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Thursday, December 8, 2022

The famed Olmec capital of La Venta, more than just giant heads

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

When one hears the word “Olmec” the first image to come to mind is that of colossal stone heads shrouded by the jungle. But in reality, there is much more to this ancient Mesoamerican civilization than initially meets the eye. 

Olmec head excavated in La Venta, Tabasco in 1947 by a team of American archaeologists. Photo: Courtesy

The Olmec began to flourish in the middle of the second millennia BCE, during Mesoamerica’s formative period. It is believed that the Olmec culture derived in part from neighboring Mokoya or Mixe-Zoque cultures with which they coexisted in what today are the Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco. 

Olmec sculpture of a monkey faces toward the sky in La Venta Park, Tabasco. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

El Parque Museo La Venta is an outdoor archaeological museum in Villahermosa. The museum holds one of the largest collections of Olmec artifacts discovered at the archaeological site of La Venta.

The entrance to La Venta archaeological park in the heart of Villahermosa. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

These artifacts were moved from the La Venta archaeological site in part because of its location in the middle of an extremely swampy area, which was far from ideal to host large numbers of visitors. This was, and continues to be, because of the large number of mosquitos in the area and its proximity to a busy plant owned by Mexico’s state-owned oil company, Pemex. 

Olmec Sculpture of a dolphin dating from approximately 1000 BCE found in La Venta, Tabasco. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Unlike other Mesoamerican peoples, the Olmec did not build monumental architecture on quite the same scale as say the Maya, Zapotec, Toltec, or Aztec. One major outlier is a 30 meter (98 foot) tall earth mound, located in La Venta’s main ceremonial center. 

A contemporary staircase leads to the summit of the largest Olmec structure at La Venta. Photo: Courtesy

Aside from large earth mounds, one of the most emblematic forms of Olmec architecture are their so-called “basalt tombs,” made from carved stone pillars. Given their somewhat archaic design, it has been suggested that these types of tombs predate the Olmec civilization, but continued to be built to honor the passing of important lords.

A stone basalt tomb from the La Venta archaeological site was relocated to the park of the same name in Villahermosa. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

But what the Olmec lacked in the construction of monumental architecture, they more than made up for in other areas. In fact, the Olmec are often referred to as the “Mesoamerican cradle of civilization,” given the belief that they were the first to build large-scale urbanized cities, develop writing, and a calendar system — among other great technological feats. 

The Olmec civilization is credited with the creation of the Americas’  first written script as well as the numbering system and calendar, a feat only achieved independently by as few as four civilizations around the world. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht 

That being said, in recent years the idea that the Olmec developed all of these cultural and technological innovations without any outside influence has begun to be questioned. Furthermore, there is good evidence that early Mayan cities such as El Mirador and Nakbe were on similar trajectories as the Olmec, and even outpaced them in several aspects such as architecture and astronomy. But in the end, it is sufficient to say that the Olmec played a major role in the development of Mesoamerica, and their influence can be felt across the region and beyond. 

La Venta’s original name has been lost to time. It is speculated that the site got this name as it was a popular trading post for the sale (venta) of exotic wood in the 19th Century. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

High degrees of cultural exchange, trade, and communication among Mesoamerican cultures oftentimes make it difficult to label a site or artifact as belonging to a specific culture. In truth members of one cultural group oftentimes had more in common with members of “other cultures” than they did with peoples allegedly belonging to their own ethnic or cultural group. 

The amount of Olmec cultural influence in Mayan cities such as Comalcalco has led some to suggest that it is not truly a Mayan city at all, but rather an Olmec-Maya hybrid. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As alluded to earlier, the largest draw at La Venta park is its several colossal stone heads. Dating from 900 BCE, these monumental heads are stone representations of human heads sculpted from large basalt boulders. They range in height from 1.17 to 3.4 meters / 3.8 to 11.2 feet, with the smallest weighing six tons and the largest a whopping 50. 

In all, 17 Olmec heads have been discovered, with most of those being found at La Venta and Tres Zapotes archaeological sites. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The most famous of these Olmec heads, known as Head 1, is in La Venta Park and features a characteristic wide nose and thick lips. 

Because of the physiological characteristics found in Olmec art, many have suggested that early Mesoamericans may have had some type of contact with African cultures, though people arguing this theory have failed to produce any verifiable evidence and are not taken seriously in the scientific community. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht 

Aside from varying greatly in size, colossal Olmec heads vary in their expression, though they all follow a similar aesthetic template. 

The so-called “smiling” Olmec head was excavated in Tabasco during the 1940s. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht 

But Olmec art is not limited to stone heads, as this culture created countless works of art on a par with those of any other Mesoamerican civilization.

Olmec Altar 4 at La Venta archaeological park in Villahermosa. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

One of the hallmarks of Olmec sculpture is the sitting or crossed leg position in which nobles are often represented. 

An Olmec sculpture of a cross-legged noble is found at La Venta, Tabasco. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

In the case of images depicting members of society who may not be of the highest social rank, this is not the case, as they are represented standing just as often as they are sitting.

The sculpture known as “La Abuelita,” or “The Grandmother,” in La Venta. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Like other Mesoamerican civilizations, the Olmecs are believed to be highly hierarchical. Therefore much of the art produced represents lords or kings wearing plenty of elaborate regalia.

An Olmec Chief or King holds a baton or weapon symbolizing authority in this relief from La Venta Archaeological Site in Tabasco. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The park also serves a zoo which is home to several species including monkeys, exotic birds, and even jaguars. 

A Coati or Nasua roams La Venta Park in search of some extra food. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

Getting to La Venta Archaeological Park is fairly easy from any spot in the country, as air and bus connectivity to Villahermosa is plentiful. 

Map showing the location of La Venta Park in Villahermosa, the capital of the Mexican state of Tabasco. Image: Courtesy Google Maps.

Once in Villahermosa, your best option is to hop in a taxi or ride-sharing service. It is not recommended to rent a car, as drivers in Villahermosa are among the most aggressive in the country. Needless to say, driving there is not a fun time. 

An altar depicts a woman holding a baby in La Venta Archaeological Park. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Southeastern Mexico is full of gorgeous colonial towns, but I will not mince words when I say that Villahermosa is not one of them. The city is quite dirty, lacks a real historic downtown area, and is known for having high levels of crime. In Mexico, people often joke that Villahermosa is the city of two lies because is neither a “villa” or hermosa” (beautiful). That being said, La Venta Park is fantastic and a must-see for lovers of archaeology. 

Olmec stone relief depicts a scene with several individuals, some of whom seem to be flying down from the heavens. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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