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Discovering the Olmecs

Discovering the Olmecs
An Unconventional History

This lively history of seven decades of archaeological exploration in the Olmec region of Mexico tells the fascinating backstory of how archaeological discoveries are made while offering an exceptional overview of this ancient civilization.

Series: William and Bettye Nowlin Endowment

November 2014
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207 pages | 6 x 9 | 6 b&w illustrations, 5 maps, 56 b&w photos |

The Olmecs are renowned for their massive carved stone heads and other sculptures, the first stone monuments produced in Mesoamerica. Seven decades of archaeological research have given us many insights into the lifeways of the Olmecs, who inhabited parts of the modern Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco from around 1150 to 400 BC, and there are several good books that summarize the current interpretations of Olmec prehistory. But these formal studies don’t describe the field experiences of the archaeologists who made the discoveries. What was it like to endure the Olmec region’s heat, humidity, mosquitoes, and ticks to bring that ancient society to light? How did unforeseen events and luck alter carefully planned research programs and the conclusions drawn from them? And, importantly, how did local communities and individuals react to the research projects and discoveries in their territories?

In this engaging book, a leading expert on the Olmecs tells those stories from his own experiences and those of his predecessors, colleagues, and students. Beginning with the first modern explorations in the 1920s, David Grove recounts how generations of archaeologists and local residents have uncovered the Olmec past and pieced together a portrait of this ancient civilization that left no written records. The stories are full of fortuitous discoveries and frustrating disappointments, helpful collaborations and deceitful shenanigans. What emerges is an unconventional history of Olmec archaeology, a lively introduction to archaeological fieldwork, and an exceptional overview of all that we currently know about the Olmecs.



Chapter 1. The Olmecs Come to Light

Chapter 2. The Tulane Expedition and the Olmec World (1925–1926)

Chapter 3. The First Excavations: Tres Zapotes (1938–1940)

Chapter 4. Stone Heads in the Jungle (1940)

Chapter 5. Fortuitous Decisions at La Venta (1942–1943)

Chapter 6. Monuments on the Río Chiquito (1945–1946)

Chapter 7. The Return to La Venta (1955)

Chapter 8. Of Monuments and Museums (1963, 1968)

Chapter 9. Adding Antiquity to the Olmecs (1966–1968)

Chapter 10. Research Headaches at La Venta (1967–1969)

Chapter 11. Reclaiming La Venta (1984 to the Present)

Chapter 12. San Lorenzo Yields New Secrets (1990–2012, Part 1)

Chapter 13. El Manatí: Like Digging in Warm Jell-O (1987–1993)

Chapter 14. "They're Blowing Up the Site!" Tres Zapotes after Stirling (1950–2003)

Chapter 15. An Olmec Stone Quarry and a Sugarcane Crisis (1991)

Chapter 16. Discoveries Large and Small at San Lorenzo (1990–2012, Part 2)

Chapter 17. The Night the Lights Went Out (2001)

Chapter 18. Some Thoughts on the Archaeology of the Olmecs

Bibliographic Essay




DAVID C. GROVE is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has carried out archaeological research in Mexico for fifty years and is best known for his investigations at the Olmec-related site of Chalcatzingo, Morelos. Grove is a recipient of the American Anthropological Association’s Alfred Vincent Kidder Award for Eminence in the Field of American Archaeology, a past president of the Archaeology Division of the American Anthropological Association, and an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He lives in Gainesville, Florida, where he is Courtesy Professor of Anthropology at the University of Florida.


Chapter 1

The Olmecs Come to Light

In the 1940s a series of articles with eye-catching titles such as "Great Stone Faces of the Mexican Jungle," "Finding Jewels of Jade in a Mexican Swamp," and "On the Trail of La Venta Man" appeared in the pages of National Geographic Magazine. Authored by archaeologist Matthew Stirling, those well-illustrated articles brought the world's attention to a previously unknown archaeological culture of ancient Mexico, the Olmecs. The captivating magazine titles also correctly characterized the Olmecs, for we know today that giant stone heads and other magnificent stone monuments are their hallmark and that they were one of the earliest Mesoamerican societies to utilize jewelry and ritual objects created from what is often called "jade," that is, high-quality green stones, including jadeite and serpentine.

However, the Olmecs were puzzling to scholars of that period because those rich discoveries came from an unexpected area―the sweltering tropical forests and river floodplains of Mexico's southern Gulf coast. It was a region situated nearly equidistant between the great Maya cities of Yucatan and Guatemala, and the large prehispanic urban centers of the central Mexican highlands such as Teotihuacan, Cholula, and Tenochtitlan, yet lacking comparable archaeological grandeur. Furthermore, some scholars expressed doubt that the area's unpleasant tropical environment was suitable for any significant cultural achievements. Nevertheless, it is precisely where the Olmecs had lived and flourished. But if the Olmecs seemed an enigma in terms of their location, they were also an enigma in time. The craftsmanship and splendor of their stone monuments certainly rivaled the stone carvings of the ancient Maya. Had the Olmecs been contemporaries of the Maya peoples? While some believed that to be the case, Matt Stirling disagreed with them. He felt certain that the Olmecs had preceded the Maya in time.

Over seven decades have now passed since Stirling's articles in National Geographic Magazine. During that period of time archaeological interest and research about the Olmecs have gained momentum, and our understanding of that ancient society has blossomed. Archaeological investigations have answered some fundamental questions, and the Olmecs no longer seem quite as enigmatic and mysterious as they once did. For example, radiocarbon dating has now placed them from c. 1150 to 400 BC, during Mesoamerica's Preclassic period. Stirling was therefore correct: the Olmecs' achievements predated those of the Classic period Maya, Teotihuacan, and Monte Albán. The antiquity of the Olmecs also means that their sophisticated stone monuments are the oldest known in Mexico and Central America, and are the antecedents to Mesoamerica's later stone carving traditions.

