Oaxaca mural

Oaxaca mural

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Mysterious Olmecs

The National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City is Mexico's greatest museum and one of the great museums of the world.   I have been there countless times, and regular readers of this blog know that on my recent visits I have been concentrating on just one hall of the museum per visit.  Yesterday I went there again, and this time I devoted more than an hour to just one portion of one hall.  In the Hall of the Gulf Cultures, I spent my time learning more about the Olmec civilization.

The Olmecs flourished along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico between 1500 and 400 B.C.  They were the oldest civilization in Mesoamerica, and their culture influenced all of the civilizations that were to follow.

We do not know much about the Olmecs other what archaeologists can glean from the artifacts that they left behind.

The Olmecs are most famous for the enormous stone heads which they carved from blocks of basalt.  The carvings stand as high as eleven feet and weigh up to sixty tons.  Since each of these heads is different, it is thought that they are portraits of actual people, perhaps their kings.

 Because of the thick lips and broad noses on these sculptures, it has been suggested that the Olmecs came to the Americas from Africa.  Most archaeologists however reject this idea.  In fact, one art historian published a series of photographs comparing present-day indigenous people from the region with Olmec carvings, and the resemblance was striking.

This statuette of an Olmec child suggests cranial deformation (the practice of tying boards to the heads of infants to elongate the skull), a custom common later among the Mayas.

Many beautiful figures carved from jade have been found.  The fact that the stone must have come from Guatemala indicates that the Olmecs had established trade contacts with areas far from their homeland.

No one knows the significance of this strange grouping of figures that was found in a grave.


This stone statue known as "The Wrestler" (although it probably does not really depict a wrestler) is considered a masterpiece of Olmec art.  Its realism and sense of motion are outstanding.

We are not sure of the specifics of the Olmec religion, but it would appear that their chief god was the jaguar... or perhaps a were-jaguar, a jaguar in human form, as portrayed in this statue.

The feathered serpent, a deity worshiped by most of the later civilizations, perhaps originated with the Olmecs.  This carving is the oldest representation of a feathered serpent in Mesoamerica.

 These instruments were probably used for bloodletting, a form of religious sacrifice that was common in later cultures.

There is debate as to whether the Olmecs practiced human sacrifice, but some scholars think that sacrificial decapitation was perfomed by the Olmecs.  Might this headless statuette represent a victim?

The Olmecs also played a ceremonial ball game... another cultural trait that was handed down to all the later civilizations.  This carving might represent a ball player.  It had movable arms that were inserted into the holes in the shoulders.

The Olmecs had a rudimentary writing system of pictographs.  Archaeologists have not yet been able to decipher it.  Their numerals, like those of the Mayas, consisted of bars and dots.

For reasons unknown, the Olmec culture fell into decline around 400 B.C.  However they laid the foundations for the civilizations that would come after them. 


  1. Hopefully you have traveled to Tula in the past - north of Mexico City to see the ball court and the tall statues of the Olmecs. It is quite a sight, to put it mildly.....thanks for sharing. I love the Museum in CDMX as well but have never yet seen the whole thing, even though I have been there countless times.

    1. Yes, I went to Tula many years ago (although those ruins are from the Toltecs, not the Olmecs).
      The Anthropology Museum is one of those places where no matter how many time you visit, there is always something that you didn't see before.