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The Mystery of the Origin of the Olmecs by David Hatcher Childress

“We can trace the progress of man in Mexico without noting any definite Old World influence during this period (1000-650 BC) except a strong Negroid substratum connected with the Magicians (High Priests).” —Frederick Peterson, Ancient Mexico (1959)

The Strange World of the Olmecs The oldest, and probably greatest mystery of early Mexico, and North America, in general, is the problem of the Olmecs. Olmecs are now often referred to as Proto-Mayans by academic archeologists, or Olmans, meaning inhabitants of Olman, the “Olmec Land” as it is now being called. When one looks at the enigmatic cave drawings, the gigantic, perfectly carved heads, the trademark “frown,” and the violent, militaristic look of the Olmecs, an emphatic question leaps to the forebrain: “Who are these weirdos?” The strange world of the Olmecs is only now being pieced together. In their art, Olmecs are often dressed in leather helmets, have broad faces and thick lips (plus broad noses), have a mean-looking expression, and could easily be likened to a bunch of angry African rugby players, maybe from Nigeria or Tanzania. While mainstream archeologists assure us that Africans never colonized Mexico or Central America, the average man looks at these statues and heads and wonders how academia can make such a blatantly wrong assertion, one that is startlingly unscientific at its very core. Even though it is sanctioned by the hallowed halls of academia to tell the masses of tourists and students alike that these were not Africans, one must conclude that these academics are blind, insane or both! What is fascinating about this enigmatic civilization to us modern viewers is how they represented themselves. In addition to these showing Negroid features, many artifacts depict individuals who have Oriental or European features. It is therefore very interesting to pay close attention to how the figures are presented—how they dressed; the head gear they wore; the shape of their eyes, nose, ears and mouths; the way they held their hands; and the expressions on their faces. It is all wonderful art at its finest. The expressions and symbolism in the objects they hold or are associated with seem to indicate a high level of sophistication, and a shared iconography—What does it all mean? Who are these people? Were they isolated villagers or strangers from a faraway land? The Discovery of the Olmecs Until the 1930s it was largely held that the oldest civilization in the Americas was that of the Maya. The great quantity of Mayan monuments, steles, pottery, statues and other artifacts discovered throughout the Yucatan, Guatemala and the Gulf Coast of Mexico had convinced archeologists that the Maya were the mother civilization of Central America. But some “Mayan artifacts” were different from the main bulk of the artifacts in subtle ways. One difference was that some carvings of large heads had faces with more African-looking features than many of the other Mayan works. Mayan paintings and sculpture can be quite varied but the African-looking features seemed distinctly un-Mayan. These African-looking heads often had a curious frown and often wore masks or appeared to be a half-jaguar-half-man beast. This recurring motif did not fit in with other Mayan finds. In 1929, Marshall H. Saville, the Director of the Museum of the American Indian in New York, classified these works as being from an entirely new culture not of Mayan heritage. Somewhat inappropriately, he called this culture Olmec (a name first assigned to it in 1927), which means “rubber people” in Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica (“Aztec”) people. Most of the early anomalous artifacts were found in the Tabbasco and Veracruz regions of southern Mexico, a swampy region exploited for natural gas, but in ancient times a source point for rubber. Ancient Mesoamericans, spanning from the Olmecs to Aztecs, extracted latex from Castilla elastica, a type of rubber tree in the area. The juice of a local vine Ipomoea alba, was then mixed with this latex to create rubber as early as 1600 BC (and possibly earlier). “Olmec” was the Aztec name for the people who lived in this area at the much later time of Aztec dominance. Indeed, the Olmecs are now credited with creating the ball game that played such a significant role in all Mesoamerican civilizations, and the rubber balls that were used in the game. This game may be even older than the Olmecs, in fact. Ball courts and the Olmec-Mayan ball game were popular even as far north as Arizona and Utah and as far south as Costa Rica and Panama. According to the famous Mexican archeologist Ignacio Bernal, Olmec-type art was first noticed as early as 1869 but, as noted above, the term “Olmec,” or “Rubber People,” was first used in 1927. Naturally, a number of prominent Mayan archeologists, including Eric Thompson who helped decipher the Mayan calendar, refused to believe that this new culture called the Olmecs could be earlier than the Mayas. Not until a special meeting in Mexico City in 1942 was the matter largely settled that the Olmecs predated the Mayas. The date for the beginning of the Olmec culture was to remain a matter of great debate, however. Bernal sums up this curious archeological episode in his book A History of Mexican Archaeology:

It seems barely credible today that, except for a few isolated mentions (Melgar, 1869, 1871), studies of small finds (Saville, 1902, 1929), or travels such as those of Blom and La Farge (1925) or Weyerstall (1937), what we now call the Olmec culture was totally unknown. It was in fact only in 1938 that the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society began work in the area, under the enthusiastic leadership of Matthew Stirling. In a few years they achieved the most sensational results by means of the exploration, albeit incomplete, of Tres Zapotes and La Venta. The extraordinary monoliths found in these cities and at other places in the area (to which Stirling was soon to add further equally marvelous finds from Cerro de las Mesas, a site which is not really Olmec though the finds to which I am referring are) caused a great stir in archaeological circles and threw up a whole series of problems of the highest importance for an understanding of the past. Perhaps the first of these problems was: to what date are we to assign this culture? Is it part of the horizon then still being called the Archaic? Is it a forerunner of the Maya and other cultures and thus the mother-culture of Mesoamerica as a whole? Or are we dealing with a late local culture corresponding with the ‘historic’ Olmec of the written sources? Each of these obviously related questions elicited a different answer. The somewhat skeptical position taken up by Eric Thompson, the greatest of the Mayanists (1941), and many others with regard to the antiquity of the Olmecs was based mainly on his refusal to accept the very early dates ascribed to the stone inscriptions, as on stela C at Tres Zapotes, and to the possibility that they might even antedate the Maya calendar. In effect, another of the basic changes in archaeological dating was the discovery that the Maya calendar is not strictly speaking Maya at all, but was in use before the first inscriptions at Uaxactun were set up. The Maya, therefore, did no more than elaborate upon it, refine it and make improvements upon it. The initial date inscribed on stela C was much disputed but there is now little doubt about it. Stirling’s theory, formulated even before the discovery of the other half of the stela, is the correct one. This proved not only that he had been justified in thinking of the date as very early—in fact it strikes us now as being if anything too recent—but that the whole Olmec culture is earlier than the Maya. This was anathema at the time because, as we have already seen, almost all the endeavors of the Carnegie and other institutions, North American in particular, had been directed towards Maya research, the consensus of opinion then being not only that the Maya culture was the oldest, but that all the other Mesoamerican cultures had stemmed from it. At the celebrated meeting held under the aegis of the Sociedad Mexicana de Antropología in 1942 to discuss the Olmec problem, archaeologists headed by Caso, Covarrubias and Noguera, along with Stirling, all maintained that the Olmecs belonged within the Archaic horizon. Caso claimed that the Olmec ‘is beyond doubt the parent of such other cultures as the Maya, the Teotilitiacin and that of El Tajín (1942:46). Covarrubias held that ‘whereas other cultural complexes share “Olmec” traits, this style contains no vestiges or elements taken over from other cultures, unless it be from those known as Archaic’ (1943:48). Vaillant was one of the few North Americans to back up these theories and he did so because, in the course of his fine work on the Central Plateau with which we are already familiar, he had come across Archaic figurines displaying undoubted kinship with Olmec types. Eric Thompson, on the other hand, thought that the Olmec was a late culture within what we have now come to call the Post-Classic And yet the name Olmec, first used by Beyer (1927) to designate this particular art style, has prevailed until today, incorrect though it may be. It is a source of confusion because it is lifted from historical sources which apply the term Olmec to very much later peoples. In 1942 Jiménez Moreno cleared the matter up by showing that the name Olmec properly refers to the inhabitants of the natural rubber-growing areas, but even so we have to distinguish clearly between the relatively recent bearers of the name and the archaeological Olmecs, which is why he proposed that these be called the ‘La Venta people’ to make confusion less confounded. But the name given at baptism was not to be shaken off, and is the one still used today. At the Mesa Redonda de Tuxtla in 1942 the Olmecs were given a provisional starting date around 300 BC. But somewhat later work at San Lorenzo, carried out with the aid of radiocarbon analysis—the use of which was spreading throughout the area—showed that 1200 BC was a more realistic date. This fitted in perfectly with what was being discovered all over Mesoamerica. It is a part of the general process that has already been discussed. Nineteenth-century scholars had often proposed fabulously early dates for the prehispanic peoples, and it produced in this century a vigorous counter-reaction which in its turn condensed them too drastically. But after 1950 this difficulty was to be overcome by the use of dating techniques that are not essentially archaeological. Many problems concerning the Olmec culture still remain unresolved, but its existence and its importance are now beyond question. Work at a number of sites outside the limited areas I have already mentioned aided serious discussion of Mesoamerican archaeology as a whole. Research focused mainly on architecture, sculpture and pottery, without as a rule paying much attention to those sidelines that we might call ethnological. In spite of this the results were remarkable, and by 1950 there was an immense amount of material awaiting study.

