Mystery of The Olmec Heads

Olmec culture was unknown to historians until the mid-19th century. In 1869 the Mexican antiquarian traveller José Melgar y Serrano published a description of the first Olmec monument to have been found in situ. The Olmec flourished during Mesoamerica's Formative period, dating roughly from 1400 BCE to about 400 BCE. They were the first Mesoamerican civilization and laid many of the foundations for the civilizations that followed. Among other "firsts", there is evidence that the Olmec practiced ritual bloodletting and played the Mesoamerican ballgame, hallmarks of nearly all subsequent Mesoamerican societies. The most familiar aspect of the Olmecs is their artwork, particularly the aptly-named colossal heads. As no known pre-Columbian text explains them, these impressive monuments have been the subject of much speculation.

Once theorized to be ballplayers, it is now generally accepted that these heads are portraits of rulers, perhaps dressed as ballplayers. Infused with individuality, no two heads are alike and the helmet-like headdresses are adorned with distinctive elements, suggesting to some personal or group symbols. There have been 17 colossal heads unearthed to date. In 1858, inhabitants of the village of Tres Zapotes in the state of Veracruz on the Gulf Coast of Mexico were digging when they encountered a stone object. Removing more soil, they found to their astonishment that it had a polished, curved surface. They dug further and realized that they were uncovering what appeared to be the head of an immense stone statue. Superstitiously afraid of what they might reveal if they continued, they shoveled the earth back over their find and it remained hidden for the best part of a century.

In 1938, the head of the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology was Matthew Stirling, one of the world’s leading archaeologists and a specialist in Middle American cultures, specifically interested in sites where the various prehistoric factions of Mexico had met and reacted and Tres Zapotes on the Gulf Coast emerged as a prime possible site. A close colleague of Stirling was William Duncan Strong, the head of Columbia University’s Department of Anthropology and at one of their discussions, Stirling told Strong of his intentions to explore the Tres Zapotes location and asked if he knew anyone with knowledge of the area. Strong did not pointing out that the area was undeveloped but he suggested Clarence Wolsey Weiant, one of his most promising graduate students who was at that time completing his doctorate— and hoping to make Tres Zapotes his doctoral fieldwork.

Clarence Weiant with his Tres Zapotes discovery

Strong took Weiant on an Indian dig in North Dakota to observe his performance. He was sufficiently impressed that when a joint expedition of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Association was proposed and Strong was invited to be its leader, Strong’s immediate choice as chief assistant was Weiant. Strong must have known how Weiant supported himself and his studies but it must not have influenced him in any way. Nevertheless, that means of support was a remarkable contrast to archaeology— because Weiant was a chiropractor!

At the time, the discipline of chiropractic was highly controversial and scorned by most of the medical profession. Yet it was lucrative and Weiant quickly built up a busy practice after obtaining his professorship from the Eastern Chiropractic Institute of New York. Still in his twenties and with a mind open to unorthodox disciplines, he became interested in parapsychology and assisted the well-known Hereward Carrington in his experiments on thought-photography. In these, they were able to prove that it was possible for human thoughts to produce images on fresh, unexposed photographic film. Their results formed the basis for the work done in more recent times—and more widely publicized—by Ted Serios.

It was when Weiant was in his thirties that he formed a passion for archaeology. This grew until it led him to be certain that this was to be his life’s work and prompted his enrollment at Columbia University. Weiant was forty-one years old when he and Stirling went to the site at Tres Zapotes. There, they encountered a swampy terrain, continual rain, waist-deep mud, tarantulas, snakes and interminable insects. Despite these terrible conditions, they conducted a thorough search of a two-mile-long stretch and during their four months there they made several remarkable discoveries. A number of stone tablets were excavated and these later proved to bear the oldest recorded date discovered in the New World up to that time.

At first it was believed to be 291 B.C. but later work adjusted this to the date that still prevails to today—31 B.C. A figurine of what was believed to be a religious personage was also found, also fifteen U-shaped stone sculptures, intensively worked and polished. The purpose of these is still a matter of contention. An earlier belief, now less popular but not yet discarded, is that they were yokes to be attached to the necks of persons being sacrificed to the gods. This could have been to restrict their struggles when their chests were cut open and their hearts removed or at least to prevent the victims from spoiling the dignity of what was a religious ceremony in which they were the reluctant sacrificial ‘goats’. Most current authorities disdain this theory today and a more popular current belief is that the yokes were used in a ball game—several of these were played in Central America in prehistoric times.

