ritual games. The ball game was passed on to virtually every other important Meso-American culture that followed them for centuries, down to the Aztecs. The Olmecs also bequeathed stepped pyramids, large-scale farming of maize, the 365 day year, wide-spread trade networks, the invention of zero, many of the deities worshiped by later cultures, ritual blood-letting, and human sacrifice. They have certainly earned the title "mother of cultures."

The Olmecs at La Venta are distinguished by their massive offerings. The mosaic above, created sometime between 900-700 BC, measures about 10 feet wide by 15 feet long. It is constructed from flat blocks of serpentine stone. The design, which represents the face of a jaguar, was deliberately buried by layers of dirt and adobe after it was laid out. Several similar mosaics have been found, as well as many deliberately buried caches of jade and obsidian jewelry. I found it quite extraordinary that anyone would take the time to design and create such a large and beautiful mosaic, and then bury it forever, or at least for the nearly 2000 years it took for archaeologists to find and uncover it.

Olmec tomb, constructed with basalt blocks. These long blocks are a natural product of volcanic activity. They were often used by the Olmecs to form boundary fences around important sites. In this case, they were used to form a tomb, built above-ground and then covered with earth.

Inside the tomb, an altar. When found, the broken limestone altar seen through the basalt blocks was covered by offerings including jade, serpentine, obsidian, manta ray spines, shark teeth, and hemetite. All these were covered by a red powder. On the floor of the tomb were the bodies of two juveniles, wrapped in vermillion painted cloth. It is possible that the juveniles were born badly deformed, resembling were-jaguars, and were therefore accorded special treatment in burial. The tomb is from the period between 700-600 BC.

Colossal head and a small friend. This head is called 'The Old Warrior," (700-600 BC). The helmet contains carvings representing the claws of a harpy eagle, an excellent night hunter of the jungle. It is possible that the statue represents an actual person with those attributes. Scuttling around the base of the head was a coatimundi, an animal with a long ringed tail and a pointed nose. There were whole packs of these friendly little animals trooping over the trails and through the jungle. Since the males are generally solitary, most of those we saw were probably females with their young.

Can you spare a cookie? These little guys ran around our feet, obviously hoping for a handout. We refrained, because the signs said not to feed them. Their behavior indicated that not everyone obeyed the signs. Coatimundis, or just coatis, are related to raccoons. They normally eat lizards, birds, and fruit, and use their long snouts to grub for insects. Coatimundis are sometimes raised as pets in Mexico. Since he was alone, this one was probably male.

Stela of the Bearded Man. One feature almost unique to Olmecs in Meso-America was the beard. Many of the relief carvings and some of the statues depict men with full beards, a fashion rare among other Meso-American cultures. The Stela of the Bearded Man (700-600 BC) shows two male figures on the bottom half of the stela, facing each other. They are wearing clothing and jewelry that indicate high rank. Floating above them are several figures, two of which have jaguars on their backs.

Detail of Bearded Man Stela showing seated man on right. Note the clothing and elaborate headgear typical of important Olmecs. The outstanding quality of the relief sculpture, and the naturalism of its portrayal of human subjects, is characteristic of Olmec work. The sculptures and other beautiful objects produced by the Olmecs are considered some of the finest of any culture in the world, and unequalled by anything in the Americas except some of the Classic Maya art. On the other hand, this culture introduced human sacrifice on a large scale, and evidence of butchered and charred human bones at some sites indicates cannibalism may have played a significant role.

Large crocodile floats quietly in the central pond in La Venta. We didn't even notice this fellow until our guide pointed him out. He was about 12 feet long, average for his species. The ability to imitate a floating log is one of the great hunting advantages of the crocodile. The nostrils, eyes, and ears are all situated on the top of the head so the rest of the body can remain submerged. A croc of this size could take down a cow, and a gringo tourist wouldn't be much more than a light lunch. There may be about 1000-2000 of these crocodiles living in the coastal areas of Mexico and Central America, but skin-hunters may have endangered their population. The presence of these reptiles along the swampy rivers and coastal areas must have made life interesting for the Olmecs.

