Nobody knows the right name for the Olmec, but “Olmec” is the wrong one. They spoke a language in the Mixe-Zoquean language family, some members of which are still used in isolated pockets of southern Mexico. “Olmec,” though, is a word in Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica to the north. It means, more or less, “people of the land of rubber.” The problem with the name is not so much that the Olmec did not use it for themselves—nobody knows what that name was, and they have to be called something. Nor is the problem the rubber, which the Olmec used, and may have invented (scientists discovered in the 1990s that they made rubber by chemically treating the latex-containing sap of a tropical tree, Castilla elastica). The problem is that the Mexica did not actually use the name to refer to the putative mother culture in Veracruz, but to another, completely unrelated culture in Puebla to the west, a culture that, unlike the ancient Olmec, still existed at the time of the Spanish conquest. The confusion between the Mexica’s Olmec and Stirling’s Olmec led some archaeologists to propose that the latter should be called the “La Venta Culture,” after the site he investigated. Almost everyone agreed that the new name was a big improvement, logically speaking. Unfortunately, nobody used it. Not for the first time in Native American history, the confusing, incorrect name prevailed.

The Olmec heartland was the coastal forests of Veracruz. Compared to the Norte Chico, the area is promising. Like the Peruvian littoral, it is bracketed by sea and mountains, but it catches, rather than misses, the prevailing winds, and the rain that comes with them. The shoreline itself is swampy, but not far from the coast the country rises into a lush, fertile plateau. Further inland are the Tuxtla Mountains, with many rivers cascading down their flanks. The rivers flood in the rainy season, enriching the land, Nile Delta style. During the rest of the year, the climate is drier, and farmers plant and tend their milpas on the alluvial soil.

The first traces of the people who would become the Olmec date back to about 1800 B.C. At that time there was little to distinguish them from groups elsewhere in Mesoamerica. But something happened in Veracruz, some spark or incitement, a cultural quickening, because within the next three centuries the Olmec had built and occupied San Lorenzo, the first large-scale settlement in North America—it covered 2.7 square miles. On a plateau commanding the Coatzacoalcos river basin, San Lorenzo proper was inhabited mainly by the elite; everyone else lived in the farm villages around it. The ceremonial center of the city—a series of courtyards and low mounds, the latter probably topped with thatch houses—sat on a raised platform 150 feet high and two-thirds of a mile to a side. The platform was built of almost three million cubic yards of rock, much of it transported from mountain quarries fifty miles away.

Scattered around the San Lorenzo platform were stone monuments: massive thrones for living kings, huge stone heads for dead ones. Rulers helped to mediate between supernatural forces in the air above and the watery place below where souls went after life. When kings died, their thrones were sometimes transformed into memorials for their occupants: the colossal heads. The features of these enormous portraits are naturalistically carved and amazingly expressive—thoughtful or fiercely proud, mirthful or dismayed. It is assumed they were placed like so many stone sentinels for maximum Orwellian impact: the king is here, the king is watching you. *20

Like the carvings and stained-glass windows in European cathedrals, the art in San Lorenzo and other Olmec cities consisted mainly of powerful, recurring images—the crucifixions and virgins, so to speak, of ancient Mesoamerica. Among these repeated subjects is a crouched, blobby figure with a monstrously swollen head. Puzzled researchers long described these sculptures as “dwarves” or “dancers.” In 1997 an archaeologist and a medical doctor with archaeological leanings identified them as human fetuses. Their features were portrayed accurately enough to identify their stage of development. Researchers had not recognized them because artistic renditions of fetuses are almost unheard of in European cultures (the first known drawing of one is by Leonardo). Other frequent themes included lepers, the pathologically obese, and people with thyroid deficiencies, all portrayed with a cool eye for anatomical detail. Perhaps the best-known subject is a man or boy gingerly holding a “were-jaguar”: a limp, fat, sexless baby with a flattened nose and a snarling jaguar mouth. Often the baby has a deeply cloven skull.

