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A 3,000-year-old basalt disc and jaguar rekindle the mystery of the Olmecs

In the space of a few years, emerging from the mists of the past, a civilization completely unknown to us has established itself with its culture, its mysteries and its gods, revealing itself as the oldest of all those that man has developed and, perhaps, as the 'mother civilization' of the New World.

A 3,000-year-old basalt disc and jaguar rekindle the mystery of the Olmecs
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The Aztecs have often been compared to the Romans and the Maya to the Greeks. It has also been said that the role of the Toltecs among the Native Americans is similar to that of the Etruscans in Italy.

As Jacques Soustelle writes, the Olmecs, for their part, instead make us think of the Sumerians: like them unknown for a long time, buried like their precursors under the ruins of millennia and hidden from our eyes by the vestiges of the peoples who succeeded them.

Deserted and arid places still hide a large part of ancient Sumer today, just as the Olmec monoliths and altars remain hidden under the dense tropical vegetation and marshes of the coastal plains.

Precisely during excavations in the ancient Olmec capital San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, archaeologists from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) found a disk 61 centimeters in diameter, engraved with two images that resemble claws of an eagle, and a damaged sculpture depicting a jaguar with its jaws open and its front legs crossed. According to the researchers, the artefacts may have belonged to a notable of the ancient city.

The discovery was made near the Palacio Rojo, the seat of the rulers of the first Olmec capital, and according to the researchers' initial estimates the two artefacts could be more than 3 thousand years old.

Archaeologists believe that it is possible that more finds will be unearthed in the future, given that only 25 percent of the total area of ​​the entire palace has been excavated.

The basalt disk is a singular object, and archaeologists believe the carving refers to the name of an Olmec ruler. “It was placed at the beginning of the construction of the Palacio Rojo, between 1400 and 1200 BC,” explains Ann Marie Cyphers Tomic, archaeologist at the Anthropological Research Institute of UNAM.

"The mysterious colossal heads of the Olmec culture have the names of the leaders they represent engraved on their helmets. One of the heads of San Lorenzo is engraved with a symbol very similar to that of the disk. I suspect that this is the same governor who began the construction of the palace."

About a quarter of the excavation of the Palacio Rojo is due to the work of Cyphers which began in 1990. «San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán is the oldest capital of the Olmec culture», continues the scholar. «It was founded in 1800 BC and reached the peak of its development between 1400 and 1000 BC». At that time, the city covered an area of ​​approximately 2.2 square kilometers and could have accommodated a population of 1500 inhabitants.

“San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán is undoubtedly the most unusual of all the centers of pre-Columbian cultures of the New World,” explains Valery Gulyaev, professor of historical sciences and expert on ancient civilizations at the archeology institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Pravda.

"All its buildings and structures rest on the flat top of a plateau that rises almost 50 meters above the savannah. During the rainy season the entire surrounding plain was submerged by the waters and only the San Lorenzo plateau was in splendid isolation amidst the fury of the elements."

It seemed that nature had purposely created a safe haven for the Olmec population. Subsequently, as Gulyaev explains, it was discovered that at least the first six or seven meters of the plateau were the result of engineering and human hands: "It's surprising how they could shovel an entire mountain without the right equipment. This is one of the enigmas of the Olmec culture."

Archaeological excavations have brought to light another surprising peculiarity. Mapping of a series of stone statues revealed that their position was designed to form a series of parallel rows with a north-south orientation.

Furthermore, it is evident that each monument of San Lorenzo was intentionally broken or damaged, then laid on a special bed of red gravel and finally covered with earth and rubbish.

The enigma of the Olmecs

The Olmecs are certainly the representatives of the most ancient culture of the Americas, which dominated what corresponds to today's southern part of Veracruz, between 1800 BC and 400 BC.

When the Spanish invaded the American continent in the early 16th century, the Aztecs held sway over an ocean-spanning empire that did not have a long history. Not a century had passed since Emperor Itzcoatl, the "Obsidian Serpent", had given the first impulse to the expansion of Mexico City and its allies.

On the other hand, the Aztecs themselves, who recently arrived in central Mexico, could not boast a long tradition. As the historian Fernando de Alva Cortés Ixtlilxochitl will say, for the Aztecs the past was reduced to a golden age, that of the Toltecs preceded in turn by a confused and mythical era, and that of the giants lost in the vagueness of legend. In fact, they believed that the same gods had erected the colossal pyramids of the Sun and the Moon in Teotihuacàn.

The research of many archaeologists has opened new perspectives, allowing us to reconstruct, at least in part, the remote past of Mesoamerican history. A period called 'archaic' seems to have preceded the era of large centers and monuments, followed then by a constant development, often imperceptible, but with a progressive acceleration as it approaches our era. Each phase of this development originates from the previous phase and in turn prepares the following one: everything seemed clear, everything rational.

But here, precisely, the Olmecs arrive. A high level of civilization with an inimitable style, whose origins are found nowhere else, which presents works so refined, so sophisticated as to equal those of the great civilizations of the first millennium and which disappears inexplicably just as it arose, yet leaving behind a legacy that will be passed down from age to age until the fall of the Aztecs and Mayans.

What is most marvelous about the Olmecs is that this advanced civilization is contemporary with the first archaic evolved forms, and while its monumental sculpture rises in the midst of the suffocating jungle of the Gulf of Mexico, the Mesoamerican farmers can barely fashion crude statuettes.

The Olmec culture has become famous for its basalt sculptures representing mammoth heads, some of which can weigh up to 40 tons, with a maximum height of about three meters. These curious artifacts still pose a puzzle to researchers.

A 3,000-year-old basalt disc and jaguar rekindle the mystery of the Olmecs
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When the traveler Josè Marìa Melgar y Serano disclosed his discovery in 1869 in the bulletin of the Mexican Society of Geography and Statistics, what amazed the researchers was the fact that the mammoth heads represented individuals with Ethiopian features. This is what Melgar wrote in his statement: "I then thought that, in the early days of humanity, there were Negroes in this region."

Melgar was so impressed by the African appearance of the head discovered in the locality of Hueyapan that two years later he wrote a second article in the same scientific journal, in which he proposed some theories on migrations from the Old World to America, theories which, despite their apparent implausibilities continue to haunt Mexican archaeologists like poorly exorcised ghosts (Soustelle ).

A curious coincidence

A small object similar to a bag seems to unite three cultures distant in time and space: the Gobekli Tepe culturein Turkey (11 thousand years ago), the Sumerian culture (5 thousand years ago) and the Olmec culture (3.3 thousand Years ago).

A 3,000-year-old basalt disc and jaguar rekindle the mystery of the Olmecs
Pin it

The similarity of these objects so distant in time and space raises several questions: what are these objects? What do they represent and why are they important? Why do they appear in the iconography of civilizations so distinct and separated by thousands of kilometers and years of distance? Are they the sign of the same origin or the same ancient knowledge? Who passed this knowledge on to them?

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