Detail from the side of the Dialogue Altar. On the front of the Dialogue Altar (700-400 BC) is a seated man. The figure is much eroded and may have been deliberately mutilated in ancient times. However, the most interesting feature is on the side of the altar. You can see above, somewhat faintly, two seated men in animated discussion. This highly naturalistic relief sculpture gave the altar its name. The deliberate mutilation of some of the monuments in ancient times has led to theories of an internal uprising. Around 400 BC Olmec society went into an abrupt decline. By 350 BC Olmec population centers were gone, but major cultural innovations they developed continued to spread geographically and through the centuries.

Stela of the king demonstrates a need to portray important historical events. Stelae were used by the Olmecs as a public record, a practice copied by many later Meso-American civilizations,. Here, a very important person is portrayed in the lower center of the stela. Above him hover six other figures in a protective stance. This stela was produced in the last stages of Olmec culture, 700-400 BC.

Detail from the Stela of the King. The figure wears an elaborate headdress and clutches a carved staff of office. Everything about this figure radiates power, hence the name of the stela. However, "pride goeth before a fall." In a few centuries, Olmec society was gone, and its cities and great pyramids disappeared under the jungle for 1500 years.

The Governor, another powerful figure. This figure, with a princely scowl and seated as if holding court, is richly dressed in a tall headdress, intricate earrings, and an elaborate cape. Clearly this was a very important person in La Venta.

The Triumphal Altar. The Governor of the previous photo may well have seated himself upon this throne. A human figure emerges from the sacred cave, clutching a rope that runs around each side of the throne to seated figures who may be assisting him, or may be tethered slaves. Above the human figure are eyes and crossed bands symbolizing the jaguar, another powerful symbol.

The Quadrangular Altar. Caravan Tour Director Mauricio explains the significance of the Quadrangular Altar. This was one of the earliest representations of a figure emerging from the underworld, a recurrent theme not only in Olmec culture but throughout Meso-America. Mauricio is not only an excellent tour director, but he works hard at learning everything he can about cultures we visited. He borrowed one of my books, the classic "Mexico from the Olmecs to the Aztecs" by Michael Coe, so he could copy down information which would help him get his own copy.

Monkey looking at the sky. While this sculpture of a monkey (700-400 BC) was placed in the park looking skyward, it could just as easily have been placed in an horizontal position originally, leaning on its elbows.

The Grandmother, kneeling with an offering. This figure (700-400 BC) possesses a strange hairdo and wears a cape over her back. Some archaeologists believe this may actually represent a dwarf.

The Walker. This bas-relief figure is of a bearded man carrying a pennant. His features are considered unusual for an Olmec man. Immediately in front of him are three glyphs in Olmec script which have never been deciphered.

Mauricio and the Young Goddess. The goddess stands in the open jaws of a jaguar. She is naked to the waist and wears a short skirt and a helmet with a medallion and earflaps. This is one of the few representations of a woman among Olmec artifacts. The statue is dated 700-600 BC.

Indian craftswomen work on folk art to sell to park visitors. These women may be very distant relatives of the Olmecs who produced the wonderful art of La Venta Park.

I hope you have enjoyed exploring Olmec history and culture with us. If you would like to leave a comment, please use the comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the comments section, PLEASE make sure you leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego! Jim


  1. Recent studies suggest that lime may have been a major cause in the demise of these cultures. It is reasoned via this route: Lime is produced by cooking limestone and this requires a very hot fire, which in those days, called for a great deal of green wood. Massive deforestation may have contributed to significant loss of food and even climate changes. The high lime use idea was derived from observing the thick layers of cement on the temples and pyramids.


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  3. T.J.McBearsofBrooklyn scientific fact-----native americans do not grow beards!

  4. TO: T.J. McBears

    It is not a scientific fact that Native Americans do not grow beads. It is a fact that, in general, indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere have less body hair than, for example, Western Europeans. However, people of the Pacific Northwest and the southern tip of South America do grow beards. It is also a fact that the Olmecs repeatedly depicted men wearing beards in their various sculptures, some of which are seen in my posting on the Olmecs. This depiction of facial hair was noted with some surprise by the American and Mexican archaeologists who unearthed these sculptures. In his book "Mexico, from the Olmecs to the Aztecs", MIchael Coe supplies an illustration on page 64 of a figure called "The Wrestler" who has not only a handlebar mustache but an unmistakeable goatee. The piece was created sometime between 1200-400 BC.

  5. Monkey looking to the sky! Since when do monkeys have full lips, and where is the straight hair? That looks more like a man with curly hair, whether on elbows or looking into the sky.

  6. The bas-relief figure of a bearded man carrying a pennant, called the "Walker" is most likely that of Quetzalcoatl or a priest or ruler in the guise of Quetzalcoatl carrying a ritual axe. In Mesoamerican mythology beginning with the Olmec Quetzalcoatl represents the Lord of the Ballgame and Lord of underworld decapitation.
    According to research conducted by my father Maya archaeologist Stephan F. de Borhegyi, the rituals of the ballgame that involved decapitation and dismemberment were likely performed by priests dressed as ballplayers, Quetzalcoatl or were-jaguars. He further speculated that the severed heads of ballplayers {and jaguars} were either hung up by ropes in certain temples or ballcourts and venerated, or were used during certain games in lieu of balls.
    How the game was played during Olmec times (Pre-Classic period) is unknown, however according to my father its likely "that the ritual decapitation or dismemberment of victims performed by priests dressed as Quetzalcoatl was a relatively widespread custom on the Mexican Gulf Coast and the Guatemalan Pacific Coast during the Late Classic period, (A.D. 600-1000) which grew out of a trophy-head cult linked to the ritual ballgames of Pre-Classic times"(Borhegyi de,1980: p.3).

    Carl de Borhegyi
    For more on the Olmec,and their worship of Quetzalcoatl as both Morning Star and Evening Star and the grisly ritual of decapitation visit

    By the way Jim and Carol, I will be in Ajijic with my wife and twin boys over Christmas visiting my mother who as I mentioned has lived there for 14 years. Maybe we should get together for a glass of wine at our house or cold beer or even dinner. My E-mail is

  7. I have to respond to the ignorant comments here:

    Tomenajjic: The Olmec did not "die out" because of limestone depletion. (You are thinking of the decline of Mayan Classic Civilization). Indigenous People continue to survive to this day. 95% of these cultures were killed by EUROPEANS, not by limestone.

    On "Native Americans" do not grow beards: who says that the sculpture is actually depicting a BEARD?

    On "Monkey looking to the sky": the thick lower lip of that sculpture has been "replaced" since it was uncovered. That is not the original lip. It is someone's imagination more than reality.

  8. i find it hard to beleive that severed human heads were used "in lieu of rubber balls" in the olmec ball games. When delving in subjects like these, you inevitably end up talking about who is more grisly, us or them. Anyone can just imagine how grisly is to "boil and char" people in the electric chair used by non other than the "most advanced and civilized" culture of our modern world: USA.

  9. Dear Rupert,

    Human heads were occasionally used as balls in the Mesoamerican ball game. This should not be surprising because the ancient people used all sorts of human body parts in their various rituals, especially the skulls. Review some of my other posting on pre-hispanic civilizations and you will see various examples.

    As to comparisons of modern and ancient cruelty, I believe cruelty is an unfortunate part of human nature. What the Nazis did during WWII in their concentration camps was different from what the Aztecs did only in the scale of the enterprise.

    If the Aztecs had access to modern technology, they might have equalled or exceeded the Nazis. They were pretty efficient for their time, however. In one 4-day celebration, they are reported to have sacrificed 20,000 people at the famous Templo Mayor in Mexico City. Not bad for a people who had no metal tools or weapons and lacked draft animals or wheeled vehicles.

    Regards, Jim

  10. Their theological system in order to observe the wild instincts of the people. God's rain is also in the legend of Zeus, which becomes a golden rain to get together with Semele. Probably this great ancient Olmec culture has experienced unprecedented savagery probably after terrible geological events, and therefore people have become beasts. In order for civilized societies to emerge again, they may have used ways, described as the god of rain, defeating the jaguar. Ancient cultures seem to know the functions of the mind, and accordingly manipulate or cure it.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim