THE COLOSSAL STONE HEADS OF THE SOUTHERN GULF-COAST REGION OF MEXICO      

By Fred W. Nelson, Jr.

 

Some investigators maintain there was a strong Negro influence in the Western Hemisphere prior to the coming of Columbus and believe they see this influence in the art and legends of the ancient Americas. In this paper a study will be made of only one small part of ancient American art: the colossal stone heads of Veracruz and elsewhere.  I shall try to ascertain whether or not these heads show, by their physical characteristics, Negro influence in this part of




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


the New World.  By the methods of the physical anthropolgist it will be determined how closely the features of the heads compare with those of the Negro.

 


1

 

First, however, comes a brief account of the stone heads themselves.  They have been found in southern Veracruz and western Tabasco, close to the Gulf Coast (see map).  There are three sites at which a total of 12 heads have been discovered.  Two were found at Tres Zapotes; one of these is still there, and one is now in the museum at Santiago Tuxtla.  Six were found at San Lorenzo; four of these have been moved to the museum at Jalapa (cf. Newsletter, 69. 30, 91. 0; Christensen, pp. 156-158), while one is at the National Museum in Mexico City and one still at the original site. Four more heads have been found at La Venta, all of which are now at the museum at Villa­hermosa (Aveleyra A. de Anda, p. 14; Parsons and Jenson, p. 135).

 

The first head was discovered in 1858, when a native of Veracruz found what appeared to be an up­side-down kettle protruding from the ground.  The "kettle" was excavated and seen to be a colossal stone head.  This was all that was done, and gradually the jungle again covered up the head and it was forgotten, except for the native legends, until 1939, when Dr. Matthew W. Stirling re-excavated it.  Since that time eleven more of the huge heads have been found (Irwin, pp. 122-125).

 

The heads are remarkably similar in character, and ". . . in some instances it does not seem improb­able that the same artists operated in the three sites. While at first glance the various heads appear very similar, closer examination shows that this resemblance is probably due to the racial type represented, and each is actually quite individual in character.  Close study of these heads leads me to the belief that they are actual portraits of prominent individuals" (Stirling, 1955, p. 20).  If this is true, and these stone heads show Negroid characteristics, then there had to be a Negroid population in southern Veracruz at about 500 BC, which is the date that most archaeologists assign to the heads. (Pedro Armillas, however, gives 1200-600 BC as the time of occupation of the LaVenta site; see Jennings, p. 304. Michael D. Coe gives the date of the destruction of San Lorenzo as before 800 BC; see Coe, p. 25. ) This is the time of the end of the Early Cultist. or "Olmec" period of Mesoamerica, and the stone heads are typically Olmec in their art style.

 

All the heads are carved from basalt.  The nearest basalt is located in the zone of Los Tuxtlas (see map), which is almost 100 miles from La Venta.  It is some­what closer to San Lorenzo and only about ten miles from Tres Zapotes (Covarrubias, 1947, p. 95).  It is not known how the blocks of basalt were transported from the quarry to the sites where the stone heads were found.

 

These heads range in height from nine feet four inches to five feet four inches. All of them wear headdresses or helmets.  These helmet-like headdresses may represent the stylized jaguar motif, which was so common in Olmec times. On three of the heads there are definite jaguar features.  On Monument 1 at La Venta (Fig. 2) there are a U-shaped symbol and jaguar fangs over the forehead, evidently representing the rain or life god.  Monument 4 at La Venta has jaguar fangs on the forehead, and Monument 5 at San Lorenzo (Fig. 4) has two jaguar paws with three claws on each paw draped over the headband and above each eye (Stirling, 1943, 1955)

 

All the colossal stone heads are somewhat flattened and have a flat strip along the back, which seems to indicate that they were made to stand against a wall. They were intended to be viewed full front, and be­cause of the flatness they looked out of proportion when viewed from the side.  Monument 5 at San Lorenzo (Fig. 4) is the only exception, having been carved in full relief.  Some of the heads were found standing on a platform of unfinished stone, which is interpreted to mean that they were never connected to a body and were never intended to be.

 

2

 

A second group of stone heads has been found at a site called Monte Alto, which is in the Department on Escuintla, Guatemala, only 20 miles from the Pacific coast (see map).  At this site there are six stone monu­ments, but only two of them are colossal human heads. (Of the remaining four, three are fashioned into rotund human forms, and one is a jaguar-monster mask.) The larger of these two heads is four feet eight inches high (Parsons and Jenson, p. 135).

