Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture

[ Pre-Columbian Studies ]

Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture

The Unborn, Women, and Creation

By Carolyn E. Tate

This groundbreaking study of gestational imagery on ancient Olmec monuments and objects brings to light Mesoamerica's earliest creation narrative and traces its evolution into one of the enduring themes of Mesoamerican ritual life and art.

in Art, History, and Culture of the Western Hemisphere

January 2012


33% website discount price


8.5 x 11 | 359 pp. | 268 illustrations, 4 maps

ISBN: 978-0-292-72852-3

Recently, scholars of Olmec visual culture have identified symbols for umbilical cords, bundles, and cave-wombs, as well as a significant number of women portrayed on monuments and as figurines. In this groundbreaking study, Carolyn Tate demonstrates that these subjects were part of a major emphasis on gestational imagery in Formative Period Mesoamerica. In Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture, she identifies the presence of women, human embryos, and fetuses in monuments and portable objects dating from 1400 to 400 BC and originating throughout much of Mesoamerica. This highly original study sheds new light on the prominent roles that women and gestational beings played in Early Formative societies, revealing female shamanic practices, the generative concepts that motivated caching and bundling, and the expression of feminine knowledge in the 260-day cycle and related divinatory and ritual activities.

Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture is the first study that situates the unique hollow babies of Formative Mesoamerica within the context of prominent females and the prevalent imagery of gestation and birth. It is also the first major art historical study of La Venta and the first to identify Mesoamerica's earliest creation narrative. It provides a more nuanced understanding of how later societies, including Teotihuacan and West Mexico, as well as the Maya, either rejected certain Formative Period visual forms, rituals, social roles, and concepts or adopted and transformed them into the enduring themes of Mesoamerican symbol systems.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Rediscovering Women and Gestation in Olmec Visual Culture
    • A Cradle of Civilization
    • Mesoamerica and Its Visual Culture
    • Early Interpretations of the First Known Olmec Sculptures
    • New Questions in Olmec Studies
    • Is Gender or Gestation the Compelling Issue?
    • How the Book Develops: Content and Methodologies
  • Chapter 2. The Tale of the Were-Jaguar
    • The Birth of the Were-Jaguar
    • One Were-Jaguar or Many Deities?
    • The First Attempt to Slay the Were-Jaguar
    • The Were-Jaguar as a Shamanic Alter Ego
    • Monstrous Congenital Anomalies
    • Pantheons of Deities or Symbols of Vital Forces?
    • Shamanism in an Ecological Context
    • The Rebirth of the Maize Deity
    • Signs of Life
  • Chapter 3. The Sowing and Dawning of the Human-Maize Seed
    • Images of the Unborn
    • The Formative Mesoamerican Embryo and Its Matrix of Associations
    • Ethnographic Analogies
    • Hollow Babies
    • A Contemporary Baby in a Boat: Niñopa
    • Conclusions about Embryos, Fetuses, and Babies
  • Chapter 4. Tracking Gender, Gestation, and Narrativity Through the Early Formative
    • The Archaic Period, 10,000 to 2000 BC: The Beginning of Visual Symbols
    • The Initial Formative, circa 1900 to 1400 BC
      • Maize Technology I: Fermentation
      • Maize Technology II: Nixtamalization
    • The Early Formative, 1400–900 BC
    • Fluctuations in Visual Culture During the Initial and Early Formative Periods
  • Chapter 5. La Venta's Buried Offerings: Women and Other Revelations
    • Topography and Sources of Stone
    • Discovery, Excavation, and Chronology of La Venta
    • Surveying La Venta's Visual Culture Through Time
    • Women and the Unborn Return to Prominence
  • Chapter 6. Female Water and Earth Supernaturals: The Massive Offerings, Mosaic Pavements, and Mixe "Work of the Earth"
    • Why Construct Massive Offerings?
    • Mixe Beliefs in Earth, Water, and Thunder Supernormal Entities
    • La Venta's Mosaic Pavements
    • Offerings Inseminating the Flowering Earth
    • Massive Offerings: Contained Water
    • Mixe Healers, Midwives, and Rituals, and Their Olmec Antecedents
    • Female Shamans
    • The Mosaic Pavements as Conventionalized Symbols
    • Politics, Protection, and Healing
  • Chapter 7. A Processional Visual Narrative at La Venta
    • Previous Investigations of Olmec Creation Narratives
    • Patterns for the Distribution of Monumental Sculptures
    • A Processional Visual Narrative
  • Chapter 8. La Venta's Creation and Origins Narrative
    • An Approach to Visual Narratives from Preliterate Societies
    • The Narrative Stations
    • Station One: A Womb with Three Fetuses
    • Station Two: A Quincunx of Thrones
    • Station Three: The Dawning of Human-Maize
    • Station Four: The Female Sources of Life: Earth and Water
    • Station Five: The Bodiless Heads
    • Station Six: The Phallic Column
    • Inserting Politics into the Creation and Origins Narrative
    • Alternative Reading Orders
    • Conclusions and Questions
  • Chapter 9. A Scattering of Seeds
    • Assessing Arguments for Some Major Points
    • Modes of Communication
    • Where Did Olmec Ideas Go?
    • Asking and Answering the Fundamental Questions
  • Appendix 1. La Venta Monuments by Format
  • Appendix 2. Comparison of Mesoamerican Creation and Origins Narratives
  • Appendix 3. Shape-Shifters and Werewolves to Were-Jaguars: A Brief Chronology
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

