The Olmecs: An Enigma Wrapped Up In A Mystery

Once upon a time, some 3300 years or so before you were conceived of in anyone’s philosophy, a motley band of nomads that had many generations previously crossed over into North America from Asia at the height of the last Ice Age, found their way into what’s today known as the tropical lowlands of the eastern coastal region of Mexico. That motley band of nomads settled down and became the first great civilization of the New World– the Olmecs. They are classified by scholars as inhabiting the Middle Pre-Classic Period of theAmerica’s ancient history. Early Pre-Classic refers to those prehistoric hunter-gatherers and the transition to those early and very small primitive agricultural settlements.

OLMEC BASICS

The Olmecs were the first of the great Mesoamerican civilizations, sometimes referred to as the Mother of all subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations.

They survived, even thrived from roughly 1200 BC to about 400 BC in the southernGulfCoastarea ofMexico, in an area now referred to as the states of Veracruz andTabasco.

OLMEC POPULATION CENTRES

Though the Olmecs were primarily an agricultural society (we all have to eat), they did construct various high density metropolitan population centers, actually more ritual-based politico-religious centers, all with massive monuments including pyramids. The trilogy of those major centers were

*San Lorenzo (approximately 1200 – 900 BC). That site was eventually abandoned and they moved to La Venta, though there’s probably some degree of overlap between the two.

*La Venta (approximately 900 – 400 BC). This is the Olmec site best known and documented. It was actually on an island located within theTonala River. The estimated population of La Venta has been estimated at some 18,000 individuals. Okay, soMexico Cityit’s not, but that’s not a bad ‘city’ for the times.

*Tres Zapotes (approximately 900 BC). The 900 BC date is again a beginnings coinciding with the decline ofSan Lorenzo. There’s no termination date because other cultures inhabited the site after the Olmec civilization went the way of the dodo.

Sometimes there’s also a mention of Laguna de les Cerros as a major Olmec site.

These Olmec politico-religious sites were built under their rulers on a grand enough scale that one can draw parallels with ancient Egyptian monuments under their pharaohs. In other words, Olmec ‘cities’ were impressive for the times.

OLMEC PEOPLE

The Olmecs were named “The Olmecs” actually by the Aztecs as “People of the land of the rubber trees”. Though named by the Aztecs, the Aztecs didn’t appear on the horizon till some 1400 years later on down the track. So their “Olmecs” were as much an enigma wrapped up in a mystery to them as the Olmecs remain and are to us, as we shall see. 

The Olmecs did those normal everyday things you associate with nearly any ancient civilization – farm the land, build the buildings, engage in warfare, played ball games, practiced their religion with religious ceremonies that apparently included human sacrifices and bloodletting, in this case to their Jaguar-God and other deities.

All these activities were accomplished by the way without the wheel or any beasts of burden.

One question immediately springs to mind. Where did they come from? They certainly appeared very suddenly all wrapped up in a civilized box as a major culture. The next most obvious question is where did they disappear to since there’s no longer any ethnic group of people on Planet Earth we can call Olmecs? They disappeared from the scene just as quickly as they initially appeared. It appears as it they just melted away into surrounding areas, abandoning their ritual centers and settlements and way of life, losing all touch for all time with their unique identity. That said, it’s also obvious that these people’s culture certainly had a major influence on other Mesoamerican societies that followed like the Maya.

As to why the Olmec civilization collapsed, well the cause isn’t known, and scholars have speculated perhaps this and perhaps that and perhaps the next thing. Your guess at this stage is probably equally as valid. But whatever caused their demise, it happened very quickly.

OLMEC BODIES

Apart from just a very few human remains that have been found – just the bones from two, maybe three young individuals – if any major discoveries of bodies (skeletons, corpses or mummies), found in graves, tombs or cemeteries and connected with the Olmec civilization have been made, I’m unaware of them. There is on record a stone burial chamber, a sarcophagus and basalt tombs, but apparently no bodies. That alone is fairly anomalous when it comes down to putting a human face on an ancient culture – think of those Egyptian mummies, or those bog corpses oft discovered in northern Europe. Without skulls you can’t do forensic facial reconstructions to get an idea of what these people looked like. Without skeletons you’ve little idea of their average size and general state of health and fitness – what sorts of diseases and injuries might have been commonplace.

Also lacking are all those favorite remains that tell archaeologists so much about the life and times of a society – garbage dumps. There are no associated kitchen middens or refuse sites that have been located and excavated. 

OLMEC WRITINGS

The Olmecs left behind no written history that we can understand. Their glyphs carved into their stone monuments, sculptures, monoliths, etc. remain indecipherable. We need an Olmec equivalent of the Egyptian Rosetta Stone! Further, there are no parallels with the writings of later Mesoamerican cultures. We’re stuck between that rock and that hard place. So, alas and alack, there’s nothing comprehensible to tell us, for example, how they carved, transported and built their megalithic monuments/stone heads or why they did so.

