Rise and Fall of Kingdoms of Central America | Kingdom of the Jaguar | Documentary English Subtitles


This cave in southern Mexico was
once thought to lead to the underworld, where the
spirits of the long-dead resided. It’s thought that this
painting of a powerful figure dressed in jaguar skins is inspired
by a culture 3,000 years old who believed in the power
of supernatural transformation and of human-jaguar beasts,
and who created some of the most astonishing artworks
in the Americas. Arising out of the tropical
wetlands of southern Mexico, around 1,200 BC, they were one of the first civilisations of the
Americas. They built the first pyramid and the first planned city in this
part of the Americas. Devised one of the earliest known
systems of writing. Believed their rulers had
supernatural powers. And played one of the world’s
oldest ball games. They are known as the Olmec,
and they reached their height over 1,000 years before the Maya
and the Aztecs did. My name is Jago Cooper. I’m a specialist in the archaeology
of the Americas. In this series
I will be exploring the rise
and fall of forgotten civilisations. From the crystal-clear seas
of the Caribbean to the New World’s
most impressive pyramids. Over the smoking
volcanoes of Costa Rica and deep underground in the caves
of central Mexico. I’ll travel in the footsteps
of these peoples to reveal their secrets, to unearth
the astonishing cultures that flourished among some of the most
dramatic landscapes in the world. The Olmec were one of this
continent’s great civilisations. But two millennia ago,
they vanished. This is a detective story. One where fragments of art
and archaeology have to be pieced together to understand
a people lost to time. To understand how the Olmecs arose,
how they ruled 3,000 years ago, and why they created this
astonishing art is to understand
the rise of civilisation itself. In the 1940s, archaeologists investigated
rumours of a giant stone eye, staring up out of the ground
in the jungles of southern Mexico. They were astonished by what
they discovered. They unearthed evidence of
a highly-developed civilisation, far older and more advanced than
anyone had imagined. Somehow, in the unforgiving
tropics of Mexico, an extraordinary culture arose
and thrived. The story begins a few miles
from where the giant stone heads were found,
on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Legends of a lost people are part
of local folklore here. There’s an old poem in the
indigenous Nahuatl language that tells of a legendary
land of mist, a place that is now forgotten,
where once there was a civilisation. But this environment of extremes
obscured their story for centuries. This is a swelteringly hot
and humid part of the world, prone to hurricanes
and potential downpours. Inland from here are endless
expanses of swamps and jungles and, in the wet season, half a metre
of rain can fall in just a month. The terrain can be
flooded for miles around. And so, it’s not the sort of place
you might imagine a civilisation evolving, but this is where the
story of the Olmec begins. Humans first arrived in Mesoamerica,
the narrow strip of land connecting North and South America,
over 12,000 years ago. They were hunter-gatherers
who fished and foraged along the coastline. But the network of rivers
and lagoons drew them inland in search of more sustenance. Into the swamps and wetlands. Into an environment that would
change the way they existed. As a result of the intense rainfall,
the rivers and lakes here overflow. It provides an effect that’s
similar to the Gift of the Nile. The annual flood waters provide
tonnes of fresh silt along these river banks, creating a fantastically fertile
growing environment. 7,000 years ago, the river banks
here, inland from the Gulf Coast, were one of the first places in the
Americas where maize was farmed. It was a crop that transformed
the lives of those first hunter-gatherers,
who gave up their nomadic existence and started cultivating fields. Sustained by a crop that could be
harvested three times a year in this region, gradually,
between 4,000 BC and 3,000 BC, the population
of the Gulf Coast grew. But the early Mesoamericans started
growing more than just maize. Crops that, in combination,
did something quite remarkable. These three plants of maize,
beans and squash have an incredibly
complimentary effect when they’re grown together. The maize is a hardy plant that
can grow in tough conditions, providing a nice, straight stalk. The beans are a vine which
grow around it, fixing nitrogen in the soil. And the squash grows around both, providing these broad leaves
that keep down weeds. But what’s perhaps more
important is what’s inside, because these plants,
when eaten together, provide all of the sustenance that
people need. That diet of these,
which are called the three sisters, has provided the foundation of Mexican diets for thousands of
years. This agricultural breakthrough, an ability to grow all
the sustenance needed to survive, allowed the early predecessors of
the Olmec to produce a food surplus. The first building
block in the rise of a civilisation. It allowed villages
and farming communities to develop. And, by 1,500 BC, one settlement
began to evolve that was different from anything
Mesoamerica had seen before. And it’s the first evidence
we have of Olmec culture. I’m now 25 miles
inland from the Gulf Coast to see if I can find traces of the
first Olmec settlement. But, this is a hugely challenging
environment to investigate anything in. Low-lying land here floods
during the rainy season and the reed and mud-walled
structures the Olmec built have all rotted away. But archaeologists have
discovered that, in 1,200 BC, this plateau, which rises 20 metres
out of the wetlands, was at the centre of the earliest
Olmec settlement. It’s called San Lorenzo. What’s different about San Lorenzo
is its sheer scale. Archaeological surveys tell us
that the site was over 700 hectares. That’s more than three square miles, with a population
of around 10,000 people. There would have been houses grouped
together, split up by pools and streams. Rafts and canoes navigating through
these watercourses. And, for as far as you can see, there would have been well-irrigated
fields packed with crops. It was a boom town
and no-one ever went hungry. And it wasn’t just the scale
of San Lorenzo that surprised archaeologists. On the heights of the plateau,
they unearthed something that had never been seen before so
early in Mesoamerican history. I got a map of the plateau, made
during the excavations of the site. It marks their discoveries. And beneath my feet are the remains