“In the Hill of the Woman [to’oxykyopk] there was a cave where the people used to put their ear of maize. In that place is where they found two little white eggs and carried them to the house.” These sentences from Walter Miller’s (1956:105) Cuentos mixes begin the story of Kondoy, the Mixe leader who was born from an egg. These themes—caves, women, transformation, and the co-identity of maize and humans—pervade this book on the visual culture of Formative period Mesoamerica.

At the heart of the book is an investigation into the stories that early Mesoamerican peoples told to explain their lives and world. Stories can bundle together many elements of knowledge. A narrative might contain lessons based on generations of experience confronting a problem, and information about places, resources, processes, and social inequalities. Stories also describe the characters’ emotional responses to events and situations—and information, emotions, and experience are constituents of knowledge. But the stories this book explores are especially hard to hear because they were not recorded in words, but in three-dimensional shapes enhanced with two-dimensional symbols. To grasp them we must, to use Esther Pasztory’s (2005) phrase, acknowledge that humans "think with things".

Formative period Mesoamericans made many kinds of things that obviously had symbolic and metaphoric value. For example, they lavished labor on blocks of jade in order to transform the stone into a highly polished, symmetrically balanced jade axe that they then deposited in a special configuration in a freshwater spring over a bed of limestone slabs. The stories that were told about such an axe might have included how local people transported or traded for the jade from its distant source, how the people or powers of that faraway place threatened or accepted the traders, how the traders won the stone, how supernaturals granted the skill to slab and grind the jade, why the axe was given a phallic or coblike shape, and why the axes, along with rubber balls and seeds, were thrust into the water under the shadow of Cerro Manatí. Of course, as we look at the objects today, we cannot reconstitute the stories or the meanings of the objects. When we consider the objects in their ancient contexts, however, we can glimpse some of the characters, settings, actions, and themes. We can see some of the questions that the earliest civilization of North America, often called the Olmec, wrestled with, and how the solutions they formulated were so powerful that many were modified and reused by later societies.

Of all the topics that Formative period Mesoamericans made visible in stone and clay, this book will track three across the millennium between 1400 and 400 BC, and across southern Mexico from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Two of these, images of the unborn and women, are subjects that scholars have recognized but either marginalized or interpreted differently, as Chapters 1 and 2 will detail. Throughout Mesoamerica, people made ceramic figurines of women from 2300 to 900 BC, but after that their sculptural production gradually shifted to different forms, including, in several locations, stone monuments. Early in the century of Olmec studies (dating from Frans Blom and Oliver La Farge’s 1926 survey of Mexico’s southern Gulf Coast to the present), George and Susannah Vaillant (1934) excavated hollow ceramic figures of infants and recognized a tendency toward infantile faces in other Early Formative period (1400–900 BC) objects. Following this recognition of newborns as an important subject, several authors referred to the embryo, gestational processes, and parturition. Miguel Covarrubias (1946:97), for example, described the “embryonic” character of a so-called jaguar-baby image. Doris Heyden’s (1973) work on cave symbolism at Teotihuacan led others to see the images carved on Olmec stone thrones of caves containing infants in adults’ laps as metaphoric wombs. Images of infants and old women in a small group of Formative period ceramic figurines attracted the attention of David Joralemon (1981). He suggested that the old woman and the child might embody dualistic opposites of barrenness and fertility, or shamanic midwives, or goddesses. Matthew Looper and Julia Guernsey Kappelman (2001) and Guernsey Kappelman and Kent Reilly (2001) identified the pervasive imagery of umbilical cords on Olmec monumental sculpture and in later art. Billie Follensbee (2000, 2006) discovered the subtle signals in body form and costume that differentiate representations of men and women in Gulf Coast Olmec art, and in doing so, identified a significant percentage of women portrayed on monuments and stone figurines from the site of La Venta (1000–400 BC). Nevertheless, these observations about Olmec visual culture—specifically, the prevalence of infants, embryos (an egg is an embryo), and women—have not been embraced by the academic mainstream.

