Regal and Ritual City of the Olmec


La Venta is an inexhaustible mine of precious archaeological objects.


This appraisal of La Venta by the Mexican artist and writer Miguel Covarrubias remains as valid today as it was seventy years ago. Equally as important as the objects found there, however, is the fact that the city provides the modern world with an important reminder of the role played by the globe’s tropical regions in the evolution of civilization.

In 1926, Frans Blom, a Danish-American explorer and anthropologist, and ethnologist Oliver La Farge rode their tiny motorized sloop Lupata up the Blasillo river in the Mexican state of Tabasco in search of Maya ruins. Having heard of stone monuments on an island in the swamps of the flood plain of the Grijalva river, they hoped to establish the eastern boundaries of the ancient Maya, a civilization just then emerging into the light of modern scientific discovery. However, the stones they found were only vaguely ‘Mayoid’, to use their term, and did not fit any of the artistic canons of known Mesoamerican cultures. In reality they had encountered remains of the Olmec, a civilization that pre-dated the Maya by centuries and would later become known as Mesoamerica’s ‘Mother Culture’. The ‘island’ of high ground in the thick brush and swampy terrain they reconnoitered had once supported the Olmec city today known as La Venta. In the centuries between 900 and 400 BC, La Venta had emerged as the second Olmec city, following in the footsteps of the by then largely abandoned San Lorenzo, located to the west in the Coatzacoalcos river basin.

Subsequent research at La Venta by archaeologists has revealed that the ancient settlement covered c. 200 ha (494 acres) and was what is now termed a Regal/Ritual City, with a small resident population numbering perhaps 1,000. These residents were the elite echelon of a much larger society, drawing their power, authority and wealth from a supporting population of farmers, fishers and artisans who occupied the surrounding hinterland.

The monument labelled Altar 5 at La Venta. At the front of this throne, a person emerges from a niche or cave holding an infant in a pose that suggests the presentation of a precious object. Scenes showing adults attempting to control were-jaguar babies adorn the sides. The monument, measuring 1.54 m (5 ft) high, was badly mutilated in antiquity.

© Kenneth Garrett.

An aerial view of La Venta Pyramid C, 30 m (100 ft) high, which dominates the entire region. The ridges and depressions on its sides may be intentional or may simply be the result of natural erosion that has occurred since the city was abandoned 2,500 years ago.

© Kenneth Garrett.

Cities exist both in the physical world and in the minds of their creators and inhabitants, a fact strikingly obvious at La Venta. The visible elements of La Venta’s urban core emphasized discrete aggregations of earthen mounds and courts that archaeologists call Complexes, placed in a basically symmetrical alignment oriented 8 degrees west of north. The summits of the mounds were presumably occupied by houses and temples constructed of pole walls and thatch roofs, but their remains have long since disappeared. Stone sculptures grouped in tableaus or settings formed the other dominant feature of La Venta’s landscape. These magnificent works of art depicted Olmec rulers, deities and supernatural forces. The stones from which the more than 100 monuments, some weighing many tons, were carved were brought from great distances using minimal technology but with considerable engineering skill and great investment of labour. The carvings include four Colossal Heads, the hallmarks of Olmec sculpture that may depict actual rulers or their deified ancestors, huge rectangular thrones (‘altars’), erect stelae, lifesized human figures carved in the round, and many other human and animal forms.

The discovery of Colossal Head 1 in the plaza south of Pyramid C. It is possibly the portrait of La Venta’s last ruler, or perhaps a deified ancestor.

George Steinmetz/National Geographic Creative.

The visible La Venta above ground was complemented by a vast array of buried tombs, large and small offerings, and caches known to the people who deposited them but perhaps few others. Most archaeologists agree that these hidden deposits articulated with the above-ground features to create a three-dimensional cosmogram or representation of the universe as the Olmec conceived it, but the actual message of the cosmogram and the meanings of its constituent elements are the subjects of endless debate.

The major buried components of the cosmogram include four Massive Offerings, which consist of tons of imported serpentine blocks encased in specially selected clays placed in deep pits created to hold them; Mosaic Pavements of greenstone blocks laid in a highly geometric design; as well as Tombs. While the bones in the Tombs have rotted away, the rich arrays of jewelry and ornaments made of jade and other rare materials that decorated the deceased remain. Perhaps the most unusual of these many buried features is Offering 4, a tableau featuring sixteen stone figurines depicting men standing in front of a wall of stone celts who watch other men pass in front of them. This scene may mimic a real ceremony held in conjunction with the actual placement of the offering. The jade, shell and other exotic materials used to craft these jewels and figurines, brought from as far away as the Sierra de las Minas, Guatemala, central Mexico and the Pacific coast, testify to the far-flung commercial networks that centred on La Venta.

The reasons for La Venta’s decline and abandonment around 400 BC are not clear, but the silting up of the rivers and deltaic plain that surround the site may have adversely affected the rural population upon which Olmec leaders depended. In any case, the ‘island in the swamp’ remained essentially uninhabited until the 20th century, when Blom and La Farge found a few Nahuatl-speaking Indians carving farms out of the jungle-covered ruins of the ancient city.

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