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Did Ancient China Influence Olmec Mexico?

Uploaded by David Kaufman

More Info: This paper explores the question of transoceanic diffusion between ancient China and Olmec Mexico ca. 1200 BCE, primarily focusing on certain similarities apparent in stylistic art forms possibly shared on both sides of the Pacific between Neolithic and Shang China and Olmec Mexico.


This paper will explore the question of transoceanic diffusion between ancientChina and Olmec Mexico ca. 1200 BCE, primarily focusing on certain similarities apparent in stylistic art forms possibly shared on both sides of the Pacific between Neolithic and Shang China and Olmec Mexico. Traits shared between Shang China and Olmec Mexico include writing, jade, batons as symbols of rank, worship of mountains, north-south orientation of settlements, feline deity, and cranial deformation (Meggers1975). These last two will be discussed here, along with a third motif not mentioned by Meggers: donut-shaped disks. These motifs likely symbolize shaman-rulership. These similarities may have arisen in either of two ways: either through analogy (independent development) or through homology (transoceanic contact, or diffusion)(Trigger 2003, 20). This paper will argue for the latter hypothesis, arguing that ancient China may have had direct influence on Olmec Mexico through long-distance seafaring.


Many similarities in the art between ancient (Neolithic and Shang) China and Olmec Mexico have been noted and previously discussed in the literature (see, for example, Meggers 1975, Schneider 1977, Shao 1983). Between the arrival of NativeAmericans to the Americas ca. 12000 BCE or earlier, presumably primarily from Asiaacross the Bering Strait land bridge, until ca. 1000 CE, “certain human groups in theAmericas acquired, by unknown processes and to various degrees, practically all theaccoutrements of civilization known to the contemporary Old World” (Edwards 1971,294). One of the hypotheses proposed for the similarities in art and cultural accoutrements between Asia and Mesoamerica is ancient long-distance contact.However, the diffusionist hypothesis arguing for contacts between the ancientAmericas and other continents is “taboo to mainstream American archaeologists” (Kehoe2003, 19). The probability for such contact “rests upon the Paleolithic antiquity of boats”(ibid.) and the seafaring capabilities of ancient peoples. Such ancient nautical skills areoften discounted by anti-diffusionists, despite the fact that Australia was originally settledsome 60,000 years ago by its aborigines sailing to that continent from southeastern Asia(ibid., 22). (While some might consider such ancient seafaring mere “island-hopping,” itis important to remember that Austronesians “island-hopped” all the way to Madagascar ca. 300 BCE in outrigger canoes.) The science of archaeology developed in the West, andmany of this science’s practitioners are still entrenched in a Eurocentric mindset that believes the world’s ancient non-Western peoples were inferior to Europeans and couldnot have had the knowledge or technology for transoceanic voyages.Anti-diffusionists cite lack of archaeological evidence for ancient voyages, as if lack of visual evidence is proof in itself for the non-existence of ancient transoceaniccontact (Driver 1973 in Schneider 1977, 20). “Since there is such a low probability of

The term “Mesoamerica” is normally used by Mesoamericanists to refer to the area from central Mexicodown to Guatemala and Honduras. For this paper, the term refers primarily to south-central Mexico, theregion normally considered the homeland of the Olmecs.

ancient watercraft being preserved …, their absence in the archeology is not necessarilysignificant and is not evidence against diffusion” (Jett 1971, 8). Ancient documents havedepicted “large boats in various parts of the Old World and … ancient Asiatic accounts of ships of greater size than those of Columbus and Magellan”

(ibid., 9). And yet, [a]nti-diffusionists have countered that the ancient documents exaggerate ship size andthat, even if the ships of ancient times were in some cases rather large, they were notseaworthy outside of such relatively sheltered waters as those of the Mediterranean or theisland-bounded seas off east Asia (ibid.).

