Back to the Olmec (2)

Olmec_mask_in jade 802OLMEC ART AT DUMBARTON OAKS
Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, No. 2
by Karl A. Taube, 2004

See part 1

The Olmec of Early Formative San Lorenzo

Archaeological excavations by Michael Coe and Richard Diehl (1980) and Ann Cyphers (1997, 1999) at San Lorenzo, Veracruz, have provided crucial insights into the Early Formative development of the Olmec. Composed of the San Lorenzo plateau and the nearby sites of Tenochtitlán and Potrero Nuevo, San Lorenzo appears to have been the preeminent Early Formative Olmec center and quite possibly for then-contemporaneous Mesoamerica as a whole.

The Ojochi phase (1500–1350 B.C.) marks the earliest pottery at San Lorenzo, and is roughly contemporaneous with the Mokaya Barra phase ceramics, of which it shares many traits (Blake et al. 1995: 168). The nearby site of El Manatí reveals that, by the Ojochi phase, elaborate rites concerning water, rain, and, likely, agriculture were already being performed in the Olmec heartland. A freshwater spring at the base of Cerro Manatí was a locus of ritual activity that included the deposition of offerings in the water during much of the Early Formative period. Among the earliest items placed in the sacred spring were fine jadeite celts and rubber balls (Ortíz and Rodríguez 1994: 78, 86; 2000).

Although no Early Formative ball court has yet been documented for the Olmec heartland, these rubber balls indicate that the ball game was present even before the florescence of Olmec civilization.4 But of perhaps even greater significance are the offerings of jadeite. Although jadeite is best known for the Middle Formative Olmec, the El Manatí finds reveal that jade and probably much of its attendant symbolism were present as early as the Ojochi phase.

In many respects, the following Bajío phase (1350–1250 B.C.) at San Lorenzo is a continuation of Ojochi, although with the appearance of new vessel forms and evidence of increased population. In addition, it appears that public architecture was being constructed atop the San Lorenzo plateau (Coe and Diehl 1980, 2: 144; Coe 1981b: 124). However, Chicharras (1250–1150 B.C.) marks a sharp change from the previous two phases and constitutes the true beginning of Olmec civilization.

During this “proto-Olmec” phase, the great San Lorenzo plateau appears to have been greatly modified (Coe and Diehl 1980, 1: 150). Figurines displaying Olmec facial characteristics appear for the first time, along with figurines of belted ballplayers (ibid.: figs. 303, 305). In addition, a basalt sculpture fragment found in Chicharras-phase contexts suggests that the long-distance transportation and carving of stone monuments—one of the most striking traits of the San Lorenzo Olmec— was already occurring during the Chicharras phase at San Lorenzo (ibid.: 246; Coe 1981b: 128).

The San Lorenzo phase (1150–900 B.C.) constitutes the great period of occupation at the site. Among the more striking hallmarks of the San Lorenzo–phase Olmec are basalt colossal heads; ten colossal heads are currently known for San Lorenzo. Given the importance of these grand sculptures, it is somewhat fitting that they may well have contributed to the present appearance of the central plateau. In plan, the surface of the San Lorenzo plateau surface is strikingly symmetrical, with pairings of projecting ridges and steep arroyos. Ann Cyphers (n.d.a.) suggests that the original placement of these heads in two flanking north-south lines eventually caused the plateau to erode into the series of peninsulas and gullies visible today. In other words, much of the symmetry observed at the plateau may derive from natural processes after the San Lorenzo–phase florescence.

While they are outstanding sculptures in their own right, the colossal heads and other massive basalt monuments at San Lorenzo are especially impressive when one considers the effort required for their transport. Although weighing up to forty metric tons, these monuments did not come from nearby stone quarries. Instead, the stone derived from the flanks of Cerro Cintepec, an aerial distance of some sixty kilometers from San Lorenzo (Coe and Diehl 1980, 1: 294). Replicative studies of the megaliths of Neolithic Europe provide some perspective on the logistics involved in the transport of such massive monuments. During an experiment performed in 1979 at Bougon, France, some 250 men were required to pull and lever a block weighing thirty-two tons a distance of forty meters (Mohen 1989: 176–177). Aside from such modern replicative experiments, megaliths of similar size were still being transported in traditional Southeast Asian societies as late as the twentieth century.