More prominent have been theories about hybrid beings and jaguar cults. One of the earliest publications on an object later identified as “Olmec,” the Kunz axe, referred to it as “the conventionalized mask of a tiger . . . [which] rests on the shoulders of a man” (Kunz 1892:278–280). By 1929 this idea had been transformed into “the cult of the votive axe and its tiger mask” (Saville 1929:287). The notion of a "jaguar-baby" (Covarrubias 1946:97) or “were-jaguar” (99) and other biologically impossible creatures dominated the interpretations of Olmec objects for many decades. The monument from San Martín Pajapan (Fig. 0.1) wears a stone plaque on his headdress that has been referred to as a were-jaguar mask (Diehl 2004:110). This book examines the tendency exhibited by scholars to see Olmec images as fantastic creatures, monsters, and deities—in other words, as alterities instead of images based on ancient empirical observations of human life.

The third thread that the book traces is the development of narrative itself. It considers the narrative capacity of objects such as the jade axes of El Manatí to imply actions and stories; examines how sculptors used compositional devices to relate shifts in time, space, and state of being; and analyzes the arrays of sculptural characters in architectural settings. These arrays of three-dimensional objects were an important stage in the development of graphic narratives such as those of the Mixtec and Aztec, and were a step in the formulation of hieroglyphic writing. What they related is just as important as their compositional strategies. This book argues that the sculptural array along a 1,927 m axis at La Venta gave form to a story of creation and origins, and contained elements that resonated throughout most of the later Mesoamerican creation stories.

Ever since sixteenth-century Spanish chroniclers recorded some of them, Mesoamerican creation stories have been a focus of scholarly study. Why are they so important? The tragic history of Ishi illustrates the link between such narratives and Native American identity. Readers may know the story of the man called “Ishi,” a survivor of the brutal genocide of the Yahi and other Indians in California. In 1911, after having spent several years alone following the death of his last relatives, Ishi walked out of his hiding place in the mountains and into the corral of a slaughterhouse in Oroville, California. Within twelve days, under the auspices of anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and T. T. Waterman, he had been brought to the new Hearst Museum at the University of California at Berkeley. Kroeber was thrilled at finding a person who spoke a nearly extinct indigenous language but immediately realized that they had no way to understand each other.

To help communicate with Ishi, the anthropologists invited Sam Batwi, with whom they had been working to record the Yana language, which was related to Ishi’s. They prepared Ishi to document Yahi by demonstrating how the wax cylinder recording device played back his own words in his own voice. He apparently grasped the possibility of capturing his speech, and after many years of solitude, he was delighted to relate what he considered important to Batwi, someone who partially understood him. He may have hoped that the men who showed such interest in his language would eventually come to understand what he said as well. Batwi conveyed a question from Kroeber to the man the latter called “the unknown”: “Who are you?” In response, Ishi began a performance for which he adopted different voices to animate the several characters. His enthusiastic storytelling lasted two and a quarter hours, and he refused to stop until it was finished. Eventually the linguists understood that Ishi had enacted “How Wood Duck Wooed His Bride,” part of a cycle of creation tales (Jacknis 2003: 239–255).

Ishi had explained who he was via the story of the archetypal characters from whose wise and foolish acts he learned his strategies for living. For him, the creation story was how to explain his identity. It was also a key to healing, for he performed segments of his stories for hospitalized patients who were under the care of his doctor, Sexton Pope. Within a few years, however, during which he was both an object of study and a friend to Pope, Waterman, and Kroeber, Ishi contracted tuberculosis and died in 1916. Despite having witnessed several massacres of members of his small band and having to struggle to survive while remaining hidden, Ishi possessed an impressive body of knowledge. He was a master at making tools and knew intimately many aspects of his environment. He formed intense relationships with his family and the spiritual beings residing in his locale and enjoyed a wealth of wisdom due to his most prized possessions, the creation narrative of his people.