The Olmecs had been discovered. However, this discovery created more questions than there were answers. The discovery of the Olmecs seemed to cast into doubt many of the old assumptions concerning the prehistory of the Americas. Suddenly, here was a diverse-looking people who built monumental sculptures with amazing skill, were the actual “inventors” of the number and writing system used by the Maya, the ball game with its rubber balls and even knew about the wheel (as evidenced by their wheeled toys). The greater enigma was upon the archeologists—who were the Olmecs? Who Were the Olmecs? Bernal continued to study the Olmecs and came out with the only significant study on this early Central American culture in his 1969 book The Olmec World.3 In that book, Bernal discussed the curious finds attributed to the Olmecs all over southern Mexico and Central America, as far south as the site of Guanacaste in Nicaragua. However, he could not figure out the origin of these strange and distinctive people whose art featured bearded men, Negroid heads, and undecipherable hieroglyphs. Even such famous Mayan sites as Uaxactun and El Mirador were thought by Bernal to have been previously occupied by the Olmecs. Still, orthodox archeologists such as the well-known British writer and archeologist Nigel Davies maintain that the Olmec could not be the result of any transatlantic or transpacific contact. Says Davies: “Discounting the more romantic notions of an Olmec sea borne migration, doubts persisted as to which part of Mexico was their place of origin, since they were later present in almost every region. The problem has been hotly debated; Miguel Covarrubias became convinced that Olmec civilization first flourished in the state of Guerrero, bordering on the Pacific Ocean, but won little support for this view. Others have insisted with equal force that they originally came from highland Mexico. However, a fairly broad consensus now maintains that their heartland or home territory lay in the rubber land of southern Veracruz and Tabasco.”2 Davies is essentially saying that the Olmecs may have originated at Monte Alban in the Oaxaca highlands, Oxtotitlan or Juxtlahuaca near Acapulco on the Pacific or, most likely at Tres Zapotes and La Venta in the swamps along the Gulf of Mexico. All of these areas have known Olmec sites. The idea that the these strange Negroid heads might be the result of early African exploration seems totally alien to the historians and archeologists who have taken over the archeology of the Americas. Despite depictions of various lords, kings, travelers, magicians and whatnot that look like Africans, Chinese, bearded Europeans, or some other strangers, most professors teaching at our major universities maintain that they are not evidence of ancient pre-Columbian explorers. They admit, though, that people might erroneously get this idea from a “superficial” view of these various statues and carvings. So, even to mainstream historians, the origin of the Olmecs is a mystery. In the realm of alternative history, many theories exist on how Negroids arrived in Central America. One theory is that they are connected with Atlantis; as part of the warrior-class of that civilization they were tough and hard bitten. Or perhaps they were part of an Egyptian colony in Central America or from some unknown African empire. Others have suggested that they came across the Pacific from the lost continent of Mu, or as Shang Chinese mercenaries. Similarly, there is the curious association of “magicians” (or shamanic sorcerers using magic mushrooms and other psychedelics) to many of the Olmec statues—magicians from Africa, China, or even Atlantis? Are the Olmecs Transoceanic Colonizers? It is not known what name the ancient Olmec used for themselves; some later Mesoamerican accounts seem to refer to the ancient Olmec as “Tamoanchan.” The classic period for the Olmecs is generally considered to be from 1200 BC ending around 400 BC. Early, formative Olmec artifacts are said to go back to 1500 BC, and probably earlier. No one knows where the Olmecs came from, but the two predominant theories are:

1. They were Native Americans, derived from the same Siberian stock as most other Native Americans, and just happened to accentuate the Negroid genetic material that was latent in their genes. 2. They were outsiders who immigrated to the Olman area via boat, most likely as sailors or passengers on transoceanic voyages that went on for probably hundreds of years.

At the center of the debate about the origin of the Olmecs is the classic struggle between isolationists (who think that ancient man was incapable of transoceanic voyages, and therefore, nearly every ancient culture developed on its own) and diffusionists (who think that ancient man could span the oceans, which explains similarities in widely disparate cultures). There are a few proponents of diffusionism at the traditional academic level. Ivan Van Sertima of Rutgers University in New Jersey actively promotes the diffusionist theory that ancient man crossed both the Atlantic and the Pacific in prolonged transoceanic contact. His books, African Presence in Early America4 and African Presence in Early Asia,5 are filled with articles and photos that show without a doubt that Negroes have lived, literally, all over the world, including the ancient Americas. While Van Sertima does not bring in such unorthodox theories as Atlantis or a lost continent in the Pacific, he is clearly of the belief that Negroes in ancient times developed many advanced civilizations and lived all over the globe. Unfortunately, most of the writers in the academic field prefer to champion the isolationist theories to the virtual exclusion of the diffusionist. In the recent scholarly book by Richard A. Diehl, The Olmecs: America’s First Civilization,19 Diehl has only one paragraph on the subject, saying:

The origins of Olmec culture have intrigued scholars and lay people alike since Tres Zapotes Colossal Head I, a gigantic stone human head with vaguely Negroid features, was discovered in Veracruz 140 years ago. Since that time, Olmec culture and art have been attributed to seafaring Africans, Egyptians, Nubians, Phoenicians, Atlanteans, Japanese, Chinese, and other ancient wanderers. As often happens, the truth is infinitely more logical, if less romantic: the Olmecs were Native Americans who created a unique culture in southeastern Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Archeologists now trace Olmec origins back to pre-Olmec cultures in the region and there is no credible evidence for major intrusions from the outside. Futhermore, not a single bona fide artifact of Old World origin has ever appeared in an Olmec archaeological site, or for that matter anywhere else in Mesoamerica.

