The sacred hill El Manatí: The house of the water god near the sky

More than 3,600 years ago, the Olmecs paid tribute to the God of the Mountain, in their sacred hill El Manatí, very close to the clouds, for six centuries.

The sacred hill El Manatí: The house of the water god near the sky
The sacred hill El Manatí. Image: Veracruz University

To the beat of a drum, ocarinas, cane whistles, and maracas, on a full moon night, when the Pleiades announced the arrival of the rains, or when they were not seen, more than 3,600 years ago, the Olmecs paid tribute to the God of the Mountain, in their sacred hill El Manatí. Very close to the clouds, during six centuries, at least 20 generations of men cooked, played ball, sang, and danced, perhaps to ask their gods that the water be benevolent with them and not flood the cities that were established in the surroundings of the site.

The sacred space of the Olmecs, the house of the rain gods, located to the south of the state of Veracruz, in the ejido of Macayal, belonging to the municipality of Hidalgotitlán, represented for them the axis mundi, the place where the sky and the earth were connected and the water was born. The religious ceremonies performed at the site, which is now jealously guarded by monkeys, iguanas, ocelots, and colorful birds, culminated with a massive offering of busts carved in wood, accompanied by mostly organic elements, which managed to be preserved over time due to the anaerobic conditions of the place.

El Manatí is a saline dome from which springs of salt and fresh water emerge, providing the area with large quantities of the liquid. In addition to this characteristic, there are other elements linked to Olmec religious ideology, such as deposits of hematine (a natural red pigment). In the cosmovision of some cultures, the mountains were venerated as the home of the rain gods. The offerings located there are associated with ritual ceremonies, probably in honor of the "Lord or God of the Mountain", who controlled rain, lightning, and thunder, that is, water.

It is believed that the offerings located at the foot of the hill were made to ask for rain and thus avoid droughts, but the possibility that they were made to ask that the water would not cause floods has not been ruled out. At the foot of the hill, next to the beds of the springs, the Olmecs made the burials of their offerings in a kind of pool formed by the old water route that springs from the west side of the hill.

Although the exact dates are unknown, the investigations made from elements recovered as vessels, axes, rubber balls, and seeds in the excavations of the six field seasons that were carried out within the Manatí project from 1998 to 1996, indicate the existence of at least three important phases of occupation, which were from 1600 to 1200 BC.

The three phases of occupation, according to the researchers, present different characteristics in the use of the space and the material that was offered, which speaks of constant evolution in the rituals. The oldest stage, dated by carbon 14 in 1600 B.C., is associated with the construction of the pool that sheltered the offerings since a bed of sandstone stones between 10 centimeters and 1.50 meters was found concentrated towards the edge of the hill.

At that stage, fragments of vessels, stone baskets, mortars, and metates were found; a large number of jadeite axes, scattered around the area, and necklaces of the same material, as well as two rubber balls. After this offering, the site was covered with a layer of peat made of organic matter. Around 1500 B.C. the Olmecs returned to the site and made new offerings. From this stage, jade axes and other fine stones were found, perfectly finished and polished to the point of reaching a waxy texture and mirror shine.

In the second stage, the ritual changed. The axes were carefully buried and arranged in the mud in sets of various shapes, such as piles, simple groups arranged in a north-south or east-west pattern, symmetrically, in the shape of flower petals, etc. Studies made by French specialists confirmed that the jade of the axes of El Manatí comes from the Valley of Montagua, Guatemala, which speaks of the trade relations that the Olmecs had. The offerings belonging to this stage were covered by layers of very fine mud, of sticky texture, and with a high content of organic matter.

The third phase meant for the investigators a great event since in it were discovered busts carved in wood unique in Mexico; although it is still unknown who they represented, their sculptural beauty does not stop impacting the visitors of the Tuxteco Regional Museum, a place where some of them and other materials recovered from El Manatí are exhibited.

Massive burial in El Manatí Hill

On El Manatí hill, only the sounds of the mountain's guardians can be heard: the howler monkey, iguanas, migratory birds, and, of course, the water. Everything else is silence and peace, as sacred places demand. Precisely there is where Vicki, Chico, Goyo, Lulu, Chispa, Poc, Polo, Nacho, Cruz, Güicho, Simon, Martin, Mundo, Fabian, Dani, and Macario saw the sunlight after 3,600 years of antiquity.

They are part of the 37 wooden sculptures rescued by archaeologists of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in 1989, during the third phase of work in El Manatí, an area that would have been occupied between 1200 B.C., since that is the date given by the Carbon 14 test carried out on two of these pieces. The anthropomorphic busts carved in wood were baptized with the names of people, at the request of the inhabitants of Macayal, because it was necessary to remove the "little devil".

In that year (1200 B.C.), some calamity would have occurred, perhaps strong floods or prolonged drought was what forced the community to pay a stronger veneration to the gods of the water that inhabited their sacred hill. The space, then, was the object of a massive burial of human anthropomorphic busts carved in different types of wood, which after studies carried out by specialists from the National Autonomous University of Mexico were detected to be jobo and ceiba, perfectly preserved despite the time.

Most of the busts were buried following a very careful ritual wrapped in a kind of mat or protected with a fiber similar to tule, like people, which was the beginning of the custom of covering the remains of the deceased with a mat. The fiber composed of tule and other vegetables allowed the preservation of the wood for more than 3,500 years, as it created adequate anaerobic conditions to prevent the appearance of destructive microorganisms.

This composition prevented the passage of oxygen and prevented the creation of microorganisms that would destroy the busts, in addition to the fact that the water running through the site maintained a stable temperature, which allowed the preservation of the busts as well as the jobo, guanábana, and nanche seeds, flower bouquets and the metates with which they were tied.

The busts were located under piles of stones as if marking the tombs. Some were found in groups of three, associated with vessels or baskets, and others with the remains of newborn or unborn children. This data indicates that the Olmecs began with the sacrifice of children as part of the offering ritual. Until the time of the conquest, the cult and sacrifice of children in ceremonies associated with water and fertility cults continued.

The sacrificed children were special: only those with two whirlpools on their heads were chosen, as it was believed that the crying of these children would call for rain.

Although it is not known who the busts represent, it is not discarded that they are representations of hierarchs that reached a high prestige and that therefore it was intended to immortalize them. Besides the busts, in the third phase wooden staffs, knives whose handle is made of asphalt mixed with sand, and vulcanized rubber balls were found.

The archaeological rescue in 1988 of El Manatí, represented the link to understand some concepts of the Olmec ideology that later formed an important part of the classic and post-classic cultures.

Source INAH