San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, place of the Olmec heads

The colossal heads carved by the Olmecs were the first clue on which the oldest civilization in America was revealed.

San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, place of the Olmec heads
Olmec heads. Image: The Quai Branly-Jacques Museum in France

Skillful for hunting, strong, strong, fine sense of smell, and remarkable vision were, perhaps, the characteristics that the Olmecs admired in the jaguar to turn it into the center of their cosmovision. The cult to this animal, from which they assured they descended, was represented in most of the sculptures and monoliths that have been located in the core zone that includes the states of Veracruz and Tabasco.

Located in the municipality of Minatitlán, 60 kilometers from the port of Coatzacoalcos, San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan -considered as the first Olmec regional center- was developed during the pre-classic period (1500-900 B.C.). Of the 17 Olmec colossal heads known to date, ten were located in the area, the last one in May 1994. This situation reaffirms the importance of the site, which according to recent research, in 1500 B.C. was the largest in Mesoamerica with a population of about three thousand inhabitants and a strong social and technological development.

The archaeological site is located on a natural elevation between two branches of the Coatzacoalcos River, this geographical position places the area in a kind of island that facilitated the obtaining of sufficient natural resources to live, in addition to being close to a water source allowed the constant irrigation of their crops. San Lorenzo has many mounds artificially made of earth, although its height is lower than the buildings of the site of La Venta, however, these denote a social stratification.

The distribution of the buildings speaks of a planned city with services for the housing of the hierarchs, hence San Lorenzo is considered the first organization of Mesoamerica. In addition to a well-integrated and hierarchically structured society, there was an institutionalized religion. Initiators of the study of astronomy and the numbering of bars and dots, the Olmec had a great ability to carve huge monoliths in basalt stones brought from the region of the Tuxtlas, possibly by the river. An important example of this art is exhibited in the San Lorenzo site museum, inaugurated in May 1995.

The most important piece of the precinct is "Tiburcio", the last Olmec colossal head found in the archaeological zone. It measures 1.80 meters and weighs eight tons, the particularity is that it presents the most elaborated helmet of all the Olmec heads, hence the belief that it is the representation of some ruler. Besides the colossal head, in the museum you can appreciate some pieces that have the jaguar as the main element, such is the case of a structure that represents the transformation of a human into a feline; as well as the representation of the Olmec myth that assures that men descended from the jaguar.

There is also a sculpture, mutilated, that possibly represents the dome of a jaguar with a person, recreating the story of the link that exists between the animal and the human being. Other pieces on display are the earth monster, an anthropomorphic column representing a fantastic being, with a huge mouth and a flat nose, linked to the origins of the Olmecs. Altars and some mutilated structures like a macaw of approximately two tons; as well as a box or possible sarcophagus, architectural structures like coverings of steps, metates.

The museum opens its doors to the public from Tuesday to Sunday from 9:00 to 18:00 hours. Admission is free. The use of a video camera is subject to a fee. To reach the site from the port of Veracruz, take highway 145 heading southeast.

Olmec heads, ancient giants hiding underground

One day in 1862, explorer José María Melgar enthusiastically entered the swampy hell bordering the Gulf of Mexico. Despite the impenetrable jungle, overwhelming heat, and mosquitoes, oil abounded there. It even flowed through the vegetation. But the Mexican adventurer was going to receive an even bigger surprise than the expected black gold vein.

Olmec head
Olmec heads: Monument 3 of San Lorenzo, 178 cm high, preserved in the Museum of Anthropology of Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico. (CC BY 2.0 / Maribel Ponce Ixba)

Suddenly he encountered a hard obstacle in the clay soil. Intrigued, he cleared the land and then a colossal stone head appeared before his eyes. He did not know and no one would know until the middle of the next century. However, this sculpture, endowed with a slightly strange look, had been resting there for more than three millennia. The tanker had just discovered the first trace of a lost civilization.

So forgotten that not even the Aztecs, flourishing many centuries later, remembered what it was called. Hence they called the Olman region, in their language, "the land of rubber" (for extracting from it the rubber for the balls of their sacred game), and their mysterious inhabitants of the past, the Olmecs.

Confused with the Mayans

Melgar immediately reported his finding. However, there was no interest in the monumental head. At that time it was believed to be another Mayan vestige, as so many appeared, and this town was considered the oldest of the pre-Columbian people.

In fact, the second expedition to the area, this time archaeological, fell into the same error. Directed in the interwar period by the Danish Frans Blom for an American university, it brought to light an important Olmec ceremonial center. It was that of La Venta, similar to the one the tanker had found decades ago in Tres Zapotes. But the European scholar also believed that he had come across Mayan remains.

Some scientific voices began to call this "secondary culture" of the Maya with a separate name.

Despite this misconception, some voices in the scientific community began to call this "secondary culture" of the Maya a separate name. After all, the artistic style of the Olmecs - the name that began to circulate following the Aztec example - did not resemble those known in Mesoamerica.

Among the archeologists who favored this autonomy with respect to the Mayan legacy, there was one who would unearth more colossal heads and, with them, part of the truth about the intriguing civilization that had produced them. Matthew Stirling, the man in question, worked for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, he took advantage of a vacation in Mexico to visit Tres Zapotes. What he found there confirmed his suspicions: whoever they had been, the Olmecs seemed very pre-Mayan. Back in the United States, he convinced his museum and the National Geographic Society.

The earliest

Both entities financed eight successive missions that, led by Stirling with the assistance of his wife, yielded dozens of relevant findings. Thanks to the marriage excavations, the main ceremonial centers of the Olmecs came to light. Trapezoidal altars, sacred steles, polished jade figurines, ceramic elements, and, most spectacularly, new monumental heads emerged from the jungle and savannah.

The Olmec pyramid of La Venta.
The Olmec pyramid of La Venta is the oldest in Mesoamerica. (Public Domain)

These treasures revolutionized archaeology when the artist Miguel Covarrubias, the scholar Alfonso Caso and other scholars presented them to the Mexican Society of Anthropology in the middle of the world war. The uproar was due to the fact that, in light of the evidence provided by Stirling, these scholars proposed a radical theory: Olmec culture had not only been different from the Maya but had generated the latter.

In other words, the rediscovered inhabitants of "the land of rubber" had founded the first American civilization, the matrix of the later ones. Many archaeologists opposed this interpretation, which was based on the lower half of a stele, named C, found by the Stirling in Tres Zapotes. One side of this piece showed the most remote date written in Mayan.

But this one, on September 3, 32 B.C., could not be clearly deciphered, which gave rise to numerous readings for almost three decades. Only the use of carbon 14 in 1956 and the discovery of the upper half of the stele thirteen years later confirmed the extreme age of the Olmecs.


Meanwhile, invaluable testimonies continued to emerge. The Stirling couple and later colleagues such as Michael Coe or Ann Cyphers unearthed more colossal heads and other stone figures in the Olmec nuclear area, located in the arc that traces the Gulf of Mexico on the coast of Tabasco and Veracruz.

Olmecs may have been the original model of later civilizations.

These remains arose in such abundance that a museum was even created to house them, the first anthropological museum in Mexico, Xalapa (or MAX). Excavations also revealed significant urban features in the large ceremonial centers. In San Lorenzo, there were ruins of houses organized around a central courtyard that was believed to be typical of the Mayas.

And in La Venta, a huge stepped pyramid of mud came to light, a predecessor of those built-in stone centuries later by other peoples. As for Tres Zapotes, the stela C found there became, once its dating was corroborated, an early example of Mesoamerican calendars.

In the eighties, the founding role of the Olmecs was reaffirmed in a gloomy aspect: human sacrifices. The ones made by Mayas and Aztecs could have their origin in those practiced by the sculptors of the giant heads, as it was detached from some wooden figures buried next to the skeleton of an immolated baby.

A few years ago the pioneering character of the Olmecs was once again demonstrated in yet another facet, writing, thanks to hieroglyphics very much earlier than the Zapotecs until then considered the most archaic in America. All these indications have not only ratified the antiquity of the Olmecs. They also validate the theory that they could have been the original model of later civilizations, an idea that continues to arouse debate, as the degree of this influence is not yet determined.

Children's figure of Olmec culture.
Children's figure of Olmec culture. (Walters Art Museum)

In fact, there are still many riddles to be solved about this culture which had its boom between 1200 and 400 BC. The most notable revolves around the colossal heads which led to its rediscovery. Monolithic, they measure from 1.5 to 3 meters high and weigh between 6 and more than 40 tons. It must have been a real challenge to carve them, because the basalt they are made of is a hard rock, and that culture lacked metal tools.

Another even more intriguing aspect is the origin of its material, volcanic type, non-existent in the Olmec metropolitan area, clay soils. To find it, you had to go to the elevations of Tuxtla, more than 80 km away, and carry the moles to the ceremonial places. It is estimated that, as the Olmecs did not know the wheel, they transported the blocks in rafts that went up the numerous local rivers.

A monolithic mystery

The function of these monuments is also not known with certainty. It is not known if they obeyed a commemorative purpose - in which case they represent kings, priests, warriors, or ballplayers - or a ritual end, of cult to the ancestors. The fact is that each of the heads found has personalized factions.

Their existence suggests the extent to which they continue to raise unknowns, 3,500 years after their appearance.

Except for these differences and the variable dimensions, they all share the gigantic size, the fact that they have been painted and buried - it is also ignored why - and the being portraits that always exhibit a helmet or headdress, slightly cross-eyed round eyes, a wide nose, and fleshy lips.

Some archaeologists have seen in this physiognomy, more black than indigenous, proof of protohistoric migrations from Africa to America. Although few subscribe to this thesis, its existence suggests the extent to which it continues to raise unknowns, 3,500 years after its appearance, the first civilization of the New World.