With this paragraph Diehl summarily dismisses all theories and evidence of transoceanic contact. We don’t really know what a bona fide artifact would be, since Old World and New World articles were often identical, as we shall see. Also, we are given no further information on the pre-Olmec cultures that the Olmecs are presumably derived from. But for the Olmecs to actually be Africans—not just look like them—they would almost certainly have come to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec via ship. But since such voyages are dismissed immediately and there will be no further discussion of it, the Olmecs simply have to be local boys who have always pretty much been there. At some time in remote prehistory, their early genetic group walked into this Olmec heartland area. According to Diehl, the Olmecs would have been an isolated group within their region as well, with little contact with other tribes in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Says Diehl:

We do not know what these people called themselves, or if they even had a term that encompassed all the inhabitants of Olman. There is no evidence that they formed a single unified ethnic group, and almost certainly no Olmec considered people living more than a few hours’ walk away as members of his or her own group. Nevertheless, the numerous independent local cultures were so similar to one another that modern scientists consider them a single generic culture.

This strong statement bears repeating: “…almost certainly no Olmec considered people living more than a few hours’ walk away as members of his or her own group.” If the Olmecs were isolated from neighbors only a few hours’ walk away, they certainly wouldn’t have had contact with people across an ocean, would they? As we progress with this book, we will examine just how accurate a statement this is—one that is largely accepted in many universities today, but would almost certainly seem to be wrong. The Olmec settlements, according to Diehl, rose up independently in their corner of Mesoamerica without the influence of any other culture. They all suddenly began making monumental statues out of basalt (one of the hardest and most difficult stones to carve), and made large structures with sophisticated drainage systems. But they weren’t really in contact with their early neighbors. The spread of Olmec-like artifacts was achieved only later when Olmec “styles” were used by other more widespread cultures. Diehl was actually proved wrong on this account when it was announced in January 2007 that an Olmec-influenced city had been found near Cuernavaca, hundreds of miles from Olmecs’ Gulf Coast territory, at Zazacatla. Announcements at that time stated that a “2,500-year-old city influenced by the Olmecs, often referred to as the mother culture of Mesoamerica, has been discovered hundreds of miles away from the Olmecs’ Gulf coast territory, archaeologists said.” (National Geographic News, January 26, 2007) More on this in the last chapter of this book, but archaeologists have now concluded that Olmecs inhabited a very large area of southern Mexico, much greater than had ever been imagined! This discovery is not really surprising since the Olmec city of Chalcatzingo near Mexico City was excavated and written about in the 1970s. So, the preponderance of the evidence shows that the Olmecs were very aware of the villages near to them, and aware of cities and peoples quite far from them. Were they aware of transoceanic civilizations as well? Diehl’s book, already outdated though published in 2004, is an interesting but fairly dry read. Not only does he refuse to discuss Negroid features and transoceanic contact in his book, but, except for one brief mention (below) there is no discussion of cranial deformation at all, which is one the more curious habits of the Olmecs and the Maya, and is found among many other cultures worldwide. The Olmecs had many unusual similarities with the Maya and other transoceanic cultures, such as: the reverence for jade and exotic feathers; the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms and other psychedelic drugs; and the use of hieroglyphs on stone stelae as markers. Says Diehl of the artifacts found at the Olmec burial at Tlatilco:

One high-status woman was laid to rest with 15 pots, 20 clay figurines, 2 pieces of red-painted bright green jadite that may have formed part of a bracelet, a crystalline hematite plaque, a bone fragment with traces of alfresco paint, and miscellaneous stones. Another burial held the remains of a male whose skull had been deliberately modified in infancy and whose teeth were trimmed into geometric patterns as an adult. He may have been a shaman since all the objects placed with him were likely part of a shaman’s power bundle. They included small metates for grinding hallucinogenic mushrooms, clay effigies of mushrooms, quartz, graphite, pitch, and other exotic materials that could have been used in curing rituals. A magnificent ceramic bottle placed in his grave depicted a contortionist or acrobat who rests on his stomach with his hands supporting his chin while his legs bend completely around so that his feet touch the top of his head. Could this masterpiece be an effigy of the actual occupant of the grave?

Indeed, Diehl almost gets excited about the Olmecs. Could they actually be psychedelic jaguar shamans who like to make monumental heads to keep themselves busy? The Olmecs, by any standard, are a fantastic, amazing, confusing, psychedelic, and in some cases, just plain weird people. We do not know where they came from. We don’t know why they were there. We don’t know what their “mission” was. In short we know very little about them. All we really know is that they are old, and they are strange. While it is easy to see them as Proto-Mayans and Citizens of Olman (however large that country might have been), we should also consider them as the fantastic Proto-Mesoamericans they may have been: psychedelic aliens who used lasers to cut colossal basalt heads; Atlantean refugees who made a last stand in Tabasco; or Shang-Chinese mercenaries taken from East Africa or Melanesia and specially trained to administer the Pacific (and later Atlantic) ports of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec; or perhaps a people originally from the Atlantic side all along, having come from Africa, possibly as a military force from Egypt or West Africa circa 1500 BC. There are many possibilities. So, with an open mind, let us look into the mysteries of the Olmecs, their fantastic art, their sophisticated technology, their unusual number system, writing system and other customs. What we find may surprise us. We are likely to find that the Olmecs were geniuses, but many other cultures had surprisingly similar ideas. Olman: The Land of the Olmecs The Olmecs are said to have occupied “The Land of Olman.” This was a designation that the Aztecs used to describe the jungle areas of the nearby coast. The traditional definition of the Olmecs is that they were an ancient Pre-Columbian people living in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, roughly in what are the modern-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Their immediate cultural influence went much further though, as their artwork has been found as far away as El Salvador and Costa Rica. The Olmec heartland is thought to be an area on the Gulf of Mexico coastal plain of southern Veracruz and Tabasco. This is because the area boasts the greatest concentration of Olmec monuments as well as the greatest number of Olmec sites. This area is thought to be the most northerly area of the Mayan realms, with such sites as Comacalco as the northernmost Mayan city along the Gulf Coast of the Ithmus of Tehuantepec. This Olmec heartland area is about 125 miles long and 50 miles wide (200 by 80 km), with the Coatzalcoalcos River system running through the middle. The Olmec heartland is characterized by swampy lowlands punctuated by low hill ridges and volcanoes. The Tuxtla Mountains rise sharply in the north, along the Bay of Campeche. Here the Olmecs constructed permanent city-temple complexes at several locations: San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán (usually just referred to as just San Lorenzo), Laguna de los Cerros, Tres Zapotes, La Mojarra and La Venta.  They also had great influence beyond the heartland: from Chalcatzingo, far to the west in the highlands of Mexico, to Izapa, on the Pacific coast near what is now Guatemala, Olmec goods have been found throughout Mesoamerica during this period, including south along the Pacific coast of El Salvador, and as Costa Rica. The Olmec domain extended 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 in Tabasco State (38%), San Lorenzo in Veracruz State (30%), and Laguna de los Cerros, also in Veracruz  State (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 could have provided cacao, rubber, and salt. San Lorenzo, at the center of the Olmec domain, controlled the vast flood plain 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. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec The heartland of the Olmecs is also the narrowest land area in Mexico, an area extremely important if an ocean-to-ocean trade route were to be established. This narrow area of southern Mexico is known as the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and it represents the shortest distance between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. The name comes from the town of Santo Domingo Tehuantepec in the state of Oaxaca, which in turn comes from the Nahuatl tecuani-tepec (“jaguar hill”). If you google “Ithmus of Tehuantepc” you will find that the isthmus includes:

…the part of Mexico lying between the 94th and 96th meridians of west longitude, or the southeastern parts of Veracruz and Oaxaca, including small areas of Chiapas and Tabasco. The isthmus is 200 km (125 miles) across at its narrowest point from gulf to gulf, or 192 km (120 miles) to the head of Laguna Superior on the Pacific coast. The Sierra Madre breaks down at this point into a broad, plateau-like ridge, whose elevation, at the highest point reached by the Tehuantepec railway (Chivela Pass), is 224 m (735 ft). The northern side of the isthmus is swampy and densely covered with jungle, which has been a greater obstacle to railway construction than the grades in crossing the sierra.

According to Wikipedia, the whole Tehuantepec region is:

…hot and malarial, except for the open elevations where the winds from the Pacific Ocean render the weather comparatively cool and healthy. The annual rainfall on the Atlantic or northern slope is 3,960 mm (156 in) and the maximum temperature about 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade. The Pacific slope has a light rainfall and dryer climate. The narrowness of the isthmus, and the gap in the Sierra Madre, allow the trade winds from the Gulf of Mexico to blow through to the Pacific; furthermore, the funneling effect of the mountains tends to increase the speed of these winds, often to gale force, particularly during winter following the passage of a strong cold front to the north. The Gulf of Tehuantepec, on the Pacific side of the isthmus, is therefore known to sailors as being especially prone to gales. Since the days of Hernán Cortés, the Tehuantepec isthmus has been considered a favorable route, first for an interoceanic canal, and since the 19th century for an interoceanic railway. The Gadsden Purchase in 1853 of portions of northwestern Mexico also included a provision allowing the U.S. to transport mail and trade goods across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec via a plank road and railroad. The 1859 McLane-Ocampo Treaty, which Benito Juárez signed but was never ratified by the United States Congress, would have given the US extensive transit rights along the same route. This shows how important the Isthmus of Tehuantepec was, in modern times, as in ancient times. Diffusionists (who advocate transoceanic contact between the Americas and Europe, Africa, Asia and Pacific Islands), maintain that important ports were used by ancient seafarers, and any sort of overland trade link between the Pacific and Atlantic ports would be highly desirable. Just as European engineers decided that they needed a canal across some narrow area of Central America 200 years ago, so did ancient civilizations many thousands of years ago. In fact, they apparently considered the same areas of Central America over the millennia: the narrow Panama isthmus with its many swamps and lakes; Nicaragua with its Rama River and huge lakes reaching nearly to the Pacific coast; and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Says Wikipedia:

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec was a favorite for some time, because its proximity to the axis of international trade gives it some advantage over the Panama route; the Isthmus of Panama, however, is significantly narrower. When the great cost of a canal across the isthmus compelled engineers and investors to give it up as impracticable, James B. Eads proposed to construct a quadruple track ship-railway, and the scheme received serious attention for some time. Then came projects for an ordinary railway, and several concessions were granted by the Mexican government for this purpose from 1857 to 1882. In the latter year the Mexican government resolved to undertake the enterprise on its own account, and entered into contracts with a prominent Mexican contractor for the work. In 1888 work on the railway began and in 1893, and 60 km (37 mi) remained to be built. A railroad link from coast to coast was finally completed in 1894, when it was found that the terminal ports were deficient in facilities and the road too light for heavy traffic. The government then entered into a contract with the London firm of contractors of S. Pearson & Son, Ltd., who had constructed the drainage works of the valley of Mexico and the new port works of Veracruz, to rebuild the line and construct terminal ports at Coatzacoalcos on the Gulf coast, and at Salina Cruz on the Pacific side. The work was begun on 10 December 1899, and was finished to a point where its formal opening for traffic was possible in January 1907.

Thus Mexico linked its important Atlantic and Pacific ports through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, an area was coincidently the original heartland of the Olmecs. Coincidence?

Ignacio Bernal has this to say in his book, The Olmec World:

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec unites the Olmec area with the Chiapas depression and the Pacific watershed. It is a region which attracted the Olmecs, for no mountains cut across it and the climate was tropical. In the central depression, and generally speaking, in the entire state of Chiapas, Olmec remains or others related to it appear constantly, though—as in other regions of Central America—they do not constitute the basis or majority of archaeological finds. We are dealing with a culture related to the Olmec, though with its own peculiar features. Black ceramics with white rims or spots appear quite frequently. At other sites such as San Agustin and on the Pacific coast of Chiapas the same ware has been found in scientific explorations. At Santa Cruz it is clearly associated with other types belonging to the Olmec complex. At Mirador abundant Olmec figurines have been unearthed. Even more obviously Olmec is the stela of Padre Piedra, which bears a representation of a standing personage; another man seems to be kneeling in front of him. It stands seven feet tall in its present state and originally was even larger. It can be of only local fabrication. This stela may have been associated with ceramics corresponding to Periods I and II of Chiapa de Corzo, which are Olmecoid. Another low relief on a rock near Batehaton is also markedly Olmec in style, and other Olmec objects are to found at numerous sites such as Simojovel and Ocozocuautla.

What Bernal is trying to establish here is that Olmecs were not just on the Atlantic coast but also on the Pacific coast of Chiapas. Olmecs are now known to have been on the Pacific coasts of Guatemala and El Salvador, too. Bernal goes on to say that the Pacific sites might be older than the Atlantic “heartland” sites and that some Mayan sites in the area, such as Izapa, were originally Olmec:

Some difficulties arise in correlating with precision the periods at Chiapa de Corzo with Olmec II, since Chiapa I would seem earlier. Late Chiapa II and early Chiapa III would largely correspond to Olmec II. Periods late III, IV, and V are to be connected with Olmec III, but discoveries do not correspond exactly to that pattern. The most important group of objects related to our discussion of the Olmecs consists of four admirably carved bones found in Tomb I. This tomb, however, belongs to the Chiapa VI period, thought to correspond to 100-1 BC, which is rather late. There is no doubt that the bones resemble the style of the Kaminaljuya stela and some elements at Monte Alban I, but their most evident relationship is with La Venta and with Izapa, another city which lies within the imperial Olmec world. A most important discovery was the find, in 1961, of stela fragments at Chiapa de Corzo. Though shattered and incomplete, they suggest associations with Izapa and Tres Zapotes; I consider them to fall within Olmec III. One of them, Stela 2, is especially interesting because it bears an inscription in the Long Count. …Stela 2 from Chiapa de Corzo would be the oldest Mesoamerican inscription found so far, three years and nine months older than Stela C at Tres Zapotes. It would correspond to December 7, 35 BC according to Correlation B, and to 294 BC according to Correlation A.

