The Olmec - History

The Olmec - History

There is evidence that as early as 2200 BC the Olmec’s were living in Central America in agriculture villages. They cultivated large crops of maize. They supplemented their diet with fish and wild game. The Olmec’s slowly developed an increasingly urban environment. Over the years there developed three main urban centers. San Lorenzo, Tress Zapotes, and La Venta. The Olmec became major traders, exchanging goods both within their civilization and with other civilizations in North and South America.

The largest Olmec city was La Vento. Between 800 and 500 BC it had a population of about 18,000 with an additional 350,000 people living near by.

La Venta was a center for all outlying areas with artisans and traders living in the city. The city was the center religious activity. There were large temples, believing that the gods were part human and part animal.

One of the major limitations of the Olmec cultures was technological. They had no metal tools, did not use the wheel, and it would seem did not use animals to pull loads.


The Olmec

The Olmec were the first great Mesoamerican civilization. They thrived along Mexico’s Gulf coast, mainly in the present-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco, from about 1200 to 400 B.C., although there were pre-Olmec societies before that and post-Olmec (or Epi-Olmec) societies afterward. The Olmec were great artists and traders who culturally dominated early Mesoamerica from their mighty cities of San Lorenzo and La Venta. Olmec culture was greatly influential on later societies, such as the Maya and the Aztec.


Olmec Capitals

There are four main regions or zones that have been associated with Olmec by the use of iconography, architecture and settlement plan, including San Lorenzo de Tenochtitlan, La Venta, Tres Zapotes, and Laguna de los Cerros. Within each of these zones, there were three or four different levels of hamlets of different sizes. At the center of the zone was a fairly dense center with plazas and pyramids and kingly residences. Outside of the center were a somewhat sparser collection of hamlets and farmsteads, each at least economically and culturally tied to the center.


Hijacking History: the problem with the “Black Olmec” myth

A recent publication in The Urban Review journal has come to our attention. The journal presents itself as one that deals with “Issues and Ideas in Education,” so it was surprising to see their publication of the article entitled, “Early Pioneers of the Americas: The Role of the Olmecs in Urban Education and Social Studies Curriculum’’ by Greg Wiggan, Annette Teasdell, Marcia J. Watson‑Vandiver, and Sheikia Talley‑Matthews. In their article, Wiggan et al peddle the long discredited notion that the Olmec were not indigenous Americans, but rather that they were black Africans who traversed the Atlantic Ocean millennia before Christopher Columbus. There are variations on the hypothesis, but the general idea is that Africans established (or helped establish) one of the oldest major civilizations in the Americas, the Olmec, which scholars credit as being a major inspiration for the Mesoamerican Indigenous cultures that followed. What we find surprising is that a publication that purports to be educational would publish an article that advocates the introduction of “Black Olmec” curriculum in schools.

Teaching the baseles and erroneous claim that the Olmec were black Africans is just as colonialist as the Eurocentric model that Afrocentrists rail against. Such claims regarding the Olmec are the result of outdated racial worldviews held by early European writers, many of whom never set foot in the Americas, combined with the Afrocentric ramblings of pseudoscholars such as Ivan Van Sertima and Clyde Winters, none of who are Mesoamerican specialists. The idea of “Black Olmecs” is rooted in pseudohistorical revisionism and is not accepted by legitimate Mesoamerican scholars. It should be made clear that no archaeological, faunal, floral, genetic, or historical evidence exists to support the myth of “Black Olmecs.” In fact, scholars such as Gabriel Haslip-Viera, Warren Barbour, and Bernard Ortiz de Montellano have published extensive research refuting Van Sertima and the myth of “Black Olmecs.”

Proponents of this myth base their conclusions on superficial interpretations of the famous Olmec heads of Veracruz. These statues, they claim, bear physiognomic resemblance to Africans solely based on their broad noses and thick lips. The fact that the statues also resemble Mexico’s Indigenous people (along with the fact that broad noses and thick lips are not solely black African characteristics) is simply ignored. If these assertions were being made in the reverse by white authors about black African culture, those people would rightfully be castigated for their racist interpretations. Somehow, when it comes to Native Americans, especially if they are ancient and mysterious enough, it is okay to make outlandish claims. The long running pseudohistorical television program about ancient aliens and ancient peoples is in this same vein.

Somehow, when it comes to Native Americans, especially if they are ancient and mysterious enough, it is okay to make outlandish claims.

Sadly, with this proposition, what the adherents of this unfounded thesis assert is that Indigenous peoples of the Americas received their foundational culture from black Africans, a belief that effectively robs Native Americans of their cultural patrimony. In fact, most of what Wiggan et al state in their piece does not support their claim, which they themselves admit is mostly “suggestive.” That is not how positive claims work you must have actual facts and not just quotes from secondary sources posing as facts in order to make your case. The entire article is riddled with questionable “sources” that the authors lean on as primary evidence however, upon closer examination, the cited “evidence” are actually quotes from secondary sources that are misinterpreted, noted as suggestive, or have been revealed to be incorrect.

It would take an article length paper to properly demonstrate the numerous errors made by Wiggan et al but let us explore at least one — the extensive use of secondary sources as primary sources. For example, here the authors quote Van Sertima: “[The] African presence in the Olmec world demonstrated that the African first entered the Western Hemisphere not as chattels, not as property, not as merchandise, not as enslaved people, but as masters in control of their own destinies” (pg 4). They follow that quote with this statement: “In spite of the above evidence, education and curriculum development literature are generally silent on the Olmecs” (pg 5). What evidence are they referring to that Van Sertima made a claim linking Africans to Olmecs? It seems extremely odd to have to say this about an article published in a (peer-reviewed?) journal, but opinions are not facts and therefore not evidence. Simply quoting the opinions of another author does not make that a supporting fact. You must follow up with actual evidence, and that is a key missing element in this entire piece.

N ow let us consider some of their sources. The authors that Wiggan et al chose to rely on are highly questionable. For instance, Ivan Van Sertima (as mentioned above) was soundly refuted in the 1990s by Montellano et al. Sertima’s predecessor, Harold G. Lawrence — who kickstarted the modern iteration of the Black Olmec hypothesis — had no advanced training in archeology or history, and in fact, his influential piece, “African explorers of the New World” (1962, The Crisis) introduces him as belonging to a group from Detroit, Michigan called The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Apparently that is enough to make him a credible source on the prehistory of Native Americans. And finally, they cite Anu M’Bantu, a British-born photo-journalist who also does not have advanced training in Mesoamerican Indigenous societies. M’Bantu has written several self-published books with curious titles, such as The Ancient Black Hebrews and Arabs (2013) and The Black Kings of Europe (2019). Sources can either make or break a thesis, and the ones in question here are the kind that usually get flagged during peer-review.

We certainly agree that the history and legacy of African peoples in the Americas is still not sufficiently taught in schools, but we do children a disservice by advancing opinions as “facts.” Promoting the idea that the Olmec were black is more than simply poor scholarship, it is an erasure of the accomplishments of Indigenous Mexicans. Africa and Mexico are both home to fascinating civilizations, each with their own advancements in technology, linguistics, agriculture, and science. When we embrace the pseudohistory of “Black Olmecs,” we trivialize and marginalize the legacies of both Africans and Indigenous Mexicans.

Africa and Mexico are both home to fascinating civilizations, each with their own advancements in technology, linguistics, agriculture, and science. When we embrace the pseudohistory of “Black Olmecs,” we trivialize and marginalize the legacies of both Africans and Indigenous Mexicans.

Thus, in light of this major oversight, we ask that the The Urban Review journal retract the article by Wiggan et al and discontinue its promotion of “Black Olmecs.” As long-time ethnic studies researchers and educators ourselves, we would prefer to see accurate and far more meaningful scholarship that explores better ways of advancing education among urban youth. Certainly, we can recognize the heritage of Africans and African Americans — as well as that of Afro-Mexicans — without promoting a distorted, colonialist, and fanciful version of history. In the words of Van Sertima himself: “You cannot really conceive how insulting it is to Native Americans to be told they were discovered” (pg 21). We agree with Sertima on that point, but we would further add that it is just as equally insulting to be told that someone else gave your ancestors their culture. You cannot counter colonialist thought with colonialist pedagogy.

