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Olmec Head from San Lorenzo - 3D View

Olmec Head from San Lorenzo - 3D View


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San Lorenzo Colossal Head 6 is one of the smaller examples of colossal heads, standing 1.67 m. The head was discovered by a farmworker and was excavated in 1965 by Luis Aveleyra and Román Piña Chan in Mexico. It is sculpted with a net-like head covering joined together with sculpted beads. A covering descends from under the headdress to cover the back half of the neck. The headband is divided into four strips and begins above the right ear, extending around the entire head. A short strap descends from either side of the head to the ear. The ear ornaments are complex and are larger at the front of the ear than at the back. The face is that of an aging male with the forehead creased in a frown, wrinkles under the eyes, sagging cheeks and deep creases on either side of the nose. http://www.mna.inah.gob.mx/index.php?option=com_sppagebuilder&view=page&id=4894

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Monumental Mexico - the art and culture of the Olmecs

The Olmecs are best known as the creators of Mexico’s first civilisation, and for making some of the country’s most extraordinary works of art. Claudia Zehrt surveys a major new exhibition that aims to bring their history and culture to a European audience, and includes many fascinating pieces that have never left Mexico before.

Many visitors to Mexico travel to see the famous archaeological sites in the country’s central and southern regions. They explore the temple-pyramids of the Maya, the grandeur of the ancient city of Teotihuacan, or the remains of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (underneath Mexico City). Far fewer tourists make it to the archaeological sites and museums along Mexico’s Gulf Coast – a region mainly encompassed by the modern-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco. Here, those who do undertake the journey find themselves in a subtropical wetland, criss-crossed by many rivers and creeks, mostly made up of floodplains along the coast and bounded by the mountains of the eastern Sierra Madre to the west. It is in this fertile area that we see the earliest beginnings of complex civilisation in Mesoamerica – the historical region that extends from central Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica. And it is here on the Gulf Coast that we find the first examples of many of the traits and motifs that would in subsequent millennia become defining characteristics of Mesoamerican art and iconography.

Monument 1 from La Merced, Veracruz. Olmec, 1200-900 BC. Serpentine size: 73cm tall.
©Secretaría de Cultura. INAH. MEX-CANON. Archivo Digital de las Colecciones del Museo Nacional de Antropología / Colección Centro INAH Veracruz

For those unable to make the journey to Mexico’s Gulf Coast, this year brings good news. A major new exhibition, featuring some of the most beautiful examples of art and archaeology from the area, is scheduled to open at the musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris in October 2020. Featuring many pieces that have never before left Mexico, the show – entitled The Olmecs and the cultures of the Gulf of Mexico – aims to bring the history of the region closer to a European audience, providing a fascinating introduction to its art and an insight into the shared cosmovisión (‘world view’) of its people.

From about 2000 BC – the beginning of the time known in the region’s history as the Formative period – Mesoamerica saw increased sedentism, as more people began to live in one place permanently. Supported by maize agriculture, this period also saw the development of larger centres and ceremonial structures. On the southern part of Mexico’s Gulf Coast, the settlements grew large and socially complex by about 1600 BC – and archaeologists and art historians in the 19th century started calling the distinct style of art emanating at that time from the area the ‘Olmec’ style. The word ‘Olmec’ comes from the Aztec-language (or Nahuatl) name for the people living in the Gulf Coast region. (‘Olmecatl’ means ‘rubber people’ – so-named probably because one of the area’s natural resources is the sap of the rubber tree. As with many archaeological cultures, the name the Olmecs used for themselves is unknown.)

Visitors this autumn to the musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac will be greeted by one of the most recognisable objects left behind by the Olmecs: an example of the famous sculptures known as ‘colossal heads’. At ‘just’ 6 tons in weight, and standing no more than 178cm tall, it may be among the smallest of the 17 known colossal heads of the Olmec world – but it will nevertheless serve as a striking introduction to one of the oldest complex cultures of Mesoamerica.

The head was found at San Lorenzo, the first large Olmec site – in the south-east of modern-day Veracruz – which during its flowering from about 1400 BC to 1000 BC covered an area of 70,000 hectares. At the time, it was the largest community in Mesoamerica, with an estimated population of up to 10,000 people. The site itself is built on a large plateau surrounded by a floodplain. It consists of largescale architecture, temples, and plazas, as well as residences of all sizes. The most important, largest, and well-built residences, as well as ceremonial and administrative structures, sit on top of the plateau, with the smaller and poorer homesteads and houses constructed further down towards the plain.