 

There are some similarities between the stone heads found on the Gulf Coast and those found at Monte Alto.  Both seem to have the same manner of represent­ing the ears, and some of the ear plugs are similar.  But there are also some differences: The representation of the eyes differs, and also the heads of the Gulf Coast all wear a particular kind of headgear which those at Monte Alto do not have.  "The conceptual and stylistic continuity between the Monte Alto colossal heads and the Olmec colossal heads on the Gulf Coast is clear" (Parsons and Jenson, p. 144), but it is not yet known whether the Monte Alto heads are pre-Olmec, of Olmec period, or post-Olmec.

 

Also, the upper part of a colossal stone head has been found at San Miguel, which is close to La Venta. It is made of basalt and has been broken off at the level of the eyes.  This head has smaller faces carved into its surface and does not have the typical helmet nor the jaguar elements which the other heads have (Stir­ling, 1957).

 

3

 

A common belief is that the colossal stone heads were sculptured to represent Negroes or a Negroid people Following are examples of opinions on this subject:  The heads are "in the likeness of a flat-nosed, thicklipped, rather Negroid man's head" (Covarrubias, 1947, p. 84).  "How then to account for the presence of a Negro in Middle America in the millenium before Christ" (Irwin, p. 126).  "It is no mere accident that in 1862 a colossal granite [basalt] head, representing a Negro, was found in the canton of Tuxtla, that is, near the place where the most ancient statuette was discovered. . ." (Wiener, p. 322).  "Not only were African Negroes held in reverence by the Indians of antiquity, but they appear frequently in early American sculpture and design. Stone statues depicting an African Negro morphology have been discovered throughout the Americas. Five solid granite [basalt] heads, the largest weighing close to five tons, have been found in the canton of Tuxla [Tuxtla], and at Vera Cruz, Mexico" (Lawrence, pp. 326-327).  "At first impres­sion the features seem quite Negroid in appearance, but in general the head may be considered to repre­sent an unusually find example of the broad-nosed, short-faced figures, evidently an early type, that are found over a considerable area in Middle America" (Stirling, 1943, p. 16).

 

The first four authors quoted above definitely believe that the colossal stone heads were sculptured to represent Negroes in Mesoamerica.  Matthew Stirling (the one who discovered them) is more conservative, and although he admits that the heads might show some Negroid features he is not willing to say they neces­sarily represent Negroes.

 

4

 

It now remains to study the colossal stone heads on the principles of physical anthropology and to des­cribe their physical characteristics.  The heads are definitely brachycephalic (broad).  (This has had to be determined from photographs of all twelve of the Gulf Coast and both of the Monte Alto heads.  It may not be possible to get from these heads a valid cephalic index of the race they represent, however, for they may not be sculptured in true proportion. )

 

The only head that at first glance looks somewhat dolichocephalic (long) or mesocephalic is Monument 4 at San Lorenzo (Fig. 3), but this is due to the high headdress it is wearing.  The cranial height of all the heads is great, and the forehead is vertical.  There are no brow ridges.  The face is very euryprosopic (broad) with very heavy and broad jowls.  The cheeks are full, and because of their roundness and smoothness it appears they were carved to represent a thick fatty layer cover­ing the cheekbones.  The smoothness and fine finish of the stone heads could represent smooth skin.  Also there is no prognathism (projecting of the jaws), and the chin is weak.

 

The measurements given for Monument 1 of La Venta indicate that the nasal index is mesorrhine (nose of medium breadth).  The width is 23 inches and the length 29 inches, which gives 79. 5 as the nasal index. This, however, could be erroneous, for there is no way of telling from what points on the nose the measure­ments were taken.  This is the only case in which the length and width of the nose are given (Stirling, 1943, p. 57).  Judging from the photographs of the monuments it would seem that the nasal index should be classified as platyrrhine (broad) because of the very broad appear­ance of the nose.  The nasal root and bridge are low to medium with the nasal profile straight or slightly concave.

 

The lips are slightly everted, but in every case the top lip more so than the bottom lip. Also, the top lip protrudes slightly more than the bottom lip. Although the lips are everted and protrude, they do not appear to be the thick, puffy lips characteristic of Negroes. Some of the monuments have a definite lip seam (slight ridge outlining the membranous por­tion of the lips), which can be easily distinguished (e. g., Monument 1, San Lorenzo; illustrated in News­letter, 60. 30, 91. 0, and in Christensen, p. 158).

 

Negroes possess certain distinctive physical charac­teristics.  Many of these do not mean much by them­selves, but when grouped together they constitute only the Negro.  Most Negroes are dolichocephalic and have a high vault, vertical forehead, and little or no supra­orbital (browridge) development.  The face is usually leptoprosopic (narrow), and most Negroes show definite prognathism.  The chin is weak and the jowls narrow.

