La Venta

Tags: La Venta, Mexico, Oaxaca, Tabasco, Villahermosa

Date: June 4, 2024

Early farming cultures arose in Tabasco between 5100 and 4600 BC and from around 1400-1200 BC the beginnings of a distinctive Olmec culture tarted. This makes the Olmec culture the earliest known major Mesoamerican civilization flourishing from around 1200 BC to about 400 BC. The name "Olmec" means "rubber people" and was a name the Aztec used for the people who lived in the lowlands near the Mexican Gulf in the 15th and 16th centuries. When explorers and later archaeologists first rediscovered ruins in this area in the mid to late 1800s the culture was given the name "Olmec" before it was discovered that this culture was not the same one as the Aztecs had described but rather a culture about 2,000 years older. However, the name stuck.

Being the first Mesoamerican civilization, the Olmecs laid many of the foundations for the civilizations that followed. They are believed to be the first to practice ritual bloodletting and to play the Mesoamerican ballgame observed in nearly all subsequent Mesoamerican societies. The Olmec may also have been the first civilization in the Western Hemisphere to develop a writing system: Symbols found in 2002 show a bird, speech scrolls, and glyphs that are similar to the later Maya script.

La Venta rose to prominence as the major Olmec center in 900 BC after the previous main site in San Lorenzo was abandoned. This might have happened because of internal uprising caused by environmental changes and subsequent crop failures. The good times in La Venta lasted from 900 BC until its abandonment around 400 BC, again for reasons that are not completely known. It is speculated that environmental causes maybe including earthquakes and volcanic eruptions were responsible for the decline.

The most recognizable feature of Olmec culture is the stone monuments of which the colossal heads are best known. The stone monuments can be divided into four classes:

1) Colossal heads (up to 3 m tall)

2) Rectangular "altars" or more likely thrones

3) Free-standing, more statue-like sculptures

4) Stelae, which are probably later than the other three.

Below is one of the so-called altars. It seems that every stone monument with a flat surface is called an altar, even though the consensus today is that these Olmec monuments are probable more like a throne. Seven of these "thrones" were found at La Venta and when they were rescued to the Museo-Parque La Venta in Villahermosa, copies were made and left at the La Venta site. This is one of these copies:

A distinctive feature of these thrones is that they all feature a figure sitting inside what appears to be a cave or the mouth of a fantastic creature and looking out. In some cases, the figure holds something, like a were-jaguar child (!!) or a rope.

The following pictures are of originals in Villahermosa. First, the stele "of the bearded man":

Here is Bjarne next to one of the four heads found at La Venta:

Another head:

The heads are generally believed to be representations of rulers, so of actual individuals.

Below is another of the thrones, photographed at an angle to show both the sitting figure and the bas-relief carved figure on the side:

A human seated figure with closed fists and elaborate ornaments on the chest and head:

A seat-like sculpture of a human-jaguar figure:

We also saw this large mosaic in the park in Villahermosa:

Three of these rectangular mosaics each roughly 4.5 by 6 meters and consisting of up to 485 blocks of serpentine carefully laid in intricate patterns were discovered in La Venta. They are believed to be offerings and were not intended for display, since soon after completion they were sprinkled with colored clay and then buried under many feet of earth.

Here are copies of another head and a stele at La Venta:

The originals can be seen below in the next two pictures:

All the heads and altars (or thrones) are made from basalt, a type of rock that is not naturally found in the area of La Venta. The basalt used for the large heads in La Venta came from the Tuxtla mountain range in Veracruz, more than 200 km away.

Altar one is called the Feline Altar. It is very different from other sculptures called altars (the ones with a sitting figure in the front) in that it presents the features of a jaguar merged with those of a serpent. However, the stone is so eroded that not many of the carving can be distinguished:

Copy at La Venta of altar (throne) 4:

Here is the original. The figure is holding a rope which snakes around the base of the altar to his right and left. On the left side, the rope is connected to a seated bas-relief figure. On the right side the stone is too eroded to see any figure but it is believed that similar figures were carved there as well:

An interesting detail is that the Olmecs sometimes used basalt columns as building blocks:

It was mostly for religious structures like this tomb and for fence-like structures enclosing religious areas. We read about this in Villahermosa but did not see many basalt columns at La Venta. Most of them have probably been moved from their original locations.

In addition to the stone monuments there was a nice wooded walk at La Venta. Unfortunately, that also meant that there were mosquitoes, so we did not linger:

In the more open area, two palm trees had been completely taken over by bird's nests hanging from the leaves:

The most impressive part of what is left at La Venta is the Great Pyramid, 34 m tall. It is the central building in the city layout and is constructed out of mostly clay, and is visible from a distance. Today it has a conical shape and just looks like a hill, but recently it has been shown that the pyramid was in fact a rectangular pyramid with stepped sides and inset corners like the pyramids of later Mesoamerican cultures like the Maya. The current shape is most likely due to 2,500 years of erosion.

The Great Pyramid is a lot higher that the surrounding area and we had a great view from the top (except for the bad visibility, probably due to lots of forest fires and field burning in the area). Here we can see the church towers of the modern town of La Venta in the background. The large palm-covered roof in the middle ground is the roof of the La Venta museum and ticket office:

Looking down towards the wooded area with a few stone monument copies visible:

A final view showing the large Pemex site in La Venta. The large white structures to the left of the smoke are fuel tanks:

A final picture taken on the road from Villahermosa to Tehuantepec showing that not all is fossil fuels in Mexico. This flat plain at the most narrow part of Mexico sees a lot of wind due to a wind tunnel effect between the mountain ranges on both sides of the plain and the area has hundreds of wind turbines:

It was offshore from here that we had to deal with the Tehauntepec winds when sailing from Puerto Chiapas to Huatulco last fall.