• Vivian Mellon Snyder

Mesoamerican "Origin Preoccupation"


Of the innumerable questions to which the discovery of America gave rise, the most difficult to answer, perhaps, was that regarding the origin of the newly-discovered races.

Alan Thorndike Rice, The Ancient Cities of the New World (1887)


Prior to writing The Ancient Cities, Désiré Charnay set out on a 25-year journey across North and Central America, funded by grants he received from France’s Ministry of Education. In those decades of travel, locals guided him to both well- and lesser-known archeological sites across Mesoamerica. With the most recent methods and technology at his disposal, Charnay documented examples of art and architecture he considered to be most historically significant. The archeologist’s aim, however, was more anthropological than art historical; the encyclopedic descriptions he provides in The Ancient Cities is used to support his theory regarding Indigenous Mesoamericans’ ethnic parentage. Charnay’s presumptive genealogy was belied by archaeological findings in the decades following his account, but his fixation on origin is echoed by contemporary research of Mesoamerican antiquity. Alan Rice’s introduction to The Ancient Cities foreshadowed a lens of query which would long remain in vogue; in the 133 years since Rice preambled Charnay’s account, the challenging question of origin-- racial, cultural, spiritual, and corporal-- continues to inform the scholarship of Mesoamerican art history. Even beginning with its mid-twentieth century coinage, the Olmec Civilization, as the so-called “Mother Culture” of Mesoamerica, has been an area of fierce academic debate.


Altar 5 La Venta
Figure 1. Frontal View of Altar 4 at La Venta.

The absence of any decipherable writing system in extant Olmec monuments makes it difficult to interpret those monuments’ meaning. Art historians, then, necessarily interpret Olmec works with a great deal of conjecture. If meaning is to be gathered from Olmec monuments, it must be found through analysis of iconography, spatial context, and forensic data. The enigmatic nature of the Olmec civilization perhaps lends itself to an endless cycle of debate and speculation, but Olmec monuments’ original meaning and function may never be fully understood. Contemporary efforts to interpret the images contained within the monuments, however, are not necessarily in vain. Much in the way that Classical music-- which communicates through harmony and discord, lacking lyrical guides to meaning-- resonates with the experiences of listeners even hundreds of years later, the ambiguous imagery of Olmec sculpture seems to find resonance with modern life experiences and social theory. The scholarship surrounding a great deal of Olmec monuments, however postulative, provides a means through which one can observe shifting value systems of academic circles. The freedom which authors can-- and often must-- interpret Olmec monuments imaginatively is an unfortunate result of absent historical knowledge; nonetheless, imaginative interpretation, when delivered candidly and with good intent, could be a powerful tool in Indigenous peoples’ cultural reclamation of monuments. An Olmec monument which exemplifies this possibility of reclamation is Altar 4 at La Venta (Fig. 1). By closely examining the altar’s imagery, retracing its recent history, and introducing several of its manifold interpretations, this paper aims to advocate for the continued, diversified reinterpretation of similar Mesoamerican monuments.



The altar was first photographed (Fig. 2) and catalogued in Matthew Stirling’s Stone Monuments of Southern Mexico, published in 1943. Stirling's brief entry for Altar 4 remarked on the monument’s impressive size and state of preservation; still today, the altar is considered canonical, David Groves calling it:

...perhaps the finest of all known Olmec altars. The concave niche in the altar’s face holds a beautifully carved seated figure which is only slightly defaced…

Grove’s observation of the central figure’s slight defacement is questionable at best, and a gross understatement at worst. This understatement might go unnoticed by his article’s readers, however, since that description is accompanied only by an illustration of its theoretical reconstruction (Fig. 3). Mended depictions of the altar, such as that supplied by Grove, are abundant and varying. Comparison of this draw with a similarly-reconstructed drawing by Tate underscores the uncertainty regarding both authors’ depiction of the fragmented headdress (Fig. 4). These illustrations are helpful in identifying the images and glyphs of the altar, but unfortunately fail to clarify the reasoning for their elected “restorations.” Photographs of the altar help to clarify the near-absence of the central figure’s face (Fig. 5).


