The Olmec heads have been shrouded in mystery since the first one was found in 1858. Before the discovery the Olmec civilization was completely unknown to historians and archeologists. Since then they have continued to find evidence of how the earliest Mesoamerican people lived.
The Olmec Civilization
Dating from 1400 to 300 BC, the Olmecs were the first Mesoamerican culture. They inhabited the lowland coast of the Gulf of Mexico (in what is now the states of Veracruz and Tabasco), however, they developed a trading network that spread from the Valley of Mexico in the north to Central America in the south. This trading system allowed them to share innovations like writing, human sacrifice, the calendar, the Mesoamerican ball game and the use of a bar and dot system of counting to the civilizations that they encountered such as the Mayans and the Aztec.
Discovery of the Olmec Heads
Matthew Stirling, the head of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology in 1938, was studying sites in Mexico where prehistoric factions had met. He thought that Tres Zapota on the Gulf coast could possibly be such a site, and he shared his theory with William Duncan Strong, the head of the Anthropology department at Columbia University. Stirling intended on exploring it and asked Strong if he knew anyone with knowledge of the area. Seeing as the area was undeveloped, no one had specialized knowledge but Strong recommended Clarence Wolsey Weiant, a grad student who was hoping to make Tres Zapota his doctoral field work. Weiant joined Stirling’s expedition at the age of forty-one having stumbled upon archeology after years as a chiropractor.
For the next four months they battled swamps, continual rain, tarantulas, snakes and insects as they thoroughly searched a two-mile stretch of land. Here they discovered several of the oldest stone tablets found in Central America, as well as a religious figurine and fifteen U-shaped sculptures. But the greatest discovery came after Weiant had heard a story from a local of a discovery in the area several years before. He took a group of men into the jungle and when they reached the area they had been told about they dug a trench, thus discovering one of the most famous artifacts ever found in Central America. It was named La Cabeza Colosal (the Giant Head) and stood more than six feet high. Since then another sixteen Giant Heads have been found in four locations, Tres Zapota (two heads) Rancho la Cobata (one head), La Venta (four heads) and San Lorenzo (ten heads).
Building Colossal Heads
The heads are carved out of single blocks of volcanic basalt from the Tuxtlas Mountains and range from 1.47m to 3.4m high. Before they were carved, the large boulders were floated or dragged nearly a hundred miles, a feat that would take around 1,500 people three or four months. They weighed eight to twelve tons making the original basalt boulders as much as 18 tons. No iron or copper has been found in the area so they were most likely carved with stone tools which would have been incredibly time consuming.
Who are the Olmec Colossal Heads?
There are two main theories on whom these heads represent. The first and most widely accepted is that the Olmec carved the heads of their rulers or great warriors. However, due to the helmets, it was long thought that they represented the heads of decapitated ball players (the penalty of defeat in most Mesoamerican ball games was beheading). Whoever they were, no two heads are the same and the helmets are adorned with distinctive elements, suggesting group or personal symbols. Another mystery is that two of the heads have been recarved, but it is unknown whether it had ritual implications or if it was due to a lack of stone.
Olmec Links to Africa
Since they were first found, the features of the heads have caused a fierce debate between archeologists. The thick lips, flat faces and broad noses are characteristically African features and some scholars believe that the Olmecs had been Africans that had migrated to the New World, however, this theory has been rejected by most archeologists. The main belief among archeologists is that they were carved this way due to the shallow space allowed on the boulders. This makes the most sense considering other Olmec sculptures, particularly the Jade face masks, have characteristics that most closely resemble people from Asia.
The Olmec Heads and Pre-Columbian Archeology
Stirling and Weiant’s discovery ushered in a shift in how archeologists thought about pre-Columbian civilizations. Before the find, it was widely believed that the Mayans were the mother culture of Central America, but the Olmecs were dominant from 1400 to 300BC where as the Mayans only reached their height around 300AD. This is further proven by the fact that both Maya and Aztec civilizations have Olmec roots. As for the Olmec themselves, recent work indicates that they were descended directly from people who had inhabited the area as early a 1700BC. To put that into perspective, the Olmecs were building great cities and pyramids before both the founding of Rome and the building of the pyramids in Egypt.