Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Mesoamerica: The Olmecs

Olmec artwork showing a were-jaguar baby
being held
I will take a quick break from my description of the history of the Middle East, which is extremely well documented, to speak of an area of the world that I have neglected. I have described the rise of civilisation in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, Crete and in South America. However, up to this point I have not mentioned the civilisations of Mesoamerica. These civilisations would see a great flowering of culture during the European Dark Ages and would continue to flourish until the European trans-oceanic contact. In particular I will be focusing on the Olmec civilisation, but I will try to cover some of the other cultures that arose in the region.

When exactly a civilisation can be said to have started is a tricky question. No civilisation springs up entirely from nothing; there are always precursors. There were extensive Neolithic settlements in the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Egypt and China, and even the Peruvian Norte Chico civilisations all had precursors of Neolithic farming villages, which eventually developed into full urbanisation. The Olmec were unusual in that they seem to have developed an urban civilisation in what were effectively jungles rather than open river plains but their civilisation did nevertheless centre heavily on cereal agriculture, unlike the Norte Chico civilisation in South America. Maize had been domesticated thousands of years earlier, allowing for agricultural surpluses to be built up, providing the basis for later urbanisation in the region.

Olmec Colossal Head from La Venta
Like the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, the Olmec appear to have been the “mother culture” for later Mesoamerican civilisations. Many features that are seen in later cultures in the region, such as the Mayan culture, can be said to have originated with the Olmec; probably the most important cultural legacy that they left was the “ballgame”, which was to be played until the arrival of Europeans in the region. Unlike the Sumerians however, the Olmec have left no deciphered writing so their civilisation remains mute (for now at least). Even the name Olmec, simply means “rubber people” (meaning those who extract rubber from trees rather than Michelin Man type entities). This word “Olmec” was simply the Aztec word for the people who lived in this region over a thousand years after the Olmec civilisation had passed. Despite the apparent lack of writing or even of a true name, the Olmec did leave impressive legacies behind.

The Olmec civilisation began around 1500BC near the city of San Lorenzo in the present Mexican state of Veracruz. This formed a collection of sites (San Lorenzo, Tenochtitlan, which is not the same as the later Aztec Tenochtitlan, and Potrero Nuevo). Here the basic elements of Olmec culture were seen for the first time, art, monumental architecture, high population density, social demarcation etc. The city was un-walled and may have featured as a ceremonial site. We do not know how Olmec society was ruled or if they functioned as a state, although most archaeologists assume that there were kings who ruled the society. The city included causeways, a palace type structure and a type of drainage system. The population had a variety of food sources but relied heavily on maize cultivation as a staple. This city area was inhabited continuously for around five hundred years, until around 900BC.

Olmec Monument from La Venta
Around 900BC the city of San Lorenzo was abandoned by most of the populace. Another Olmec site, La Venta, appears to have taken most of the populace in. It is unclear what caused the move away from San Lorenzo. San Lorenzo was in lush agricultural land near the Coatzalcoalcos River. La Venta was on a different river system and appears to have been in quite marshy terrain. The city was built from mud-brick rather than stone (due to the alluvial nature of the area), meaning that little has survived except for the Great Pyramid that must have been the largest building in Mesoamerica at the time. Currently the Great Pyramid of La Venta looks like an irregular cone however it was once a four sided structure, before the centuries caused the brick to erode. Like San Lorenzo, it was probably a ceremonial site, with the populace scattered in small outlying settlements around the main urban centre. La Venta is estimated to have had a population of at least eighteen thousand people and in terms of the complexity and scale of the site, it probably represents the apogee of Olmec culture.

Great Pyramid of La Venta
While the Olmec city of La Venta flourished, other urban areas began to appear in different parts of Mesoamerica. Teopantecuanitlan was a site to the northwest, in the current Mexican state of Guerrero, which appears to have been connected with the Olmec cities. Some believe that the Olmec originated here and that this was the seat of their culture. However, the Olmec heartlands are much more suitable for the development of agricultural surpluses, making it likely that the site in Guerrero is a colony rather than the original homeland. Regardless, it nevertheless was a significant Olmec site that was very far from the rest of their cities. Another site, Cuetlajuchitlán, in the Guerrero region dates from this period as well. The Mezcala culture in Guerrero possibly was a local adaptation of Olmec culture. However, not enough is known of the Mezcala to say for sure. The Mezcala were influenced by the Olmecs and later were to influence the Teotihuacanos.