Colossal Head 4 from San Lorenzo, Veracruz. Olmec, 1200-900 BC. Stone size: 178cm tall.
©Secretaría de Cultura. INAH. MEX. Catálogo Digital Museo de Antropología de Xalapa. Universidad Veracruzana

In this early large centre of the Olmec heartland, archaeologists found ten colossal heads, partially set up in rows, like a procession, in the central area of the site. The heads are of various sizes, weighing up to 28 tons, and each has unique features and individualised headgear – so they seem to depict different people. One hypothesis is that the heads portray the rulers of San Lorenzo and that the example to be shown in Paris, known as ‘Colossal Head 4’, shows the ruler as an older man with a wrinkled brow. As well as being master carvers, who recycled and recarved these large stone monuments over time, the inhabitants of San Lorenzo were also experts in working greenstone, creating pyrite mirrors, and expressing their beliefs in the form of terracotta figurines and earthenware pottery. Among the motifs that were to become typical of the Olmec art style are a pronounced cleft in the middle of the head, a downturned mouth, and almond-shaped eyes – as can be seen in the serpentine figurine from La Merced in Veracruz, one of the satellite settlements of San Lorenzo.

For about 500 or 600 years, the rulers of San Lorenzo used political ideologies, their polytheistic belief system, and control over large trade networks to expand their influence over this part of the Gulf Coast. Secondary centres were created to ensure control over resources (like the basalt used to make the colossal heads, which came from the Tuxtla Mountains to the north of San Lorenzo) or trade routes. Political integration and social cohesion were in part created through rituals, ceremonies, and pilgrimages, many of them involving stone monuments, which may have been created and then distributed from the centre. One such group of stone sculptures was found at the small site of El Azuzul, to the south of San Lorenzo, the arrangement of which can be admired in the new exhibition. The two seated human figures in the group, which also includes a pair of feline figures, might even point to the early beginning of the important and long-lasting Mesoamerican myths surrounding the ‘Hero Twins’ and their travails in the underworld. (Much later, in colonial times, these were written down in highland Guatemala as the Popol Vuh.)

Offering 4 from La Venta, Tabasco, comprising 16 human figures with six celts. Olmec, 800-600 BC. Jade, serpentine, and granite Size: figures up to 20.1cm, celts up to 27.6cm tall
©Secretaría de Cultura. INAH. MEX-CANON. Archivo Digital de las Colecciones del Museo Nacional de Antropología

A striking example of the importance to Olmec culture of pilgrimages and offerings made around water is to be found in the wooden busts discovered at the spring of El Manati, another small site close to San Lorenzo. There, the waterlogged environment facilitated the survival of usually perishable materials – so not only were offerings made from greenstone uncovered, but also rubber balls, showing the early importance of the Mesoamerican ‘ballgame’, a sport with ritual associations, played in the region since at least 1650 BC. But the most remarkable finds from the site are a group of wooden busts, whose features show similarities with the typical faces of so-called ‘Olmec babies’ – mainly ceramic figurines of what appear to be pudgy babies or infants.

Monument 52 from San Lorenzo, Veracruz. Olmec, 1200-600 BC. Basalt size: 91.9cm tall. ©Secretaría de Cultura. INAH. MEX-CANON. Archivo Digital de las Colecciones del Museo Nacional de Antropología Figure holding hatchet from La Merced, Veracruz. Olmec, 1200-900 BC. Serpentine size: 40cm tall. ©Secretaría de Cultura. INAH. MEX-CANON. Archivo Digital de las Colecciones del Museo Nacional de Antropología / Colección Centro INAH Veracruz

Another typical Olmec motif can be seen in the anthropomorphic figures of humans with feline features known as ‘were-jaguars’. (The prefix ‘were-’ comes from the Old English wer, meaning ‘man’.) The were-jaguar theme may be connected to shamanistic beliefs about animal transformation and a shaman’s spirit companion. Alternatively, there may be an iconographic connection between caves, rain, and jaguars, which turned into the main rain-god motif in many parts of Mesoamerica. Monument 52 from San Lorenzo is a good example of a were-jaguar, with its flared upper-lip, downturned mouth, and almond-shaped eyes. The figure’s cleft headdress designates it as the Olmec rain deity, while the groove on its back may be associated with the water drainage system at the site.

Though the lack of any written record means there is much that must forever remain mysterious about the Olmecs, the wide dispersion of objects and artefacts in the Olmec art style allows us to appreciate the number and distance of early connections in Mexico and Central America. Although the most typical stone monuments seem to have been limited to the Olmec heartland at this time, Olmec-style ceramics are found throughout early Mesoamerica: they were locally made in the Valley of Mexico, near modern-day Mexico City, for example and imitations of style and surface treatment can be found as far afield as Guatemala and Honduras. Today, archaeologists can reconstruct the networks of trade and exchange through these ceramic artefacts, but that trade must also have incorporated many materials that have not survived through time – including animal skins and furs, plants and fruit, and wooden, shell, and bone objects. Some artefacts – such as stingray spines, turtle shells, mosaics of pyrite and other stones, conch-shell trumpets, greenstone, and obsidian – give at least an idea of the items that were widely traded by the elite. These scarce and highly valued materials were prestige goods that underlined contacts, loyalty, and alliances between the rulers and elites of the different regions that were establishing themselves during the period, helping to centralise authority and emphasise growing social stratification and power structures.

‘Baby-face’ figurine from Tlapacoya, Estado de México. Olmec, 1200-800 BC. Ceramic size: 44cm
©Secretaría de Cultura. INAH. MEX-CANON. Archivo Digital de las Colecciones del Museo Nacional de Antropología

Around 1000 BC, we can see that San Lorenzo encountered difficulties and ceased to be the centre of power in the Olmec world. The exact causes of its decline are unclear, but the growing influence of, and rivalry with, the newer centre of La Venta, in the modern Mexican state of Tabasco, might have something to do with it. People moved away from San Lorenzo, structures were abandoned, and some monuments were destroyed.

Meanwhile, from about 1000 BC to 400 BC, La Venta developed into the main Olmec centre, the successor to San Lorenzo. The canon of monumental art was continued there – another four colossal heads have been discovered at the site, along with large carved thrones or altars resembling those already seen at San Lorenzo. The La Venta site also has a large earthen pyramid – still 34m high today, after nearly 3,000 years of erosion – and a sacred precinct, known as ‘Complex A’, where archaeologists found a plethora of offerings and five formal tombs. The workmanship evident in the carvings in jade, basalt, and semi-precious stones discovered not only at La Venta, but also in the wider Olmec region, shows the high levels of sophistication reached by Olmec artists. Their accomplishment can be seen in the exhibited statue ‘El Señor de las Limas’, found 130km from La Venta in the upper regions of the Coatzacoalcos River. This exquisitely carved and polished greenstone statue, which stands 55cm tall, shows a cross-legged man holding a infant were-jaguar in his arms: the main figure has incisions on his shoulders and knees that show mythological beings – allowing us to piece together more information about the beliefs of the Olmecs.

From La Venta itself, the group known as ‘Offering 4’ can be seen as it was placed into the ground in the mortuary of Complex A: a cache made up of 16 figures made from semi-precious stone and six thin celts (adze- or chisel-shaped stones) with engravings, which might signify columns or stelae (or maize sprouts). The idea is that the offering shows a procession of some kind, but it is unclear if the figures depict rulers and nobles, or mythical personages. This cache was placed in a small pit on top of one of the so-called ‘Massive Offerings’ at La Venta: they consist of carefully finished and very large serpentine blocks, covered in massive amounts of clay fill.

Although La Venta also went into decline and was abandoned around 400 BC, the legacy and influence of the Olmecs on the rest of Mesoamerica was substantial. The rulers of La Venta had forged an even larger and denser network of trade and contacts than their San Lorenzo counterparts, and the influence of the Olmec style on objects, monuments, and architecture outside the Olmec heartland can be seen widely. The site of Chalcatzingo, hundreds of kilometres away in the country’s Central Highlands, for example, was a strategic regional centre of contact between the Valley of Mexico and the Gulf Coast, and although not Olmec itself, is renowned for its Olmec-style monumental art and iconography. On the other side of the isthmus, the influence of the Olmec tradition is visible in iconography and architecture at sites along the Pacific coast of the Mexican state of Chiapas, as well as in Guatemala and El Salvador.

Throughout Mesoamerica, the power of the elites was growing, as societies became more and more stratified during the Late Formative period (300 BC-AD 200), and signs of rulership and power are carved into jade and greenstone, scarce and precious materials, with many of them in the style we know from the Olmec heartland. Large basalt statues like ‘The Prince’ from Cruz del Milagro, Veracruz, vividly show the power of the ruler in a physical form.

‘The Prince’ from Cruz del Milagro, Veracruz. Olmec, 1200-900 BC. Stone size: 128cm tall.
©Secretaría de Cultura. INAH. MEX-CANON. Archivo Digital de las Colecciones del Museo Nacional de Antropología

By the first centuries AD, the largest cities and structures in Mesoamerica were being constructed in the Maya area (which encompasses south-eastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador) – at the settlement of El Mirador in northern Guatemala, for example, or in Mexico’s Central Highlands, where we see the beginnings of the large metropolis of Teotihuacan. But the widespread influence of the Olmec style can be seen at many sites in Mesoamerica during what is known as the Classic period (AD 200-900) – and although ideas and concepts (like the ‘Olmec dragon’ or Earth Monster, the watery underworld and rain deities, and veneration of rulers and their ancestors) change and develop according to local styles, the Olmec legacy nevertheless remains visible.

One thing the Gulf Coast exhibition makes very clear, however, is that the decline of the Formative period Olmec centres in Veracruz and Tabasco does not mean the decline of the complex and dynamic cultural history of the area. Due to its strategic location at the bottleneck of trade routes and in an area full of natural resources, other cities established themselves during the Classic and Postclassic (AD 900-1521) periods, creating a diverse and changing mosaic of habitation stretching over three millennia.

