In the late 1850s, a farm laborer in southern Veracruz, Mexico, he cleared forests to make way for a corn field. As he made his way through branches and bushes, he came upon a large stone structure that was partially buried.
The worker first assumed that the stone was a large cauldron that had been turned upside down, forgotten and covered with earth. But as he brushed away the dirt and dug into the side, he realized that the stone was intricately carved to resemble a giant head. It is considered la cabeza colossal de Hueyapan.
Over time, archaeologists will find 17 more 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.
Researchers largely agree that the Olmec colossal heads were likely depictions of rulers who were immortalized during or after their lifetimes. Colossal head number five, for example, is believed to have been the ruler of San Lorenzo in the second millennium BC
The heads vary in size, the tallest being about 9 feet tall and 14 feet in circumference. They weigh about eight tons, but they are not the same. Each of the colossal Olmec heads has different facial features, and several wear headdresses depicting jaguar claws or paws. There are also indications that they once were painted in bright colorsand these variations are why scholars believe they were portraits of rulers.
Understanding who these rulers were and how they consolidated their power is complex. And researchers aren’t sure how many other colossal heads may still be buried, but they do have more information about the people who buried them.
More on Olmec colossal heads:
Unraveling a mystery
The Olmecs, who lived near the Gulf of Mexico in southern Veracruz he probably didn’t call the Olmecs themselves. In the early 1500s, after the Spanish invaded and occupied Central Mexico, a friar documented local history and included Aztec stories about the other people they interacted with over time. They referred to the people of southern Veracruz and Tabasco as Olmec.
Nor would the Olmec people have called the land where the farmer found the first colossal head Tres Zapotes. But the Olmecs did not leave any written material that could provide insight into their culture. Only archaeological research can provide clues as to who these ancient people were, how they lived and when they lived.
Scholars disagree on the specific time frame of when the Olmecs lived. Some argue that the Olmec culture began to fade around 1000 BC Others say radiocarbon dates the archaeological finds to between 1150 and 400 BC, placing them in the Preclassic period of Mesoamerica.
The Olmec colossal heads are mostly dated between 1400 and 1000 BC, and scientists believe they can tell us more about how these ancient people lived.
The Olmecs, who lived near the San Lorenzo archaeological site, were a sophisticated people who built dwellings and ceremonial centers from a variety of materials, including clay. The region flooded often, and the Olmec people sometimes they raised their houses two-story to avoid flooding.
They drainage lines also built who brought water to the walls of the plateau where they built villages. And because archaeologists have found artifacts made from materials not mined in the immediate vicinity, they believe the Olmec people were part of an extensive trade network that included other cultures living near the Persian Gulf.
The Olmec colossal heads are one example of an artifact made from material mined elsewhere. The heads were made of hard basalt stone brought by Cerro Cintepec in the Tuxtla Mountains, more than 30 miles away.
And because the heads were carved from one large piece, archaeologists identified the Olmec people paths created allowing them to cross the plateau and access river ports.
Still – eight tons was a lot of weight to haul 30 miles from a volcano and then haul up the plateau. Today, however, all the heads have been moved from where they were found. Most are on display in museums and two are in town squares.