Kurly Tlapoyawa, Supervisory Archaeologist and Professor of Chicano Studies at Colegio Chicano del Pueblo.


Religion

With the absence of no direct written accounts of Olmec beliefs, what is known about their life and religion is gotten from clues provided by their notable artwork discovered by archaeologists.

Seemingly, the Olmecs had a particular reverence for natural places which connected with the important junctions of sky, earth and the underworld. As to the names of their gods, none is known other than that the gods often represented phenomena such as rain, the earth and especially maize. Because of this, identifiable gods from Olmec art have been given numbers instead of names (e.g. God VI). As reported by the Khan Academy, “there were eight different androgynous—possessing male and female characteristics—Olmec deities, each with its own distinct characteristics. For example, the Bird Monster was depicted as a harpy eagle associated with rulership. The Olmec Dragon was shown with flame eyebrows, a bulbous nose, and bifurcated tongue.” Olmec deities often represented a natural element and included the Maize deity the Rain Spirit or Were-Jaguar and the Fish or Shark Monster. Religious activities regarding these deities probably included the elite rulers, shamans, and possibly a priest class making offerings at religious sites in La Venta and San Lorenzo.

The people gave special significance to the animals present in their environment, especially those at the top of the food chain such as jaguars, eagles, caimans, snakes and even sharks, identifying them with divine beings. Also, they believed that powerful rulers could transform themselves at will into such creatures. The people also liked to mix animals in order to create weird and wonderful creatures such as the were-jaguar (a cross between a human and a jaguar) which may have been their supreme deity, and worshipped a sky-dragon. It is also known that they believed four dwarves held up the sky. This possibly represented the four cardinal directions which, along with other Olmec gods, became so important in later Mesoamerican religions.


The Olmec: The Children of the Were-Jaguar

For two millennia, the Olmec civilisation lay forgotten beneath the jungles of Veracruz and the ruins of subsequent Mesoamerican cities. The trail of their rediscovery began in 1867 when José Melgar y Serrano reported the existence of an enormous basalt head in the village of Tres Zapotes. The heads have
Fig W0620: Olmec Head from La Venta captured the imagination ever since and feature in many interesting theories about the ancestral roots of this ancient culture – most of which concentrate on the strong African facial features (see fig. W0620) and suggest the Olmec arrived via ancient transoceanic contact. But, whilst the heads are a curiosity deserving of their iconic status, there is nothing to suggest the Olmec considered them ancestors or even part of their own culture. Instead, it is the equally bizarre “were-jaguar” effigies that seem to be the key to uncovering the Olmec’s identity.

The Olmec civilisation were given their name by historian Marshall H Saville in 1929 and is based on an Aztec name, meaning “rubber people”. The Aztec had used it to describe a culture from the rubber making region of Veracruz, where many new discoveries had been found which Saville was investigating. It is thought that Saville, who died just 6 years later, was commenting on another, more recent, culture of the same region 1 , however the name ended up being mistakenly attributed to this much more ancient civilisation.

Incredibly, it wasn’t until 1930 that Matthew Stirling began excavations at Tres Zapotes and started to reveal the extent of the city and the Olmec civilisation. Because the city had changed hands following the decline of the Olmec, it took some time to realise that deep underneath the ground lay the remains of Mesoamerica’s founding civilisation. Stirling went on to excavate San Lorenzo in 1938 and La Venta in 1943 with all three sites thought to be Mayan until radiocarbon testing during the 1950’s determined these cities to date from the 2nd millenium BC. Stirling had uncovered a very ancient civilisation which had been long-forgotten by the time the Spanish arrived, and all we know about them is what has been uncovered and hypothesised in the past 60 years. With such strange artwork emerging from the ground, it seems the more that is uncovered, the more mysterious this ancient civilisation becomes.