Zapotec stele showing possible sacrificial victim.
At the bottom of the slab (to the right of the picture)
are glyphs that may be the name of the person shown
The Zapotec civilisation arose in the Oaxaca Valley, to the southwest of the Olmec cities, and would have been close to the trade routes between the Olmecs and Guerrero. The earliest stages of the city of San Jose Mogote are nearly contemporary with the Olmec site of San Lorenzo. This site had a main pyramid, ceremonial sites and defensive structures.

Trade was conducted with the Olmec civilisation to the east but the Oaxaca Valley does not seem to have had the same population density as the Olmec heartlands. Around 500-400BC San Jose Mogote was supplanted by another site, Monte Alban.

Map showing the Olmec cities and other urban centres
Around 500BC another Olmec site, Tres Zapotes, became prominent. Around 300BC the Olmec site of La Venta was almost abandoned. However, Tres Zapotes survived and continued to thrive in what is known as the Epi-Olmec or Post-Olmec phase.

Ultimately, the Olmec were not destroyed or wiped out. Their culture was absorbed by their neighbours, whose descendants ultimately absorbed the Olmec culture in a broader Mesoamerican culture, most particularly the Classic Veracruz culture that was roughly contemporary with the Classic Maya culture.

Cascajal Block
Like some other ancient civilisations, the Olmec cannot speak to us directly, so that many of their sites are named after the Spanish pronunciations of Christian saints rather than the original Olmec names. There is the tantalising possibility that this might one day change. It is known that the Mesoamerica was one of the few places in the world to independently invent writing, however it is unclear exactly which civilisation should be given the credit for this invention. The Olmec may have had writing, as there are what appear to be glyphs on some of their monuments. The picture is complicated by the discovery of the Cascajal Block, which shows a rather different set of glyphs, organised in what appears to be a horizontal writing system (other Mesoamerican writing systems are vertical).

It is unclear if the Cascajal Block is genuine. If it is genuine my instinct is that it should be placed on its side, to show the glyphs in downward vertical lines rather than as horizontal elements (but my knowledge of this artefact and of Mesoamerican writing systems is negligible). Considering that the Epi-Olmec culture of Tres Zapotes has continuity with earlier Olmec culture and that they have a writing system completely different from the Cascajal Block makes me suspect that there is much here that we do not understand.

The Zapotecs had their own script but it is as yet not fully deciphered and the dating of the script is problematic. The Mayans may in fact have been the earliest to have fully developed writing in the region. There is a great deal of work to be done in this field of history.

The Olmec religion has usually been interpreted as shamanistic (which is not a useful term as it is very broad). Their statues often represent were-jaguars; stylised creatures that appear in mid-transformation from human to jaguar. Some researchers think that the were-jaguar is also the rain-god. A maize god appears to have been worshipped, which is unsurprising considering their reliance on maize for agriculture. They also appear to have worshipped a feathered serpent. The worship of a feathered serpent would appear again in many other Mesoamerican societies and it is probable that this was originally an Olmec god.

One of the achievements of later Mesoamerican civilisations (mainly the Maya) was the creation of a highly accurate calendar for following the movements of the stars. This was based on a modified base 20 number system that included a zero, albeit not a zero with the full spectrum of uses that is possible using the Indian numbering system.

The earliest instances of this are dated to around the 30’s BC and come from sites that were shared with Olmec and Maya civilisations (an ancient Long Count date has also come from Tres Zapotes). Many suspect that the Olmecs invented this counting method, however, the lack of evidence for it at La Venta and earlier sites suggests that it may have been a late invention.

Stele from Takalik Abaj showing the
possible oldest Long Count date
The Mesoamerican ballgame was an enduring legacy of the Olmec culture. This game was adopted by nearly all the Mesoamerican civilisations (Aztecs, Toltecs, Mayans, etc.) These games were so important that the great stone heads that the Olmecs were famous for are garbed as ball players. Versions of the game are still played today.