The detailed ethnography of Nias by Schröder (1917) describes the moving of the last major megalith of South Nias, a funerary monument dedicated to the ailing ruler Saonigeho. It required 325 men laboring four days to pull the monument, approximately nine tons, four kilometers from the quarry to the village (Feldman 1985: 61). As in the case of the San Lorenzo plateau, the stone was transported up a steep hill to the village (Fig. 2). The ability of San Lorenzo rulers to amass and organize the work force required to transport the monuments from Cerro Cintepec constitutes a public testimony of their personal power and leadership. Cyphers (n.d.) suggests that the prevalence of knotted ropes in San Lorenzo sculpture alludes to both the movement of stone monuments and the prowess of the ruler. Aside from denoting the political skill and power of the ruler, the ponderous movement of these great monuments across the landscape may have been an important social and material statement concerning the territorial domain of the San Lorenzo and later La Venta polities.

It is widely recognized that the great colossal heads of San Lorenzo, La Venta, and other Olmec sites are portraits of individual rulers. The careful and subtle sculpting of the eyes, mouth, and other features creates the impression that one is viewing the faces of specific, living individuals. As Michael Coe (1989b: 77) notes, portraiture is very rare in the ancient New World and is largely restricted to the Olmec, Classic Maya, and Moche of northern Peru. In direct contrast to the roughly contemporaneous people of Teotihuacan, the Classic Maya publicly proclaimed the names and deeds of their kings in monumental sculpture.

Colossal heads and thrones strongly indicate that a cult of individual rulership was already fully present at Early Formative San Lorenzo. Although it is uncertain whether the Olmec were at a chiefdom or state level of social complexity, the cost required in the carving and transport of these great stones points to marked social stratification with strongly centralized rulership. The comparison by Timothy Earle (1990) of the Olmec to the highly stratified, complex chiefdoms of Hawaii may be especially apt. Earle (ibid.: 76) notes that in contrast to states, the leaders of complex chiefdoms have very generalized roles, including political, religious, military, administrative, and economic functions. Like the great Hawaiian chiefs, Olmec rulers were surely active players in all these domains.

The great power and status of the Olmec rulers at San Lorenzo sharply contrast  with what is known about other regions of Early Formative Mesoamerica. In no other area, including the Valley of Mexico, Oaxaca, and the Chiapas Soconusco, is there evidence of such marked social differences and control of wealth and surplus. In a version of the circumscription scenario proposed by Robert Carniero (1970) for the central Andean valley systems, Coe and Diehl (1980, 2: 147–152; Coe 1981a) suggest that the appropriation of the extremely fertile, annually flooded levee lands by an emergent elite led to the marked differences in status, power, and wealth observed at Olmec San Lorenzo. 

But although the control of these productive lands implies that farming was central  to the San Lorenzo economy, it is uncertain what crops were grown. Coe and Diehl (1980, 2: 144) cite the common appearance of metates and manos as evidence of corn preparation, although virtually no macrobotanical remains of maize were recovered during their excavations.5 According to Coe and Diehl (ibid.), the San Lorenzo Olmec probably grew a variety of staples, including manioc and other root crops as well as maize.

Investigations in the vicinity of La Venta, Tabasco, have documented maize from at least the beginning of the Early Formative period and perhaps as early as 2250 B.C. (Rust and Leyden 1994). William Rust and Barbara Leyden (ibid.: 192, 199) note that maize use had begun to increase notably by 1150 B.C., and sharply grew to even greater importance during the Middle Formative apogee of La Venta (ca. 900–500 B.C.). This pattern of increasing maize use is also reflected in Olmec art and iconography. Although maize symbolism can be documented for Early Formative San Lorenzo, it is far more pervasive during the Middle Formative period of La Venta (Taube 1996).

Ann Cyphers (1999: 165) notes that the manipulation and control of water was an essential component of elite power at San Lorenzo: “The rhythms of the Olmec environment have everything to do with water in all of its manifestations. Rain, fluvial systems, and the water table were all aspects that the elite sought to control one way or another.” The ritual importance of water, and by extension, agriculture, is clearly expressed by an elaborate system of basalt drains and related stone sculptures atop the San Lorenzo plateau. Ramon Krotser (1973) argues that these stone drains were used in Olmec water rituals and reflect the basic Mesoamerican concern with water and fertility. Similarly, Coe and Diehl (1980, 1: 393) suggest that this hydraulic system was used in rites of rain magic and propitiation dedicated to water deities.