The denizens of San Lorenzo are unlikely to have shared Europeans’ dismay at the physical deformity portrayed in these images. Indeed, by contemporary standards high-born Olmec were deformed themselves. By binding small, flat pieces of wood to newborns’ foreheads, they pushed up the soft infant bones, making the skull longer and higher than normal. To further proclaim their status, wealthy Olmec carved deep grooves into their teeth and pierced their nasal septums with bone awls, plugging the holes with ornamental jade beads. (Because no Olmec skeletons have been found, no direct proof of these practices exists; instead archaeologists base their beliefs on the portrayal of Olmec nobles in figurines and sculptures.)

Swanning about the elite precincts, the rich and powerful wore finely woven clothing, but only below the waist—breechclouts for men, skirts and belts for women. Veracruz was too hot for anything more. On public occasions, nobles bedizened themselves with bracelets, anklets, many-stranded necklaces, bejeweled turbans, and big, hiphop-style pendants. Some of the last were concave mirrors made from beautifully polished magnetite. Precisely ground, the mirrors were able to start fires and project images onto flat surfaces, camera lucida fashion. Presumably they were used to dazzle hoi polloi. As for the poor, it is likely that they went naked, except possibly for sandals.

San Lorenzo fell in about 1200 B.C., victim of either revolution or invasion. Or perhaps it was abandoned and sacked for religious reasons—archaeologists have advanced several hypotheses for the city’s demise. What is certain is that the site was vacated and the stelae defaced and the sculptures decapitated. The colossal heads being, so to speak, pre-decapitated, they were smashed with hammers and systematically buried in long lines. Vegetation overran the red-ocher floors and the workshops that manufactured ceramic figurines and iron beads and rubber ax-head straps.

Olmec society was surprisingly unaffected by the collapse of its greatest polity. A much bigger city, La Venta, was going up on a swamp island about forty miles away.

Today La Venta is partly buried by an oil refinery, but in its heyday—roughly speaking, 1150 B.C. to 500 B.C.—it was a large community with a ring of housing that surrounded a grand ceremonial center. The city’s focus, its Eiffel Tower or Tiananmen Square, was a 103-foot-tall clay mound, a bulging, vertically fluted cone somewhat resembling a head of garlic. The mound rose at the south end of a rectangular, hundred-yard-long pavilion that was bordered by two knee-high berms. At the north end of the pavilion was a sunken rectangular courtyard fenced on three sides by a row of seven-foot basalt columns atop a low red and yellow adobe wall. The fourth, northern side opened onto a third mound, larger than the small mound but nowhere near the size of the big one. The pavilion and courtyard had painted walls and floors of colored sand and clay; heavy sculptural objects, including several of the trademark heads, studded the area. This central part of the city was reserved, archaeologists believe, for clerics and rulers. It was Buckingham Palace and the Vatican rolled into one.

La Venta, too, was destroyed, perhaps deliberately, around 350 B.C. But its eight-hundred-year existence spanned one of the most exciting times in American history. At La Venta’s height, Olmec art and technical innovations could be found throughout Mesoamerica. So widespread was Olmec iconography—jaguar babies, carved stelae, distinctively shaped ceramics—that many archaeologists believed its very ubiquity was evidence that the Olmec “not only engendered Mesoamerica but also brought forth the first Mesoamerican empire.” The description is from Ignacio Bernal, once director of Mexico’s famed National Museum of Anthropology. Bernal, who died in 1992, envisioned an imperium that spanned much of southern Mexico, proselytizing its religion and forcing other groups to send their finest works to its heartland. The Olmec, he thought, were the Romans of Mesoamerica, a magisterial society that “established the pattern which, through the centuries, was to be followed by other expansionist Mesoamerican cultures.”

