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Re: the Olmecs


I have no idea what Yuri is trying to say here but the article on the
Olmecs was obviously written by someone who just learned enough about the
Olmecs to get the story wrong.  He obviously did not have a group of Olmec
specialist read it before publication.

Please note my comments following the text submitted by Yuri....

Yuri Kuchinsky <bg364@torfree.net> wrote in article
> Well, here's another interesting article about that recent Washington
> D. C. exhibit. Of course, the specialists will think this is child's
> prattle, but the rest of the folks might enjoy it...
> Best regards.
> Yuri.
> p.s. Sorry the article is not formatted well, but I had trouble
> downloading it with an unfamiliar browser. 
> [begin quote]
> >             Electronic Telegraph
> >             International News
> >             Monday July 8 1996                               Issue 422
> >-----------------------
> > 
> >  [Image]          The roar that once ruled the jungle
> >                   By Adrian Berry, Science Correspondent
> > 
> >  ---------------
> >  
> >                   IN A glass case in Washington's National Gallery
> >                   of Art is a group of figures, each of the same
> >                   man taking a drug from the gland of a giant toad
> >                 that gradually transforms him into a jaguar.
> >         
> >                         It is part of an exhibition - running until
> >                         October - of the arts and artifacts of the
> >                   Olmecs, the earliest civilisation in the
> >                   Americas, the ancestors of the Mayas and the
> >  ---------------  Aztecs, who appeared in about 1200 BC (making
> >                   them as old as the Pharaohs) and who then, in
> >                   about 300 AD, mysteriously vanished.
> > 
> >                   That these dwellers in Central America were the
> >                   cultural as well as the lineal forebears of the
> >                   cruel and barbarous Aztecs, with their hecatombs
> >                   of human sacrifices, is shown by the figure of a
> >                   priest wearing - apparently as a casual garment
> >                   - the flayed skin of his sacrificial victim.
> > 

About 1500 years of history separated the Olmec from the Aztecs.  I'm sure
the author used the Aztecs as a comparison because he didn't know the names
of the other cultures which benefited from the the gains made by the

By the way. Olmec is a name given to these people by Matthew Stirling, an
American archaeologist.  Tabasco is the heartland of the Olmec and Olmec is
a Nauatl (Aztec language) word for rubber.  Rubber trees grow in the Olmec
> >                   The nine-ton sculpture of an Olmec chieftain
> >                   with a glare of authority and a face the size of
> >                   a doubledecker bus shows the extraordinary
> >                   abilities of these people. It took 12 hours to
> >                   move it 800 feet into the Washington gallery,
> >                   and another 12 to lift it into place on to a bed
> >                   of six steel girders. Yet the Olmecs themselves,
> >                   so many thousands of years ago, routinely
> >                   transported these giant stones hundreds of miles
> >                   without the use of wheels or horses.
> > 

If you were moving a one of a kind priceless object belonging to another
country, you would take your time as well.

Granted, how the Olmec precisely moved these large blocks of stone isn't
know yet, but I guarantee you they were moved in an uncarved state making
them even heavier.

In all fairness they did use rollers and large rafts.  The author of the
article obviously doesn't do much moving.  Horses are not used for this
kind of work.  Oxen are and unfortunately oxen are not part of Precolumbian
America, although I'm sure that next week Yuri will come up with some clown
who disputes this statement.

> >                   The Olmecs were terrified of jaguars; not of the
> >                   actual animals, but of were-jaguars, the Gods of
> >                   Darkness - the beasts into which their shamans,
> >                   or medicine men, imagined they had transformed
> >                   themselves when they wished to impress or
> >                   intimidate the population.
> > 
This is strictly literary license.  Were-jaguars is a name coined by some
of my colleagues to describe a jaguar like super creature which was part of
the Olmec pantheon.  We have no evidence what terrified the Olmecs, but
given the large number of jaguar skins showing up in bas reliefs I would
say this is an overstatement.  I think he should have said respected or
perhaps worshipped, but that doesn't write as well as terrified does it?

> >                   The were-jaguars always roamed the countryside
> >                   at night. They almost became the animals that
> >                   they impersonated. They roared and ate raw meat
> >                   and clambered up trees. A hallucogenic drug gave
> >                   this half-animal a clearer sense of smell and an
> >                   enhanced vision of all that was happening.
> > 

Some bad writing here.  The priest/shamans became the soul of the jaguar. 
The jaguar is the icon of darkness obviously because it is nocturnal. 
Another creature associated with the night is the bat.  The spirit of the
jaguar manifested in the shamanic transformation is called in Cholan Maya
the "uay" pronounced "way".  Through ritual the shaman priest takes on the
spirit of the mythological jaguar and becomes the creature.  Just like our
superheroes shedding their street clothes and becoming their true self. 
Imagine a world where super heroes were "real", not in comic books.

We don't really know all of the drugs shamans used, but drugs were used. 
We don't know the frequency.  We do know "trance dancing" played a key
role.  For you novices, this is the kind of dancing you see the Indians
performing in cowboy movies.  Getting all "worked up" is actually the
transformation process.

> >                   The mental effects on ordinary people produced
> >                   by this insane maurauder can be imagined. As one
> >                   anthropologist put it: "His nocturnal chesty
> >                   roar causes men to edge toward the fire and draw
> >                   their hoods tighter. It silences the yapping
> >                   dogs and startles the cattle. In announcing its
> >                   mere presence in the blackness of the night, the
> >                   'jaguar' puts the animate world on edge."
> > 

Again.  the writer is impressed by the sound of his own words.  What reads
well may not necessarily be the truth.  for example, the roar of a jaguar
could spell his death if hunters were out looking for a new pelt or

Mesoamericans did not live around the fire as cave men are depicted.  One
only has to look at their cities and towns to know this.
> >                   The were-jaguar, regarded as a single being no
> >                   matter how many priests were transformed into
> >                   animals at any one time, was the principal god
> >                   of the Olmecs. His powers were absolute and
> >                   irresistable. He could slay any man or carry off
> >                   any woman. And instead of resenting these
> >                   outrages, the people timidly prayed to him to
> >                   bring them rain.
> > 

The writer is really on a roll now.  We don't know the principle god of the
Olmecs.  The mythical Jaguar god played a key role but so did thousands of
other forces.  For those of you familiar with shamanism, you will
understand their religion is based upon the natural forces of the earth.

> >                   The face of the Olmec chieftain in the
> >                   exhibition shows mixed oriental and negroid
> >                   features, indicating his descent from the
> >                   ancestors of Europeans, showing how his
> >                   ancestors probably crossed the Bering Strait
> >                   between Russia and Alaska some 20,000 years ago
> >                   when the present sea was dry land.
> > 

As my old granddad used to say, "This is bullshit."  His features were only
"Negroid" to the extent that the Olmec were a stone age people.  They used
stones to carve and sculpt other stones.  These large heads are made of
basalt.  This is a very hard rock.  Without taking anything away from the
Olmec artists, I would imagine that it took a long time to make a short,
squat nose and an anatomically correct nose would have been beyond their
technical expertise.  They would have need to remove more stone from the
original block to get it right.  That's why the ears don't stick out
either.  We discussed this point several months ago in this group and I
pointed out the Blacks who did the sailing came from the Indian Ocean side
of Africa. The stereotypical black of Western Africa was not part of an
ocean going culture.  People who have Negroid features in Tabasco today are
descendants of African slaves brought by the Spanish.

> >                   Apart from their sufferance of animalistic
> >                   priests, there is every hint in the exhibition
> >                   that the Olmecs were an accomplished trading
> >                   civilisation. Their empire extended 1,000 miles,
> >                   from Mexico to Nicaragua. Their jade and
> >                   serpentine jewellery reveals the existence of an
> >                   aristocracy. They were finely skilled in
> >                   producing stone artifacts of every sort, from
> >                   axes, to altars to figurines, and of course
> >                   giant heads of jaguars. They even perfected the
> >                   lost art of polishing a stone so finely that it
> >                   acted as a mirror.
> > 

There is no evidence the Olmec had an empire.  The use of empire in
articles about Mesoamerica is a giveaway of an author who has no idea of
his subject matter.  File this tip away for future reference.

We now know the Olmec were not the "mother culture" of Mesoamerica.  In my
own work at El Tigre in southern Campeche we are finding evidence of
advanced lifestyles paralleling the Olmec.

> >                   Modern explorers in South America frequently
> >                   encounter the legacy of the Olmecs' divine
> >                   jaguar. The Tucano Indians of the Amazon equate
> >                   its distant roar with that of thunder that
> >                   brings life-giving rains. Other Indian tribes
> >                   howl during a solar eclipse to scare off the
> >                   jaguar which has eaten the Sun. The Arawak
> >                   Indians have an all-embracing saying that
> >                   "everything is jaguar."
> > 

Here the author goes off the deep end.  We are now magically transferred to
South America.  The Olmec were never there as far as we know.  If I lived
in the Amazon basin I would pray to a god who gave sunshine, not rain.

I doubt if an Arawak ever saw a jaguar, but we'll never know because there
aren't anymore.

> >                   And like the contemporary Egyptians, the Olmecs
> >                   were master-engineers. The mounds that remain of
> >                   their pyramids were all oriented eight degrees
> >                   towards the north, with uncanny precision.
> > 

It's getting deeper guys.  There are a couple of mounds ascribed to the
Olmecs.  It's hard to figure out the alignment of a dirt/rubble mound.  The
Olmecs were good, but they were not in the same league as the Egyptians. 
Trust me.  Their beauty lies in their art.


Paul Pettennude, Ph.D.
Director, Maya Underwater Research Center

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