The Ancient Olmec Were So Big-Headed
Olmec art, Colossal stone head of a warrior. Source: (Photo by De Agostini via Getty Images/De Agostini via Getty Images)
Easter Island and Mount Rushmore don’t have monopolies on giant, carved stone heads. The ancient Olmec people of Mexico were carving enormous, eight-ton heads long before the Rapa Nui of Easter Island and Gutzon Borglum of Mount Rushmore ever lifted a chisel. Archaeologists are still baffled by the giant Olmec heads. Here’s what they know so far.
Who were the Olmec People?
Mesoamerica’s earliest known significant culture, the Olmec people lived in central Mexico in the area that is now Tabasco and Veracruz from about 1500 BCE to about 400 BCE. Archaeologists and researchers know a lot more about the later Mesoamerican civilizations, like the Aztec and Mayans, than they do the Olmec, but they believe that many of the common rituals, belief systems, and practices used by the Aztec and the Mayans were taken from the Olmecs. These include blood rituals, the Mesoamerican ball game, calendar, and stone carving. The Olmec stone carving, however, was unique.
How Big were Their Heads?
To date, 17 giant stone Olmec heads have been unearthed. Most of them stand nearly ten feet tall and weigh as much as 3 tons and were carved from a single rock. The basalt rocks were quarried in the Tuxtla Mountains in a place called Cerro Cintepec and transported about 50 miles to San Lorenzo in south-central Mexico. Historians believe that the huge stones were floated down from the mountains on massive balsa wood rafts.
The Olmec Used Primitive Carving Tools
The heads were carved with stone tools because the ancient Olmec people had not developed metallurgy. Archaeologists believe that the hand-held stone tools were made of a harder material like jade or obsidian. Some of the details on the faces, such as the nostrils, eyes, and mouth, are deeply carved using a technique of reeds and wet sand to act like a hand-powered drill. There is some speculation that the giant head statues were painted bright colors after they were carved.
Did the Olmec have Contact with Africans?
Each one of the 17 Olmec heads that have been discovered seem to show the face of a different individual, leading to theories that each head represents an Olmec ruler or chief. The facial features show large eyes, prominent lips, and wide noses. This has caused some historians to wonder if the Olmec people had contact with Africans, but this theory has been widely dismissed by most scholars for two reasons. First, there is no other evidence of contact between people from Africa and people from Mesoamerica at that time. Second, many people in Mexico today – descendants from ancient Mesoamericans – also exhibit this physiognomy.
Are the Giant Heads Wearing Helmets?
Several of the giant Olmec heads show the head wearing a snug-fitting helmet of sorts. Archaeologists theorize that the helmet could have been a protective gear worn in battle or donned with playing the Mesoamerican ballgame. Like the faces themselves, the helmets are all unique and vary in design. Some of the carved heads also feature jaguar paws over the forehead. This could indicate that the person represented in the carving wore a jaguar pelt for religious rituals or as a show of political or military might.
Why Just the Head?
No accompanying torsos or bodies have ever been found so it is widely believed that the Olmec heads were created as stand-alone carvings. Why just the head? In ancient Mesoamerican cultures, a person’s head was where the soul of a person resided. The emotions, memories, and thoughts of a person lived in the head, not the heart, making the head the most revered part of the body.
There seems to be some evidence to suggest that the Olmecs didn’t leave their heads in one place. They moved them around as needed. Some stood guard over temples and were replaced when leadership changed hands. Some giant heads were even vandalized and, it appears, deliberately buried, waiting for archeologists to unearth them. Thousands of years later, in 1871, the first of the Olmec heads were discovered. The most recent one was found in 1994. Despite what historians know about the Olmec heads, they still remain a mysterious relic from pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.
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