Fig. W0384: Olmec Were-Jaguar One early theme that was identified, was the half-man half-jaguar form known as the “Were-Jaguar”. The “Were-Jaguar” is most easily identified by its human-like form combined with a down-turned mouth, an elongated feline snout and a cleft head. This is exemplified by the basalt head found in the Museo Regional de Antropologia at Villahermosa (fig. W0384), which clearly marries the head of a man with the mouth of a jaguar. This example also features an “X” shaped cross in its right eye, which is a common glyph in Olmec art. The meaning of the “X” is not entirely clear, as it is used in many different contexts and research hasn’t settled on a single meaning. Here it would seem most obvious that it symbolises blindness or death of the eye. However, it could mean the complete opposite, for the “X” is often seen on the attire of the Were-Jaguar and other deities, where it is believed to symbolise the underworld 2 . With the jaguar having been revered for its nocturnal prowess, it may be that the “X” signifies the ability to see in the darkness of the underworld.


Fig. W0626: Monument 77, La Venta Monument 77 at La Venta (fig. W0626) also features the emblems of the Were-Jaguar, including the downturned mouth, ear-pleats, and the “X” across his chest. The “X” also appears on his belt and cloak, where they appear within, or over, symbols of temples or buildings. The association between the cross and death or the underworld could still bare meaning in this context, but there could also be a more simple meaning to it, such as symbolising a unity of four elementary powers, four regions or the four cardinal directions (as the cross is frequently used to denote). Considering the location of the Olmec Empire, which straddled the isthmus of Tehuantepec (the narrowest part of Mexico), it could also be that the shape is not a cross, but a hyperboloid (a horizontal hourglass shape), and relates to the territory that the Olmec controlled either side of the isthmus. If it did symbolise the kingdom or the cardinal points, then the “X” could also have the wider meaning of “everything” or of symbolising universal power. In the context of being used within the eye of the Jaguar God (fig. W0384), it could mean the Jaguar God looks over the Kingdom when used on the chest of Monument 77 (fig. W0626), it could mean he rules the Kingdom when used with a building, it symbolises the city at the epicentre of their Kingdom and when used with a temple, it refers to the most powerful temple of the Kingdom.


Fig OCM01: The “X” formed by the Isthmus of Tehuantepec The satellite image in fig. OCM01 highlights how the Olmec “X” may be symbolic of a kingdom that stretched either side of the isthmus. The region highlighted includes the three major cities of the Olmec, which are represented by the three stars around the northern “V” shape of the isthmus. Of the trio, Tres Zapotes is to the west, San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan is the centre/south, and La Venta to the east. The star on the eastern boundary of the highlighted region is the Mayan city of Palenque, and the star in the southwest tip is Zapotec city of Monte Alban. These cities are believed to have been founded by the Olmec and the “X” form does appear to be encrypted
MAE02: “X” of Monte Alban into the main temples of Monte Albán (click fig MAE02 for more info). Not only does the map highlight the possibility that the Olmec “X” represents this huge kingdom, but the northern section of the isthmus creates a cleft very similar to that which features on the heads of Olmec statues. This is further punctuated by the three Olmec cities of Tres Zapotes, San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan and La Venta, whose geographical locations create an even more precise “V” shape which truly does resemble the cleft-head of the Jaguar Gods.


Fig W0627: Monument 77, La Venta – Rear Image Despite featuring many emblems of the Were-Jaguar, the statue is named “The Governor”, or ruler, and this concurs with the idea the “X” stands for universal power. Due to the damage, it is not possible to tell immediately if it had a cleft head, but he certainly doesn’t have a snout. However, looking at the rear of the statue (fig. W0627) it is clear that he would have had a cleft head which would have been formed by the special headdress of two crocodiles. Crocodiles, like jaguars, were revered for their vicious fighting and hunting abilities and were also often linked to the gods of waters (such as rain) due to their aquatic habitat. As this man has the downturned mouth of the jaguar (without the animal-like snout) and wears a headdress of crocodiles, it is fair to suggest that he is a human who has been given, or inherited, special animal powers.

With the theme of the downturned mouth being so prevalent in both anthropomorphic characters and human characters, it raises the possibility that it symbolises a holy or royal lineage, rather than a physical trait. This lineage may have started with a legendary copulation between a Jaguar (or Jaguar God) and a Woman, with the descendants and kings of the Olmec inheriting the traits of the jaguar. Other animal traits may then have been added through royal marriages and their offspring, leading to a number of deviations of the jaguar form, including the bird and dragon features seen in other images.