The central figure of the frontal plane sits within a recessed archway, which is framed by two, inverted-U-shaped bands: the central band appears solid, while the outer band is incised and resembles a rope or vine (Fig. 6). Four trumpet-like flower glyphs extend from the corners of this outer border. The glyphs, which are nearly identical to one another (save for their varying degrees of preservation), are composed of a base U-shaped scroll, which I interpret as leaves. What I call the “body” of each flower glyph is shaped like a Solo Cup and tapers toward this scroll base of leaves. Finally, waving incisions extend from the mouth of these cups, disappearing at each of the altar’s four corners. The defaced niche figure, which sits at the compositional axis of the altar, appears to be male: his shoulders are broad and defined, and his body shows prominent musculature across the arms and chest. He wears a headdress which extends out from and above the arch which surrounds him. A round medallion can be discerned along the bottom of the headdress, but it and other finer details of the headdress are too damaged to interpret clearly. Despite the damage present in his face and headdress, several details of the figure have been remarkably well-preserved. He wears a simple collar piece, whose edges are still clearly defined, as well as an asymmetrical chest piece, which extends from the base of the collar piece to the figure’s lower abdomen. Additionally, he wears two wristlets, both rendered minimally and flat against his body, formally similar to the collar piece. These wristlets draw the eye toward delicately-rendered, wonderfully conserved details present in his hands; viewers may distinguish each of his naturalistic fingers, and even finely-wrought nail beds remain on several fingers and toes.


Altar 5 La Venta Drawing
Figure 6. Discernible Features of La Venta Altar 4’s Frontal Plane (Drawing by Vivian Mellon Snyder)

His hands’ activity, highlighted by their finer detail, seems to play an important role in the altar’s composition. One hand rests on his (proper right) ankle, while the other reaches out to grasp the braided vine/rope which frames the bottom of the altar. That braid wraps around to the right plane of the altar, and perhaps once continued to its left plane.

Altar 4 La Venta
Figure 7. Discernible Features of La Venta Altar 4’s Left Plane, Proper

Unfortunately, the left plane of the altar has been so severely damaged that no imagery or figures can be identified

(Fig. 7). Perhaps, though, there had never been a figure on the left plane; the significance of the altar’s right plane appears somewhat privileged by the fact that the niche figure reaches out to grab the rope to his right, less obviously engaged with the left side of the altar.


Altar 4 La Venta
Figure 8. Discernible Features of La Venta Altar 4’s Right Plane, Proper

The right plane of the altar, despite being better-preserved than the left, retains only traces of its original imagery (Figure 8). On this plane, a second figure sits in profile. Their sex is difficult to ascertain; it’s possible that their sex was irrelevant to the altar’s narrative, or that the sculptural details which once clarified their sex have been since been lost. Ulike the frontal plane’s niche figure, the second sits in a low kneel, with calves and feet folded beneath their thighs. Their left hand reaches in a limp gesture toward the frontal plane of the altar; their wrist appears to either become a part of or have been tied/restrained by the braided, lower border of the altar.


There is a noticeable discrepancy between the depth of relief present in the right plane and frontal plane figures. The frontal plane’s central niche figure is nearly carved in-the-round. The figure depicted on the altar’s right plane is carved in relatively shallow relief. This discrepancy places the two figure within distinct interpretive spheres: the niche figure, which extends into the world of his viewer, is enlivened by his naturalistic pose, animated by the bands and flower glyphs which frame him, and seems to engage with the timespace as his viewers: his eyes have since crumbed away, but one can imagine his gaze once met those of the altar’s visitors.


The effect of such a direct gaze would have been commanding. The monument’s scale is poorly depicted by the first image which was provided (Fig. 1). A photo of Carlos Pellicer Cámara (founder of the Parque-Museo La Venta) imitating the pose of the niche figure helps to reconcile this issue, and illustrates the interpretive effect of the altar’s scale (Fig. 9). The shoulders of the niche figure are 34% broader than Cámara’s, its head is 20% wider, and its wrists are 39% larger (Fig. 10). The scale of the niche figure relative to Cámara, though large, resembles the human scale closely enough for the figure to still register as human, especially if it is to be viewed from a distance.

Altar 4 La Venta
Figure 10. Illustration of Scale.

The altar’s upper table only retains carved detail along the frontal plane’s ledge. At the center of the frontal ledge, a zoomorphic image with elongated, serpentine eyes bares its curved fangs toward the foreground, and a diagonal cross is carved in the space between them. The wide cavity formed by its opening mouth seems to suggest the abstracted anatomy of a snake. Other aspects of the image, however, appear more feline than serpentine: curling lips, an upper row of teeth, and rounded, ear-like shapes at the sides of its head. Behind the zoomorphic image, a horizontal band divides the frontal plane’s ledge in two. Continuing from the top of this band, four diagonal bars (two each on the left and right sides) stretch away from the altar’s central axis. Finally, below the dividing central band, two slightly-squared, inverted-U-shapes meet the bottom of the altar’s edge.


