Centuries before the Mayans erected their first stone pyramid, and millennia before the Aztecs arrived in what’s now Mexico City, a far older civilization began laying the foundations for the rich Mesoamerican culture. Often called the “mother civilization of the Americas,” the Olmec nation rose to power between 1400 and 400BCE, when Rome was still a provincial farming village.
While the origins and daily lives of the Olmec are shrouded in history—all but the grandest stone monuments have worn to dust—many of their unearthed ancient cities tantalize archaeologists and scientists with their cities. The most famous site may not be precisely Olmec; it isn’t clear who built the Teotihuacan Pyramids, the ceremonial stone pyramid complex just north of Mexico City, but it seems clear that their religious, architectural, and astronomical sensibilities were deeply embedded in the monument’s construction.
Though the Olmec Empire did reach well into Central Mexico—the recently discovered city of Zazacatla provides the proof Teotihuacán, never truly abandoned, could not quite provide—it was based in the Gulf Coast states of Veracruz and Tabasco.
There, the enormous, elaborately carved stone monoliths that the Olmecs left scattered across the oil-rich region depict a remarkably advanced society. Surgical tools, writing, the famous Mesoamerican calendar, the number zero, and many of the deities, such as the Feathered Serpent, still worshipped at the time of the Spanish Conquest, came to fruit in this ancient and still little understood world.
One of the grandest shows ever put together by INAH, the National Institute of Anthropology and History, celebrates the Olmecs with a traveling exhibit of some 118 exceptional objects. Chosen for their artistic, as well as historic, value, these include polished stone sculptures, such as a 3500-year-old acrobat called “The Contortionist,” an impressive basalt throne, ceremonial jadeite axes, ceramics, masks, jewelry, and many other artifacts.
The stars of the show are two of the enormous basalt heads for which the Olmecs are best known, weighing four and six tons respectively. All are different, and thought to realistically depict specific Olmec leaders. Many of those struck by their full lips and broad features wonder whether the great Olmec civilization didn’t arrive here from Africa. This is the first time any of the of the 17 heads thus far discovered has left the country.
Over the past two years, some 600,000 people were able to examine these and other treasures on the exhibit’s tour, which stopped at San Francisco’s de Young Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
This past July, the show returned to Mexico, where it will be displayed at the Museo Nacional de Antropoligía, one of the world’s most important anthropology museums. Many other Olmec pieces are displayed in the massive museum’s 23 exhibition halls, such as Mayan royal tombs replete with gold-and-jade finery, the massive 25-ton Aztec Sun Stone calendar, found buried beneath the Zócalo (Mexico City’s central square since long before the Spanish arrived), and much more. This must-see museum is conveniently located in Mexico City’s Chapultapec Park, convenient from public transportation.