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Aztec and Maya civilizations are household names – but it's the Olmecs who are the 'mother culture' of ancient Mesoamerica

Karl Taube, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Riverside, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

An extremely important 1-ton sculpture, sometimes referred to by archaeologists as an “Earth Monster” or Monument 9, was repatriated to Mexico from a private collection in Colorado in May 2023, according to an announcement from Mexico’s Consul General in New York. The monument features the head of a front-facing creature with a gaping mouth: a supernatural being that represented the living, animate earth to an ancient culture in Central America and Mexico.

This sculpture was reportedly found at the base of a hill at Chalcatzingo, an archaeological site some 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of Mexico City, and dates to roughly 600 B.C. Chalcatzingo is closely related to Olmec culture, one of the earliest in ancient Mesoamerica.

I am an archaeologist specializing in Mesoamerica: an area that encompassed present-day southern Mexico, parts of Costa Rica and all of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. I have visited Chalcatzingo many times while researching the development of this rich cultural region.

Many scholars regard the Olmec as the “mother culture” of ancient Mesoamerica, a civilization where particular types of monumental architecture, sculpture and gods originated. Among the later Maya, for example, the gods of wind, rain and corn – or more precisely, maize – are clearly derived from the earlier Olmec culture.

The Olmec heartland was in what are now the Mexican states of Tabasco and southern Veracruz, along the southern coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Much of their influence was based on economic wealth from corn.

Of Olmec art that has survived the centuries, their carved heads are particularly striking and well known. By 1000 B.C., Olmec sculptors at San Lorenzo, Mexico, had fashioned no fewer than 10 colossal heads, all over 6 feet high. Archaeologists believe these are individualized portraits of rulers, each with their own specific headdress: depictions of specific people, which is quite rare in New World art.


The Olmecs were also masters in the carving of jade. I was involved in locating the original Olmec and Maya jadeite sources in highland eastern Guatemala, found in stone outcrops often located about 6,000 feet above sea level.

Artisans beginning around 900 B.C. carved life-size jade masks that almost look like molded plastic, but which must have been the result of a laborious process to grind and polish this extremely hard, dense stone.

All Olmec sculpture was created for a purpose, whether it be religious or political. In the case of Monument 9, it clearly pertains to the Earth, which in Mesoamerica was considered a sacred, living being.

The Olmecs existed at a time when maize agriculture had first developed, which stabilized and increased their economy – a transformative shift in the development of Mesoamerican civilization.


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