The date on which the Americas were first populated by humans is still the subject of heated debate. Once it was not put any earlier than 12000 BC, but today the date is increasingly being pushed back in time. Whatever the truth, agriculture seems to have been firmly established in the valley of central Mexico around 5000 BC, and the production of pottery may be dated to around 2000 BC. Immediately afterward, around 1500 BC, civilization "exploded" with the Olmec culture (c. 1500-200 BC).
The appearance of the Olmecs has often been considered something of an embarrassment, an "undoubtedly gradual process of which some details are missing," as one author stated. Their very existence was, for some authors, including the famous Maya scholar Eric Thompson (this name will be cropping up a great deal later), quite unthinkable, an idea to be rejected until such time as we have overwhelming evidence in its favor. In fact, however, as I have already said, it is extremely doubtful whether human history always (or indeed ever) evolves in a slow, uniform, systematic way. Besides, as far as we know, the Olmecs were a sudden, one-off phenomenon, without any formative antecedents (Soustelle 1996).
The main known Olmec sites—La Venta, Tres Zapotes, and San Lorenzo—are to be found in the modern state of Veracruz. These sites, like the megalithic sites in Europe, are "silent." Indeed, though the introduction of writing into Mesoamerica can undoubtedly be attributed to the Olmecs, or at least to the period of transition that linked the Olmecs with the central Mexican civilization of the final centuries before Christ, evidence of Olmec script is extremely limited and it has remained
G. Magli, Mysteries and Discoveries of Archaeoastronomy, DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-76566-2_8, 147 © Praxis Publishing, Ltd. 2009
indecipherable to this day. In any case, unlike what happened in the east, where it would appear that economics and the need to record merchants' transactions led to the creation of the written word, all known inscriptions in Mesoamerica are definitely of the ceremonial kind.
The symbolic world of the Olmecs was also incredibly rich and abundant, and their cities are dotted with what for us are veritable riddles, such as the "heads"—enormous sculptures carved in blocks weighing as much as several tons, depicting heads of sad expressions, possibly dead—and the "offerings"— sculptures buried in great holes; we do not know what function they served, why they were made, and whether they were really "offerings" to anyone. For example, at La Venta, a hole of 17 by 20 meters, 8 meters deep, was dug out. Then it was filled carefully with tons and tons of slabs of serpentine (a precious material from the Oaxaca Valley, hundreds of miles away), forming quite a refined pattern, and finally covered with a layer of clay and one of sand. The most famous "offering" is offering 4 in La Venta, made up of 16 little statues, two of which are in jade, 13 in serpentine, and one in sandstone. They all depict static personages with typical Asiatic faces and without sexual characteristics. The figurines show signs of wear and were thus clearly used for other purposes before becoming "offerings". The scene shows four figures who parade in front of the sandstone personage, while the others look on. Behind this central figure stand six jade rods, which may represent stelae. Offering 4 was carefully placed at a depth of about 60 centimeters, with the statuettes in position, and then covered with neat layers of clay of different colors and sand. One day, someone must have gone to check that everything was in place (we know this because the inspection hole has mixed layers of clay around it).
Finally, the Olmec enigmas include items traditionally known as "altars"—huge monoliths, in the center of which a carved figure sits, perhaps on the threshold of the afterworld. This figure holds a child (or maybe a dwarf) with partly human and partly feline features; possibly some of the "heads" were created by re-sculpting altars, or vice versa.
The heads and the altars have been discovered especially in the great sites of La Venta and San Lorenzo, in the modern Mexican state of Veracruz. La Venta was built on a large island in the middle of swampland, and was planned along a main axis oriented 8 degrees west of north. At the end of the avenue we find a large pyramid, unique in the world for its "volcanic" form (conical, but with rounded sides). Some archaeologists think that this is not its original shape; rather, the effect is due to erosion. This is difficult to
credit, however, and indeed its curious resemblance to a volcano might have been inspired by the volcanoes of Los Tuxtlas. Although these volcanoes are situated over 100 kilometers from La Venta, their importance for the inhabitants of the city is shown by the fact that it was from these very mountains that the basalt needed for the creation of heads and altars was excavated. The pyramid may thus be seen as a monumental replica of the landscape, whose significance, however, escapes us, as does the reason for which the pyramid itself was created, since there are no traces of constructions on it or evidence of burials inside it (Benson 1967).