Since Bernal’s death many researchers have come to view the Olmec differently. According to the University of Michigan anthropologists Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, the Olmec heartland was but one of four regional power centers: the Central Basin to the north, where settlements like Tlatilco and Tlapacoya laid the groundwork for the empires of Teotihuacan and the Toltecs; in the isthmus, the chiefdoms of Oaxaca; the Olmec, along the Gulf Coast; and, later, the Maya polities in Yucatán and northern Guatemala. Some believe that there was a fifth power: Chalcatzingo, an important chiefdom between the Central Basin and Oaxaca.

In the first millennium B.C., all four (or five) were making the transition from individual fortified villages to groups of chiefdoms to states with centralized authority. Although the Olmec preceded the others, they did not set the template for them. Instead they all influenced each other, sometimes by trade, sometimes by violence, each one developing new techniques, exporting unique goods, and swiping ideas from the others. In this world of “competitive interaction,” all parties hustled for advantage. Trade in goods was important, but it was the trade in ideas that mattered.

By making this argument, I am endorsing one side in the long-running dispute between mother- and sister-culture proponents. In other words, as one mother-culture advocate put it, I am “swallowing Marcus’s [nonsense] whole.” He may be right. But I would argue that there is a difference between inheriting a cultural tradition, as the Norte Chico culture’s successors apparently did, and copying one, as the Olmec’s proponents argue. Nobody disputes that Han Chinese society arose long before its neighbors in Asia, but Asian archaeologists don’t refer to China as Asia’s “mother culture,” because China’s neighbors used part of its intellectual legacy to build up their own distinct and different writing systems, agricultural technologies, imperial practices, and much else. Given the evidence available now, the same seems to be true for the Olmec and ancient Mesoamerica. (To me, anyway—many researchers disagree.)


MESOAMERICA, 1000 B.C.–1000 A.D.

For thousands of years Mesoamerica was a wellspring of cultural innovation and growth. This map does not depict it accurately, because these societies were not contemporaries—the Olmec vanished centuries before the Ñudzahui and Zapotec began to reach their height, for example. Nonetheless, it should give some idea of each society’s heartland.

Emblematic of this rocketing growth were the Olmec’s neighbors in Oaxaca, the Zapotec, whom Flannery and Marcus have studied for more than two decades. The Zapotec were based across the mountains from the Olmec, in Oaxaca’s high Central Valley—three forty-to-sixty-mile-long bowls that intersect in a ragged Y. By about 1550 B.C., they were abandoning the life of hunting and gathering to live in villages with defensive palisades. *21 These early villages had wattle-and-daub houses, fine pottery, and some public architecture. They were controlled by “big men,” the social scientist’s term for the alpha male who is able in such informal settings to enforce his will through persuasion or force. Within a few hundred years, the big men acquired rank—that is, they began to wield power not only because of their personal charisma, but also because their societies had given them an elevated official position. It is the difference between the leading spirit on a pickup basketball team and the officially selected captain of a college squad. After this, political consolidation proceeded apace. Soon the valley was dominated by three main chiefdoms, one at each endpoint of the Y. They did not get along; a thirty-square-mile buffer zone in the middle, Flannery and Marcus noted, was “virtually unoccupied.”

The biggest of the three chiefdoms was located near today’s village of San José Mogote. Around 750 B.C. it was attacked and its temple razed in a fire so intense that the clay walls melted. San José Mogote quickly rebuilt the temple a few yards away.

Across the new threshold artisans laid a carved stone. Splayed across its face, suitable for stomping on, was a bas-relief of a naked, disemboweled male corpse, apparently a defeated enemy, blood welling from his side. The carving, to my taste, is beautifully done, as graphically elegant, despite the gory subject matter, as a Matisse. What matters most to researchers, though, is not the design but the two curious marks between the cadaver’s feet. The two marks are glyphs: the oldest firmly dated writing in the Americas. Despite their brevity, they are full of information, both because of the nature of written language, and because of the special way Mesoamerican people chose their names.

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