A stone-lined drain from the Middle Formative site of Teopantecuanitlán, Guerrero, indicates that such systems indeed were used in agricultural rites. The drain both enters and exits a masonry sunken court lined with four explicit representations of the Olmec Maize God (see Fig. 46a; Martínez Donjuán 1994: fig. 9.10). Fitted with this drain, the courtyard could have been easily filled and emptied of water to serve as a pool for ritual use.

The systems of stone drains in the monumental architecture of San Lorenzo, La Venta, Teopantecuanitlán, and other Olmec sites recall the elaborate drains appearing in two of the greatest Andean temples, the Early Horizon Castillo at Chavín de Huantar (ca. 900–200 B.C.) and the Akapana of Middle Horizon Tiwanaku (ca. A.D. 500–900). It has been suggested that drains in both of these structures were ritually regulated, and with rushing water they may have even created thunderous acoustic effects (Lumbreras, González, and Lieter 1976; Kolata 1993: 111–116). According to Alan Kolata (1993), the Akapana symbolized a great watery mountain. With its highly developed system of stone drains, the San Lorenzo plateau also may have embodied the concept of a fertile, water-filled mountain. San Lorenzo may indeed have been an original altepetl, or “watermountain,” the Postclassic Nahuatl term for a town or city.

Aside from the ceremonial regulation of the drains, the San Lorenzo Olmec also performed water rites on a smaller, almost miniature scale. Excavations by Ann Cyphers (1996b: 63, 64) at San Lorenzo have uncovered several monuments with curiously irregular and convoluted designs resembling clouds or water-worn stone. One of the sculptures portrays a split face with one half covered by the convoluted motif (Fig. 3a). It is noteworthy that regions of the convoluted side project out farther than the anthropomorphic face, revealing that this motif is not post-carving mutilation. The top of the head contains a basin with a hole running to the irregular, proper right half of the face. Liquid poured into this chamber would run in intricate patterns down the system of gullies, pits, and furrows. Another, recently excavated stone sculpture contains a basin surrounded by the convoluted motif. Fluid from a central container would pour down the gulleys in riverine fashion until passing through two holes penetrating to the underside of the monument.6

Another still more remarkable monument portrays a squatting jaguar clawing a descending male wearing a bird headdress (Fig. 3b). In this case, the convoluted form appears as a background to the descending figure; the peculiar dentition of this jaguar is also common in portrayals of the Olmec Rain God (Fig. 15b–c). The convoluted stone motif also occurs on Monuments 1 and 2 from Laguna de los Cerros, which are great heads topped with shallow basins (Fig. 3c). At least one, if not both, of these monuments portrays the Olmec Rain God. Like the two San Lorenzo monuments, these basins were probably for liquid that would trickle down the sides of the heads.7

The San Lorenzo sculpture of the jaguar and its human victim (Fig. 36) suggests that the liquid poured upon this monument was sacrifical blood rather than water, with the blood libation ritually expressing the clawing of the victim. One monument at Chalcatzingo portrays a raining cloud above an avian jaguar devouring a human, as if this act constituted a form of rainmaking (Taube 1995: fig. 24). In later Mesoamerica, particularly bloody forms of human sacrifice—including scaffold sacrifice and decapitation—often constituted forms of rain ritual (Taube 1988b; 1992b: 24). It may well  be that all Olmec monuments with the convoluted motif were for sacrificial blood offerings. In fact, Alfonso Medellín Zenil (1971) interpreted Laguna de Los Cerros Monuments 1 and 2 as Olmec versions of the Aztec cuauhxicallis, stone receptacles for sacrificial hearts.

Excavations at El Manatí demonstrate the  presence of human sacrifice among the Early Formative Olmec. Human infants were among the many San Lorenzo–phase offerings placed in the site’s spring. According to Ponciano Ortíz and María del Carmen Rodríguez (1994: 84, 88–89), these child sacrifices are probably an early form of the Aztec practice of offering children to the gods of water and rain (see Sahagún 1950–1982, 2: 42–44; Durán 1971: 157, 164–165). Durán (1971: 164) mentions that girls thrown into the water at Pantitlan were dispatched with a small spear of the type used for killing ducks. Among the more intriguing items found at El Manatí is a wooden spear painted red and tipped with a shark tooth point (Ortíz and Rodríguez 1994: fig. 5.24). As in the case of the Late Postclassic Aztec rite at Pantitlan, this object may have been used as a device for child sacrifice.