Ancient Chinese documents imply seafaring capability and knowledge. “[T]ravel by watercraft is reported in  I Jing (Book of Changes). It is reported in the  Zhu Shu Ji Nian (Bamboo Annals), [sic] that Emperor Mang (who ruled from ca. 2014 to 1996 B.C.)of the Xia Dynasty, in the year 2001 B.C., ‘went fishing in the Eastern Sea and caught big fishes’” (Shao 1982, 335). Doran, Jr., a sailor, states that even small sailing raftswere “adequate for transpacific crossings” (1971, 136) and that “considering their striking similarities, the sailing rafts of the Old World and the New World may beconsidered as one widely distributed tradition of great antiquity” (ibid.).Some anti-diffusionists contend, in their efforts to debunk the theory of pre-Columbian transoceanic contact, that “a boatload of a few individuals landing on theAmerican coast would almost certainly have been killed or made slaves and would neither have passed on ideas nor have been able to return to their homelands” (Jett 1971,16); alas, they would never have been heard from again. But, as Kehoe reminds us, this idea stems from the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny, an ongoing form of “Anglo-American political rhetoric legitimating conquest and dispossession of American First Nations”(2003, 21) by casting them in the light of brutish, inhospitable “savages” who deserved their fate at the hands of “moral” Europeans with their “superior” ideals of civilizedsociety and religion. One can merely read the documentation of some of the first European visitors to the Americas for a more accurate account of the true nature of  Native American hospitality.Whether one accepts the theory of transpacific diffusion or not, one fact remainsevident: there are many intriguing stylistic similarities between the art of ancient Chinaand Olmec Mexico, suggesting very similar cultural beliefs and traditions between thesecultures that were contemporaneous and separated only by the broad expanse of water wecall the Pacific Ocean. I follow Schneider in his belief that the “specificity of cultural parallels” between Shang China and Olmec Mexico as well as the concentration of these parallels “in time and space” makes it “highly unlikely” that such parallels aroseindependently (Schneider 1977, 21).Meggers, a senior Smithsonian archaeologist, states that, in regard toMesoamerica, “something unusual occurred; namely, the ‘sudden appearance of Olmeccivilization in full flower’” (Meggers 1975, 2 quoting Coe 1968, 64) and that “carbon-14dates suggest that Olmec influence was felt almost simultaneously over most of Mesoamerica” (Meggers 1975, 2). This was not long after the “quantum transformationof Chinese society” (Chang 1963, 142 in Meggers 1975) during the Shang Dynasty thatwas “characterized by writing, metallurgy, occupational specialization, social stratification headed by a ruling dynasty, special forms of architecture, and elaborate ritual” (Meggers 1975, 8). To this day, it is unknown from where the “sophisticated metallurgy” (Debaine-Francfort 1998, 52) of Anyang originated, although “the father of Chinese archaeology” (ibid., 33), Li Chi, had suggested “influences from western Asia” (ibid.), presumably Mesopotamia. This hypothesis was rejected, however, by hissuccessors who wanted to restore China’s “national honor” after World War II (ibid.).There is also the possibility that other “traits – most notably the horse-drawn chariot,which appeared during the Shang Dynasty – may be of Western Asian origin” (Trigger 2003, 38). The art of the Shang Dynasty “was focused heavily on animal figures, withhuman or humanoid representations playing only minor and subordinate roles” (Trigger 2003, 556). It is likely that “the general absence of human figures in Shang and WesternZhou art [results] from the inspiration of shamanistic themes, with humans being lessimportant than the animals into which shamans transformed themselves” (Chang 1983 inTrigger 2003, 556).

A word about shamanism

In discussing the following motifs, it is important to review some aspects of shamanism. A shaman, as the term has come to be used in anthropology, has beendefined as “an individual who has voluntary access to, and control of, more aspects of their consciousness than other individuals” and “is recognized by other members of the‘shaman’s’ culture as an essential component of the culture” (Jones 2006, 21). The word“shaman” came into English from the language of the Tungus, now called Evenki, peopleof Siberia. The Tungus word “shaman” is one of the words Evenkis themselves used for their own shamanic practitioners. In the Tungus language,  saman incorporates the root  sa, “know” (Kehoe 2000, 8). Over the last several decades, however, the terms “shaman”and “shamanism” have come to be used in anthropology to denote many forms of spiritual mediation anywhere in the world, including far from the word’s Siberian origin.Although I am aware of the questionable use of these terms in referring to culturesoutside of Siberia, I use the terms “shaman” and “shamanism” here in referring to the Shang and Olmec cultures. Allan states that “there is clear evidence [in China] of the use of possession andtrance in religious ritual” and that scholars suggest that “such practices can be traced back to the Shang” (1991, 113). Bronze vessels of the Shang period suggest that ritualdrinking of wine and other rituals presided over by the elite were taking place, some of which involved forms of sacrifice. It is possible that this wine may have been madestrong enough or included other ingredients powerful enough to induce a hallucinogenictrance in order to commune with the spirit world.Similarly, the Olmec period art of Mexico suggests shamanic rituals among theOlmec elite, indicating a similar form of shamanic rulership to that of Shang-period China, in which the coupling of shamanistic belief and ritual with rulership gave the ruling elite a direct link to the ancestral and spirit world, thereby making them all powerful in the eyes of their subjects and increasing popular perception of their ancestral legitimacy and right to rule. I will now explore these motifs.

The monster mask motif 

The primary motif appearing on Shang period bronze vessels is the “monster mask,” or taotie , motif (see Fig. 2). The “monster” often lacks a lower jaw and usuallydisplays wide eyes that have been interpreted as the far-seeing eyes of a shaman (Lewis-


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