OLMEC STONE HEADS

Olmec culture is probably most famous for all those nearly round-as-a-ball stone heads of the masculine gender that always tend to feature prominently whenever you read about the Olmecs. These were not small stone statues of the head only, but massive sculptures up to over three meters (over 10 feet) in height and weighing over 20 tons (though I’ve seen estimates of up to 50 tons for the largest of the large). Over 20 stone heads, or parts of heads, are now known; there’s probably more still buried within the jungle. Further, no two heads are clones. While they all appear similar, each is unique in its own way. Though bland today, in their heyday, they were apparently painted and brightly decorated.

These stone heads are made of basalt, a rather dense and hard volcanic rock. Not the easiest of material to carve. Further, the raw parent multi-ton basalt blocks had to be imported from the Tuxtlas Mountains – hauled over land and water presumably by human muscle power from roughly 37 miles to over 90 miles away, depending on what eventual site they had to go to, and they have been found at all four major Olmec politico-religious sites. It would have been no easy task muscling multi-ton stone blocks by hand through steamy, swampy tropical jungle, though nobody knows for absolute certain how those blocks got from source to site, since the Olmecs left behind no ‘how-to’ manuals. 

The immediate first, through to at least the tenth impression you get when viewing these Olmec stone heads is without question ‘African’. That of course doesn’t make the impression correct, but first impressions are lasting ones and usually have some sort of logical basis behind them.

Now the standard model of traditional Mesoamerican archaeology nixes any interaction between Central America andAfricabefore the birth of Christ (and for quite some considerable time thereafter too). Yet these heads still look ‘African’. There’s no getting around that.

Further, these Olmec stone heads have facial images that look nothing like the jade masks or heads of various carved figurines, etc. (see below).

Regardless, whose heads and faces are they? Are they portraits in stone of Olmec rulers? While that’s the generally accepted idea, no one really knows for absolute sure. And though many other cultures have carved, transported and erected massive statues, like the Easter Islanders and obviously the ancient Egyptians and Greco-Romans, they didn’t focus on exclusively chin-up statues. The Olmecs seem to be pretty unique in monumental head-only representations.

OLMECS’ JADE CULTURE

Some ancient civilizations are known for their works of stonemasonry or artifacts of silver and gold (or electrum – an amalgamation of both) or perhaps amber, textiles/weaving, metallurgy, pottery/ceramics, etc.  The Olmecs were a jade culture. However, they had to trade for jade over long distances, obtaining over time vast quantities which they then carved into all sorts of ornamentations, masks, small sculptures and figurines, etc. However, as noted above, carvings in jade of masks or facial features are not similar to those of the very large basaltic stone heads. That’s just another puzzlement when it comes to figuring out what made the Olmec’s tick.  

When it comes to art works, the Olmecs were also known for their complex cave paintings.

OLMEC RELIGION: THE WERE-JAGUAR CULT

Like all societies, the Olmecs had their deities. Olmec gods tended to be a hybrid combination of human, avian, reptilian but most of all feline forms, especially the jaguar, in various and often bewildering combinations. Most prominent of these was the Were-Jaguar, often depicted as human babies with jaguar-like faces. Now that’s weird! Many Olmec images show humans (shamans presumably) shape-shifting into jaguars and vice versa. It was their ability to perform a transition from the natural world to the supernatural and back again. At least that’s the acceptable interpretation.

There’s no question that the jaguar was the major animal predator inMesoamerica, and thus it’s not surprising that the jaguar featured prominently in pre-Columbian societies, and adoption of jaguar motifs by the ruling elite was probably used to reinforce or validate leadership. However, that alone hardly explains the Were-Jaguar cult and the possible origins of the cult have engaged scholars for over a half century. The issue has yet to be resolved.

Apart from the cult of the Were-Jaguar, Olmecs were the first to sculpture a ‘feathered serpent’, made a prominent cult deity figure in its own right as Quetzalcoatl by the Aztecs.

THE OLMECS: SUMMARY

*Where did they come from and where did they vanish to?

*Why didMesoamerica’s ‘Mother’ culture apparently vanish into thin air, and very suddenly at that?

*Why so few Olmec bodies and no kitchen middens?

*Will we ever figure out their ‘writings’? That would surely shed much needed light on their society.

*That shape-shifting Were-Jaguar religious cult has no real further parallels inMesoamerica. What was their philosophy behind the cult? 

*Most obviously, what were the ways and means of carving and transporting those massive ‘African’ stone heads? And why just heads from the chin up instead of fully fledged human statues like one finds in other ancient cultures?

*What’s the African connection, if indeed there is any African connection?

As I said, the Olmecs are indeed an enigma wrapped up in a mystery.

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