As the objects included in the Paris exhibition will show, the wider Gulf Coast region (including the modern-day Mexican states of Veracruz, Tabasco, Tamaulipas, Querétaro, and San Luis Potosí) was home to a range of vibrant communities, which continued to take advantage of their favourable location along trade routes by cultivating connections to the cities of Teotihuacan and later Tenochtitlan in Central Mexico, and to the Maya area in the south.

One of the lesser-known but fascinatingly rich cultures of the Gulf Coast area was that of the indigenous group known as the Huastecs. Though it remains underexplored archaeologically, the Huastec area – centred in the region around the Tuxpan and Pánuco Rivers – has yielded an incredible legacy of beautiful stone sculptures, including the Classic era kneeling woman from Tuxpan in Northern Veracruz that will form part of the Paris exhibition. The depiction of women is one of the characteristics of Huastec sculpture, a body of work that contains at least as many females as males – a fact that perhaps finds a later echo in reports about the power and importance of Huastec women in the period immediately before the Spanish conquest.

‘Venus of Tamtoc’, from Tamtoc, San Luis Potosí. Huastec, c.AD 150. Sandstone size: 112cm. ©Secretaría de Cultura. INAH. MEX-CANON. Archivo Digital de las Colecciones del Museo Nacional de Antropología / Colección Zona Arqueológica de Tamtoc ‘Huastec Adolescent’, from Hacienda del Consuelo, San Luis Potosí. Haustec, AD 900-1250. Sandstone size: 145cm. ©Secretaría de Cultura. INAH. MEX-CANON. Archivo Digital de las Colecciones del Museo Nacional de Antropología

Huastec sculpture is, at least in part, distinguished by its comparative naturalism, as can be seen from the piece that will bid visitors to the exhibition farewell: the spectacular female torso from the site of Tamtoc in San Luis Potosí, sometimes called the ‘Venus of Tamtoc’. Found in 2005, this life-like and nearly life-sized figure was part of an ancient offering at a spring at the site, and probably dates to the first centuries AD. The decoration of raised dots on the nude body probably represents scarification – the deliberate process of creating wounds in order to cause indelible markings on the flesh – and is possibly connected to the social status of the woman depicted, or perhaps is a symbol related to ritual or mythology. Again, in the absence of religious texts or related explanations, the interpretation and understanding of such complex and detailed decorations is difficult. The intricate carvings on the body of the ‘Huastec Adolescent’ from the site of Tomohi, to take another example, might depict tattoos or body paint, and have been interpreted as a representation of the god Quetzalcoatl, or as being connected to young maize plants and associated ceremonies. From the position of the young man, who dates from AD 900-1250, it is likely that the statue was used as a standard-bearer, perhaps on one of the large local plazas where rituals would have taken place.

Huilocintla stela, from Veracruz. Huastec, AD 900-1521. Sandstone size: 200cm tall
©Secretaría de Cultura. INAH. MEX-CANON. Archivo Digital de las Colecciones del Museo Nacional de Antropología

During the 15th century AD, the Gulf Coast was conquered by the Aztec Empire, which flourished from about AD 1300, and the different communities living in the area had to pay tribute to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in Central Mexico. When the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés landed on the Gulf Coast near Veracruz in 1519, he found willing allies in the local Totonac peoples, who played a significant role in enabling him subsequently to conquer and defeat the Aztecs at Tenochtitlan in 1521. By this time, the Gulf Coast region was a thriving multicultural area, with about 20 different languages and different cities built around trade, craft and the abundant local resources. The Olmecs and the cultures of the Gulf of Mexico will be a rewarding experience for those who wish to understand the artistic and cultural traditions of this fascinating region, and to see the development of the enduring motifs and craftsmanship of Mesoamerican cultures from their earliest beginnings through three millennia of history.

The Olmecs and the cultures of the Gulf of Mexico at the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac is due to open in the autumn of 2020 as we go to press.

This exhibition is organised in collaboration with the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia and the Secretaria de Cultura, Mexico.

Our thanks go to Steve Bourget, archaeologist and curator at the Americas Department, musee du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac and Serena Nisti for their help. Our acknowledgement to the original curator, Rebecca Gonzalez Lauck, Archaeologist and researcher at the INAH-Tabasco, Villahermosa, head of the archaeological project of La Venta, associated with the Museo Nacional de Antropología de Mexico.


Ancient History

When exactly a civilisation can be said to have started is a tricky question. No civilisation springs up entirely from nothing there are always precursors. There were extensive Neolithic settlements in the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Egypt and China, and even the Peruvian Norte Chico civilisations all had precursors of Neolithic farming villages, which eventually developed into full urbanisation. The Olmec were unusual in that they seem to have developed an urban civilisation in what were effectively jungles rather than open river plains but their civilisation did nevertheless centre heavily on cereal agriculture, unlike the Norte Chico civilisation in South America. Maize had been domesticated thousands of years earlier, allowing for agricultural surpluses to be built up, providing the basis for later urbanisation in the region.