It has been noted that the San Lorenzo sculpture known as Tenochtitlán Monument 1 portrays a ballplayer atop a bound captive (Taube 1992c; Miller and Taube 1993; Bradley and Joralemon 1993). The seated upper figure wears the costume typical of Olmec ballplayers, including a mirror pectoral and, most importantly, the thick, protective belt used to strike the ball with the hip. The playing of hip ball with padded belts was by far the most common form of the Mesaomerican ball game and continues to be played in Sinaloa to this day (see Leyenaar and Parsons 1988: 13–35).

The San Lorenzo monument indicates that as with later Mesoamerican peoples, human sacrifice was to the Olmec an important component of their ball-game ritual. Their game was deeply embedded in rain ritual and symbolism, much as if the ball game itself was a rainmaking act, with the din of the bouncing ball representing thunder. A great many Early Formative ballplayer figures wear masks of the Olmec Rain God (Fig. 15b–c; Bradley 1991: fig. 4; Taube 1995: 100). The offering of rubber balls at El Manatí also suggests the identification of the ball game with rain and water ritual. The aforementioned sunken court at Teopantecuanitlán provides the most compelling evidence for the relationship of the Olmec ball game to water and agricultural fertility. Along with the stone drain and images of the Olmec Maize God, the court also contains a miniature symbolic ballcourt formed of two long and low parallel mounds (Martínez Donjuán 1994). A remarkable Formative vessel in the form of a ball court contains a drain for water to pass from the spout into the ball court basin, essentially a miniature form of the Teopantecuanitlán sunken court and drain (Borhegyi 1980: fig. 4a–b).

The identification of ball courts with water and agricultural fertility is well-documented for the later Classic Maya (Schele and Freidel 1991).8 Stephen Houston (1998) notes that many Classic Maya models, or maquetas, of ball courts are supplied with channels to allow liquid to pour into the sunken courts. The ball game is also widely identified with agricultural fertility in Late Postclassic Central Mexico. Among the fertility gods appearing in conjuction with the ball game are Tlaloc, Xochipilli, Xochiquetzal, and the maize god, Cinteotl (Stern 1949: 69).

The Codex Chimalpopoca describes the last lord of Tula, Huemac, playing ball against the rain and lightning gods, the Tlaloque (Bierhorst 1992: 156). In one episode of the Aztec migration legend, the Aztec construct a ball court at Coatepec. From the center of this miraculous court a spring emerges, allowing the Aztec to irrigate their fields (Stern 1949: 65). According to Theodore Stern (ibid.: 70–71), the relationship of human sacrifice to the ball game was directly involved with agricultural fertility in Postclassic Mesoamerica. Rather than being a relatively recent development, the identification of the ball game with agricultural fertility was already highly developed among the Formative Olmec.

At approximately 900 B.C.—equivalent to the beginning of the Middle Formative period—the site of San Lorenzo suffered a significant decline, including the general cessation of monument transport and carving. The reasons for this remain unknown. Coe and Diehl (1980, 1: 188, 387) have interpreted the mutilation of stone monuments on the Group D ridge as a sign of cataclysmic destruction, possibly by invasion or revolt, at the end of the San Lorenzo phase. Excavations by Cyphers (1994: 61, 66) at Group D suggest that these monuments formed part of a monument workshop, and reflect recarving and reuse rather than iconoclastic mutilation.

In a similar vein, James Porter (1989) notes that at least two, and possibly more, of the colossal heads at San Lorenzo were recarved from Olmec thrones. But although the breaking of stone monuments at San Lorenzo may reflect the process of recarving rather than invasion or revolt, the actual events leading to the demise of this site remain poorly understood. Cyphers (1996a: 70–71) suggests that the demise of San Lorenzo may have been partly related to volcanic events in the Tuxtla Mountains. According to her, these tectonic episodes may not only have covered the region with ash, but perhaps more importantly, changed the river courses surrounding the site of San Lorenzo.


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One thought on “Back to the Olmec (2)

  1. Back to the Olmec | The Seven Worlds October 25, 2013 at 6:59 pm Reply

    […] Part 2 […]

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