Of all the lost civilizations of Mesoamerica, that of the Olmec is the oldest and the most mystifying. We know very little about the Olmec – a mysterious culture considered by many as the Mother Civilization of Mesoamerica, that laid the foundation for the Mesoamerican cultural traditions.
They arose suddenly and with no apparent prior gradual development. It is difficult to precisely locate the Olmec civilization in time.
Their beginnings have traditionally been placed between 1400 and 1200 BC, and Olmec remains discovered at the Preclassic shrine, El Manatí, near San Lorenzo moved further back to “at least” 1600–1500 BC. It seems that the Olmec had their roots in early farming cultures, which began between 5100 BC and 4600 BC.
The Mesoamerican Olmec flourished around 1400 BC near the Bay of Campeche off the Gulf of Mexico. They inhabited the south-eastern part of the state of Veracruz and Tabasco western part of the state, with three most important centers of La Venta, San Lorenzo, and Tres Zapotes.
Other evident signs of their presence are related to Puebla, Morelos, Guerrero, which means that they occupied the area from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast. Most likely, the expansion of them reached up to the countries of Central America: Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.
Nicknamed Olmeca (‘Rubber People’) because they lived in the area known for its rubber trees, the Olmec were strangers.
In addition to building large thrones and monuments, the Olmec carved colossal sized heads weighing up to fifty tons and transported them nearly sixty-two miles to the Olmec heartland.
Who they were, where they came from is uncertain. The generally accepted belief is that the culture arose from people in the area, although many believe they represent Mongoloid people, while others suggest the Olmec have originally come from Africa.
But who were these unknown Africans? Did they arrive from the lands of North Africa?
In fact, there is a number of issues related to the Olmec civilization and one of these issues, is the Olmec true origin.
The Olmec portrayed Africans (perhaps African rulers) who must have played an important role among ancient people who carved gigantic depictions to honor them.
The African descent and possible transatlantic crossings of people millennia ago seem too controversial to accept but is there any other explanation?
According to Mexican anthropologists having difficulties to accept the Africans’ presence and their importance in this part of the world, the so-called Olmec were not strangers from across the seas, but indigenous people, Mesoamericans, with face characteristics having a resemblance to Africans.
Ivan Van Sertima (1935-2009), a Guyanese-born associate professor of Africana Studies at Rutgers University in the United States and the foremost authority on the African presence in ancient America, proved that many Olmec cultural traits were of African origin:
“A study of the Olmec civilization reveals elements that so closely parallel ritual traits and techniques in the Egypto-Nubian world of the same period that it is difficult to maintain [that] all these are due to mere coincidence.”
Who were the Africans who sailed to America before Columbus and introduced a calendar, writing, pyramid and tomb construction, mummification, as well as certain political systems and religious traditions to the native Americans?
Indian scholar R.A. Jairazbhoy states that the earliest settlers were ancient Egyptians led by King Ramesis III, during the 19th dynasty. Van Sertima also believes that most of the explorers sailed from Egypt but during the much later 25th dynasty. Many other scholars insist that the navigators came from West African nations, such as Mali and Ghana.
The Olmec influence spread throughout much of Mesoamerica and it is particularly noted for its ceremonial centers and distinctive art style, like were-jaguars being a combination of a snarling jaguar and a weeping human infant, but first of all, 17 colossal stone heads – never with bodies.
Huge monolithic heads – weighing up to 24 tons, with a height of up to 3.5 meters – are different from each other and yet they are all alike with flaring nostrils and thickened lips and a helmet or a helmet-like headdress believed to be the characteristic “football helmet”. At San Lorenzo, there have been found ten of them, four in La Venta, two in Tres Zapotes and one in La Cobata.
The heads – one of the most controversial scientific issues – are made of hard volcanic basalt mined in the mountainous region of Sierra de los Tuxtlas along the southeastern Veracruz Gulf coast in Eastern Mexico.
As skilled engineers, the Olmec managed to transport huge blocks of basalt and other stone from quarries more than fifty miles away from their sculpted heads and other monuments.
The first of the monolithic heads, was accidentally discovered a Mexican traveler Jose Maria Melgar y Serrano, in the hacienda Hueyapán (Tres Zapotes, Veracruz), in 1862.
Given the physical features of the Olmec head, Serrano was sure that it was the depiction of an African. The discovery testified to the existence of an unknown sophisticated culture.
Popol Vuh, Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya People claims that the Olmec came to Mexico in ‘ships of bark’. It means that black Africans sailed across the Atlantic Ocean long before Columbus.
But how long ago did this journey happen?
At first, the suggested oldest date for the Olmec origin was 250 BC., but when one Olmec site after another was excavated, ‘the oldest date’ shifted to 500 BC and then even 1250 BC, and ‘in the guidebook [of the La Venta Park Museum] to an even earlier time, conceding “the appearance of the first civilization of Mesoamerica a little under 4,000 years ago”—i.e., around 2000 BC.’ (Sitchin).
No doubt, the archaeological discoveries prove that the Olmec built complex urban centers with pyramidical structures of great size and with astronomical alignments. The Olmecs engaged in mining, produced high levels of art, introduced hieroglyphic writing to Mesoamerica, the concept of Zero and positional numbers, and great public buildings.
They were the first in Mesoamerica to have a calendar, religion, the study of astronomy and mathematics, stone masonry and farming.
‘From an ancient stela found in Izapa, it is clear that the Olmec recognized the Tree of Life. This stela also confirms that the Olmec were some black people who came to Mexico in ships made of barks and landed at Pontochan… these people are frequently depicted in the Mayan books and writings carrying trade goods, the tree also depicts seven branches and twelve roots,’ wrote Sabas Whittaker, M.F.A. in his book ‘Africans In The Americas Our Journey Throughout The World’.
‘The seven branches probably represent the seven major clans of the Olmec people.
The twelve roots of the tree extending into the water from the boat probably signifies the ‘twelve roads through the sea.’
Friar Diego de Landa (1524 – 1579), both the most important early destroyer and preserver of knowledge on the preconquest Maya of Yucatán wrote:
“Some old men of Yucatan say that they heard from their ancestors that this country was peopled by a certain race who came from the EAST, who God delivered by opening for them twelve roads through the sea.”
The existence of the Olmec culture in Old Mexico has always posed a problem. They vanished without any hint to where they went and why.