Like Ishi and his culture, Formative period Mesoamericans had not developed a written language. Their visual culture, however, was extremely rich. From ceramic hollow babies to multifigure low-relief compositions on stelae, the Olmec and their neighbors expressed their concepts by means of ideologically laden objects that could be transported across linguistic boundaries. Studying Olmec visual culture provides us with clues as to how Mesoamerica’s first civilization constructed knowledge and used it for various purposes.

I hope this alternative characterization of Olmec visual culture will complement the other valuable studies of Formative period symbol systems. Into the important discussions about long-distance trade, subsistence, shamanism, and the iconography of rulership, this book inserts women and their knowledge about gestation, the unborn, infants, and food processing technologies. These discourses played important roles in the development of visual narrative, monumental sculpture, the 260-day calendar, and ritual practices, especially of caching and bundling. This book investigates the origins of some pervasive Mesoamerican metaphors, such as “humans are maize” and “skulls are seeds,” and shows how all these concepts and practices underpin the epic creation narratives. To incorporate the unborn and women into the fabric of Formative period sites is to break with the orthodox view and to recast those sites as places for rituals of protection and healing, as well as centers of political economic activity.

To consider this effort in a larger context, we can compare it to the process by which scholars recognized the presence of women in Maya art. In 1961, Tatiana Proskouriakoff wrote the first paper on that subject. Afterward it was obvious that a few portrayals of women did exist among the male rulers shown on monuments, and now there is a growing literature on those women and on gender. Males are the principal subjects of Olmec art as well, but in the spaces between the male figures are abundant images of infants, pre-birth humans, umbilical cords, disembodied sexual organs, and women. These sculptural subjects formed part of the symbolic representation of biological processes, of early scientific inquiries, and of early cosmogonies.

Because this book takes as its primary sources the objects that Formative period people made, it is essential to discuss two issues centering on the authenticity of objects and the veracity of theories about art from preliterate societies. First, to avoid basing one’s interpretations on fakes, it is obviously desirable to use archaeologically excavated objects whenever possible. Most of the pieces discussed in this book, especially in Chapters 4–9, were excavated and documented under relatively controlled situations. In Chapters 1 and 2, in which I cover the early scholarship on the Olmec, it is necessary, because of their presence in that literature, to deal with pieces such as the Kunz axe that have no provenience. Fortunately, in my career as a curator, I have taken advantage of the opportunity to learn as much as I could about how ancient objects were made and about scientific methods for testing them. I have been able to personally examine and analyze most of the unprovenienced objects to which I refer, and in some cases I have had access to scientific reports on their mineralogical composition and manufacture. The only section of the book that depends on such objects is the one that uses several stone figurines as a basis for comparison to the human embryo. Every object illustrated has been vetted by an array of experts over many decades.

Second, the various disciplines involved in Formative period Mesoamerican studies have not yet agreed upon methods of proof based on visual or iconographic arguments. In the minds of most scholars, valid proposals depend on corroboration from language in the form of words or texts that are contemporary to, and in the language spoken by, the makers of the imagery. In the absence of Olmec texts, this book relies on a coherence of webs of evidence from multiple contexts, ancient and ethnographic.

This is an interpretive, humanistic inquiry rather than a historical or scientific one. My interest has been in how Formative period symbols and shapes communicated—and contributed to the formulation of—Mesoamerican ways of knowing. As ethnographers Martin Prechtel and Robert Carlsen (1988:123) have written about the Maya of Santiago Atitlán, “To know something is not to be aware of the minute details of that thing but instead is to understand how that thing fits into an ever-expanding system. . . . whose primary function is the regeneration and continuation of time and of the world.” I think it is our task as scholars of the humanities to pay attention to the communicative efforts of past civilizations, to their myths and narratives, so that we can better scrutinize our stories about ourselves.

By Carolyn E. Tate

Carolyn E. Tate is Professor of Art History at Texas Tech University and former Associate Curator of Pre-Columbian Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. She co-curated the exhibitions The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership at the Art Museum, Princeton University, and Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico at the National Gallery of Art.

A Choice Outstanding Academic Book

Also by Author

Yaxchilan MORE +