• Vivian Mellon Snyder

Tracing a History of Racial, Cultural, and Corporal Origin Preoccupation in Olmec Scholarship

Updated: Jan 3

  1. Introduction

To begin, I would like to explain this paper’s use of the term origin, and its reasons for examining an alleged “origin preoccupation.” The argument which follows seeks to augment the growing commentary surrounding the Mesoamerican “Mother Culture” dogma. A Mother Culture, in essence, is a cultural group that is perceived to have significant influence over later cultures and societies. The Olmec are widely considered to be the Mother Culture of Mesoamerica, despite great uncertainty regarding whether the Olmec existed as a hegemonic culture or state. Perhaps more accurately, the Olmec could be considered a cultural group, wherein the Pre-Classic Gulf Coast of Mexico saw a flourishing corpus of visually and thematically related artwork. Aspects of Olmec iconography and artistic subjects recur in works excavated from much later societies, geographically spanning not only the Gulf Coast center of Olmec activity, but also Central Mexico, Oaxaca, and the Maya region. Today, the legitimacy of any such Mother Culture is criticized by proponents of “Sister Culture” and Primus Inter Pares (First Among Equals). It is not within this paper’s scope to address the validity of the Mother Culture, but to examine the effects of its widespread use in Olmec scholarship.

What this paper calls “origin” refers to the beginning of an author’s defined physical or temporal sequence. In this paper, the notion of origin will be presented in the context of genealogical, cultural, and material progressions within Mesoamerica. “Origin preoccupation” relates to the notion of Mesoamerican Mother Culture. But whereas Mother Cultures acts as a framework of historiography, origin preoccupation is the tendency for Olmec scholars to use origin as a lens through which to parse meaning. The habitual use of lenses of origin suggests an internalized, often unspoken, acceptance of the Mother Culture narrative.

The first section of this paper traces an abbreviated history of Olmec studies, which helps to shed light on the early search for a Mother Culture, and rapid perception of the Olmec’s cultural ripple throughout Mesoamerica. Secondly, this paper examines the particular relevance of La Venta Altar 4 to origin preoccupation. Thirdly, the paper considers examples of contemporary Olmec scholarship which use various lenses of origin-- racial, cultural, and corporal. Through historical sources, the altar’s visual case study, and comparison of scholarship, this paper will present an argument for the existence of origin preoccupation, and examine the implications of authors’ use of the origin lens.

  1. Brief History of Olmec Studies

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, Introducing The Ancient Cities of the New World, 1887)

The earliest instance of what I call the Mesoamerican “origin preoccupation” occurs in the writing of the French-born archaeologist Désiré Charnay. Funded by grants received from France’s Ministry of Education, from 1857 to 1882, Charnay traveled across North and Central America in an attempt to catalogue the art and architecture of America’s Indigenous peoples. During his 25-year journey, locals guided him to both well- and lesser-known Pre-Columbian 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 historically significant. It’s worth noting that Charnay’s popular designation as an archaeologist is a specious one; more rightly, his work was that of an expeditionary photographer. Accordingly, his archival pursuits were deeply informed by his fascination with the exotic. Another excerpt from Rice’s introduction to The Ancient Cities bares this problematic captivation:

All the marvels of Eastern fable pale before the vision of a New World emerging like a mirage from the Western seas, peopled by strange races, glorious in the richness of its tropical vegetation, its forests teeming with curious animal forms...

The flowery language found in Rice’s introduction is matched by Charnay’s following account, whose romantic, narrative rhetoric conceals a pseudo-scientific enterprise. Though Charnay effectively was an expeditionary photographer, his curated collection of images and context nevertheless framed an anthropological theory regarding Mesoamericans’ ethnic parentage. Charnay was adamant that the Toltec were the origin of all Mesoamerican peoples, and that the Toltec themselves had descended from East Asians.

