Back to the Olmec

Olmec-San_Lorenzo_Monument_3_cropOLMEC ART AT DUMBARTON OAKS
by Karl A. Taube, 2004



 In 1912, when Robert Woods Bliss acquired a fine Olmec statuette as his first Pre-Columbian object, little was known of the Olmec and their relation to other cultures of ancient Mesoamerica.

In fact, when Bliss purchased this jade sculpture (Pl. 8), it was described as Aztec. Decades earlier, José María Melgar y Serrano (1869) had published the first account of an Olmec monument, a colossal stone head, Monument A, at the site of Tres Zapotes, but Melgar y Serrano saw [African] features and linked the figure to Africa, rather than recognizing it as a product of Pre-Columbian peoples. Subsequently, Alfredo Chavero (1887) also identified the head as [African], but additionally noted that a motif on the brow resembled certain Asian signs. To this day, the Olmec continue to be traced to such distant regions as Africa and China (van Sertima 1979; Thompson 1989; González Calderón 1991; Xu 1996).1 […]

Following the publication of the Tres Zapotes sculpture, smaller portable sculptures of Olmec style were collected by connoisseurs. Among these objects were beautifully but also strangely carved stone axe heads, including the massive jadeite Kunz Axe (Saville 1929). But it was not until the 1925 explorations of Frans Blom and Oliver La Farge (1926) that the Olmec style was associated with a specific geographical area. Blom and La Farge were the first to publish on the large Olmec site of La Venta and a number of its important stone sculptures. In addition, they reported the remarkable monument from the summit of San Martín Pajapan, a fine sculpture in pure Olmecstyle (Fig. 49a). In contrast to celts and other portable objects, these massive stone monuments precluded transportation over vast distances; instead, they clearly were carved in the local southern Gulf Coast region of Veracruz and neighboring Tabasco.

Although Blom and La Farge were the first to document a major corpus of Olmec monuments, they perceived these sculptures in terms of the better-known Classic Maya remains. Thus, although noting that some traits at La Venta could be compared with sculptures from the Tuxtla region of Veracruz, they believed that a number of La Venta monuments suggested a Maya identity: “The Maya features upon Stela 2, the standing figure with diagonal ceremonial bar and huge headdress, and in Altars 3 and 4, are so strong that we are inclined to ascribe these ruins to the Maya culture” (Blom and La Farge 1926: 90). But other researchers were beginning to define the Olmec as a distinct people and culture. As early as 1892, Francisco del Paso y Troncoso describes a number of ceramic figures from Puebla and Guerrero as “Olmec” in type (Paso y Troncoso 1892; Piña Chan 1989: 25).

In a review of the Blom and La Farge publication, Hermann Beyer (1927) uses the term Olmecan to refer to a number of objects from the Gulf Coast region. Soon after, Marshall Saville (1929) provides a far more detailed discussion of the Olmec art style and its distribution. Saville (ibid.: 284) calls attention to the distinctive protruding lip commonly found on Olmec faces, which he describes as “tiger masks.” Due to the San Martín Pajapan monument, Saville argued that this style was centered in the southern Gulf Coast region: “This peculiar type of mask may be safely assigned to the ancient Olmecan culture, which apparently had its center in the San Andrés Tuxtla area around Lake Catemaco, and extended down to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in the southern part of Vera Cruz” (ibid.: 285).

Several years later, George Vaillant (1932) also used the term Olmec to refer to the jade Necaxa Statuette, which was previously considered Chinese (Fig. 43c). In addition, Vaillant called attention to many other sculptures of Olmec style, including related “baby face” forms.

The use of the term Olmec by Beyer, Saville, and Vaillant, is based primarily on geographic rather than temporal considerations. The name Olmec, or in Spanish Olmeca, derives from the contact period Gulf Coast culture documented by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1950–82, 10: 187–188) and other early colonial sources (Jiménez Moreno 1942). Given the poor understanding of ancient Mesoamerican chronology, it is not surprising that Vaillant (1932) included objects dating from the Early Formative to the Late Postclassic period in his discussion of the Olmec style.

He considered the Olmec an ancient race that was forced by other developing peoples into the Gulf Coast and neighboring regions: “It seems possible that the bearded flat-nosed people [ancestral Olmec] may have been driven back through the rise of the Nahua and Maya tribes in early times and later achieved their artistic evolution in the Vera Cruz–Oaxaca–Puebla region.” (ibid.: 518)

According to Vaillant, the ancient Olmec art style and the contact period Olmeca were one and the same. Although it is now clear that the striking art style of “tiger masks” and “baby faces” is far earlier than the contact period Olmeca, the Olmec appellation continues to this day. Many have bemoaned the naming of an especially early culture after a contact period people, but there is no confusion in current studies. In fact, the term Olmec is now far more commonly used for the Formative period culture (1200–500 B.C.) than for its historic namesake. In this volume, Olmec will refer specifically to the Formative period culture and its art style.

By the 1930s, a number of scholars recognized the southern Gulf Coast as the heartland of the Olmec style. Systematic excavation did not begin in this region until 1939, however, when Matthew Stirling launched a two-year project at Tres Zapotes. With support from National Geographic and the Smithsonian Institution, Stirling continued to work in this region until 1949.

Along with Tres Zapotes, he engaged in excavations at Cerro de las Mesas, La Venta, and the great site of San Lorenzo (Coe 1968). From the beginning, Stirling (1940) was convinced of the antiquity and importance of the Olmec: “Present archaeological evidence indicates that their culture [Olmec], which in many respects reached a high level, is very early and may well be the basic civilization out of which developed such high art centers as those of the Maya, Zapotecs, Toltecs, and Totonacs” (ibid.: 333).

During his first season at Tres Zapotes, Stirling had the good fortune to find Stela C, a monument that suggested that the Olmec were a very early Mesoamerican culture (Fig. 1). Whereas the front of the stela displays a face with strong Olmec features, the back bears a Long Count date, a calendrical system that was already well-known for the Classic Maya. Long Count dates typically begin with the highest unit of time, the Baktun, corresponding to roughly four hundred years. Although Stirling found only the base of the monument, he reconstructed the missing Baktun coefficient as seven, providing a complete date corresponding to 31 B.C. Although certain archaeologists of the time, particularly Mayanists, objected to such an early date, it is now evident that Tres Zapotes Stela C is actually a post-Olmec monument, carved some 400 years after the Olmec demise.

Stirling was not alone in his assertions of Olmec antiquity. In his early discussion of the Olmec style, Vaillant (1932: 519) noted that a hollow ceramic “baby face” figure from Gualupita, Morelos, in central Mexico, was discovered “under conditions of considerable age.” Although Vaillant (ibid.) considered the striking Olmec art style to be generally contemporaneous to the contact period Olmeca, he was in an excellent position to assess the Gualupita find. His pioneering excavations at Zacatenco, Gualupita, El Arbolillo, and Ticoman were fundamental in establishing the Formative chronology of the basin of Mexico (Vaillant 1930, 1931, 1932, 1935; Vaillant and Vaillant 1934).

At Gualupita, other hollow Olmec-style “baby face” figures were also discovered (Vaillant and Vaillant 1934: figs. 14–15). The excavators noted the similarity of these hollow figures to solid figurines, some of which display Olmec features (ibid.: 50, 53; fig. 19, no. 3). One of the figurine types mentioned, Type D, was previously documented by Vaillant (1930: 114–119) at Zacatenco and other highland sites. Although Vaillant (ibid.) recognized these as early, the major site containing Type-D figurines was yet to be discovered.

Beginning in 1936, brick workers at Tlatilco began discovering great numbers of these figurines along with vessels and other artifacts, some in pure Olmecstyle (e.g., the basalt yuguito in the Dumbarton Oaks collection, Pl. 2). Conveniently located on what was then the outskirts of Mexico City, Tlatilco soon drew interested collectors who avidly purchased finds from local brick workers. One of the frequent visitors was the noted writer and artist Miguel Covarrubias, who with Stirling ranks as one of the great pioneers of Olmec studies. Like Stirling, Covarrubias was convinced of the great antiquity and importance of the Olmec, and he visited the Stirlings during their Gulf Coast excavations.

Aside from Central Mexico and the Gulf Coast, early remains with Olmec-style facial features also began to be discovered in Oaxaca. Alfonso Caso (1938: 94) recognized that in the earliest levels at Monte Albán, or Monte Albán I, a number of vessels displayed Olmec-style features. Subsequent excavations at the Monte Albán I site of Monte Negro further corroborated the association of the Olmec art style with Formative Oaxacan remains (Caso 1942b). It is now apparent that, like Tres Zapotes Stela C, these urns are post-Olmec (Scott 1978: 12). Nonetheless, the association of these Olmec-related vessels with what was then the earliest-known Zapotec phase convinced Caso that the Olmec were indeed a very early Mesoamerican culture.

