David Hatcher Childress, Author of the Month for March 2009
The Mystery of the Olmecs
By David Hatcher Childress
Books by David Hatcher Childress
David Hatcher Childress, known as the real-life Indiana Jones to the many fans of his books, is a captivating speaker and the author or coauthor of over 15 books. He has traveled the world several times over, seeking adventure and the answers to the mysteries of mankind¹s past. We welcome David as the March 2009 Author of the Month.
All of David Childress Hatcher's books are available through the publishing company he and his wife own and operate. www.adventuresunlimitedpress.com and through the Amazon links provided.
The Strange World of the Olmecs
The oldest and probably greatest mystery of early Mexico and North America in general, is the problem of the Olmecs. Olmecs are now often referred to as Proto-Mayans by academic archeologists, or Olmans, meaning inhabitants of Olman, the "Olmec Land" as it is now being called. When one looks at the enigmatic cave drawings, the gigantic, perfectly carved heads, the trademark "frown," and the violent, militaristic look of the Olmecs, an emphatic question leaps to the forebrain: "Who are these weirdos?"
What is fascinating about this enigmatic civilization to us modern viewers is how they represented themselves. In addition to these showing Negroid features, many artifacts depict individuals who have Oriental or European features. It is therefore very interesting to pay close attention to how the figures are presented-how they dressed; the head gear they wore; the shape of their eyes, nose, ears and mouths; the way they held their hands; and the expressions on their faces. It is all wonderful art at its finest. The expressions and symbolism in the objects they hold or are associated with seem to indicate a high level of sophistication and a shared iconography-What does it all mean? Who are these people? Were they isolated villagers or strangers from a faraway land?
Until the 1930s it was largely held that the oldest civilization in the Americas was that of the Maya. The great quantity of Mayan monuments, steles, pottery, statues and other artifacts discovered throughout the Yucatan, Guatemala and the Gulf Coast of Mexico had convinced archeologists that the Maya were the mother civilization of Central America.
But some "Mayan artifacts" were different from the main bulk of the artifacts in subtle ways. One difference was that some carvings of large heads had faces with more African-looking features than many of the other Mayan works. Mayan paintings and sculpture can be quite varied but the African-looking features seemed distinctly un-Mayan. These African-looking heads often had a curious frown and often wore masks or appeared to be a half-jaguar-half-man beast. This recurring motif did not fit in with other Mayan finds.
Colossal sculpted heads of the mysterious Olmec people of Central America
In 1929, Marshall H. Saville, the Director of the Museum of the American Indian in New York, classified these works as being from an entirely new culture not of Mayan heritage. Somewhat inappropriately, he called this culture Olmec (a name first assigned to it in 1927), which means "rubber people" in Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica ("Aztec") people. Most of the early anomalous artifacts were found in the Tabasco and Veracruz regions of southern Mexico, a swampy region exploited for natural gas, but in ancient times a source point for rubber.
Indeed, the Olmecs are now credited with creating the ball game that played such a significant role in all Mesoamerican civilizations, and the rubber balls that were used in the game. This game may be even older than the Olmecs, in fact. Ball courts and the Olmec-Mayan ball game were popular even as far north as Arizona and Utah and as far south as Costa Rica and Panama.
Olmec ball carrying figure
Olmec sculpture of a bearded figure
The Olmecs had been discovered. However, this discovery created more questions than there were answers. The discovery of the Olmecs seemed to cast into doubt many of the old assumptions concerning the prehistory of the Americas. Suddenly, here was a diverse-looking people who built monumental sculptures with amazing skill, were the actual "inventors" of the number and writing system used by the Maya, the ball game with its rubber balls and even knew about the wheel (as evidenced by their wheeled toys).