The main feature of the game was that a rubber ball would be manoeuvred by the players without using their head, feet or hands to pass through a loop or marker on the other side of the court. There were two teams and the game was endowed with great ritual significance. The ball game is mentioned in the great Mayan text, the Popol Vuh, and after some games the losers would be sacrificed (this would be rare). Viewing modern versions of it online, it does look quite demand and intense but rather a lot of fun (although modern versions eschew any sacrificing at all).

Olmec art has been justly praised as being some of the finest in Pre-Columbian America but the art that they are best remembered for is the gigantic stone heads that have been found at some of their sites (mainly San Lorenzo, La Venta and Tres Zapotes but with some of the heads in smaller sites). At least seventeen of these have been found to date. These sculptures weigh between 6-40 tons and were transported by unknown methods over 150km to the final sites. Each head was sculpted differently, with different facial features and wearing the headgear of ballplayers. The sheer scale of these heads are actually what alerted the archaeological community to the existence of the Olmec civilisation.

Olmec Colossal Head from Tres Zapotes
If you are researching the Olmec culture online you are likely to have the misfortune to come across the alternative origin theories for the Olmec civilisation. These theories postulate that the Olmec civilisation was brought to Mesoamerica from elsewhere. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this speculation but discussions about this online tend to become very heated and unscholarly. The two main ones that I have come across are basically either that the Olmec civilisation came from China or that it came from Africa. In both cases the main argument is that certain Olmec sculptures resemble people from either of these places. Most mainstream scholars would reject these theories so they are fringe theories but I would hesitate to discount them simply because of this.

The Chinese origin theory suggests that perhaps refugees from the collapse of the Shang Dynasty fled on ships and landed in Central America before founding the Olmec civilisation. There are a number of problems with this idea. Firstly, the dates do not work. It would seem that the Olmecs were already advanced before the collapse of the Shang. There is no evidence of such shipbuilding capabilities in China at that period to allow refugees to traverse the span of the Pacific Ocean. Also, the Olmec culture as a whole does not resemble Shang culture in its specifics. There are no elaborate bronze works, no oracle bone writings, etc. The Shang did not make the gigantic stone heads in China so it is unclear why they would begin in Mesoamerica. Insofar as there are supposedly sculptural similarities I have to say I have never been able to see these (although my eye for art is admittedly poor).

Olmec King/Priest?
The other, more common, alternative origin theory is that the Olmec culture came from Africa. This suffers from many of the same problems as the Shang origin theory. The timelines do not match civilisations on the west coast of Africa at this time. Even the Egyptians, who were active in this period, did not have extensive fleets that were able to sail outside of the Mediterranean. No African civilisation of this time period was similar to the Olmec civilisation in detail (the Mesoamerican ballgame and Long Count calendar are not attested in Africa) and no African civilisation is known to have created the colossal heads that the Olmec are famous for. The facial features similarity is probably due to the fact that the heads, while carved individually with features, were very large and mainly made of basalt, which is a hard rock in comparison to limestone. This means that it is more difficult to carve features deeply, which would make the faces somewhat flatter than in other Olmec art. Once this is accounted for the facial similarity largely disappears.

I do not think that either of these origins theories are a priori wrong, however, the simplest explanation for the Olmec civilisation is that it was indigenously developed rather than transplanted from outside. Unless there is substantial evidence to the contrary I think that historians and archaeologists are correct to discount other theories. Unfortunately debates about these online often degenerate into accusations of racism, with some accusing people of minimising African culture and others accusing people of minimising indigenous American people’s cultural achievements. If people research the Olmec civilisation online it is likely that these debates will be encountered so please remain respectful while also retaining due respect for the current evidence.

Example of Epi-Olmec writing with a Long Count date to the left
This has been a very brief summary of the beginnings of Mesoamerican civilisation. I love to quote sources but sadly the writing systems have not been fully deciphered sufficiently to give proper quotations. Much of what I have written is speculative, as archaeology is incomplete, however the great strides made in recent decades gives me hope that this region will be much better known in the future. I will write further posts on later civilisations in the region at some point in the future.

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