By the early 1940s, excavations in the Gulf Coast, highland Mexico, and Oaxaca had led a growing body of scholars to believe that the Olmec were an ancient and widespread culture. In 1942, a watershed conference was held in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas. Although devoted to the archaeology and ethnohistory of southeastern Mesoamerica, the meeting focused especially on the “Olmec problem,” that is, the cultural and temporal relation of the Olmec to other Mesoamerican cultures. The noted ethnohistorian Wigberto Jiménez Moreno (1942: 23) placed the remains at La Venta well before the Olmeca documented in early colonial texts.

In his well-known position paper, Caso (1942a: 46) forcefully argued that the Olmec were indeed the cultura madre of Mesoamerica: “Esta gran cultura, que encontramos en niveles antiguos, es sin duda madre de otras culturas, como la maya, la teotihuacana, la zapoteca, la de El Tajín, y otras” (This great culture, which we encounter in ancient levels, is without doubt mother of other cultures, such as the Maya, the Teotihuacan, the Zapotec, that of El Tajín, and others) (ibid.: 46).

During the same session, Covarrubias (1942) noted that the Olmec art style is most closely related to the earliest examples of art from Teotihuacan, Maya, and the Zapotec. As a result of these and other papers, the conference concluded that the Olmec of La Venta constituted a very early culture in Mesoamerica (Mayas y Olmecas 1942: 75).

Not all scholars, however, agreed with the findings of the 1942 conference. Two of the bestknown Mayanists, J. Eric S. Thompson and Sylvanus Morley, argued that the Olmec were not extremely early. In a long and detailed essay, Thompson (1941) suggested that the Olmec were actually a Postclassic culture sharing many traits with the Cotzumalhuapa style known for such sites as El Baul and Bilbao, Guatemala. According to Thompson (1941: 48), the famed colossal heads were actually very late: “Inconclusive evidence tends to place the colossal stone heads of the Olmec region about A.D. 1100–1450.”

Thompson was particularly concerned with Tres Zapotes Stela C and its reputed early Long Count date. With little justification, Thompson argued that the dates appearing on Stela C, the jadeite Tuxtla Statuette, and El Baul Monument 1 are not identical to the Long Count system known for the Classic Maya, but instead, are based on a 400-day year.

Although it is now clear that Thompson was off the mark in his dating of the Olmec, his opinions held considerable sway among fellow archaeologists. His friend and colleague Sylvanus Morley (1946: 40–41) aggressively questioned the dating of Tres Zapotes Stela C and other early non-Maya Long Count inscriptions in his popular work The Ancient Maya: “These doubtful, and indeed disputed, possibly earlier dates are by no means clear, however; they create a situation such as would arise if we were to find a Gothic cathedral dating from 1000 B.C., or a skyscraper with the year 1492 carved on its corresponding cornerstone—obvious anachronisms. These few scattering dates are only apparently very early, I believe, all of them having actually been carved at much later dates than they appear to represent” (ibid.: 40–41).

Morley’s tone is curiously polemic, as if he was personally offended that there could be Long Count dates before those of his beloved Classic Maya. Although not mentioning Stirling by name, Morley (ibid.) suggested that the reconstructed date of Tres Zapotes Stela C is essentially an epigraphic sleight of hand: “In the case of the Tres Zapotes monument, the first number at the left, 7, which makes it so unbelievably early, is entirely missing in the original and has only been restored as 7, out of the blue, by those who believe in the maximum antiquity of this carving” (ibid.: 41).

Although Morley challenged the reconstructed Baktun 7 date, Stirling was entirely vindicated in 1969, when the upper half of Stela C was discovered. The upper portion of the monument clearly bore a Baktun 7 coefficient, making it one of the earliest monuments bearing a contemporaneous Long Count date (de la Fuente 1977a: 26).

Due to the arguments of Thompson, Morley, and others, the age of the Olmec remained in doubt until the late 1950s. Although many regarded the evidence provided by ceramic seriation and cross-dating with other, better-known cultures as compelling, it was the unexpected advent of radiocarbon dating that once and for all established the great antiquity of the Formative Olmec.