The most striking of all the discoveries, though, came after one of the locals related to Weiant the story of the find made many years before and covered over in superstitious fear. The tale had become a part of the word-of-mouth history of Tres Zapotes and passed into local mythology. Weiant wasted no time in investigating the legend. He quickly gathered together some men. The digging team cut a trench through the area shown to them and unearthed one of the most famous objects ever discovered on the American continent. It was promptly named ‘La Cabeza Colosal’, the Giant Head. More than six feet high and weighing over ten tons, it provoked a storm of controversy. The features are somewhat negroid with a short broad nose, thick heavy lips with drawn-down corners and slit eyes. These generated early suggestions that this indicated an African origin but it is now considered more likely that these characteristics were brought when the first humans entered the Americas from Asia and Africa.

The head is made from basalt, a hard, volcanic rock with an almost glassy appearance. None of the digging team at Tres Zapotes could even conjecture how the people had carved such an effigy. Neither iron or copper occurs in the area so tools of iron or bronze could not have been used. It would be theoretically possible to cut with other stone materials— but which? It would also be an incredibly time-consuming task. These and other practical aspects were hotly debated when the expedition returned to the USA in April 1939 but a much more profound discussion arose. Until that time, the Mayan civilization had been believed to be the ‘mother culture’ of Mexico. Their area of influence was in what is today the Yucatan peninsula, stretching from Belize in the east as far as the state of Tabasco in Mexico in the west. The Aztec civilization was still further west, from Oaxaca up to Hidalgo and Tlaxcala and close to what is now Mexico City.

The findings at Tres Zapotes on this and later expeditions to the area produced a remarkable shift in the thinking that prevailed concerning pre-Colombian civilizations. This led to the astonishing conclusion that the then-current conviction that the Mayans were the ‘mother culture’ of Central America was wrong. In fact, the Olmecs, dominant from 1300 B.C. to about 400 B.C. most have been the true ‘mother culture’ and the roots of both the Maya and the Aztecs must lie with the Olmecs. Much theorizing has taken place about where the Olmecs came from but the most recent work using carbon dating indicates that the region was inhabited as early as 1700 B.C. These inhabitants were the direct ancestors, corn farmers who were also energetic fisherman and hunters. This meant that five hundred years before Rome was founded and as far back as Trojan Wars, the Olmecs were building great cities and erecting pyramids bigger than those to be built later in Egypt.

Over 170 Olmec monuments have been excavated in the Olmec domain and these include polished jade ‘celts’—prehistoric axe-like tools resembling chisels, floors of colored tiles and burial chambers containing sandstone sarcophagi, some of these carved to represent crocodiles. Much Olmec art has been found damaged and broken, statues of rulers have been decapitated and altars have been found with huge pieces missing—though all of the ‘Olmec heads’ are intact. Early speculation was that this damage was done by vandals and grave-robbers but it is the current belief that mutilation of monuments in this way was done by the Olmecs La Venta. themselves, probably for ritualistic reasons.

One popular theory is that when a ruler died, all the monuments associated with him were damaged or destroyed. Two of the stone heads found at San Lorenzo have been identified as being originally altars. The dominating feature of altars in the Olmec world was the throne of a ruler and it seems likely that when a ruler died, he was venerated by converting his throne into a gigantic stone likeness in commemoration. The region comprising the centers where the heads have been found is densely populated by thick forests of rubber-bearing trees known as heveas. From a later Indian name for rubber, ollin, the people who created this culture were known as Olmec. Though slow in gaining acceptance, the theory of the Olmec as the mother culture grew over the ensuing years and further expeditions contributed data and findings to finally confirm it. Petroleum geologists began to dig for oil in the Tabasco region and they exhumed buried archaeological treasures. The advent of radiocarbon dating added confirmation.

Recent excavation (1991) has yielded more information on the procedure of making monuments. A large unfinished altar was found at Llano del Jicaro indicating that the monuments were cut roughly to shape at the quarry then transported to the religious site for finishing and assembly. Further gigantic stone heads have been found over the years and, to date, the total is seventeen. San Lorenzo and La Venta, a short distance along the coast from Tres Zapotas, have been the sites of most of these, and it is without doubt that more will be discovered.