Scholars continue to argue about when the Olmec calendar (and Mayan, for that matter) began, with one starting date, Correlation A, beginning earlier and making Olmec dates, when they can be read, older. The calendar and Olmec dating will be discussed later. Olmecs in Lower Central America The Olmecs are also known to have occupied, or at least influenced, large areas of lower Central America, from Guatemala and El Salvador to Nicaragua, Costa Rica and probably beyond. One of the most famous statues in the Nacional Museum in San Jose, Costa Rica is an Olmec hunchback figure with an elongated cranium and oriental-type Olmec eyes. Costa Rica is also the site of the enigmatic, perfectly formed granite balls that defy explanation. Were they made by the Olmecs in a similar manner as the colossal heads? However, “known” Olmec sites go only as far as El Salvador. Says Bernal, “The coast of Chiapas is extremely narrow; perhaps because of the lack of exploration in this very limited area, we know little about archaeology. On the other hand, where the coast widens, the land reveals the remains of an entire and highly important culture, though almost completely unknown to us. The known sites extend from Tonalá in Chiapas as far as Chualchuapa in El Salvador. At times this coastal region had important relationships with the Guatemalan highlands, with the central depression of Chiapas, and with the Central Maya area.” Given that sites like Tonalá and Izapa were early Olmec sites that were later occupied by the Maya, other sites such as Monte Alban further north towards the Valley of Mexico can be assumed to have been first inhabited by the Olmec and then by later cultures. Once the Olmecs had been established as the oldest culture in Mesoamerica in the 1940s, by default they became the founders of many of the ancient cities. Essentially, if it could be proven that Olmec iconography was being used at an archeological site, then it must have been the Olmecs who founded that city, since the Olmecs are the oldest culture. While there may well have been earlier cultures than the Olmecs in Mesoamerica, none have been specifically identified by archeologists (at least that I am aware of). Since the oldest Maya sites such as Uaxactun in the Peten jungles north of Tikal are thought to have been first built by the Olmecs, it is possible that other older Mayan sites were also founded by the Olmecs. This list of Mayan sites founded by the Olmecs could include Copan, El Mirador, Piedras Negras and many others. Olmecs in Central Mexico Early archeologists believed that the Olmecs lived exclusively in the narrow area of lowlands in Veracruz and Tabasco, but excavations at farway Chalcatzingo during the 1960s and 70s showed that it was an Olmec site. The important Chalcatzingo archeological site is found at Km. 93 of the Cuernavaca-Cuautla highway, in the State of Morelos, just south of Mexico City. Located at the base of Cerro de la Cantera, a twin-peaked outcropping in the southeastern part of Morelos, carvings found at the site depict mythical and religious themes associated with agriculture and fertility. The name “Chalcatzingo” is of Náhuatl origin and could mean “Place most prized by the Chalcas,” “Venerated place of sacred water” or “Place of precious jades”—no one is quite sure what the translation would be. The stone engravings and sculptures at this site became the focus of interest in 1934 during studies by archeologist Eulalia Guzmán. The area holds remnants of various cultures from 3000 BC to present day, which indicate the presence of outsiders to the region, including a strong Olmec influence thought to have reached its peak between 700 BC and 500 AD. Archeologists theorized that Chalcatzingo was an outpost of the Olmec heartland established to facilitate trading. Olmec traders brought ceramics, agricultural goods and raw materials from other Olmec areas and Chalcatzingo became a trade center in the region. The site includes low reliefs and sculptures such as “The King” and “The Flying Man,” a Mural of Fertility, a Procession, “The Puma” and “The Queen” as well as structures such as the “Tlahuica Altar,” the “Olmec Altar” and a Ball Court. Much of the art and features of the site were published in David C. Grove’s 1984 book, Chalcatzingo: Excavations on the Olmec Frontier. It was announced in January 2007 that another Olmec-influenced city had been found at Zazacatla, in the vicinity of Chalcatzingo and Cuernavaca. Did the Olmecs have an extended influence in northern Mexico? Did they have some hand in building the mysterious pyramids at Teotihuacan? Teotihuacan was thought to be too far from the Olmec areas to have been built by them, but sites such as Chalcatzingo and Zazacatla are not so far away! La Venta and the Olmec Heartland Perhaps the Olmec capital was at La Venta, one of the greatest and most famous of the Olmec sites. The site is typically dated to have been active between 1200 BC and 400 BC, which places the major development of the city in the so-called Middle Formative Period. Located on an island in a coastal swamp overlooking the then-active Río Palma river, the city of La Venta would have controlled a region between the Mezcalapa and Coatzacoalcos rivers. Today, the Rio Palma is an inactive river, the area having reverted into a mass of swamps. One wonders if the Olmecs, as part of a gigantic earthworks project, had created a river through the swamp in which they created their “capital,” if that is what it was. The site of La Venta itself is about 18 miles inland with the island consisting of slightly more than two square miles of dry land. The main part of the site is a complex of clay constructions stretched out for 12 miles in a north-south direction, although the site is 8° West of true North. The entire southern end of the site is now covered by a