Olmec Colossal Head from La Venta
Like the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, the Olmec appear to have been the “mother culture” for later Mesoamerican civilisations. Many features that are seen in later cultures in the region, such as the Mayan culture, can be said to have originated with the Olmec probably the most important cultural legacy that they left was the “ballgame”, which was to be played until the arrival of Europeans in the region. Unlike the Sumerians however, the Olmec have left no deciphered writing so their civilisation remains mute (for now at least). Even the name Olmec, simply means “rubber people” (meaning those who extract rubber from trees rather than Michelin Man type entities). This word “Olmec” was simply the Aztec word for the people who lived in this region over a thousand years after the Olmec civilisation had passed. Despite the apparent lack of writing or even of a true name, the Olmec did leave impressive legacies behind.

The Olmec civilisation began around 1500BC near the city of San Lorenzo in the present Mexican state of Veracruz. This formed a collection of sites (San Lorenzo, Tenochtitlan, which is not the same as the later Aztec Tenochtitlan, and Potrero Nuevo). Here the basic elements of Olmec culture were seen for the first time, art, monumental architecture, high population density, social demarcation etc. The city was un-walled and may have featured as a ceremonial site. We do not know how Olmec society was ruled or if they functioned as a state, although most archaeologists assume that there were kings who ruled the society. The city included causeways, a palace type structure and a type of drainage system. The population had a variety of food sources, but relied heavily on maize cultivation as a staple. This city area was inhabited continuously for around five hundred years, until around 900BC.

Olmec Monument from La Venta
Around 900BC the city of San Lorenzo was abandoned by most of the populace. Another Olmec site, La Venta, appears to have taken absorbed most of the population. It is unclear what caused the move away from San Lorenzo. San Lorenzo was in lush agricultural land near the Coatzalcoalcos River. La Venta was on a different river system and appears to have been in quite marshy terrain. The city was built from mud-brick rather than stone (due to the alluvial nature of the area), meaning that little has survived except for the Great Pyramid that must have been the largest building in Mesoamerica at the time. Currently the Great Pyramid of La Venta looks like an irregular cone however it was once a four sided structure, before the centuries caused the brick to erode. Like San Lorenzo, it was probably a ceremonial site, with the populace scattered in small outlying settlements around the main urban centre. La Venta is estimated to have had a population of at least eighteen thousand people and in terms of the complexity and scale of the site, it probably represents the apogee of Olmec culture.

Great Pyramid of La Venta
While the Olmec city of La Venta flourished, other urban areas began to appear in different parts of Mesoamerica. Teopantecuanitlan was a site to the northwest, in the current Mexican state of Guerrero, which appears to have been connected with the Olmec cities. Some believe that the Olmec originated here and that this was the seat of their culture. However, the Olmec heartlands are much more suitable for the development of agricultural surpluses, making it likely that the site in Guerrero is a colony rather than the original homeland. Regardless, it nevertheless was a significant Olmec site that was very far from the rest of their cities. Another site, Cuetlajuchitlán, in the Guerrero region dates from this period as well. The Mezcala culture in Guerrero possibly was a local adaptation of Olmec culture. However, not enough is known of the Mezcala to say for sure. The Mezcala were influenced by the Olmecs and later were to influence the Teotihuacanos.

Zapotec stele showing possible sacrificial victim.
At the bottom of the slab (to the right of the picture)
are glyphs that may be the name of the person shown
The Zapotec civilisation arose in the Oaxaca Valley, to the southwest of the Olmec cities, and would have been close to the trade routes between the Olmecs and Guerrero. The earliest stages of the city of San Jose Mogote are nearly contemporary with the Olmec site of San Lorenzo. This site had a main pyramid, ceremonial sites and defensive structures.

Trade was conducted with the Olmec civilisation to the east but the Oaxaca Valley does not seem to have had the same population density as the Olmec heartlands. Around 500-400BC San Jose Mogote was supplanted by another site, Monte Alban.

Map showing the Olmec cities and other urban centres
Around 500BC another Olmec site, Tres Zapotes, became prominent. Around 300BC the Olmec site of La Venta was almost abandoned. However, Tres Zapotes survived and continued to thrive in what is known as the Epi-Olmec or Post-Olmec phase.

Ultimately, the Olmec were not destroyed or wiped out. Their culture was absorbed by their neighbours, whose descendants ultimately absorbed the Olmec culture in a broader Mesoamerican culture, most particularly the Classic Veracruz culture that was roughly contemporary with the Classic Maya culture.

