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Land of the Olmec!

The magnificent colossal stone heads, massive altars, and sophisticated anthropomorphic and zoomorphic statues found at Olmec sites in southern Veracruz and Tabasco, are the oldest known monuments in Prehispanic Mexico. Those beautiful carvings are also a distinctive identifying trait of the Olmec, an archaeological culture that has slowly come to light over the past fifty years. When Matthew Stirling began explorations at the Olmec site of La Venta, Tabasco, in 1942, almost nothing was known about the Olmec or their position in the sequence of Mexico's many Prehispanic cultures. Most of La Venta was hidden by tropical forest, and petroleum geologists were just beginning to explore for oil in the area of Tabasco.

At La Venta, Stirling and his associate, Philip Drucker, began excavations in a plaza area, Complex A, on the north side of La Venta's 32 meter-tall (106 ft.) earthen pyramid mound. They soon made astonishing discoveries. Their trenches uncovered caches of polished jade celts, colored clay floors, and several royal burials. One burial was in a large sandstone sarcophagus carved to depict a supernatural caiman. Two other burials occurred in a tomb chamber constructed from basalt columns. All the burials included offerings of beautiful greenstone figures, jewelry, and celts.

When Stirling presented his discoveries at the meeting, held by the Mexican Society of Anthropology (Sociedad Mexicana de Antropologia) at Tuxtla Gutierrez in 1942, disagreements immediately arose over the dating of La Venta and the Olmec. Drucker believed that La Venta was contemporaneous with Classic period Maya civilization, while Alfonso Caso and Miguel Covarrubias eloquently argued that the Olmec precede the Maya and Mexico's other great civilizations. Stirling agreed with Caso and Covarrubias. Because the meeting had raised so many questions about the Olmec, historian Wigberto Jimenez Moreno wrote that same year about "El enigma de los olmecas." It took another 15 years to resolve the question of the antiquity of the Olmec. In 1957 the first radiocarbon dates from La Venta, 800-400 B.C., proved Caso, Covarrubias, and Stirling to be correct, and recent research and radiocarbon dating now places the time range of the Olmec from 1200 to 1500 B.C. Today the forest is gone at La Venta and a large Pemex refinery is located near the site, but archaeologists now have a clearer understanding of the Olmec. The Olmec no longer seem as enigmatic as they did in 1942.

The Olmec Domain

The Olmec domain extends from the Tuxtlas mountains in the west to the lowlands of the Chontalpa in the east, a region with significant variations in geology and ecology. Over 170 Olmec monuments have been found within the area, and eighty percent of those occur at the three largest Olmec centers, La Venta, Tabasco (38%), San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, Veracruz (30%), and Laguna de los Cerros, Veracruz (12%). Those three major Olmec centers are spaced from east to west across the domain so that each center could exploit, control, and provide a distinct set of natural resources valuable to the overall Olmec economy. La Venta, the eastern center, is near the rich estuaries of the coast, and also could have provided cacao, rubber, and salt. San Lorenzo, at the center of the Olmec domain, controlled the vast floodplain area of Coatzacoalcos basin and riverline trade routes. Laguna de los Cerros, adjacent to the Tuxtlas mountains, is positioned near important sources of basalt, a stone needed to manufacture manos, metates, and monuments. Perhaps marriage alliances between Olmec centers helped maintain such an exchange network.

Many early scholars were reluctant to believe that a society as sophisticated as the Olmec could have developed in the tropical habitat of the Gulf coast, and some hypothesized that the Olmec had originally migrated from elsewhere. However, recent excavations by INAH archaeologist Rebecca Gonzalez at La Venta, and at San Lorenzo by archaeologist Ann Cyphers Guillen of UNAM, have provided valuable new information on the antiquity of those sites, and on Olmec ways of life at those centers. Their radiocarbon dates inform us that La Venta and San Lorenzo were inhabited as early as 1700 B.C., by peoples who were the direct ancestors to the Gulf coast. They were corn farmers who supplemented their diets with fishing and hunting. Linguists suggest that they spoke a language related to the Mixe and Zoque languages of today.