petroleum refinery. Most of this section of the city has been largely demolished, making excavations difficult or impossible. Many of the site’s fabulous monuments are now on display in the archaeological museum and park in the city of Villahermosa, Tabasco, the oil capital of Mexico. La Venta and nearby San Lorenzo have been the source of many of the colossal heads that the Olmecs are so famous for. The important basalt quarries for the colossal stone heads and prismatic basalt logs are found in the Tuxtlas Mountains nearby. Marking the southern end of La Venta’s ceremonial precinct is an enormous pyramidal mound. Standing at the base of this pyramidal mound was Stela 25/26. This stela depicts a bundled zoomorphic creature with foliage at the top that is thought to represent a World Tree or axis mundi. The northern end of Complex A is mainly an enclosed courtyard, with a massive underground serpentine deposit. This serpentine deposit is thought to represent the primordial waters of creation. Buried beneath the enclosed courtyard was Offering 4, a now famous funeral offering that is an arrangement of six jade celts (adzes) and 15 jade figures of Olmecs with elongated craniums and oriental-looking eyes. A single figure that faces the others is carved from granite. The entire group of figures stand together amongst the upright jade celts that are apparently representing in miniature the tall granite stelae that were commonly used by the Olmecs and Maya (as well as Egyptians, Hindus, and other cultures). Although the significance of this miniature funeral arrangement is not known, it eloquently demonstrates the conceptual relationship between the forms of the celt-adze and granite stelae, by making the jade celts into miniature stelae with the jade figurines standing around the celt-stelae, as if at an important meeting. This exquisite arrangement can now be seen at the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City and is one of the most famous displays in the Olmec section. Two large adobe platforms guard the entrance to the enclosed courtyard. Beneath these platforms, enormous deposits of serpentine were placed in layers above alternating floors of colored sand. Although buried almost immediately after completion, these massive greenstone pavements are thought to have invested the ground with “cosmic power.” Moreover, the top layer of greenstone on each of these two flanking deposits was arranged into a quincunx pattern that marked the four corners of the universe and included a central bar, or axis mundi, marking the “center of the world.” A third pavement, almost identical to the first two, was located between the two parallel mounds that frame the central courtyard or alley that ran from the main pyramid to the enclosed courtyard. Unlike the other two mosaic pavements, however, this pavement showed signs of abrasion, as if it had not immediately been buried. As if to reinforce the theme of primordial waters that characterizes the enclosed courtyard at La Venta, a sandstone sarcophagus in the form of the “Olmec Dragon” floated above another massive deposit of greenstone at the center of the courtyard. Although a cache of jade jewelry was recovered from the interior of the hollowed-out sarcophagus, no skeletal material was found because of the acidic soils in the area. Nonetheless, the jewelry very likely once adorned the body of one of La Venta’s rulers. Also found at La Venta is the famous Altar 4, which probably functioned as a throne. This massive piece of carved basalt, weighing tons, depicts a ruler wearing a bird headdress and seated within a niche. He holds onto a rope that stretches around to the sides of the altar. On the side of the altar that has not been defaced is a seated individual whose hands are bound by the rope, seemingly as a captive. Another suggestion is, perhaps, that it represents ancestral lineage. Above the seated ruler on the front of the altar is the enormous open maw of a feline creature. This gaping jaguar mouth appears to be metaphorically related to the open portal from which the ruler is emerging. While it is thought that La Venta was the “capital” or most important city of the Olmecs, this may not actually be the case. We know so little about the Olmecs that it is impossible to say for sure how important La Venta was, or whether there were not more important cities and ceremonial sites for the Olmecs. For instance, some Olmec sites could be underwater in the Gulf of Mexico, or still buried in the swamps of Tabasco and Veracruz. Or, major Olmec sites might have been located in the interior of Mexico like Chalcatzingo or the recently discovered Zazacatla, nearby. These sites are are quite a distance from the so-called Olmec Heartland, and suggest that the Olmec lands—Olman—were quite extensive. As noted above, sites such as Monte Alban and Teotihuacan are thought by some archeologists to be associated with the Olmecs and it may be the case that these cities were originally important Olmec centers. The more we find out about the Olmecs, the deeper the mystery surrounding them becomes. We find that the Olmecs seem to include nearly every racial type in the world. How is this possible? The Olmecs are credited with everything from inventing the wheel, the ballgame and hieroglyphic writing, and it is now known they controlled most of southern Mexico from shore to shore. From a diffusionist point of view, the Land of Olman may well have been the “center of the world” as the Ithmus of Tehuantepec would indeed have been the center of the world if there was a strong transoceanic trade across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. If such a trade and movement of ships had existed, the Olmecs may well have been a cosmopolitical center where worldwide cultures intermingled.


Copyright © David Hatcher Childress 2007