Monument 1, Las Limas Babies and children feature heavily in the carvings and reliefs of the Olmec, which supports the idea that jaguar imagery corresponds to the royal jaguar lineage . One prime example is Monument 1 from Las Limas, which is a stone carving of a parent holding a were-jaguar baby. The baby exhibits all the emblems of the were-jaguar, including the downturned mouth, ear braids and the “X” across the chest. The parent has inscriptions of four other supernaturals engraved on their knees and shoulders, including the “Banded-eye God”, “Olmec Dragon”, “Bird Monster” and “Fish Monster”. The common belief is that the statue represents the offering of the deformed baby to the Gods. However, the statue could equally be commemorating the birth of a new member of the Jaguar lineage and a successor to the throne of the “X” Kingdom, with the inscription on the knees and shoulders indicating the parent’s own divine lineage which is passing onto the child.

Altar 5 from La Venta echoes this theme and features a carving of a parent emerging from a cave holding a young were-jaguar infant. The parent has the “X” on his headdress, possibly indicating that he is the ruler of the city, and an image of the jaguar face on the headband, indicating his lineage. Along each side of the altar are images of four other children with downturned mouths being carried by guardians sporting regal headdresses. Looking from the front, the foremost child on the left hand side appears to have the distinctive crocodile headdress featured on Monument 77 and this could be an infantile image of this ruler. The furthermost child from the right hand side is clearly the “Bird-Monster” as detailed on Las Limas’ Monument 1. The meaning of the altar is unknown, but as with Monument 1 from Las Limas, it could be describing the birth of a new family member, whilst detailing the other divine children as either the siblings or the ancestors (grandparents) of the new-born child.


La Venta, Altar 5 Left – The Crocodile Child
La Venta, Altar 5 Right – The Bird Monster

Therefore, it is entirely logical that the Olmec, or at least the royal lineage, believed they were descended from a Jaguar God, who they depicted with a cleft head, large eyes and feline snout. Subsequently, the descendants of the Jaguar God featured downturned feline mouths –this may have been simple iconography of the Jaguar lineage, but it may have been a physical family trait and the story of the jaguar may have been designed to explain this hereditary deformity. The Jaguar Kings wore the sacred “X” badge of the unified state, as well as the ear-plaits and headdresses which emulated the cleft head of the Jaguar God. Subsequent royal breeding married the Jaguar lineage with other powerful royal lines, such as the descendants of the Bird God, the Dragon/ Serpent God, the Crocodile God, and the so on. The sacred offspring of these royal alliances were then recorded on great monuments that would have taken pride of place around the cities of the Olmec kingdom, in the royal palaces, homes of the elite, and sacred temples to remind visitors and citizens of the royal lineage and its super-natural powers.

The official research yields a quite different reasoning, it should be mentioned, believing the images of “were-babies” to be portraying the sacrificial offering of new-borns and children to the Gods. There is no agreement on the existence of the other 7 supernaturals or their roles in the Olmec religion. There is no agreement on the meaning of the “X” thatseems to be of such great importance it appears everywhere. There is little understanding on the difference between the jaguar portrayals which feature the snout and those that simply feature the downturned mouth. However, research is very much in its infancy and the more that is recovered from the ground and private collections, the more understanding researches will have. For the time being, the idea of a jaguar lineage seems as strong, if not stronger, than any other explanation for trends found in the Olmec artwork, and should possibly be known as the Children of the Jaguar.


Olmec Heads of Mexico (1200-400 B.C.?)

The Olmec heads of Mexico are a collection of 17 giant stone head sculptures believed to have been carved by the Olmecs. The heads, and their inspiration, have been the cause for much debate throughout history.

The Olmec civilization is considered to be the first major Mesoamerican culture and was believed to have existed between 1200 and 400 B.C. It was located along Mexico’s Gulf Coast in what are now known as the Mexican states of Tabasco and Veracruz. The Olmecs were adept traders and artisans and built the cities of San Lorenzo, La Venta, and Tres Zapotes. These, along with other remnants of the Olmecs’ existence, would later become archaeological sites.