But while the Toltec were, in fact, the ancestors of Aztec people, the present chronology of Mesoamerica’s known civilizations stretches back to 1500 BCE: approximately 2,400 years prior to the Toltec horizon, people constructed residential compounds, ballcourts, plazas, and irrigation systems at the central-Mexican site of Teopantecuanitlan (Fig. 2),

Chronological Table of Mesoamerica
Figure 2. Chronological Table of Mesoamerica. From: Markman, Masks of the Spirit, xii.

mostly likely within the Olmec sphere of influence and/or or culture area. Still, Charnay’s shaky timeline and racial postulations, however laughable, received little discourse during his career. His publications and reputation as an archeologist were catapulted by a confluence of circumstances: Firstly, from the 1850’s until the turn of the century, his field held only one American corival: Augustus Lee Plongeon. Further, he greatly benefited from the timing of his expeditions to the Americas, which coincided with The Second French Intervention in Mexico (1861-1867). As such, his work-- which was largely sponsored by the French-- both romanticized and canonized Mexican landscapes to the benefit of colonial Expansion. As a vocal militarist, Charnay benefited both from government sponsorship and France’s mutual interest in his works’ widespread distribution. Lastly, The Ancient Cities of the New World (1887) was published in the wake of growing public acceptance of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, described in On the Origin of Species (1859). Ancient Cities, ulike Charnay’s previous photography folios surrounding Mesoamerica, appealed to academia’s growing interest in Evolution and Social Darwinism. It’s worth mentioning that his many suggestions of Social Darwinism in Ancient Cities bare contradictory undertones. He mourns “a civilisation which… has been systematically misunderstood or misrepresented,” despite his participation in such misrepresentation; The bias of his methods is certainly systematically determined, given his vested interest in France’s martial interventions in modern Mexico. Likewise, his liberal praise of Mesoamerican sites’ aesthetics is undermined by the attribution of these aesthetics to “the instinct of a particular race.”

The extent of sophistry in The Ancient Cities of the New World is further illustrated by contradictory statements of intent in Charnay’s preface. Presumably, the academic influence of such a catalogue would have been augmented by declaration of some newly-discovered cultural antecedent. It’s not surprising that his preface confidently asserts the existence of such an antecedent, the Toltec; curiously, however, he proposes a limited scope of cultural lineage, clarifying that “we shall leave the question of first origin as being unnecessary for our purpose; as also traditions, prehistoric legends, language, and religion, confining ourselves to what may be termed history…” What are the consequences of such an arbitrarily assigned “origin”? What does origin signify given the supposed existence of first origin? He seems to envision first origin as an unfathomably distant causality, such as “the remote past of man, whose countless generations, scattered in every clime, go back to the dark period when our rude progenitors were hardly distinguished from the brute creation.”

Dismissal of so-called “pre-historic” Mesoamerican cultural epochs might have been to Charnay’s benefit. Ancient Cities, in tangling its focus between origin and first origin, could expect to benefit from the public excitement amidst the late nineteenth century’s flourishing Antiquarianism and from then hot-topic Darwinism. This is mind, the validity and substance of Charnay’s claims would have carried less weight than their ability to intrigue the casual (foreign) reader and reinforce France’s military agenda (and in doing so, secure their future sponsorship).

Ironically, Charnay’s voyage (from 1857-1882) had very nearly led him to encounter the so-called “mother culture” he had thought 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.

Those poor weather conditions had dissuaded Charnay from trekking to what is now called La Venta (Fig. 1),

Map of Excavations at La Venta
Figure 1. Map of Excavation Site at La Venta. From Drucker, Philip, Robert Heizer, and Robert Squier. Excavations at La Venta, Tabasco 1955, 7.

an archaeological site located in Tabasco, Mexico. But even had Charnay stumbled upon the few monuments then exposed at La Venta, it is unlikely he would have realized their significance and chronological priority to the Taltec. The primacy of monumental stonework at La Venta was neither immediately apparent nor decipherable (as it lacked recognizable date inscriptions, as seen in Mayan sculpture). A firm chronology would not be established for the Olmec site until the advent of radiocarbon dating in the 1950’s. When the age of works found at La Venta (along with other unprovenanced sites along the Gulf of Mexico) was eventually realized, a long-held curiosity regarding Mesoamerica’s “Mother Culture” was given a new, supposedly scientifically-sound, subject of attention.