Cascajal Block
Like some other ancient civilisations, the Olmec cannot speak to us directly, so that many of their sites are named after the Spanish pronunciations of Christian saints rather than the original Olmec names. There is the tantalising possibility that this might one day change. It is known that the Mesoamerica was one of the few places in the world to independently invent writing, however it is unclear exactly which civilisation should be given the credit for this invention. The Olmec may have had writing, as there are what appear to be glyphs on some of their monuments. The picture is complicated by the discovery of the Cascajal Block, which shows a rather different set of glyphs, organised in what appears to be a horizontal writing system (other Mesoamerican writing systems are vertical).

It is unclear if the Cascajal Block is genuine. Considering that the Epi-Olmec culture of Tres Zapotes has continuity with earlier Olmec culture and that they have a writing system completely different from the Cascajal Block makes me suspect that there is much here that we do not understand.

The Zapotecs had their own script, but it is as yet not fully deciphered and the dating of the script is problematic. The Mayans may in fact have been the earliest to have fully developed writing in the region. There is a great deal of work to be done in this field of history.

Were-jaguar
The Olmec religion has usually been interpreted as shamanistic (which is not a useful term, as it is very broad). Their statues often represent were-jaguars stylised creatures that appear in mid-transformation from human to jaguar. Some researchers think that the were-jaguar is also the rain-god. A maize god appears to have been worshipped, which is unsurprising considering their reliance on maize for agriculture. They also appear to have worshipped a feathered serpent. The worship of a feathered serpent would appear again in many other Mesoamerican societies and it is probable that this was originally an Olmec god.

One of the achievements of later Mesoamerican civilisations (mainly the Maya) was the creation of a highly accurate calendar for following the movements of the stars. This was based on a modified base 20 number system that included a zero, albeit not a zero with the full spectrum of uses that is possible using the Indian numbering system.

The earliest instances of this are dated to around the 30’s BC and come from sites that were shared with Olmec and Maya civilisations (an ancient Long Count date has also come from Tres Zapotes). Many suspect that the Olmecs invented this counting method, however, the lack of evidence for it at La Venta and earlier sites suggests that it may have been a late invention.

Stele from Takalik Abaj showing the
possible oldest Long Count date
The Mesoamerican ballgame was an enduring legacy of the Olmec culture. This game was adopted by nearly all the Mesoamerican civilisations (Aztecs, Toltecs, Mayans, etc.) These games were so important that the great stone heads that the Olmecs were famous for are garbed as ball players. Versions of the game are still played today.

The main feature of the game was that a rubber ball would be manoeuvred by the players without using their head, feet or hands to pass through a loop or marker on the other side of the court. There were two teams and the game was endowed with great ritual significance. The ball game is mentioned in the great Mayan text, the Popol Vuh, and after some games the losers would be sacrificed (this would be rare). Viewing modern versions of it online, it does look quite demanding and intense, but rather a lot of fun (although modern versions eschew any sacrificing at all).

Olmec art has been justly praised as being some of the finest in Pre-Columbian America, but the art that they are best remembered for is the gigantic stone heads that have been found at some of their sites (mainly San Lorenzo, La Venta and Tres Zapotes, but with some of the heads in smaller sites). At least seventeen of these have been found to date. These sculptures weigh between 6-40 tons and were transported by unknown methods over 150km to the final sites. Each head was sculpted differently, with different facial features and wearing the headgear of ballplayers. The sheer scale of these heads are actually what alerted the archaeological community to the existence of the Olmec civilisation.

Olmec Colossal Head from Tres Zapotes
If you are researching the Olmec culture online you are likely to have the misfortune to come across the alternative origin theories for the Olmec civilisation. These theories postulate that the Olmec civilisation was brought to Mesoamerica from elsewhere. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this speculation but discussions about this online tend to become very heated and unscholarly. The two main ones that I have come across are basically either that the Olmec civilisation came from China or that it came from Africa. In both cases the main argument is that certain Olmec sculptures resemble people from either of these places. Most mainstream scholars would reject these theories so they are fringe theories but I would hesitate to discount them simply because of this.

The Chinese origin theory suggests that perhaps refugees from the collapse of the Shang Dynasty fled on ships and landed in Central America before founding the Olmec civilisation. There are a number of problems with this idea. Firstly, the dates do not work. It would seem that the Olmecs were already advanced before the collapse of the Shang. There is no evidence of such shipbuilding capabilities in China at that period to allow refugees to traverse the span of the Pacific Ocean. Also, the Olmec culture as a whole does not resemble Shang culture in its specifics. There are no elaborate bronze works, no oracle bone writings, etc. The Shang did not make the gigantic stone heads in China so it is unclear why they would begin in Mesoamerica. Insofar as there are supposedly sculptural similarities I have to say I have never been able to see these (although my eye for art is admittedly poor).