We now know that the great Olmec centers that soon developed at La Venta, San Lorenzo, and Laguna de los Cerros, and the smaller centers such as Tres Zapotes, were not simply vacant religious sites, but dynamic settlements that included artisans and farmers, as well as religious specialists and the rulers. The Olmec architecture at San Lorenzo, for example, includes both public-ceremonial buildings, elite residences, and the houses of commoners. Olmec public-ceremonial buildings were most typically earthen platform mounds, some of which had larger house-like structures built upon them. At La Venta we can see that after 900 B.C. such platform mounds were arranged around large plaza areas and include a new type of architecture, a tall pyramid mound.

An important feature at Olmec centers was their buried network of stone "drain" lines -- long U-shaped rectangular blocks of basalt laid end to end and covered with capstones. The new San Lorenzo research suggests those systems were actually aqueducts used to provide drinking water to the different areas of the settlement. Some of the aqueduct stones, such as San Lorenzo Monument 52, were also monuments, indicating that the aqueduct system had a sacred character as well.

Rubber ball games have great antiquity throughout the Americas, and the recent discovery of several rubber balls at the Olmec site of El Manati, near San Lorenzo, confirms that the game was played by the Olmec. Archaeologists working at La Venta twenty years ago discovered what they hypothesized were the remains of a ball court there, and it is possible that such ball courts were also part of the architecture at Olmec centers.

Access to the Underworld

Monuments were also an important characteristic of Olmec centers, and today they provide us with some idea of the nature of Olmec ideology. The colossal heads are commanding portraits of individual Olmec rulers, and the large symbol displayed on the "helmet" of each colossal head appears to be an identification motif for that person. Colossal heads glorified the rulers while they were alive, and commemorated them as revered ancestors after their death. "Altars" were actually the thrones of Olmec rulers. The carving on the front of the throne shows the identified ruler sitting in a niche that symbolizes a cave entrance to the supernatural powers of the underworld. That scene communicated to the people their ruler's association with cosmological power.

Almost all Olmec monumental art is found damaged and mutilated. The portrait statues of rulers are decapitated, and massive fragments are missing from the corners of altars. Only the colossal portrait heads survived relatively unharmed. Although that damage was once blamed on invaders or internal revolutions, it was an action that occurred repeatedly throughout the 700 years that the Olmec created monuments. Therefore, most scholars now believe that monument mutilation was carried out by the Olmec themselves for sacred or ritual reasons. Perhaps when a ruler died his monuments were destroyed. New evidence indicates that some monuments were broken and the pieces recarved to make other monuments. It is now known that two colossal stone heads from San Lorenzo had originally been large rectangular altars that were later resculpted into colossal heads. When a ruler died, was he venerated by converting his throne into his colossal portrait head?

The Second Enigma

Geologists have determined that the basalt used to make most of the monuments at San Lorenzo and La Venta came from the area of the Tuxtlas mountains. In 1960, archaeologist Alfonso Medellin Zenil discovered Llano del Jicaro, an Olmec basalt quarry site and monument workshop. The quarry, near the Tuxtla mountains, is only 7 kilometers (4 miles) from the Olmec center of Laguna de los Cerros, and was controlled by it. Excavations at Llano del Jicaro in 1991 provided data on the process of monument manufacture. A large unfinished altar there demonstrates that the monuments were given their basic shape at the quarry site, and then transported to the centers for finishing. However, an important question could not be answered: how were the huge stones for altars and colossal heads transported from the Tuxtlas across the hills, rivers and swamps of the Olmec domain to San Lorenzo and La Venta?

Although archaeology has answered many questions about the Olmec, many more still remain. Research has concentrated primarily on the centers of San Lorenzo and La Venta, and very little is known about Laguna de los Cerros, or smaller Olmec centers, or Olmec life in small farming hamlets. We also have very little archaeological information about the 500-300 B.C. time period in southern Veracruz and Tabasco and, therefore, we do not know how the Olmec culture ended. San Lorenzo and La Venta declined in importance, perhaps due to major change in the river systems that helped support those centers. However, in the northern area of the Olmec domain there was some cultural continuity long after 500 B.C. Tres Zapotes became an important post-Olmec center, and Laguna de los Cerros continued as a major center into the Classic period.


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