It is difficult to translate Altar 4’s imagery and symbols into a meaningful interpretation of the work, unless one is to lean on the somewhat arbitrarily-established and widely-debated cipher of Olmec semiotics. Addressing the validity of this cipher is unfortunately beyond the scope of this paper; however, it is worth retracing the emergence of and propagation of Olmec altar’s earliest interpretations. This retracing begins with a simple question, followed by a regrettably convoluted answer: Who were the Olmec?

The present-day (art historical) term Olmec is an instance of misnomenclature. In Pre-Columbian and Early Conquest North America, the people living along the Gulf Coast of Mexico were the predominant traders of rubber material. The Aztec referred to the people in this region by the Nahuatl word Olmecatl, or rubber people. The Olmeca, really, were the rural-dwelling contemporaries of the Aztec Empire. It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that clustered excavations of monumental sculpture (which were yet to be attributed provenance, chronological or cultural) in the Gulf of Mexico prompted the coinage of the misnomer Olmec, but the term stuck, despite its initially controversial reception. Lacking decipherable date inscriptions (as seen in Mayan monumental sculpture), these monumental works of stone were not immediately considered to be ancient; a firm chronology wouldn’t be established for the so-called Olmec sites until the advent of radiocarbon dating in the 1950’s. When the age of works found in Olmec sites-- ranging from 1500-0 BCE-- was eventually realized, a long-held curiosity regarding Mesoamerica’s hypothetical “Mother Culture” was given a new, supposedly scientifically-sound, subject of attention.

An Afternote:

Charnay’s voyage (1857-1882) very nearly led him to encounter the so-called “mother culture” he had presumed to be Toltec:

Besides these ruins [Comalcalco] others are to be met at Blasillo… I hear from a montanero, who first discovered them, that an important Indian city formerly existed there, whose monuments, like those of Comalcalco, consist of caryatides, columns, and statues; but in this abominable weather it is utterly impossible to visit them.

That abominable weather dissuaded Charnay from trekking to the (yet-to-called) Olmec site of La Venta.


I hope to later expand upon the notion I touched upon of “Origin Preoccupation:”

Why has the investigative lens of “origin” been applied so constantly, and so multifariously, to the so-called Olmec Civilization?

I use the term origin broadly, encompassing the subjects of racial, cultural, metaphysical, spiritual, and corporal provenance. Tate’s Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture inspired this line of questioning. Her investigation of Olmec imagery-- historically considered “anatomically impossible”-- underscores the necessity of diversified female perspectives within the art historical field. I’m not fully convinced of all her book’s claims, but her perception of female and embryonic imagery in Olmec monuments seems no less believable to me than the “ ‘Olmec’ open-jaguar mouth-motive” first mentioned in the 40’s, and thereafter adopted without thorough investigation. As noted by Carrasco’s review, Tate’s methodologies could be wonderfully applied to other motifs that have received little query since Stirling et al. published their first indexes of Olmec art in the mid-twentieth century.


My hope is to consider what is implicated by the lens through which Olmec works are interpreted. I expect to argue that the original meaning(s) of Olmec monuments like Altar 4 at La Venta will always be speculated, owing to the absence of decipherable glyphs and the likelihood that these monuments, even within the "Olmec" timeline, had plastic, evolving significance to their viewers. Nonetheless, continued investigation into Olmec artwork is a valuable effort; Tate raises the issue of women’s erasure from Olmec visual narratives. Viera’s Robbing Native American Cultures points out the historical erasure of Native Americans’ artistic legacy. Espino Marcia’s La significación del inframundo… stresses the importance of considering Olmec altars through Indigenous modes of semiotics. Sarah Melville’s thesis Naturalism and Supernaturalism in Ancient Mesoamerica argues against the categorical avoidance of the “shamanistic” lens. While I disagree with the application of Melville’s argument and believe a better term should be applied to spiritual practice than “shamanism,” her thesis touches on spiritual (as opposed to ritual and mythical) interpretations of meaning that I find valuable. These are general observations of several of the works I have read. The common thread that I have found among the listed authors’ arguments is an aspect of forward thinking; paradoxically, the oldest of Mesoamerican visual traditions has been the consistent recipient of timely social critique. Perhaps the liberty with which authors can, and in instances must, take creative discretion in the interpretation of Olmec works lends itself to entanglement with valuable modern perspectives.

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