The first published radiocarbon dates from the Olmec occupation of La Venta ranged from 1154 to 574 B.C. (Drucker, Heizer, and Squier 1959: 265). According to the excavators, Olmec occupation at La Venta occurred between 800 and 400 B.C. (ibid.). Subsequent excavations at the Olmec site of San Lorenzo provided even earlier radiocarbon dates. Here ten of the twelve samples corresponding to the florescence of the site ranged from 1150 to 920 +/- 140 B.C. (Coe and Diehl 1980, 1: 395–396). Combined with the relative dating methods of seriation and cross-dating, the radiocarbon dates provided convincing evidence that the Olmec were exceptionally ancient.2 Moreover, more recent excavations have documented the development of the Olmec out of still earlier Formative cultures.

The Soconusco and the Early Formative Origins of the Olmec Although the Olmec were extremely early, they by no means appeared ex nihilo, like some wondrous mushroom, out of the swampy Gulf Coast lowlands. Many of the more fundamental Olmec traits, such as social hierarchy, ceramics, food production, monumental architecture, craft specialization, the ball game, dedicatory offerings, and the restricted use of jade and other rare, exotic goods already were present among earlier Formative peoples. Although similar and contemporaneous developments were surely occurring in the Olmec heartland, the incipient Formative period is best documented for the nearby coastal piedmont region of southern Chiapas and neighboring Guatemala, often referred to as the Soconusco (Blake 1991; Blake et al. 1995; Ceja Tenorio 1985; Clark 1991, 1994; John Clark and Michael Blake 1989, 1994; Coe 1961; Green and Lowe 1967; Love 1991; Lowe 1975).

Clark and Blake (1989) aptly term the Early Formative people of this region Mokaya, a Mixe-Zoquean word for “the people of corn.” But although maize is documented at Mokaya sites, it probably was not the primary staple. The ears of recovered specimens are small and relatively unproductive, and chemical analysis of Mokaya human bone collagen reveals that type C-4 pathway plants, such as maize, were not a significant part of the local diet (Blake et al. 1992; Clark and Blake 1989: 389).3 Thus, although the Mokaya were sedentary villagers engaged in food production, they probably practiced a mixed economy of farming, hunting, fishing, and collecting wild resources (Clark and Blake 1989).

Along with settled village life and food production, ceramics constitute one of the defining traits of the Mesoamerican Formative period. In the south coastal region, pottery first appears in the earliest Mokaya phase, known as Barra (1550–1400 B.C.). But although this pottery is among the first known for Mesoamerica, it is already surprisingly sophisticated, with a wide variety of forms and surface decoration (see Clark 1994: fig. 3.2). Noting the lack of Barra-phase plain ware, Clark and Blake (1994) suggest that the fancy ceramics were used as serving vessels in competitive feasting, such as occur in traditional “big man” societies of Melanesia. Early pottery may thus have been carefully made and decorated because it was linked to activities that gained prestige for the sponsors of such feasts.

By the following Locona phase (1400–1250 B.C.), there is evidence of a chiefdom level of social stratification in which—unlike big men societies—high social status was inherited rather than achieved. A Locona-phase burial from El Vivero contained a child wearing a circular mica mirror on its forehead, quite probably a sign of high rank (Clark 1991: 20–21; see Pl. 28). At Paso de la Amada, a great apsidal structure more than twelve meters in length has been interpreted as a chiefly residence (Blake 1991; Clark 1994: 34–35). A greenstone celt, quite probably jade, was buried as a dedicatory offering in the center of the earliest house construction (Blake 1991: 40, fig. 11a). It will be noted that greenstone celts constitute one of the more important dedicatory cache items of the Middle Formative Olmec (see Pls. 21–23). Paso de la Amada also contains a Locona-phase ball court, one of the earliest-known ball courts in ancient Mesoamerica (Hill n.d.).

Part 2


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2 thoughts on “Back to the Olmec

  1. Back to the Olmec (2) | The Seven Worlds October 25, 2013 at 7:01 pm Reply

    […] See part 1 […]

  2. taijahallart1g November 5, 2013 at 1:23 am Reply

    Reblogged this on taijanic0le's Blog and commented:
    This is interesting to me because of the detail. its almost creepy how realistic the facial features like the cheekbones and the lips are! this connects to what we’ve already been studying in regards to the colossial heads we read about in last weeks reading portion.

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