In the late 1850s, a farm laborer in southern Veracruz, Mexico, cleared the forest to make way for a cornfield. As he made his way through the branches and shrubbery, he came across a large, partially buried stone structure.
The worker first assumed that the stone was a large cauldron that had been knocked over, forgotten, and covered in dirt. But as he brushed off the dirt and dug into the sides, he realized the stone was intricately carved to look like a giant head. It was considered the colossal cabeza of Hueyapan.
Over time, archaeologists will find another 17 stone heads in four locations. Called the Olmec Colossal Heads, these ancient relics have helped historians learn more about the people who lived there thousands of years ago.
Maybe a memorial
Scholars mostly agree that Olmec colossal heads were likely representations of rulers commemorated during or after their lifetime. Colossal head number five, for example, would have been a ruler of San Lorenzo who lived during the second millennium BC
The heads vary in size and the tallest is approximately 9 feet tall and 14 feet in circumference. They weigh about eight tons, but they are not uniform. Each of the Olmec colossal heads has distinct facial features, and several wear head coverings that represent talons or jaguar paws. There are also indications that they were once painted in bright colorsand these variations explain why scholars believe they were portraits of rulers.
Understanding who these leaders were and how they consolidated their power is complex. And researchers don’t know how many other colossal heads may still be buried, but they have a better idea of who buried them.
Learn more about Olmec colossal heads:
Uncover a mystery
The Olmecs who lived near the Gulf of Mexico in southern Veracruz probably didn’t call themselves Olmecs. In the early 1500s, after the Spanish invaded and occupied central Mexico, a friar documented local history and included Aztec stories about other people they interacted with over time. They called the inhabitants of southern Veracruz and Tabasco the Olmeca.
Nor would the Olmec people have referred to the land where the farmer found the first colossal head as Tres Zapotes. But the Olmecs left no written records that could have provided insight into their culture. Only archaeological research can provide clues to who these ancient people were, how they lived, and when they lived.
Scholars disagree on a specific time period as to when the Olmec people lived. Some support the Olmec culture started to fade 1000 BC Others say radiocarbon dates the archaeological finds to between 1150 and 400 BC, which places them in the Preclassic period of Mesoamerica.
Colossal Olmec Heads mostly date between 1400 and 1000 BC. AD, and scholars think they can tell us more about how these ancient peoples lived.
Read more:The 6 Most Iconic Ancient Artifacts That Continue To Captivate
The Olmecs who lived near the archaeological site of San Lorenzo were sophisticated people who built dwellings and ceremonial centers from a variety of materials, including clay. The area was frequently flooded and the Olmec people sometimes raised their houses two storeys high to avoid flooding.
They also constructed drainage pipes who brought water to the sides of the plateaus where they built villages. And because archaeologists have found artifacts made from materials not from the immediate area, they believe the Olmec people were part of a large trading network that included other cultures living near the gulf.
Olmec colossal heads are an example of an artifact made with materials from elsewhere. The heads were made of hard basalt stone brought from Cerro Cintepec in the Tuxtla Mountains, over 30 miles away.
And because the heads were carved from a single large piece, archaeologists believe the Olmec people created pavements which allowed them to cross the plateaus and access the river ports.
Still, eight tons was a huge weight to carry 30 miles from a volcano and then back up a plateau. Today, however, the heads have all been moved from where they were unearthed. Most are on display in museums and two in town squares.