 

A platyrrhine nasal index in the most common, and the nose is broad and low at the root and bridge, while the tip of the nose is thick.  Also, the wings are thick and flaring and the nasal profile is straight or concave.  The lip form of the Negro is distinctly different from that of other races.  The lips are very thick and puffy, and both the upper and lower lips are very everted.  The

lip seam is often distinct.  The ears are short and wide, and often there is little or no ear lobe (Beals and Hoijer; Cole).

 

5

 

As mentioned at the beginning, many investigators believe that the physical characteristics of the colossal stone heads indicate the presence of Negroes or a Neg­roid physical type in ancient Mesoamerica.  If this be the case then the characteristics of the stone heads and those of the Negroid race of physical anthropology should be similar.

 

In order to compare these characteristics I have prepared the accompanying chart, which summarizes the physical features of the colossal stone heads, those of Negroes, and those of certain other races that are or could be of interest in this study.  The Negro column represents Negroes from western Africa, while the Med­iterranean column refers to such peoples as those of Spain, Portugal, and southern Italy.  The Armenoid column represents early people of Mesopotamia.  "The earliest known center of development for Armenoid populations appears to be in Asia Minor.  Here we find the type represented in the sculptured remains and monuments of the Sumerians of the third and fourth millenia BC. Similar Armenoid traces are found among the later Babylonians, Assyrians, and Hittites" (Seals and Hoijer, p. 166).  The rest of the columns on the chart are self-explanatory.

 

As one studies the chart it becomes evident that there is not much similarity between the colossal stone heads and Negroes. In fact, in many instances the heads are exactly opposite from the Negroid type. For example: Negroes are dolichocephalic, while the heads are brachycephalic; Negroes are leptoprosopic, but the heads euryprosopic; Negroes show prognathism, while the heads are orthognathic (jaws do not project); etc. In fact, the only significant characteristic that seems to be shared by both is the lip form, but on close ex­amination it appears that the lips of the stone heads are not the thick, puffy, everted lips of Negroes. Therefore, I am of the opinion that the colossal heads are not representations of Negroes but of some other physical type.

 

6

 

There is still other evidence which leads me to believe that there never was an important Negro influence in ancient Mesoamerica.  In human blood-group studies of the past few years it has been discovered that there are certain antigens that are peculiar to Negroes from Africa. Some of these are the Su antigen, the He antigen, the Js antigen, and the V antigen.  These are found only in the blood of Africans or people of African descent.

 

Now if there was an important Negro element in Mesoamerica of about 500 BC, when the colossal heads were sculptured, there should exist in the blood of the present-day Indians of that area at least some indica­tion of this.  These four antigens should show up at least sporadically; but this is not the case!  The pure Indians are found not to have any of these antigens (Matson and Swanson; cf. Newsletter, 91. 0).  This means that there was probably no important Negro in­fluence in prehispanic Mesoamerica and therefore that the stone heads could not have been sculptured to rep­resent Negroes.

 

7

 

In conclusion I wish to present two alternative hy­potheses as to what the colossal heads were sculptured to represent:

 

            a. During the Early Cultist or "Olmec" period (c. 1500 - c. 500 BC) important art conventions of southern Veracruz were the jaguar symbol, baby-face figurines, an infant rain god held by a female personage, etc. Almost all the art of this time is centered around the jaguar symbol, infantile figures, and combinations of the two.  Many Olmec works are half jaguar and half human, and sometimes it is hard to tell which the sculptor was trying to represent (Covarrubias, 1957, p. 50).  The jaguar and the baby-face symbols were both representations of the rain or life god.

 

As was stated earlier, the headdress of three of the colossal stone heads (Monuments 1 and 4 at La Venta and Monument 5 at San Lorenzo; see Figs. 2 and 4) has jaguar symbols as part of the ornamentation.  Also, at least one of the heads (Monument 1 at La Venta; see Fig. 2) has the U-symbol, which also represented the rain or life god.

 

Could it be that the colossal stone heads were sculp­tured to represent the rain god? The jaguar symbols and U-symbol indicate this; also, their physical char­acteristics could easily be interpreted as infantile. Babies have round heads, full puffy cheeks, full lips (somewhat everted), broad flat noses, weak chins and very smooth skin.  The stone heads show these character­istics.

