- Historic Sites
“Savages Never Carved These Stones”
Magnificent Central American ruins, overgrown by the thickening jungle, testify to a sophisticated culture already ancient when Columbus sailed
February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
Perhaps the key to this enigma lies with the people we call the Olmecs, the Rubber People of Tabasco at the southern tip of the Gulf of Mexico. Their art is very distinctive: it portrays rounded, chubby people who to our eye appear incredibly Oriental—like a haunting memory of the Far East. Their powerful carved figurines sometimes have the faces of crying babies, sometimes a more mysterious mixture of human and feline traits. Not much is known about the Olmecs, but we find traces of their great culture all over Mexico, most notably in the monumental remnants uncovered at La Venta on the Gulf Coast. Here, overgrown by a dense tropical jungle, archaeologists have found colossal basalt heads nine feet high and weighing fifteen tons, which must have been transported over considerable distances before being finally set in place.
The best authority on this extraordinary culture was the late painter-archaeologist Miguel Covarrubias, who spent the last years of his life pursuing the elusive evidence of Olmec culture scattered all over Mexico. His theory, somewhat tentatively advanced, is that the culture of the Olmecs was the great mother culture of Middle America, that its beginnings date back to 1500 B.C. or before, and that its effective dominance endured for over a millennium. There is as yet no full proof of this theory—but it does at least try to account for all the known historical, anthropological, and archaeological evidence and to explain the presence of Olmec and Olmec-influenced art all over Mexico and Guatemala, as far south as Honduras and Costa Rica, and possibly even in the Indian styles of the United States and especially in those of British Columbia.
Covarrubias believed that the Olmecs introduced many of the most important concepts that continued in all the Indian cultures until the Spanish Conquest: the immensely high value of jade—and the art of working this extraordinarily hard material, with only the simplest of tools, as easily as if it were soap; the painting of objects with red cinnabar before burial; the monumental stelae and written calendrical notations in the form of glyphs; and, most important of all, the cult of the jaguar deity. In his manifestation of rain-god he became a chief figure in the pantheon which was shared in large part by all the Indian cultures—for to a people whose entire economy was based on corn and who lived in a tropical latitude with sharply defined dry and wet seasons, the rain-god was all-important. In their worship of him, early peoples—Covarrubias believes it was probably the Olmecs—developed a 52-year calendar, based on the solar year and the cycle of the planet Venus, which enabled their priests to predict with accuracy the coming of each rainy season. Checked for centuries by the Maya in the observatories found in all the great Indian temple complexes, this calendar was more accurate than the Gregorian calendar still used by the West when Columbus sailed.
Olmec objects have been found not only in specifically Olmec sites but also in excavations of other cultures, especially those of the typical Archaic or Pre-Classic site at Tlatilco near Mexico City. The evidence is that the Olmec and Archaic village cultures existed side by side at the same time, the former perhaps being that of a superior, aristocratic invader. About 200 B.C. , the simple individualistic pottery and clay figurines of the early Archaic farmers cease to be made all over Mexico, with the exception of the periphery in Western Mexico (the so-called Tarascan area on the Pacific Coast). All over Mexico there now rose complex theocratic cultures with a similar approach to art and religion and a totally new social system. In the same places where the simple Archaic cultures flourished now arose great religious temple-cities—Teotihuacán, Cholula, Monte Albán, El Tajín, and in the Maya area, cities like Palenque, Bonampak, Copán, and many others. Covarrubias believed that these great Classic cultures grew out of the crossbreeding between the dominating, aristocratic, and highly developed Olmec culture and the simpler cultures of the villages.
In any case, the Archaic villages soon changed from small, simple, autonomous societies into theocratic states dominated by an elaborate religious ceremonialism in great temple-cities where the life of priestly kings and innumerable slaves was dedicated to the services of great religions. The art of the Classic period reflects the new order—the architecture is grandiose and elegant, full of ritual symbolism, aristocratic and refined, with little of the individual artist’s personal expression and little representation of everyday life. Only on Mexico’s west coast, in the present-day states of Colima, Nayarit, and Jalisco, did this theocratic system fail to dominate. There the highly individualistic sculptural tradition of the village cultures continued to flourish and to produce realistic, often humorous reproductions of scenes from daily life.