All have conformed to that historic first find, ‘La Cabeza Colossi’ found at Tres Zapotes. The statues range from 5 to 11 feet in height, weigh 8 to 12 tons and all are carved in painstaking detail from basalt, the original block of stone weighing as much as 18 tons. Debate and discussion continue today on how they were carved. It is speculated that the tools they used must have been of a stone only a little harder than the basalt of the figure, making the work incredibly lengthy and tedious. Some of the heads excavated have what may be a crown or a helmet. If it is assumed to be a type of crown, perhaps it signifies that the head is that of a ruler. Some of these headpieces have a symbol believed to be specific to that particular sovereign. The second proposal, that it is a helmet, stems from the theory that the statues represent the decapitated heads of losers of a ball game which had religious undertones.

Small hard rubber balls have been found at El Manati near San Lorenzo, these being rather like squash balls. Helmets might well have been essential in such games as the balls weigh as much as 4 lbs and some protection might have been necessary in this dangerous game. Courts where this game might have been played have been found at various locations. It is known that the Toltecs, at least a thousand years later, played a similar game. Two teams played, using a hard rubber ball, and the object of the game was to pass the ball through stone rings hung at either side of the court. The ball could not be propelled by the feet or hands, however— only other parts of the body. It is possible that the stone yoke around the neck and a helmet would have helped the Olmec players considerably. Scoring a ‘goal’ was very unusual nonetheless but, for both cultures, the penalty for defeat was possibly beheading.

Another puzzle is that no basalt is available near Tres Zapotes, La Venta and San Lorenzo— the three sites that between them, account for almost all the 17 heads. The nearest basalt quarries are in the Tuxtlas Mountains, nearly a hundred miles away. (This is an intriguing parallel with Stonehenge where the bluestones used in its building were brought from the Prescelly Mountains, 240 miles away in South Wales, and with the ten-mile-wide Bristol Channel blocking the way.) It has been theorized that the blocks of basalt were roughly trimmed at the quarry where they were excavated then finished after removal to the site. Rafts along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico is a possible means of transportation though not without enormous problems of loading and unloading.

An alternate theory is that they were dragged overland on specially constructed sledges during the dry season, although such a route is crisscrossed with massive rivers and dense swamps. The ability of the Olmecs to overcome all these difficulties of quarrying, carving and transport by land or sea suggests a fairly sophisticated culture, and with the gradual acceptance that the Olmecs were the earliest civilization in Central America has followed a great amount of curiosity concerning everything about them. It has been learned that they had a barand- dot system for indicating numbers and this was used to date many carved artifacts— the oldest of these is still one of the stone tablets found by Clarence Weiant, corresponding to a date of 31 B.C.. A bar represented a numerical value of 5 and a dot represented a value of 1. The Mayans later adopted this system of counting in their calendars.

The Olmecs had a writing system that was used as early as 1,000 B.C. that consisted of both hieroglyphics and syllabic signs. Decipherment of this language has contributed vastly to an understanding of the Olmec world. This has also indicated that two of the sites where the giant heads have been found, La Venta and San Lorenzo, were inhabited as early as 1,700 B.C. and this has been confirmed by radiocarbon dating of excavated objects. The fascinating world of the Olmecs and the role they played in shaping the destiny of Central America is still being unraveled. Many aspects of the Olmecs’ life remain a mystery to this day and one of the most mysterious is, without doubt, Las Cabezas Colosales, the Giant Heads. And as for the question of where the Olmecs, themselves, came from, the answer, so far, is no one knows.

(Sources : Atlantis Rising Magazine vol.57 : “The Riddle of The Olmec Heads by Peter King”; and Wikipedia)

(Pics sources :; Atlantis Rising Magazine vol.57 : “The Riddle of The Olmec Heads by Peter King” page 36)
Mystery of The Olmec Heads Mystery of The Olmec Heads Reviewed by Tripzibit on 15:58 Rating: 5

1 comment:

  1. Interesting note about "the discipline of chiropractic was highly controversial and scorned by most of the medical profession" - its still the same case today, and there are still plenty of medical doctors who would say that if you have chronic back pain that you shouldn't use chiropractic, but should instead just dull the pain away with pharmaceuticals.

    Some things never change.


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