The historical significance of La Venta would not be mentioned again for another forty year, when in 1926, a team composed of Frans Blom (archaeologist), Oliver La Farge (ethnologist), and Lazaro Hernando Hernandez Guillermo (guide) published a record of their expedition (1925) in Mesoamerica. Their account Tribes and Temples: a Record of the Expedition to Middle America, while more methodical than Charnay’s Ancient Cities, has a similarly narrative and effusive rhetoric. However, Tribes and Temples’ partly biographical, partly analytical account diverges from Charnay’s in several key aspects. Firstly, La Farge contextualized its referenced artwork through study of Mesoamerca’s contemporary Indigenous cultures. Secondly, the work was received and published by an accredited academic institution (The Tulane University of Louisiana), and thus its’ intended audience included other scholars, with the expectation of an ensuing discourse. Thirdly, and most pertinently to this paper’s theme, Tribes and Temples’ cusp of origin reaches further back than Ancient Cities’, explicitly including the epochs ignored by Charnay. Charnay called these pre-Toltec epochs pre-historic; Blom and La Farge spin this language around, saying that the same epochs have “not yet been written, but the day will soon come when the story of an American race as artistic, as scientific, and as human as most of the races of the Old World will be opened…” The team’s attitude, here, speaks to the evolving conventions within the field of archaeology. Though this paper has criticized Charnay’s methods, it’s necessary to acknowledge that his work was done amidst a period of transition from antiquarianism to academic humanities. Ancient Cities had itself reflected this transition through its’ advocating for scientific methodology. By the time Blom, La Farge, and Guillermo completed their expedition, the importance of both cultural studies and scientific ones was more standard. Their interdisciplinary investigation suggested, with caution, that the resemblance of artwork at La Venta to Mayan sites might suggest their origination from latter. Their hypothesis struck closer to the truth than Charnay’s; the works at La Venta far predated the Toltec, but their visual language did not originate from the Maya. Rather, the society at La Venta far preceded Mayan Civilization. Though their provenance, to reiterate, would not be established for several decades, the question remained: what culture had made the works at La Venta?

This question of provenance is difficult to answer for several reasons. Still today, it is unknown what those artists called their culture or state. Today, archaeologists associate the works at La Venta with the Olmec culture (dated approximately 1500 BCE to 400 BCE) but this designation is a convention which arose from 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 1940’s that the site of La Venta was classified within the same cultural group as other excavation sites in the Gulf of Mexico. And it wasn’t until the 1950’s that the misnomer Olmec was firmly established within the lexicon of Pre-Columbian Archaeology. The publications most influential in this classification were Matthew Stirling’s Stone Monuments of Southern Mexico (1943) and Philp Drucker’s La Venta, Tabasco: A Study of Olmec Ceramics and Art (1959).

Within Blom (et al.), Stirling, and Drucker’s work, one work is given particular attention: La Venta Altar 4 (Fig. 3). The altar was partially excavated and photographed by Blom (Fig. 4), then further excavated and described in greater detail by Stirling (Fig. 5). In Drucker’s work, various motifs of the altar are codified alongside sculptural works from other Olmec sites. The altar had been described by Stirling as “remarkable for both its size and state of preservation,” and has consistently reappeared in Olmec scholarship since. Among Olmec works, it is not unique in its being so often revisited and reinterpreted. But its relative preservation, level of detail, and amalgam of motifs (many of which seem to have been referenced by later Mesoamerican societies) present a useful case study for Olmec scholarship’s preoccupation with lenses of origin.

Altar 4 at La Venta
Figure 3. Frontal View of Altar 4 at La Venta.
Excavation of La Venta Altar 4
Figure 4(a). Excavation of La Venta Altar 4. From: Blom and La Farge, Tribes and Temples, 88.
Excavation of La Venta Altar 4
Figure 4(b). Excavation of La Venta Altar 4. From: Blom and La Farge, Tribes and Temples, 88.
Excavation of La Venta Altar 4
Figure 5 Continued Excavation of La Venta Altar 4. From: Stirling, Stone Monuments of Southern Mexico, plate 37.
  1. La Venta Altar 4

Altar 4, and the other “Altars” of Olmec sites, are now understood to have functioned as thrones, and the terms altar and throne are still used interchangeably. 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).

La Venta Altar 4 Drawing
Figure 6. Discernible Features of La Venta Altar 4’s Frontal Plane Drawing by Vivian Mellon Snyder (reference: 3D model by Robert Mark)

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 tall, plastic 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.

His hands’ activity, as suggested by 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. 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.

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

The right plane of the altar, despite being better-preserved than the left, retains only traces of its original imagery (Fig. 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. Unlike 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.

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

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.

La Venta Altar 4
Figure 9. “Carlos Pellicer Cámara (creador del Parque-Museo de La Venta) junto al altar, 1951.”

The effect of such a direct gaze would have been commanding. 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 Scale
Figure 10. Illustration of Niche Figure’s Scale. Drawing and Chart by Vivian Mellon Snyder

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.

Altar 4, among similar Olmec works, is helpful to consider in light of this paper’s theme: the various ways in which scholars adapt the lens of origin to interpret the corpus of Olmec art. The altar’s visual relationship to an origin narrative is not immediately apparent, but it has been written about through the lenses of racial origin, cultural origin, and corporal origin. The remainder of this paper will approach the implications of Olmec literature’s use of these three lenses, in specific relation to Atlar 4 and select other monuments.