Olmec King/Priest?
The other, more common, alternative origin theory is that the Olmec culture came from Africa. This suffers from many of the same problems as the Shang origin theory. The timelines do not match civilisations on the west coast of Africa at this time. Even the Egyptians, who were active in this period, did not have extensive fleets that were able to sail outside of the Mediterranean. No African civilisation of this time period was similar to the Olmec civilisation in detail (the Mesoamerican ballgame and Long Count calendar are not attested in Africa) and no African civilisation is known to have created the colossal heads that the Olmec are famous for. The facial features similarity is probably due to the fact that the heads, while carved individually with features, were very large and mainly made of basalt, which is a hard rock in comparison to limestone. This means that it is more difficult to carve features deeply, which would make the faces somewhat flatter than in other Olmec art. Once this is accounted for the facial similarity largely disappears.

I do not think that either of these origins theories are a priori wrong, however, the simplest explanation for the Olmec civilisation is that it was indigenously developed rather than transplanted from outside. Unless there is substantial evidence to the contrary I think that historians and archaeologists are correct to discount other theories. Unfortunately debates about these online often degenerate into accusations of racism, with some accusing people of minimising African culture and others accusing people of minimising indigenous American people’s cultural achievements. If people research the Olmec civilisation online it is likely that these debates will be encountered so please remain respectful while also retaining due respect for the current evidence.


Thursday, June 11, 2020

Pioneering study proves Olmec DNA is African DNA

7 comments:

Man you're silly as hell. There are absolutely "pure blooded" indians in Mexico. They still speak their native languages and preserve beliefs and ways of living from before the time of colonization and genocide.

The picture you show of those faces is of Indigenous and Mestizo mexicans.

The claim that "indian blood" in mexico is "50% African" is simply a flat out lie.

And whenever anyone disagrees with your outlandish claims you scream racism. It's pitiful. You can bring glory to African heritage without erasing other peoples' history.

/// Paul Gaffarel noted that when Balboa reached America he found "negre veritables" or true Blacks. Balboa noted ". Indian traditions of Mexico and Central America indicate that Negroes were among the first occupants of that territory." This is why so many Mexicans have "African faces". ////

This is so unscientific it's laughable. You are actually wielding a Euroecentric-minded man's racist/ignorant opinion to draw a conclusion similar to his. The appearance of dark skin does not make one African. You are using racial ignorance from an unqualified historical figure to claim something untrue. It is as unscientific and visibly racist as saying pictures of people in black body paint / statues carved from obsidian somehow means the subjects were black people from Africa. It is obvious you work from your conclusion first and then find evidence to prove it instead of truly studying or having compassion for mesoamerican culture. It is disgusting.

And also, your followers should note you have no formal education in linguistics, archaeology, genetics, or mesoamerican history.

Really interesting stuff! Thanks for posting.

You can't take Clyde Winters seriously. This guy puts out so much misinformation and clusters together information will have you confused as cat shit. Better off sourcing people who study ancient DNA of the Americas.

You can't take Clyde Winters seriously. This guy puts out so much misinformation and clusters together information will have you confused as cat shit. Better off sourcing people who study ancient DNA of the Americas.

Turn your google translate on for this link. Olmec DNA is Native American of origin!

Another lie by Winters showing his ignorance. In his ignorance he is confusing Paternal DNA with MtDNA or maybe he is just being dishonest again since we have explained to him. What can you expect from someone who claims that Atlantis is Mexico ahahahahha


File:Olmec head from San Lorenzo, Veracruz2006.jpg

Click on a date/time to view the file as it appeared at that time.

Date/TimeThumbnailDimensionsUserComment
current10:40, 7 March 2010692 × 970 (140 KB) Rosemania (talk | contribs) Monument 17, one of the eight colossal heads discovered at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan. It was carved from basalt boulder brought from Cerro Cinetepec of the Tuxtla Mountains. The headgear is portraiting a net covering of cords joining drilled iron ore beads
00:09, 5 October 2008 />144 × 204 (9 KB) Leoboudv (talk | contribs) <> |Source=http://www.flickr.com/photos/rosemania/354090837/in/set-72157594473726635/ |Author=http://www.flickr.c

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Representational image of an Olmec authority figure from a cave painting in the Oxtotitlan Cave, Chilapa de Alvarez, Guerrero, Mexico. ( latinamericanstudies.org)


Olmec People and Civilization

The Olmec people lived in Southeastern Mexico between 1,500 and 400 B.C., in the lowlands of what is today Tabasco and Veracruz. They are credited with being the first civilization to develop in Mesoamerica, with the Olmec heartland being one of the six cradles of civilization.

Olmecs were the first inhabitants of the Americas to settle in towns and cities with monumental architecture. Evidence has also been found for Olmec hieroglyphs around 650 B.C., as well as scripts on roller stamps and stone artifacts. The fine Olmec artwork survived in several ways, including figurines, sculptures, and of course, the colossal heads.

While the Olmecs seem to have been well-established tradesmen with routes, the civilization vanished around 300 B.C. , although its influence is obvious in the Mayan and Aztec civilizations that followed.


