We will now head south to explore some of the ancient earthworks created in the Mesoamerican region. Latin for “Middle America,” Mesoamerica is a term used to describe the cultures and geographic areas encompassing Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. Examples of the most prominent civilizations in this region were the Olmecs, Zaptotecs, Teotihuacános, Mayas, and Aztecs.
The Olmecs are considered to be the earliest Mesoamerican civilization (c. 1400 – 400 BCE). The term Olmec is loosely translated as “the people from the land of rubber,” adopted from the Aztec Nahuatl word “ollin,” meaning “Land of rubber”.1 The Olmec people made their home along the Gulf Coast region of southern Mexico, in the areas now known as Veracruz and Tabasco. Often referred to as the “mother culture of Mexico,” the Olmec culture, traditions, and customs were subsequently adopted by neighboring and succeeding peoples such as the Mayas and Aztecs.
Olmec artwork is inextricably linked to daily life and the spiritual world. From monolithic stone sculptures to delicate jadeite celts (tools), the objects they created spoke volumes about the Olmec perspective of the natural and supernatural realms. One of their most recognized artistic achievements was the construction of massive stone heads.
This image shows one example of the seventeen colossal stone sculptures discovered along the perimeter of the Olmec capital city San Lorenzo. It is difficult to imagine how these people were able to transport these twenty- to fifty-ton rocks, quarried from the volcanic basalt rock of the Tuxtla Mountains, over thirty-five miles to San Lorenzo. The naturalistic faces and heads were carved without metal tools or modern technology — metalwork had not yet been developed in this region. It is theorized that the artisans employed hard stone and bone tools to carve and chisel the full round compositions, and bamboo to polish the smooth surfaces.
The purposes of these monolithic stone heads are still in question. Once thought to be ballplayers, the sculptures are now generally accepted to be colossal portraits of their rulers. The heads were placed in a parallel line and positioned facing outward, almost to suggest protection or warding off of evil. Each stone head is unique, with distinctive facial features and expressions. Some have puffy cheeks and flattened noses, while others have snarling open mouths and almond-shaped eyes.
Another distinguishing feature may be observed in the insignia adorning the helmets. For instance, in the example here, one can see what could be bird talons or jaguar claws. The utilization of animals was not only to characterize the ruler, but more importantly to connect the supernatural powers of respective animals to humans. Such animals are called nahuales — and in Olmec art, the most popular of these is the jaguar. Images of the jaguar are often combined with human form to create a composite or a zoomorphic image.