Who Were the Olmecs?

New Discoveries Put the Spotlight on Some Very Ancient People

In January of 2007 it was announced that the ruins of a lost city had been discovered in the Valley of Mexico, just 25 miles south of Mexico City. Dubbed Zazacatla, the city was found near Xochitepec by Mexican archaeologist Giselle Canto. The ruins, it was said, had been left by the Olmecs—the strange and ancient culture believed to be the mother culture of Central America. Reports at the time, however, expressed surprise that this “new” Olmec city was not on the Gulf Coast, where most previous Olmec sites had been located, but was instead hundreds of miles inland.

Once again, the contradictions of the Olmecs were confounding and confusing conventional archaeology.

The oldest, and possibly greatest enigma of early Mexico and North America is that of the Olmecs. Olmecs are now often referred to as Proto-Mayans by academic archaeologists, or Olcans, meaning inhabitants of Olcan, the “Olmec Land” as it is now being called. When one looks at the enigmatic cave drawings, the gigantic, perfectly carved heads, the trademark “frown,” and the violent, militaristic look of the Olmecs, an emphatic question leaps to mind: “Who were these weirdos?”

The strange world of the Olmecs is only now being pieced together. In their art, Olmecs are often dressed in leath­er helmets, have broad faces and thick lips (plus broad noses), a mean-looking expression, and resemble nothing so much as a bunch of angry African rugby players from Nigeria or Tanzania. While mainstream archaeologists insist that Africans never colonized Mexico or Central America, the average man looks at these sculptures and wonders how academia can make such a blatant assertion—so startlingly unscientific at its very core. Even though sanctioned in the hallowed halls of academia telling the masses that these were not Africans could well lead one to conclude that the academics are blind, insane or both!

The Discovery of the Olmecs

Until the 1930s it was largely held that the oldest civilization in the Americas was the Mayan. The great quantity of Mayan artifacts discovered throughout the Yucatan, Guatemala and the Gulf Coast of Mexico had convinced ar­chaeologists that the Maya were the mother civilization of Central America.

But some “Mayan artifacts” were subtly different from most of the others. One difference was that some carvings of large heads had faces with more African-looking features than many of the other Mayan works. Mayan paintings and sculpture can be quite varied but the African-looking features seemed distinctly un-Mayan. These African-looking heads often had a curious frown, often wore masks or appeared to be a half-jaguar-half-man beast. This recurring mo­tif contrasted distinctly with other Mayan finds.

In 1929, Marshall H. Saville, the Director of the Museum of the American Indian in New York, classified these works as being from an entirely new culture, not Mayan. Somewhat inappropriately, he called it “Olmec” (a name first used in 1927), which means “rubber people” in Nahuatl, the language of the Mexican (“Aztec”) people.

According to the famous Mexican archaeologist Ignacio Bernal, Olmec-type art was first noticed as early as 1869 but, as noted above, the term “Olmec,” or “Rubber People,” was first used in 1927. Naturally, a number of prominent Mayan archaeologists, including Eric Thompson who helped decipher the Mayan calendar, refused to believe that this new culture could be earlier than the Mayas. Not until a special meeting in Mexico City in 1942 was the matter large­ly settled that the Olmecs predated the Mayas. The date for the beginning of the Olmec culture was to remain a mat­ter of great debate, however.

The discovery of the Olmecs, though, created more questions than answers, seeming to cast into doubt many of the old assumptions concerning American prehistory. Suddenly, here was a diverse-looking people who built monu­mental sculptures with amazing skill, were the actual “inventors” of the number and writing system used by the Maya, the ball game with its rubber balls and even knew about the wheel (as evidenced by their wheeled toys).

The greater enigma was upon archaeology—who were these people?

Who Were the Olmecs?

Bernal continued to study the Olmecs and came out with the only significant study on this early Central American culture in his 1969 book The Olmec World. In that book, Bernal discussed the curious finds attributed to the Olmecs all over southern Mexico and Central America, as far south as the site of Guanacaste in Nicaragua. However, he could not figure out the origin of these strange and distinctive people whose art featured bearded men, Negroid heads, and undecipherable hieroglyphs. Even such famous Mayan sites as Uaxactun and El Mirador were thought by Bernal to have been previously occupied by the Olmecs.

Still, orthodox archaeologists such as the well-known British writer and archaeologist Nigel Davies maintain that the Olmec could not be the result of any transatlantic or transpacific contact. Says Davies: “Discounting the more ro­mantic notions of an Olmec seaborne migration, doubts persisted as to which part of Mexico was their place of origin, since they were later present in almost every region. The problem has been hotly debated; Miguel Covarrubias be­came convinced that Olmec civilization first flourished in the state of Guerrero, bordering on the Pacific Ocean, but won little support for this view. Others have insisted with equal force that they originally came from highland Mexico. However, a fairly broad consensus now maintains that their heartland or home territory lay in the rubber land of southern Veracruz and Tabasco.”

Davies is essentially saying that the Olmecs may have originated at Monte Alban in the Oaxaca highlands, Oxtotit­lan or Juxtlahuaca near Acapulco on the Pacific or, most likely, at Tres Zapotes and La Venta in the swamps along the Gulf of Mexico. All of these areas have known Olmec sites.

The idea that the strange Olmec Negroid heads might be the result of early African exploration seems totally alien to the historians and archaeologists who have taken over the archaeology of the Americas. Despite depictions in Ol­mec art of various lords, kings, travelers, magicians and whatnot that look like Africans, Chinese, bearded Europeans, or some other strangers, most professors teaching at our major universities maintain that they are not evidence of ancient pre-Columbian explorers. They admit, though, that people might erroneously get this idea from a “superfi­cial” view of these various statues and carvings.

Archaeologists are thus confronted with a major problem that they prefer not to deal with. They claim that the Negroid heads are not African (or Oriental as many appear), but they also admit these giant stone heads and other statues do, indeed, appear to be depictions of Africans. Why would that be the case? How is it that American Indians look like Africans? Other civilizations, such as the Maya, generally do look like American Indians, as we would expect. Mainstream archaeologists are forced to invent an explanation, no matter how feeble, for this obvious puzzle.

So, even to mainstream historians, Olmec origin is a mystery. In the realm of alternative history many theories exist, apart from walking across the Siberian land bridge in remote prehistory. One theory is that the Negroid popula­tions are connected with Atlantis, as part of some tough and hard bitten warrior-class. Or perhaps they were part of an Egyptian colony in Central America or from some unknown African empire. Others have suggested that some Ol­mecs came across the Pacific from the lost continent of Mu or as Shang Chinese mercenaries. Lending credence to these ideas, there is the curious portrayal of what appear to be “magicians” (or shamanic sorcerers) using magic mushrooms in many of the Olmec statues. Were they magicians from Africa, China, or even Atlantis?

Transoceanic Colonizers?

It is not known what name the ancient Olmec used for themselves; some later Mesoamerican accounts seem to re­fer to the ancient Olmec as “Tamoanchan.” The classic period for the Olmecs is generally considered to be from 1200 B.C. ending around 400 BC. Early, formative Olmec artifacts are said to go back to 1500 B.C., and probably earlier. No one knows where the Olmecs came from, but the two predominant theories are:

  1. They were Native Americans, derived from the same Siberian stock as most other Native Americans, and just happened to accentuate the Negroid genetic material that was latent in their genes.
  2. They were outsiders who immigrated to the Olman area via boat, most likely as sailors or passengers on transo­ceanic voyages that went on for probably hundreds of years.

At the center of the debate is the classic struggle between isolationists (who think that ancient man was incapable of transoceanic voyages, and therefore, nearly every ancient culture developed on its own) and diffusionists (who think that ancient man could span the oceans, which explains similarities in widely disparate cultures). There are a few proponents of diffusionism at the traditional academic level. An exception, Ivan Van Sertima of Rutgers Universi­ty in New Jersey actively promotes the diffusionist theory that ancient man crossed both the Atlantic and the Pacific in prolonged transoceanic contact. His books, African Presence in Early America (1987) and African Presence in Ear­ly Asia, (1988) are filled with articles and photos that show without a doubt that Negroes have lived, literally, all over the world, including the ancient Americas. While Van Sertima does not bring in such unorthodox theories as Atlantis or a lost continent in the Pacific, he is clearly of the belief that Negroes in ancient times developed many advanced civilizations and lived all over the globe.

Unfortunately, most of the writers in the academic field prefer to champion the isolationist theories to the virtual exclusion of the diffusionist.

In the recent scholarly book by Richard A. Diehl, The Olmecs: America’s First Civilization, (2004) Diehl has only one paragraph on the subject, saying: “The origins of Olmec culture have intrigued scholars and lay people alike since Tres Zapotes Colossal Head I, a gigantic stone human head with vaguely Negroid features, was discovered in Veracruz 140 years ago. Since that time, Olmec culture and art have been attributed to seafaring Africans, Egyptians, Nubians, Phoenicians, Atlanteans, Japanese, Chinese, and other ancient wanderers. As often happens, the truth is infinitely more logical, if less romantic: the Olmecs were Native Americans who created a unique culture in southeastern Mexi­co’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Archaeologists now trace Olmec origins back to pre-Olmec cultures in the region and there is no credible evidence for major intrusions from the outside. Furthermore, not a single bona fide artifact of Old World origin has ever appeared in an Olmec archaeological site, or for that matter anywhere else in Mesoameri­ca.”

With this paragraph Diehl summarily dismisses all theories and evidence of transoceanic contact. We don’t really know what a bona fide artifact would be, since Old World and New World articles were often identical. Also, we are given no further information on the pre-Olmec cultures that the Olmecs are presumably derived from.

But for the Olmecs to actually be Africans—not just look like them—they would almost certainly have come to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec via ship. But since such voyages are dismissed immediately and there will be no further discussion of it, the Olmecs simply have to be local boys who have always pretty much been there. At some time in re­mote prehistory, their early genetic group walked into this Olmec heartland area.

According to Diehl, the Olmecs would have been an isolated group within their region as well, with little contact with other tribes in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Says Diehl: “We do not know what these people called themselves, or if they even had a term that encompassed all the inhabitants of Olman. There is no evidence that they formed a single unified ethnic group, and almost certainly no Olmec considered people living more than a few hours’ walk away as members of his or her own group. Nevertheless, the numerous independent local cultures were so similar to one another that modern scientists consider them a single generic culture.”

This strong statement bears repeating: “…almost certainly no Olmec considered people living more than a few hours’ walk away as members of his or her own group.” If the Olmecs were isolated from neighbors only a few hours’ walk away, they certainly wouldn’t have had contact with people across an ocean, would they?

The Olmec settlements, according to Diehl, rose up independently in their corner of Mesoamerica without the in­fluence of any other culture. They all suddenly began making monumental statues out of basalt (one of the hardest and most difficult stones to carve), and made large structures with sophisticated drainage systems. But they weren’t really in contact with their early neighbors. The spread of Olmec-like artifacts was achieved only later when Olmec “styles” were used by other more widespread cultures.

Diehl was actually proved wrong on this account with the January 2007 announcement that an Olmec-influenced city had been found near Cuernavaca, hundreds of miles from Olmecs’ Gulf Coast territory, at Zazacatla.

Once the Olmecs had been established as the oldest culture in Mesoamerica in the 1940s, by default they became the founders of many of the ancient cities. Essentially, if it could be proven that Olmec iconography was being used at an archaeological site, then it must have been the Olmecs who founded that city, since the Olmecs are the oldest cul­ture. While there may well have been earlier cultures than the Olmecs in Mesoamerica, none have been specifically identified by archaeologists (at least that I am aware of).

Since the oldest Maya sites such as Uaxactun in the Peten jungles north of Tikal are thought to have been first built by the Olmecs, it is possible that other older Mayan sites were also founded by the Olmecs. This list of Mayan sites founded by the Olmecs could include Copan, El Mirador, Piedras Negras and many others. Sites such as Monte Alban and Teotihuacan are thought by some archaeologists to be associated with the Olmecs and it may be the case that these cities were originally important Olmec centers.

The mystery of the Olmecs, it seems, will not be solved in a day, or a week, or even in the next few years. It ap­pears to be a mystery that will endure for quite some time to come. So, hopefully, in the future scholars and laymen alike will look at the amazing art and culture of the cosmopolitan civilization of the Olmecs with an open mind and a deeper appreciation of history’s many mysteries.


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