Religion

: See main article: Olmec mythology

Olmec mythology has left no documents comparable to the Popul Vuh from Maya mythology, and therefore any exposition of Olmec mythology must rely on interpretations of surviving monumental and portable art and comparisons with other Mesoamerican mythologies. Olmec art shows that such deities as the Feathered Serpent and the Rain Spirit were already in the Mesoamerican pantheon in Olmec times.


Photo, Print, Drawing The San Lorenzo Monument, a replica of an Olmec colossal head of ancient Mesoamerica. Also known as El Rey, the monument is located on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin

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The San Lorenzo Monument, a replica of an Olmec colossal head of ancient Mesoamerica. Also known as El Rey, the monument is located on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin

Title, date, and keywords based on information provided by the photographer.
The head is an exact replica of the giant head that was discovered at the Olmec site of San Lorenzo, Veracruz, Mexico. The artwork, weighing 18 tons and measuring approximately 10 feet tall, it was sculpted from stone by artist Ignacio Perez Solano.
Credit line: The Lyda Hill Texas Collection of Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Gift The Lyda Hill Foundation 2014 (DLC/PP-2014:054).
Forms part of: Lyda Hill Texas Collection of Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America Project in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive.

In 2015, documentary photographer Carol Highsmith received a letter from Getty Images accusing her of copyright infringement for featuring one of her own photographs on her own website. It demanded payment of $120. This was how Highsmith came to learn that stock photo agencies Getty and Alamy had been sending similar threat letters and charging fees to users of her images, which she had donated to the Library of Congress for use by the general public at no charge. In 2016, Highsmith has filed a $1 billion copyright infringement suit against both Alamy and Getty stating “gross misuse” of 18,755 of her photographs. “The defendants [Getty Images] have apparently misappropriated Ms. Highsmith’s generous gift to the American people,” the complaint reads. “[They] are not only unlawfully charging licensing fees … but are falsely and fraudulently holding themselves out as the exclusive copyright owner.” According to the lawsuit, Getty and Alamy, on their websites, have been selling licenses for thousands of Highsmith’s photographs, many without her name attached to them and stamped with “false watermarks.” (more: http://hyperallergic.com/314079/photographer-files-1-billion-suit-against-getty-for-licensing-her-public-domain-images/)

People keep searching online for one question: "Where can I find free high-resolution stock images that are cleared to use without any copyright restrictions? Where to find images for blog posts or social media?" Almost every image created in the last 70 years is still protected by copyright, but you can find a public domain photo, an image that does not need attribution, or image that has copyright expired. First, it helps to understand some copyright-related terms before using any free images. Always read the terms and conditions of the site you try to use to download free images and photos, so you know if, when, and what type of attribution is required. What is Creative Commons? Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools. There are various types of Creative Commons licenses that range from allowing any type of use with no attribution to allowing only certain uses and no changes. Most authors using Creative Commons require some sort of attribution. While relatively easy to use such free images in blogs, using such images for video might be problematic unless you create lengthy credits section. Even if you do, you still may breach the particular image Creative Commons license since it often requires backlinking. What is Public Domain? Works in the public domain are those whose copyrights have expired or never existed. The public domain status of official government works is sometimes difficult to determine but there are some easy cases: works of the United States federal government, for example, are not protected by copyright and are thus in the public domain. The same does not hold in general for the works of other governments or all 50 States of the United States. Determining whether a particular work of a particular government are in the public domain requires research and sometimes even legal advice. What is Royalty-Free? Most royalty-free images aren’t free. In most cases, you’ll have to pay a one-time fee to obtain the rights to use the image. Then you can use it as many times as you like. The term “free” in “royalty-free” means that you do not have to pay royalties to the owner of the image every time you use it. We've reviewed terms of few popular Free Image Websites below. 1. Unsplash Unsplash has its own license, which essentially lets you use the images for free, in any way you like, except for using them to create a competing website. 2. Pexels Pexels also has its own license, which states what you can and cannot do with the images. You can use and modify the images for free for both commercial and personal use without attribution. 3. Pixabay We love Pixabay. Images on Pixabay are licensed under Creative Commons Zero (CC0), which means you can use the images without asking for permission or giving credit to the artist. Pixabay also explains tricky legal language such as "model release". 4. Gratisography Gratisography also has its own free photo license, which lets you do “almost anything you can think of”. While they have not too many images, many are high-quality images that I would use. 5. Flickr Flickr is where you can find images that can be used and modified for commercial purposes. Select “Commercial use & mods allowed” under the “Any license” filter to find those images, and remember to check the license for each image as they vary. Be careful with Flickr images since as far as we can see, many images are labeled public domain wrongfully or without much research. 6. Google Image Search Google Advanced Image Search is a method of finding free-to-use images through Google’s own search tools. It is 100% automated, so you can't blindly trust the license cited. Use it with caution. Same as Flickr, Google bears no responsibility. When using free online images, always do your research.


Watch the video: Olmec head activated (July 2022).


Comments:

  1. Kral

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