The first Olmec head, Tres Zapotes Colossal Head One, was first discovered by archeologist Matthew Stirling in 1938. Sixteen other heads were subsequently found with one from La Cobata, another from Tres Zapotes, four from La Venta, and ten from San Lorenzo. Precise dating of the heads is difficult due to various factors such as their being moved or uncovered but it is believed that they were made anywhere between 50-200 years apart. All of the sculptures depict a helmeted man but each individual sculpture has its own set of unique facial characteristics. The sculptures are estimated to weigh about 40 tons and stand between 10-15 feet tall. All but two heads were composed of basalt boulders from the Tuxtla Sierra mountains which were as far as 50-60 miles away from where the heads were discovered. The two heads that did not utilize the basalt were the San Lorenzo heads and they were repurposed from earlier stone thrones. Traces of pigments and plaster on one of the heads suggests that the heads may have been painted at one point.

There are numerous theories about the inspirations, motivations, and uses of these Olmec sculptures. Previous theories had suggested that the heads depicted Olmec gods, athletes, or even early black civilizations due to the heads possessing what appear to be African features. These theories, however, have been abandoned and it is now thought that the heads represent Olmec rulers and that the facial features are not African but rather represent the people who reside in the Mexican Gulf Coast. Some have suggested that the heads were moved around for ritual purposes or that the heads were used to signify political power. It has also been speculated that some of the heads were buried as part of ancestor worship or by rulers hoping to neutralize a predecessor’s influence.

Uncovering the Olmec Heads of Mexico, 1938

All of the authentic Olmec heads can be found in Mexico. San Lorenzo Head (10) is located at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán Community Museum while San Lorenzo Heads (2) and (6) are at Mexico City’s National Anthropology Museum. Xalapa’s Anthropology Museum houses the remaining San Lorenzo sculptures. All of the La Venta heads are in Villahermosa. One of the Tres Zapotes Heads is in the Tres Zapotes Community Museum while its companion, along with the La Cobata head, is located at Tuxtla’s Central Plaza.


Olmec civilization

The major Olmec urban area in early times was San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, at the time the largest city in Mesoamerica.  This was probably a ritual and political place, housing thousands and using an elaborate water and drainage system.  The city and in fact the ancient Olmec civilization is often remembered because of the gigantic stone heads that have been found here.

There are a couple of reasons why the Olmecs are so important. ਏirst, they used and perhaps developed many things culturally and religiously that were later used by the Mayans and Aztecs and many other cultures.  Second, they had a wide influence in their day, which gives us reason to believe that they may be responsible for spreading some of these ideas.

The Olmecs carved stone, jade, and the volcanic rock basalt (used for the great stone heads).  The stone was quarried and imported.

We can see similar types of sculpture as far away as central Mexico (the land of the Aztecs) and the states of Oaxaca, Morelos, Guerrero, perhaps even farther.

In 2006, archaeologists unearthed a city that they believed was influenced by the Olmecs, only 40km / 25mi south of Mexico City. ਊ new urban society related to the Olmecs suggests that their influence may have been stronger than we ever suspected.  Read more about the city of Zazacatla and the ancient Olmec civilization.

The Olmecs had a rich society, traded with far away peoples and ate a wide variety of foods (did they pioneer some dishes of Aztec food?).

Another Olmec head, courtesy of Wikipedia (cc-by-sa license)


The Feathered Serpent is shown as a rattlesnake, either coiled or slithering, with feathers on its head. One excellent example is Monument 19 from La Venta.

The feathered serpent is not very common in surviving Olmec art. Later incarnations such as Quetzalcoatl among the Aztecs or Kukulkan among the Maya seemingly had a much more important place in religion and daily life.

Nevertheless, this common ancestor of the significant feathered serpents to come in Mesoamerican religion is considered important by researchers.


The Olmec at La Venta

Around 900 BC, after three hundred years, the Olmec pretty much abandoned their main city at Tenochtitlan and moved their government to another city. We call this new city La Venta.

Maybe this was because of changes in the weather at this time. Or it may have been because the river changed its course and the people moved to be near the new riverbed.

Some people think it could have been because of a civil war or invasions.