We have no idea what name or names the people of that ancient society called themselves, but it wasn't "Olmec." That name was applied to them less than a century ago. Soon after the Spanish conquest of Central Mexico in 1521, some of the myths and beliefs of Mexico's contact period societies were recorded by Spanish and native authors. The most extensive of those writings is The General History of the Things of New Spain (also known as the Florentine Codex), a documentation of the Aztecs of Central Mexico written by Spanish Friar Bernadino de Sahagún. Included in the narratives and oral traditions that Sahagún recorded were the Aztecs' viewpoints about some of the contemporaneous societies that they had interacted with. Those included the peoples of the area of the states of Veracruz and Tabasco on Mexico's southern Gulf coast, whom they called the "Olmeca," "people from the east . . . a land of wealth, a land of abundance. There was all manner of food; there grew the cacao bean, . . . and liquid rubber." Sahagún's General History is but one of the sources mentioning the "historical" Olmeca―the "people of the rubber country" (the literal translation of the word "Olmeca" in Nahuatl, the Aztec language).

In the early twentieth century, artifacts and stone monuments found in that region of southeastern Mexico were frequently attributed to the "Olmeca" mentioned by Sahagún. By default that region's Preclassic period artifacts inherited the Olmeca (Olmec) label as well.

Because the Preclassic period Olmecs left no written history, our knowledge about them can only be gained by archaeological research that unearths and studies their ancient tools and technology, and their settlements. They are what we term an "archaeological culture," for they are defined on the basis of a distinctive complex of artifacts occurring within a limited geographic region and time span. The most visible distinguishing artifacts of the Preclassic period Olmecs are their magnificent stone monuments. It is significant that they initiated the carving of stone monuments in Mesoamerica, and that for several centuries they alone created such stone monuments. In fact, the distribution of sites with those stone monuments enables us today to approximate the extent of the Olmecs' domain, an area scholars have recently begun calling “Olman.” Olman extended eastward from the Tuxtla Mountains of southern Veracruz to the humid lowlands of western Tabasco (fig. 1.1). Over two dozen sites with stone monuments are known within that area, but the majority of the carvings occur at just four large sites: La Venta, San Lorenzo, Tres Zapotes, and Laguna de los Cerros. Those sites are therefore considered to have been major Olmec political-religious centers.

Archaeological cultures and their sites are by necessity defined by artifacts, both large and small, but archaeological research is also directed at attempting to learn about the people that made and utilized those objects. As archaeologists have done for decades, in this book I thus refer to the people (or peoples) who created the precocious stone monuments and displayed them at certain of their settlements on Mexico's Gulf coast as the Olmecs.

Seven decades of archaeological research have provided us with some understanding of the Olmecs, and today there are several good books and museum exhibition catalogs that very nicely summarize the current interpretations of the Olmecs' prehistory. However, although packed with information, they usually don't tell the reader much about the actual discoveries nor of the scholars who made those discoveries. They therefore leave out a very interesting aspect of Olmec archaeology―the events and misadventures that occurred along the bumpy pathway of research and exploration that has brought us to our present state of knowledge. Who were the dedicated archaeologists who suffered the Olmec region's heat, humidity, mosquitoes, and ticks, to bring that ancient society to light? How did certain events, research choices, and sheer good (or bad) luck influence their projects and perhaps ultimately affect present-day interpretations? And how did local communities and individuals react to the research projects and discoveries in their territories?

This book provides some of those missing details and stories behind the archaeological quest for the Olmecs. The types of information presented vary somewhat from chapter to chapter because no two digs, no two archaeologists, and no two field seasons are ever the same. In addition, as the chapters move from initial explorations into increasingly sophisticated and diverse archaeological research efforts, the archaeological data and background stories change as well. Many of the tales are humorous, a few are sad, and some are ironical. But the good moments, as well as the various trials and tribulations faced by the archaeologists, are all directly responsible for what we know and don't know today about the Olmecs.

This book does not begin with a lengthy description of the Olmecs and their precocious achievements. Instead, it is hoped that as the tales unfold about the events and characters that shaped Olmec archaeology, any readers unfamiliar with the Olmecs will be learning about them bit by bit, just as the researchers did. In the final chapter I present some of my own thoughts about the Olmecs and what we have learned about them through archaeological research. Although that chapter is intended as a summary of the search and of our present knowledge concerning the Olmecs, I realize that a few readers may skip ahead and read that chapter first before undertaking the stories of the search. Either way, I hope you enjoy the journey of discovery. 


“What a great book!  Grove, an archaeologist who has spent his professional career doing fieldwork in Mesoamerica, has produced an eminently readable account of the Olmec, one of the most well-publicized yet least well-known cultures of pre-Hispanic Mexico. Highly recommended.”

“This is a marvelously engaging introduction to Olmec civilization that has something to offer the novice and expert alike. . . . There is no other book on the market resembling it that traces the history of Olmec studies through the people who did the field work, the discoveries they made, and the publications they produced. The chapters are short and blend discoveries of mounds and monuments with local community relations, which results in fast-moving and engaging reading.”
Robert M. Rosenswig, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University at Albany-SUNY, and author of The Beginnings of Mesoamerican Civilization: Inter-Regional Interaction and the Olmec

“This book tells the tales of fieldwork that are commonly left out of formal academic discourse, and it explains what was done in terms of the real-time messy experience, rather than a false retrospective coherence. . . . I enjoyed reading this book because of the vividness of the accounts and the insights into the people who shaped the field [of Olmec studies].”
Michael Love, Professor of Anthropology, California State University, Northridge, and author of Early Complex Society in Pacific Guatemala: Settlements and Chronology of the Río Naranjo, Guatemala


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