  1. Instances of Origin Preoccupation

  2. Racial Origin

Ivan Van Sertima’s They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America is perhaps the most infamous of Olmec literature. Published in 1976, the book argues that the Olmec Civilization and cultural legacy was deeply influenced by the arrival of Nubians in ca. 700 BCE. Sertima, for instance, claims a Nubian origin in Mesoamericans’ use of mummification, construction of pyramids, and Olmec Colossal Head portraiture, and other arts and technologies. His paper’s lens is not strictly racial, despite its concentration on the purported legacies of specifically black African civilizations. The book does examine the historic erasure of African and African Americans’ cultural legacies, but by inserting allegations of such erasure into Indigenous histories, he himself discounts the cultural achievements of Indigenous Americans, ceding their artistic agency to another group. This issue is made even more severe in light of his argument’s primary subject: the Olmec. Claims that the greatest artistic and technological achievements of the Olmec were only made possible through outside influence, in effect, has implications for later Mesoamerican societies, as well. Whether the Olmec were really the “Mother Culture” of Mesoamerica is debatable, but at the time Van Sertima’s work was published this view was widely accepted. On the surface, Van Sertima’s argument approaches a cultural origin for Mesoamerica in Africa. But underlying a re-written cultural narrative, through the dismissal of artistic and scientific feats of Native Americans as a whole, this cultural lens serves as a racialized lens.

Originally, the book was circulated within and referenced by African-American scholarship, but largely dismissed within Pre-Columbian literature. Perhaps as a result of absent investigation contrary to its arguments, its claims had gone generally uncontested until 1997, when Robbing Native American Cultures: Van Sertima's Afrocentricity and the Olmecs was published. Its authors emphasize that their largest concern with the work is not its methodology, but its implications for Indigenous Mesoamericans:

Despite Vehement protestations to the contrary, Van Sertima has, in effect, trampled on the self-respect or self-esteem of Native Americans by minimizing their role as actors in their own history, denigrating their cultures, and usurping their contributions to the development of world civilizations.

Robbing Native American Cultures addresses this issue through a discussion of visual and botanical evidence which contradict Van Sertima’s argument, advocating for academics’ active engagement with the papers’ issues (rather than dismissal, which they feel has resulted in its widespread acceptance outside of the field of Archaeology). They spend a good deal of time grappling with the perception of “Nubian” faces in Olmec colossal heads, highlighting stark differences in bone structure that fail to suggest an Arican origin in portraiture (Fig. 11).

Figure 11(a) Nubian woman. From: Haslip‐Viera, Barbour, and Ortiz de Montellano
Figure 11(b) Nubian from the village of Semna. From: Haslip‐Viera, Barbour, and Ortiz de Montellano

Figure 11(c) San Lorenzo Monument 5, Drawing by Felipe Davalos. From: Haslip‐Viera, Barbour, and Ortiz de Montellano

The implications of Van Sertima’s work were not unlike those of Charnay. Charnay, too, had been motivated by ridiculous claims of Mesoamerican’s Jewish or Atlantian origin, while proceeding to argue for their East Asian descent. He made comparisons of Mesoamerican iconography, mythology, architecture, and artwork to vaguely similar ones in disparate parts of Asia, committing a similar act of cultural denigration.

  1. Cultural Origin

The same Olmec Colossal heads have also been investigated through the lens of cultural origin. In Olmec Colossal Heads as Recarved Thrones: "Mutilation," Revolution, and Recarving, James Porter investigates the possibility that the “altars” and Colossal Heads seen at La Venta and other Olmec sites are more closely related than previously thought; the Colossal Heads, he argues, have been carved from altars. He notes that there are two conventional shapes of altars-- rectangular and cubic-- which correspond to the two forms of heads-- elongated and round. The colossal heads also (with the exception of two) have flat-backed heads, which seems to be the result of altars’ undersides having been left largely unchanged. He supplies a series of images which show altars in declining degrees of preservation (Fig. 12). The first image is of La Venta Altar 4, discussed in detail previously, which is typically referenced as the most well-preserved monument of its type. Viewed alongside the eroded La Venta Altar 5, the more severely eroded San Lorenzo Monument 20, and intact San Lorenzo Colossal Head 2, there is compelling visual evidence to consider this possibility. If his theory is correct, Porter’s lens of cultural origin (directed toward transformed significance of blocks of stone) has interesting implications. The ratio of altars to colossal heads at excavation sites would shed light on the leadership of Olmec communities. Since the “altars” were most likely used as thrones, a larger number of altars than colossal heads might suggest the endurance of lines of leadership. Alternatively, multiple altars might suggest plural leadership.

