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  Olmecs Origins in Guatemala

Early sites in the Pacific of Mesoamerica

By 1500 BC The Olmec civilization begins cultivation of Cacao trees in Guatemala and Chiapas (Coe and Coe 1996)

Although the Olmec were extremely early, they by no means appeared out of nowhere, like some wondrous plant, out of the swampy Gulf Coast lowlands. Many of the more fundamental Olmec traits, such as social hierarchy, ceramics,
food production, monumental architecture, craft specialization, the ball game, dedicatory offerings, and the restricted use of Jade, Obsidian and other rare, exotic goods already were present among earlier Formative peoples. Olmec Style bowl, Pacific Slopes, Guatemala, Probably, ChocoláMore interestingly all the Jade and almost all the Obsidian found in the Olmecs sites is from  Guatemalan sources (See Below). Although similar and contemporaneous developments were surely occurring in the Olmec heartland, the incipient Formative period is best documented for the nearby coastal piedmont region of Guatemala  and neighboring southern Chiapas, often referred to as the Soconusco (Blake 1991; Blake et al. 1995; Ceja Tenorio 1985; Clark 1991, 1994; John Clark and Michael Blake 1989, 1994; Coe 1961; Green 1975.Also, in The South Eastern area of Guatemala, there are proof of occupation since the arcaic era, the oldest site is Chiquihuitán, but Classic sites such as La Nueva, La Máquina, Ujuxte, (Different from The Western Early Preclassic site in San Marcos), and many others make this area a very rich and under estimated area to date.

 Some of the most notable Early Formative period appearances of El Chayal obsidian were in Southern Gulf lowland sites. The early rise of Kaminaljuyú may have been, in part, stimulated by contact with the major Olmec site of San Lorenzo (c. 1250-900 BCE). The source of some of the earliest obsidian material including prismatic blades recovered at San Lorenzo was El Chayal (Cobean et al. 1971; Cobean et al. 1991; Coe and Diehl 1980). Aswell, at El Macayal, a contemporaneous settlement approximately 12 km east of San Lorenzo (Ortíz and Rodríguez 1990; Ortíz et al. 1988; Ortíz et al. 1989), El Chayal obsidian was also present

The most realistic  illustration of the Olmec Corn God, that resembles the Maya Jester God, is a Jade axe found in  El Sitio, Guatemala (Navarrete, 1971) (Right). The cob is oval shape and the grains are between corn leaves, with epi-olmec hieroglyphs (Eckhom-Miller 1973)

A comparative study of pottery types has always been one of the diagnostic tools most used by archaeologists to determine relationships between culture areas, so it is fitting that we first examine the evidence relating to this trace element. According to Thomas Lee of the New World Archaeological Foundation, the earliest pottery found at San Lorenzo has unquestioned antecedents in the Ocós phase found along the Pacific coast of Guatemala,  in sites such as El Mesak, Ujuxte, La Blanca and La Victoria, dated  ca. 1600 BC. (Thomas 1983 Coe and Diehl 1980; Lowe 1977). Moreover, Lee, points out that the white-rimmed black pottery common to both areas has come to be recognized as characteristic of the  peoples who lived in the south pacific. Interestingly, Pierre Agrinier, also of the New World Archaeological Foundation, notes that the earliest pottery from the Ocós phase is by all odds the most sophisticated found anywhere in southern Mesoamerica, while that from San Lorenzo represents a rather less carefully made imitation ( Agrinier 1983; Cox and Diehl 1980). Thus, even if the people responsible for making the pottery did not themselves move from the Pacific coastal plain to the Olmec metropolitan area, there is clear evidence that their knowledge of pottery styles and techniques diffused in that direction. Coe and Diehl (1980)  term the earliest pottery found at San Lorenzo "a country version of the far more sophisticated Ocós phase of Guatemalan Soconusco."

In  general the early Preclassic chronology in Guatemala, is the same found in Chiapas and proposed by the New World Archaeological Foundation. A  gradual evolution phases from Barra, Locona, Ocós, Cuadros, Jocotal and Conchas is apparent in both, the  ceramic style and political complexity. There is no evidence of an Olmec "intrusion" in the early Preclassic sites in this region such as El Mesak, as proposed by several authors.  On the contrary, the evidence confirms the asseverations made by Hatch, Love and others,  that the earliest Olmec ceramic dates not earlier than 900 BC, in the beginning of the Conchas phase. (Hatch 1986; Love 1986; Shook and Hatch 1979).  The social evolution was a local process, and the so called "Olmec influence", only means that the locals, had reached a complexity level and the elites had to use exotic designs and styles, to mark social ranks.  Thus, the Olmec style  pottery and sculpture reflex not a cause, but an effect in the social evolution (Demarest 1989).  It has to be remarked that, in this complex model of the Early and Middle Pre Classic, the Olmec civilization never existed as an unified entity.   More likely, very distinct a non related Elites after  1100-1000 BC, started to share some elements of a common symbolic system. Likewise, these cultures were independent in its political, ceramics, ethnicity and subsistence systems.  (Demarest 1989).

ós style, la Blanca ca 1600 BC

 Another diagnostic of cultural diffusion cited by archaeologists such as Ferdon (1953) and Miles (1965, 237-275) is the evolution of stone sculpture within Mesoamerica. Unlike pottery, carved stones cannot be reliably dated. Although the so-called Fat Boys of the
Pacific coastal plain of Guatemala, specially Monte Alto, Chocolá and Tak'alik Abaj, may not be as ancient as Graham has assumed (i.e., 2000 B.C.;  Graham 1979), there is little question but that the most primitive examples of the sculptor's art all stem from the Pacific side of Mesoamerica, and especially Guatemala.  It was in this region that the raw materials, including both granite and basalt, were readily available for carving, unlike the Olmec metropolitan area where stone had to be fetched from the Tuxtlas some 60 to 80 km away. In fact, it is very likely that the famous serpentine jaguar mosaics at La Venta were fashioned from stone quarried on the edge of the Pacific coastal plain near Niltepec, more than 200 km to the south, and that as much as 1200 tons of the green rock was transported across the Isthmus for their construction. All along the Pacific foothills of the Sierra Madre from Arriaga in the north to Guatemala in the south one finds large, round, exfoliated granite boulders that may have served as an inspiration for the colossal heads so typical of the Gulf coast metropolitan area. Clearly, the Pacific coastal plain of southern Mesoamerica not only provided the raw materials but was also an ideal training ground for developing a tradition of stone working, unlike the metropolitan area, where, because of the lack of stone, it is difficult to imagine any such skill having arisen without outside influence.

 Inasmuch as language is one of the most conservative of trace-elements, it might be supposed that whoever the Olmecs were, some idea of their origins might be gained by identifying, the language family to which they belonged. Most linguists have accepted the idea that Mayan languages were spoken along the entire Gulf coast region  since the earliest Formative times (ca. 1500 B.C. Thus, many archaeologists, among them Jiménez Moreno, Thompson, Coe, and Bernal, believed that the Olmecs spoke a
Mayan tongue. Lee (1983) observes, however, that there is not a single linguist who thinks the Olmecs spoke Mayan. In this connection, it is interesting to note that Swadesh (1953) dated a split that occurred among the Maya-speaking peoples living along the Gulf coastal plain to some 3200 years ago (ca. 1300 B.C.), which accords very closely to the rise of San Lorenzo in southern Veracruz.  At that time it appears that a wedge was driven into the midst of the Maya language area, forcing some of the peoples to the west and northwest to become the Huastecas and the remainder to the east to become the  Lowland Maya. For such a wedge to have effectively separated a relatively densely settled people suggests that it was far more likely to have been the result of a sustained overland movement from the south (through the Tehuantepec Gap) than it was of a sea borne invasion from the north. Moreover, for some time linguists have recognized the similarity of four languages in southern Mesoamerica, but their current geographic separation has complicated the reconstruction of pre-Columbian language patterns within the region. 

(Box) Earliest sites in Mesoamerica


The Obsidian found in San Lorenzo is mainly from El Chayal in the Central Highlands of Guatemala, meanwhile, that from La Venta is form San Martín Jilotepeque, also in Guatemala,  due to this observations, Andrews (1990: 13) states:

. . . .within the Mixe-Zoque area itself two obsidian distribution systems existed, and (. . .) these may have been aligned with ethnic or linguistic boundaries. The first distribution network embraced sites in the Soconusco area of coastal Chiapas and Guatemala, that obtained predominantly El Chayal and Tajumulco obsidian, as well as sites to the west in Oaxaca, that had El Chayal and central mexican obsidian. This first group would also apparently have included San Lorenzo, in the Olmec heartland. Clark and Lee (1984: 246-47) have raised the possibility that the Early Formative Guatemalan El Chayal distribution pattern, extending far up the coast to Oaxaca, resulted from its being tied into a coastal canoe route that allowed obsidian to be traded more widely that it would have through an overland distribution network. The second group of sites lay in the Chiapas Central Depression and included La Venta, where the Guatemalan San Martín Jilotepeque obsidian was important in the Early Formative, as it was in the Maya Lowlands until the Late Formative. These two obsidian networks, if indeed they do form a meaningful pattern, correspond roughly to the distribution of known Mixe- and Zoque-speaking towns in the greater Isthmian area (. . .). If this late distribution of Mixe and Zoque speakers indicates the approximate location of these groups in the Formative period, with Mixe-speakers extending east along the Pacific Coast to  all  Guatemala up to El Salvador, it would seem that the Guatemalan coastal and Oaxaca Mixe were able to obtain both Guatemalan sources in El Chayal and Tajumulco obsidian, whereas the Zoque of Chiapas and Tabasco (including most of the Olmec heartland?) were, like the neighboring Lowland Maya, using San Martín Jilotepeque obsidian. (...)

The elusive source of the “Olmec Blue” Jade was discovered recently in the southern part of the Motagua Valley by Geophysicist Russell Seitz of Cambridge and with a team of jade researchers including Harlow and Virginia Sisson of Rice University. The Motagua river parallels the left-lateral, strike-slip Motagua fault that offsets the rocks of the region by 1,200 kilometers.

The top two pieces of jadeite are recent finds from Río Jalapa drainage, Guatemala, and the bottom is a fragment of
an Olmec-style jade dish

The recent discovery indicates the Motagua fault is more than just a single fault, and a new geological map of the region is needed. “Serpentinite is buoyant, like a cork,” Harlow says. He suggests the additional faults provided fractures and openings that allowed the serpentinite to carry precipitated jadeitite from the subduction zone to the surface. The geologists concentrated their search for the blue-green jadeitite north of the Motagua river where serpentinite, jadeite’s host rock, is plentiful.


Andrews E. W. 1990. The Early Ceramic History of the Lowland Maya. En: Clancy, Flora y Peter Harrison (eds.), Vision and Revision in Maya Studies. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. P. 1–17.

Malmström, Vincent H. The Origins of Civilization in Mesoamerica: A Geographic Perspective, Department of Geography, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH 03755

Karl A. Taube, Olmec Art at Dumbarton Oaks, 2004, Dumbarton Oaks Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.

GRAHAM, JOHN 1982 Antecedents of Olmec Sculpture at Abaj Takalik. In Pre-Columbian Art History: Selected Readings (Alana Cordy-Collins, ed.): 7–22. Peek Publications, Palo Alto, Calif.

1989 Olmec Diffusion: A Sculptural View from Pacific Guatemala. In Regional Perspectives on the Olmec (Robert J. Sharer and
David C. Grove, eds.): 227–246. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Eng. GREEN, DEE F., AND GARETH W. LOWE (EDS.)

COE, MICHAEL D. 1961 La Victoria: An Early Site on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 53. Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Coe, Michael D., y Richard A. Diehl. 1980. In the Land of the Olmec. Austin: University of Texas Press.

 SEITZ, RUSSELL, GEORGE E. HARLOW, VIRGINIA B. SISSON, AND KARL TAUBE, 2001 “Olmec Blue” and Formative Jade Sources: New Discoveries in Guatemala. Antiquity 75: 687–688.

Demarest, Arthur A., Mary Pye, Paul Amaroli y James Myers. 1991 Las sociedades tempranas en la Costa Sur de Guatemala. En II Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 1988 (editado por J.P. Laporte, S. Villagrán, H. Escobedo, D. de González y J. Valdés), pp.35-40. Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala.



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