Writing, Wheels, and Bucket Brigades

(Tales of Two Civilizations, Part II)


On January 16, 1939, Matthew W. Stirling took an early-morning walk through the wet, buggy forest of Veracruz state, on the Gulf Coast side of Mexico’s southern isthmus. Eighty years before his walk, a villager traipsing through the same woods had stumbled across a buried, six-foot-tall stone sculpture of a human head. Although the find was of obvious archaeological importance, the object was so big and heavy that in the intervening eight decades it had never been pulled out of the ground. Stirling, director of the Smithsonian Bureau of American Ethnology, had gone to Mexico the year before, in early 1938, to see the head for himself. He found it, sunk to the eyebrows in mud, after an eight-hour horseback ride from the nearest town. The head was in the midst of about fifty large, artificial earthen mounds—the ruins, Sterling concluded with excitement, of a previously unknown Maya civic center. He had decided to assemble a research team and explore the area in more detail the next year, and persuaded the National Geographic Society to foot the bill. When he returned to Veracruz, he and his team cleared the dirt around the great head, admiring its fine, naturalistic workmanship, so unlike the stiff, stylized sculpture common elsewhere in Mesoamerica. Nearby, they found a stela, its wide, flat face covered with bas-relief figures. Hoping to turn up others, Stirling was walking that January morning to the far end of the mounded area, where a workman had noticed a large, flat, partly submerged rock: a second stela.

Accompanying him were twelve workers from the nearby hamlet of Tres Zapotes. They pried the stela from the ground with wooden poles, but it was blank. Disappointed, Stirling took the crew to yet a third fallen stela. They scraped away the covering dirt and found that it, like the first, was covered with intricate images. Alas, the carvings were now too weathered to be deciphered. The frustrated Stirling asked the workers to expose the back of the slab by digging beneath it and levering up the stone with poles. Several of the men, he later recounted, “were on their knees in the excavation, cleaning the mud from the stone with their hands, when one of them spoke up in Spanish: ‘Chief! Here are numbers!’”

Across the back of the stela were clumps of dots and bars, a notation familiar to Stirling from the Maya. The Maya used a dot to signify one and a horizontal bar to signify five; the number nineteen would thus be three bars and four dots. Stirling copied the dots and bars and “hurried back to camp, where we settled down to decipher them.” The inscription turned out to be a date: September 3, 32 B.C, in today’s calendar.

Stirling already knew that Tres Zapotes was anomalous—it was at least 150 miles west of any previously discovered Maya settlement. The date deepened the puzzle. If, as seemed likely, it recorded when the stela was put on display, this implied that Tres Zapotes had been a going concern in 32B.C.—centuries before any other known Maya site. The date thus seemed to imply that the Maya had originated well to the west of what was thought of as their traditional homeland, and much earlier than had been thought. Stirling didn’t believe it. Surely the Maya had not sprung up in Tres Zapotes and then moved en masse hundreds of miles to the east. But the alternative explanation—that Tres Zapotes was not a Maya community—seemed equally improbable. The Maya were universally regarded as the oldest advanced society in Mesoamerica. Whoever had carved the stela had some knowledge of writing and mathematics. If they were not Maya, the implication was that someone else had launched the project of civilization in Mesoamerica.

Learning from local people that Tres Zapotes was only one of many mound sites in Veracruz, Stirling decided to return in 1940 to survey them all. The task was daunting even for a cigar-chomping, whisky-drinking, adventure addict like Stirling. Most of the mound centers were in the middle of trackless mangrove swamps or up narrow, unmapped rivers choked with water hyacinth. Ticks and mosquitoes were indefatigable and present in huge numbers; the ticks were worse than the mosquitoes, Stirling remarked, because they had to be dug out of the flesh with a knife. At one point Stirling and a colleague hitched a ride in a pepper truck to one of the smaller sites. After jolting down a road with deep ruts “designed to test the very souls of motorcars,” the two men were let off in a nondescript meadow. Stirling went to talk with the driver.

“The ticks are not bad, are they?” I asked him hopefully, viewing the tall grass and underbrush between the road and the mounds. “No,” said the driver, beaming. “When full, like grapes they fall off and no harm is done. There are millions of them here, however.”

In La Venta, a dry, raised “island” in the coastal swamp, Stirling’s team discovered four more colossal heads. Like the first, they had no necks or bodies and wore helmets that vaguely resembled athletic gear. All were at least six feet tall and fifteen feet round and made from single blocks of volcanic basalt. How, Stirling wondered, had their makers transported these ten-ton blocks from the mountains and across the swamp? Whoever these people were, he eventually concluded, they could not be Maya; their ways of life seemed too different. Instead they must have belonged to another culture altogether. La Venta was filled with mounds and terraces, which told Stirling that many people had lived there. The city, he wrote in 1940, “may well be the basic civilization out of which developed such high art centers as those of the Maya, Zapotecs, Toltecs, and Totonacs.” He called its “mysterious people” the Olmec.

Stirling’s account set the template for decades to follow. Ever since his day, the Olmec have been known by two Homeric epithets: they were “mysterious,” and they were the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica. (Tourists are told by Frommer’s 2005 Mexico guide, for example, to visit the ruins of the “enigmatic people” who created the “mother culture of Mesoamerica.”) But in recent years many archaeologists have come to believe that neither description is correct.


Curious villagers surround the great Olmec head excavated in 1939 by archaeologist Matthew Stirling in the Mexican state of Veracruz.

The Olmec’s purported mysteriousness is related to their emergence. To Stirling and many of his successors, the Olmec seemed to have no peers or ancestors; they appeared fully formed, apparently from nowhere, like Athena springing from the brow of Zeus. First there was a jungle with a few indistinguishable villages; then, suddenly, a sophisticated empire with monumental architecture, carved stelae, earthwork pyramids, hieroglyphic writing, ball courts, and fine artworks—all of it conjured into existence with the suddenness of amagician’s trick. The Olmec, wrote Smithsonian archaeologist Betty Meggers, were a “quantum change.” Their status as precursors led archaeologists to believe that the subsequent emergence of other complex societies was due to their example—or their conquest. Even the mighty Maya did little more than continue down the path set by the Olmec. “There is now little doubt,” Yale archaeologist Michael Coe wrote in 1994, “that all later civilizations in Mesoamerica, whether Mexican or Maya, ultimately rest on an Olmec base.”

Strictly speaking, Coe was mistaken. By the time he wrote, many of his colleagues strongly doubted that the Olmec either emerged alone or were the mother culture. They did emerge abruptly, these researchers say, but they were only the first of the half-dozen complex societies—“sister cultures”—that sprang up in southern Mexico after the development of maize agriculture. Focusing on the Olmec’s chronological primacy, they believe, obscures the more important fact that Mesoamerica was the home of a remarkable multisociety ferment of social, aesthetic, and technical innovation.

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