Sunday, April 3, 2011

Before the Maya



The steamy east coast of Mexico is producing discoveries that are beginning to chip away at what we don't know about the mysterious Olmec civilization.  If they are famous at all, the Olmec are known for producing giant stone portraits in the round, beginning more than three thousand years ago in the regions of Veracruz and Tabasco. The imposing heads can weigh up to twenty-four tons. To see them  up close is to marvel at their individuality, and wonder how a people without the wheel managed to accomplish the task of their creation.
Those who have long claimed the Olmec were the mother civilization of Middle America, giving birth to the much-better documented Maya, have more and more to offer as suggestive evidence.
     When I think of Maya civilization certain images come to mind: the mighty jaguar; the Hero Twins whose valor and cleverness are central to the creation story in the Maya bible called the Popol Vuh; cranial deformation for beauty and status; the Maya calendar, still in use today and the Maya counting system expressed in bars and dots.
     The Olmec pieces from Mexico briefly in the United States now mirror these images, produced many years before that great Maya civilization appeared on the scene.  At the de Young Museum in San Francisco, where I visited recently as a member of the Bay Area Travel Writers
(allowing me to take these pictures inside the exhibit) colossal masterworks and fine smaller pieces are on display until May 8.  Have a look at the young twins on the left, and the larger royal twins on the right, and tell me if the Popol Vuh doesn't come to mind.  You haven't read it?  You must.  The translation by poet     Dennis Tedlock is my favorite.

                     In the same way, the bars and dots clearly seen here are like the Maya counting system, where the bar represents the number five, and the dot, one. The figures under the ball player's raised hand on the round stone on the right  (an altar?) might easily become, over the centuries, glyphs for three of the twenty "day signs" that mark a Maya month.
        The deformed heads, a sign of high status, are prominent in Olmec sculpture, as are jaguar faces on human bodies.

On occasion a pre-Columbian site will display both Olmec and Maya characteristics.  Last year I saw this at Tabalik Abaj in Guatemala near the border with Mexico, a site inhabited for more than two thousand years, from about 1000 B.C. until the great Maya collapse in about 900 A.D.  There are Olmec sculptures, and Maya features, a place where you can feel one civilization blending into another.

                                                         If you want to see how some of these huge pieces were moved from their homes on the Mexican coast to foggy San Francisco (very carefully), go to: