The Olmecs: The Mysterious Rubber People

Rumble in the jungle?

That which we know the least about is often the most interesting. A case in point is the civilization of the Olmecs. This flourished in Mexico between 1500 B.C and 400 B.C. leaving behind much intriguing evidence in its art and archaeological remains, but without any written record to explain anything. Because of this it has become a fertile source of historical riddles, mysteries, and speculations. This lost world is the subject of "Olmeca – the Most Ancient Civilization of the Americas," a medium-sized exhibition at the slightly out-of-the-way Ancient Orient Museum.

Located on one floor of a building in the Sunshine 60 complex in Tokyo's Ikebukuro area, the museum's space has very little of the mystique and glamour of the ancient times to which it is dedicated. But, for this exhibition, it makes some attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the Olmec world. At the entrance visitors are greeted by a full-sized replica of one of the giant stone heads for which the Olmecs are famous, flanked by a bit of tropical shrubbery and a stuffed jaguar.

With their thick lips and wide noses, these giant heads are often thought of as having Negroid features, something that has prompted imaginative speculation in some quarters that the Olmecs may have been immigrants from Africa. This is the same sort of overambitious, blue sky thinking that attributes the pyramids in the New World to architects from the Old. More down-to-earth theories point to artistic stylization and technical reasons, like stone carving techniques, as the reason behind the characteristic look of these statues. Think about it, carving thick lips is a lot easier than carving thin ones.

Whatever the truth, these giant heads lie at the heart of our understanding of this civilization, which first began to be recognized in the 19th-century as antiquarians and historians began to take notice. The word "Olmec" (meaning "the rubber people" in the language of the Aztecs) was then coined to describe this mysterious race and their culture.

As to what the Olmecs actually called themselves, this is an intractable mystery. However, rubber – extracted from trees native to Central and South America – seems to have been important to them. It was used to make large, solid balls that were then used in a sport, which, archaeologists believe, had great ritualistic and religious significance. One interesting theory is that the large stone heads are representations of successful players. Even an alternative theory that suggests they were rulers admits the importance of the sport by conceding that the rulers chose to dress in ball playing gear.

The exhibition includes a replica of one of the solid rubber balls used in this sport that visitors can pick up. Weighing several kilograms, it was used in a game known as "the Mesoamerican ballgame," which continued to be played by later Central American civilizations, like the Mayas and Aztecs. Thought to resemble volleyball but without a net, the density of the solid rubber ball meant that it could be a particular bruising encounter. Also, there is a theory that the losing team may have been sacrificed to the gods.

The importance of sport provides a point of contact with a modern audience. Another area of fascination for people today is the so-called "Mayan Prophecy" that suggests 2012 will be the end of an immensely long cosmic cycle and the start of new one with potentially dire consequences. Although it is popularly associated with the later Mayan civilization, the calendar on which this "prophecy" is based is thought to have originated with the Olmecs. However, apart from a couple of extremely ambiguous stone carvings, the exhibition has very little to offer here except copious explanations in Japanese.

Among the pieces of pottery and fragments of masonry, there are few items that impress at this exhibition, but a couple of jade masks, dating from between 1500 B.C. and 1000 B.C. stand out. Carved using only stone tools, these beautiful representations of the human face show how skilful the Olmec craftsmen could be. Artefacts like this suggest that – despite the limitations of a civilization that lacked writing, metal tools, and the wheel – the Olmecs possessed some profound wisdom, rather like an idiot-savant. Perhaps it is this that fuels our contemporary belief that these ancient Mesoamericans saw something in the year 2012 that our more scientific minds may have missed.

The Japan Times
3rd December, 2010

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