La Venta is located right in the middle of a highly commercialized petroleum-bearing area. For this reason, in the 1950s, the scholar Carlos Pellicier, concerned about the safety of the artworks, arranged for their transport and display in a natural archaeological park (La Venta Park) in the town of Villahermosa. Unfortunately, however, the sculptures are displayed out of context; the heads, altars, and other extraordinary works of art, already so remote and alien in themselves, are now just some things scattered in a jungle.
Another place where re-creating the past today requires considerable effort, but which might have been utterly splendid, is San Lorenzo. The town
(abandoned, probably quite traumatically, around 900 BC) would appear to be built on a natural earth platform, with lagoon pools inside it, but this is not the case. The entire site was literally created, made to rise from the marshy terrain by the construction of massive artificial terracing, on the surface of which "pools" (lagunas) were deliberately made, fed by extensive underwater canals. Alas, however, as at La Venta, any attempt now to penetrate the inscrutable Olmec mind is doomed to failure. There is perhaps only one place in Mexico where the sacred landscape of the Olmecs has remained intact, and that can be seen as it was almost three thousand years ago: Chalcatzingo, 120 kilometers from Mexico City.
I showed some friends a photo of Chalcatzingo, and they were all convinced it was a painting depicting a fantastic, magical place conceived by an artist's imagination. Even today, then, one cannot avoid thinking of Chalcatzingo as a sacred place, and it is perhaps interesting to note that for us today, a landscape is considered sacred when it is hard to believe that such a beautiful place could really exist.
The site stood in the vicinity of two large natural hills, and was occupied uninterruptedly for considerable time, although the peak of its activity was reached between 700 and 500 BC. At that time large areas of territory were terraced for agricultural purposes and irrigation canals were built, as well as long communication roads and settlements on artificial mounds. The whole area was a sacred domain, and today one has to rely on rock carvings at the base of the hills to get a sense of direction within it. These carvings are of two types: some relate to agricultural subjects, particularly the rain, while others seem to be portrayals of the elite—deified chiefs. One of the most important is El Rey (Krupp 1997). The figure seems to be emerging from the jaws of a monster; he is surrounded by representations of what appear to be clouds and rainfall, and holds a scepter in his hand, which has an "S" symbol inscribed on it. This symbol appears in various other places and also seems to be related to rain; maybe it is a flash of lightning.
Not far from the Rain King we find the depiction of a caiman, perhaps rather surprisingly since this is an animal whose natural habitat is in the tropics and who does not figure in the fauna of the Mexican plateau. To understand its significance we have to note that the caiman was associated with Earth and was in a sense an image of Earth itself; it is therefore likely that the whole Chalcatzingo region was identified and chosen to be a sacred ground, whose purpose was to represent or replicate this cosmic caiman. According to this theory, the two peaks of Cerro Chalcatzingo were depictions of the two horns located over the animal's eyes, while two mounds symbolized the body. Finally, the caiman's jaws, the same as those from which the Rain King emerges in the rock carvings, were sculpted on a stone slab, which was subsequently rediscovered and can be seen today in the National Museum in Mexico City.
I believe it is extremely likely that the Olmecs' cosmic caiman was also linked to their observation of the sky (for example, maybe they had a caiman constellation). Unfortunately, we know virtually nothing about Olmec astronomy. And yet the civilizations that immediately succeeded them, in central Mexico and the Yucatan, proved to possess a knowledge of astronomy that is extremely detailed and rooted in a vision of human existence and the landscape of man. The Mayas belonged to these civilizations (we shall discuss them in Chapter 9), as did the great city-states of central Mexico. One of these, in particular, has always exercised a particular fascination for the visitor because, with its still, silent, far-off monumental qualities, it is inextricably linked with the most intriguing and enigmatic sacred landscape in the whole of Mesoamerica.
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