 

Some of the heads (Monuments 2 and 4 at La Venta and Monument 2 at San Lorenzo) show four upper teeth, and this could also be an attempt to show an infantile characteristic.  If all this is true, then they present a combination of the jaguar and baby-face motifs of the Olmecs and therefore could have been sculptured to represent the rain or life god. (This interpretation was first proposed, to my knowledge, by Dr. M. Wells Jakeman, professor of archaeology and anthropology at BYU, in a class lecture presented in 1965. )

 

One argument against this conclusion is the fact that each monument has individual characteristics which distinguish it from all the others. As Stirling indicated, their generally similar appearance seems to be due to the fact that they were sculptured to rep­resent several individuals of a particular racial type, not just a single individual.  If they had been sculptured to represent a specific god then the monuments would probably be highly conventionalized and idealized.

 

            b. Another possibility is that the "Olmecs" were the same people as the Jaredites of the Book of Mormon. As has been stated, the date assigned by archaeologists to the stone heads is c. 500 BC.  This date corresponds to the last period of the Jaredite civilization, which at that time was decaying from within  and not long after­ward was destroyed by civil war.  The Jaredites had populous urban centers (Ether 10:4, 12, 20) and there­fore presumably the manpower and skill to sculpture such monuments as the colossal stone heads.  These heads could have been sculptured to represent the kings or famous generals of the period.  Moreover, the ten­tative location of the Jaredite civilization is the south­ern Gulf Coast region, and this also seems to have been a center of the Olmec culture.

 

On the basis of the evidence presented in this paper, I believe the colossal stone heads were definitely not sculptured to represent Negroes.  But I am not ready to say which one of the two alternative hypotheses is correct, or that either one of them is.  Not enough is known at this time about the Preclassic Period to reach a decision on this point.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Abbott, Carol, "West Africa: Something Different In American-Indian Origin Theories, " U. A.   S. News­letter, 91. 0.  University Archaeological Society, Provo, October 30, 1964.   (This is a brief review of the article by Harold G. Lawrence listed below. In it Miss Abbott foreshadows the conclusions of the present paper.  Ed. )

Aveleyra A. de Anda, Luis, "Una Nueva Cabeza Colosal Olmeca, " Boletin INAH, June, 1965. Beals, Ralph L., and Harry Hoijer, An Introduction to Anthropology. MacMillian Company,           New York, 1954.

Christensen, Ross T. (editor), Progress in Archaeology: An Anthology. University          Archaeological Society, Provo, 1963.

Coe, Michael D., et. al, "Exploraciones Arquelo­gicas en San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, Veracruz, "             Boletin INAH, June, 1966.

Cole, Sonia Mary, Races of Man.  British Museum (Natural History), London, 1965.

Covarrubias, Miguel, Mexico South.     Knopf, New York, 1947.

Covarrubias, Miguel, Indian Art of Mexico and Central America. Knopf, New York, 1957.

Irwin, Constance,  Fair Gods and Stone Faces. St. Martin's Press, New York, 1963.

Jakeman, M. Wells, "Archaeology and Early History of Middle America, " course given at         Brigham Young University, fall semester of 1965-66.

Jennings, Jesse D. , and Edward Norbeck (editors),  Pre­historic  Man in the New World. William         Marsh University, University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Lawrence, Harold G., "African Explorers of the New World, "  The Crisis, Vol. 69, No. 6 (June-          July, 1962), pp. 321-332.  Reviewed by Miss Abbott (see above).

Matson, G. Albin, and Jane Swanson, "Distribution of Hereditary Blood Antigens Among          American Indians in Middle America: Lacandon and Other Maya, " American          Anthropologist, Vol. 63, No. 6 (December, 1961), pp. 1292-1322.

Parsons, Lee A. , and Peter S. Jenson, "Boulder Sculp­ture on the Pacific Coast, " Archaeology,            Vol. 18, No. 2 (June, 1965).

Stirling, Matthew W., "Discovering the New World's Oldest Dated Work of Man, " National    Geographic Magazine, Vol. 76, No. 2 (August, 1939).

Stirling, Matthew W., "Great Stone Faces of the Mexican Jungle, " National Geographic            Magazine, Vol. 78, No. 3 (September, 1940).

Stirling, Matthew W., "Stone Monuments of Southern Mexico, " Bulletin 138, Bureau of            American Ethnol­ogy. Washington, 1943.

Stirling, Matthew W., "On the Trail of La Venta Man," National Geographic Magazine, Vol. 91,            No. 2 (February, 1947).

Stirling, Matthew W. , "Stone Monuments of the Rio Chiquito, " Bulletin 157, Bureau of            American Ethnology. Anthro. Papers, No. 43. Wash., 1955.

Stirling, Matthew W., "An Archaeological Reconnais­sance in Southeastern Mexico, " Bulletin     164, Bureau of American Ethnology. Anthropological Papers, No. 53. Washington, 1957.

Wiener, Leo, Africa and the Discovery of America, Vol. III. Innes and Sons, Philadelphia, 1922.