Olmec Recarving
Figure 12 Proposed progression of altar to colossal head. From: Porter, “Olmec Colossal Heads as Recarved Thrones: ‘Mutilation,’ Revolution, and Recarving”

In Olmec Altars and Myths, David Grove uses a lens of cultural origin toward a different end. He refers to the poor preservation of Olmec sculpture as “mutilation… heads were broken off statues, bas-relief carvings were wholly or partially disfigured, and the colossal stone heads for which the Olmec are so famous were defaced.” The extensive damage sustained by so many colossal heads goes unexplained by Porter, and so could very-well could be the result of defacement as Grove suggests, but what of the altars? Did some “social situation” really bring “in its wake a political-religious revolution”? Without mention of other possibilities, he dives into the iconographic significance of the best-preserved examples of Olmec altars. Grove’s lens of research depends on the validity of the Olmec’s cultural legacy, and status as a Mother Culture. His iconographic interpretations are shaped by later Mesoamerican traditions which benefit from textual or oratory context. For instance, Grove supports the possibility that the humanoid infant of Altar 4 is a were-jaguar with the Paez creation myth of intercourse between a woman and jaguar. He also cites Pre-Columbian codices’ convention of using an earth monster or jaguar maw as the entrance of a cave. Thus, he interprets thrones like La Venta Altar 4 as references to underworld creation myths.

Silvia Trejo’s paper La Imagen del Guerrero Victorioso en Mesoamérica takes a similar approach toward interpretation of the altar' s iconography. Like Grove, Trejo projects contemporary, textually documented Mesoamerican mythology onto earlier civilizations’ works of art. Her paper champions the notion of an enduring pan-Mesoamerican depiction of the victorious warrior: “In Mexican antiquity, the image of the victorious warrior belongs to a mythological order based on pan-Mesoamerican visual canons and revelations which are a testimony of the continuity and homogeneity of this great civilization..." In line with her conviction towards this notion of continuity and homogeneity, she quotes an excerpt from the Florentine Codex in relation to La Venta Altar 5. In the passage, a midwife speaks to a newborn as she performs a sacred ceremony:

From the middle of you, I cut your belly button; know yourself and understand that where you were born is not your home, because you are a soldier and a servant: you are a bird called Quecholli… this house where you were born is but a nest, it is where you have arrived, it is your exit from this world; here you sprout and you flourish, here you move away from your mother, like a piece of stone where it is cut… your own land is another… the field where wars are fought, where battles wage...your duty is to drink the blood of enemies…

Trejo argues that Altar 5 (Fig. 13) may depict an infant’s rite of passage, in which they are assured of their destiny to become a warrior. Throughout her paper, she points toward prevailing depictions of warriors as Eagles and Jaguars (such as relief sculptures of Jaguar and Eagle Warriors at both Tula (Fig. 14) and Tenochtitlan (Fig. 15). She offers that the feline qualities of the infant might suggest his status as an emerging warrior (one forged in, and literally emerging from, a cave). One might also consider Grove’s “reconstructed” drawing of Altar 4, which shows the adult figure as wearing an eagle headdress (Fig. 16). Perhaps he is an elder warrior who performs the rite of passage on the newborn. Trejo further supports this interpretation by highlighting the proper right side Altar 4, which has often been read as depicting a rope-bound captive of war. However, the proposed captive scene in Altar 4 seems distant from Altar 5’s rite of passage scene. What could be the relationship between two such moments, other than both relating to war?

  1. Corporal and Material Origin

La Venta’s Altar 4 has also been considered through lenses of corporal and material origin. The book The Place of Stone Monuments captures this material lens well. The use of this lens is acknowledged in the book's introduction, in which the authors explain that they “did not consider stone monuments as ends in themselves but rather as aids to understanding how Mesoamerican civilization grew and spread.” Their work pays special attention to the site of La Venta, which they note has been studied extensively thanks to its lush corpus of stone monuments. They also point out that most of these studies have approached monuments’ meaning as isolated works, apart from their spatial and material context. Amending this gap, they compare the altars of La Venta to one another, considering relative scale, theme, and location. Using this method, they conclude that “the theme of a single single individual emerging from the niche carried more significance than the theme of an individual holding an infant.”

But signifiers of physical elements, in addition to actual physical properties, may help to trace meaning in works like Altar 4. This method can be considered a corporal lens of origin. This lens seems to be used less frequently than those previously discussed, since the bodies of figures at La Venta are typically attributed to mythology, spirituality, and cultural values. Carolyn Tate postulates that these interpretations relate to the “anatomically impossible” bodies within Olmec art. Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture: The Unborn, Women, and Creation proposes an alternative to “the tendency exhibited by scholars to to see Olmec images as fantastic creatures, monsters, and deities-- in other words, as alteralities instead of images based on ancient empirical evidence of human life” Her focus is directed towards the subjects most overlooked, women and the unborn, whose incorporation “into the fabric of Formative period sites is to break with the orthodox view and to recast to sites as places for rituals of protection and healing, as well as centers of economic activity” While she does recognize that the majority of figural sculpture at Olmec sites portrays male bodies, she points out that much of the iconography surrounding those figures could be read as female sex organs, umbilical cords, birth rites, and fetuses. In regards to La Venta Altar 4, Tate reimagines the lower rope as an umbilical cord and the niche cave as a womb. In La Venta Altar 5 (Fig. 15), she perceives the “were-jaguar” infant to actually suggest the facial features of a fetus.

La Venta Altar 5
La Venta Altar 5. Photo by James Gaither.

Peter Furst takes a similar approach in his paper Jaguar Baby or Toad mother: a New Look at An Old Problem in Olmec Iconography. His paper’s argument is much more abbreviated than Tate’s, and he spends less time discussing the broader social implications of its theory. Like Tate, he preferences anatomical interpretations over spiritual ones (which-- as discussed in the Cultural Origin section of this paper-- depend upon the supposed continuity of spirituality and iconographic convention in Mesoamerica). Instead, he supports his iconographic interpretation both through references to later Mesoamerican cosmologies, and through consideration of natural history. Furst’s main focus of reinterpretation is the “were-jaguar” motif (as attributed to the Las Limas Monument 1, La Venta Altar 5, and the Kunz Axe, to name a few):

What has for so long appeared to us as a “were-jaguar baby-face,” is, I suggest, an anthropomorphically conceived toad with jaguar characteristics. It is, in short, a classic example of transformation and mediation between contrasting but complementary beings, environments, and, by extension, cosmic realms.

Figure 17. Jadeite celt with pronounced V-shaped cleft, from the Mixteca, Oaxaca. From: Furst, “Jaguar Baby or Toad Mother: A New Look at an Old Problem in Olmec Iconography,” 149.

Codex Vienna Portal
Figure 18. On Left, Portal of Earth and Underworld Represented by V-Shaped Cleft. From: Codex Vienna Page 24.

He supports his view with metaphorical/cosmological context, as above, and with comparison of “jaguar” and “infant” features to those of toads. For instance, the cleft (Fig. 17 ) often seen in the were-jaguar motif has no certain connection to feline anatomy. It could just as well represent the newborn’s open fontanelle, or the indented brow of male jaguars. And, in line with his cosmological interpretation of the toad, it could also represent this toad’s clefted head. Furst points out that page 24 of the Codex Vienna illustrates the portal between the earth and underworld as a V-shaped cleft (Fig. 18). The same V-motif, notably, was specifically associated with women and the female divine in Pre-Columbian mesoamerica. The quechquemitl garment, as appears in the Codex Vienna, is exclusively worn by feminine deities (especially those associated with fertility, for example 9 Reed (Fig. 19) and 1 Eagle), and a few select noble women. Today, the quechquemitl is still worn by Indigenous women for special occasions (Fig. 20), and is used as a Nahuat euphemism for the vulva.

  1. Conclusion

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 absence of any linguistic context for Olmec history and culture civilization lends itself to an endless cycle of debate and speculation. 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. In the papers discussed, it is evidenced that the liberty with which authors can, and in instances must, take creative discretion in the interpretation of Olmec works lends itself to entanglement with modern perspectives. Tate raises the issue of women’s erasure from Olmec visual narratives. Robbing Native American Cultures points out the historical erasure of Native Americans’ artistic legacy. In the case of these two works, use of an origin lens enables the author to advocate not only against mis/underrepresentation in Olmec art history, but also in later Mesoamerican art histories. The origin lens which Olmec scholars so often employ can be a powerful tool in proposing revised methodologies, however, Pre-Columbian scholarship would benefit from a more conscious application of supposed “Mother Culture.”


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