Olmec colossal heads: Massive boulder heads in Central America remain a mystery …

Neil Patrick
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We are continuously fascinated with ancient civilizations and their ability to move giant stones. One of these mysteries concerns the Olmec civilization and their carvings of stone heads that have been discovered in Mexico. These gigantic sculpted stone heads portray ancient men with flat noses, slightly crossed eyes, and chubby cheeks. So far, seventeen of these colossal stone heads have been unearthed, and nobody knows why they are located, where they are or how they got to that location.

The first archaeological exploration of the Olmec civilization occurred in 1938. These expeditions took place quite a long time after the discovery of the first gigantic head in 1862 at Tres Zapotes. These seventeen Olmec Colossal Heads were found at four sites along the Gulf Coast of Mexico, within the heartland of the Olmec civilization.

La Venta Monument 2  Photo Credit

The unfinished La Venta Colossal Head 3 Photo Credit

Most of the Olmec stone heads were sculpted from round, circular boulders, but two of the colossal heads from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán were sculpted from gigantic stone thrones, previously carved from stone boulders. Curiously, another monument, a massive stone throne located at Takalik Abaj in Guatemala, may have been carved from a colossal head! This monumental throne is the only known example of a colossal carving from outside the Olmec heartland.

Precise dating of the colossal heads is not yet entirely established. Scientists have examined the four locations of the Olmec heads – San Lorenzo, La Venta, Tres Zapotes, and Rancho la Cobata – to get an idea of how they are related.  The San Lorenzo monumental heads had been buried around 900 BC, which clearly indicates that their construction and use was earlier than that. These show the most precise skill and are thought to be the oldest of all the carved heads. The dating of the other sites is more difficult – the sculptures at Tres Zapotes had been moved from their original setting before they were explored by archaeologists, and the monuments at La Venta were partially uncovered on the ground when they were discovered.

Monument A from Tres Zapotes   Photo Credit

The La Cobata head, in the main plaza of Santiago Tuxtla  Photo Credit

So the actual period of the construction and completion of the Olmec Colossal Heads could span a hundred years or a thousand years. All of the Olmec stone heads are a distinct aspect of ancient Mesoamerican times and have been categorized in the Early Preclassic period of 1500 BC to 1000 BC, although the two heads at Tres Zapotes and the Rancho la Cobata head are recognized as being from the Middle Preclassic period of 1000 BC to 400 BC.

The heartland of the Olmec civilization was situated on the Gulf Coast of Mexico; it comprised a land mass area of nearly 62 miles inland from the Gulf shores and extending 171 miles, encompassing the two present-day states of Tabasco and Veracruz. The Olmec civilization is considered the first culture to advance in Mesoamerica, developed in this area of Mexico between 1500 BC and 400 BC. As one of the “Six Cradles of Civilization” in the world, the heartland of the Olmec civilization is the only one that was developed in a low-lying, tropical forest location.

Monument Q from Tres Zapotes  Photo Credit

San Lorenzo Colossal Head 10 in the Museo Comunitario de San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán    Photo Credit

The carving and placement of each colossal stone head has been approved and coordinated by powerful Olmec rulers. Construction had to be carefully planned, considering the effort involved in obtaining the necessary resources. So it seems that only the most influential could mobilize such resources. The vast labor force included sculptors, boatmen, laborers, woodworkers, overseers, and other artisans, creating the utensils to make and move the sculpture. In addition to these was the personnel required to feed and attend to these scores of workers. Additionally, the seasonal cycles, agricultural phases, and river levels had to be taken into consideration to plan the production of the enormous sculptures. The whole project, from beginning to end, could have taken years.

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