of a structure that was very different to the mud
and thatched houses that most Olmec lived in. This one had stone foundations
and massive columns. Archaeologists think it’s the first
royal residence in Mesoamerica. The excavation has been backfilled
to protect the structure. It was called the Red Palace, and it occupied the very
heart of San Lorenzo. Around this Red Palace were the
lower status residences and, below them,
further down the slopes, you found
the labourers and the farmers. It’s that classic realisation
of a stratified society with the elite people literally higher,
looking down on everyone else. San Lorenzo was
controlled from here. And this kind of centralised
social organisation is a hallmark of civilisation. No other emerging civilisation
in Mesoamerica had an elite class as privileged
as the Olmec rulers. And they made their mark on society
in a very striking way. These are the colossal Olmec heads, and they’re three-dimensional
representations of individuals. Ten of them were found
on a processional way leading up to the Red Palace at San Lorenzo. It’s thought that they’re
rulers or heroes. But the way they’re carved,
using stone tools, displays an exquisite
level of craftsmanship. There is no clue to their names,
or when they lived and died, but what makes the hairs on the back
of my neck stand up is the realisation that these could be
the actual faces of the Olmec elite. To have had such impressive
sculpture dedicated to them is testimony to their status. And it begs the question, what was it that made these
individuals so special? For people to accept a ruler to
sit above them, to control their lives,
there has to be something really ingrained in their imagination,
their psyche, to make it acceptable. So, were the Olmec doing this
willingly or were they forced to do so? Evidence for why the Olmec elite
were so revered by their people can be seen in other sculptures
unearthed near San Lorenzo. It suggests that the rulers occupied
an almost supernatural role. Roberto Nuno Gomes is
an archaeologist based here at the Xalapa Museum
in Veracruz. He has been studying
the art of the Olmec and its meaning for over 20 years. This group of statues were
all excavated together near San Lorenzo
and form a tableau, or scene. It shows two Olmec figures
crouching before two jaguars. There is a huge volume of Olmec
art dedicated to illustrating their rulers’ ability
to assume the power of the jaguar. To become half human,
half beast, or were-jaguar. They would have been seen
daily by the Olmec people at sites like San Lorenzo.
A public display of power. This sculpture shows
a ruler in mid-transformation, turning into a jaguar
before our very eyes. The infant in this greenstone
figure also hints at lineage, the passing down of power within
the elite. Inherited legitimacy. The public art suggested that the
leaders possessed supernatural
powers, their rituals and ceremonies seemed to have reinforced
that impression yet further. This exquisite face is made of
solid jadeite, a rare greenstone, and was worn as a mask. These masks directly link their
wearer to the successful harvest, a fundamental
aspect of Olmec society. Key to deciphering Olmec belief
systems and the status of their leaders is the understanding that
the elite were viewed as different. They were thought to have a special
relationship with powerful
beasts and supernatural forces. Their power, the Olmec believed, created the conditions for fertile
soils and an abundant food supply. This is an altar stone or throne
found in one of San Lorenzo’s public plazas. The elite would have stood or sat
cross-legged on top during ceremonies, and here
you can see what we think are footholds to let them
climb up on top. At the front, we see a figure,
cross-legged, half in and half
out of a cave or portal, representing the transition between
this world and another dimension. This object encapsulates
the spectacle with which the elite could enthrall the public
and demonstrate their ability to communicate with
the spiritual world. Through public and ceremonial art,
the Olmec were expressing a shared belief system, one that kept their
social structure and order in place. This is another defining element
of civilisation. The process of creating all this
monumental stone sculpture tells us even more about them. The craftsmanship required to
carve it is one thing, but acquiring the stone is
quite another. There is no source of rock or
quarries in the Olmec marshland around. The heads are made of volcanic
basalt rock and the nearest source lies
40 miles northwest of San Lorenzo at a place called Llano Del Jicaro. We’re just entering
into the foothills of the Tuxtla Mountains, and this is
the first outcrop of basalt that you find near San Lorenzo. So somewhere around here is meant to
be the quarry where we know lots of stone monuments of the Olmec
at San Lorenzo were made. Hidden in this dense bushland, are hundreds of boulders
of volcanic basalt rock. So, here, you can start to see
some of the bigger basalt boulders and, standing on this,
you feel like you could be standing on the top of one of those
Olmec heads. Olmec labourers weren’t just digging
the boulders out of the ground here, they were beginning
the process of shaping them. You can see how this boulder is
starting to be shaped. You get these corners which have
been hacked out into a humanly created form. Three, four vertical edges
creating a square shape. Ready to be transformed
into a piece of Olmec art. The boulders were being preformed
here, and part of an organised supply
line of the raw material required for a huge volume of public art. This is a 3,000 year-old quarrying
site, and the sheer extent of work going on here shows how important
stone working was to the Olmec. Between here and San Lorenzo
is a swampy, riverine landscape over which Olmec labourers would
have had to transport 10-20 tonne boulders using rafts,
log rollers and sheer brute strength. It’s been estimated that it
would have taken 1,500 men three to four months to transport a preformed colossal head
from here to San Lorenzo. The effort involved in immortalising
members of the elite tells us how strongly the Olmec must have
believed in their leaders’ ability to influence nature
and provide for the people. But the Olmec weren’t just
immortalising themselves in stone. Stored in an air-conditioned
facility in the Museum of Santiago
in the Tuxtla Mountains is an astonishing and very rare set
of artefacts that I’m getting extremely
privileged access to examine. As far as Olmec artworks go,
they’re one of a kind. HE SPEAKS SPANISH And they offer another
fragment of evidence to help us understand Olmec belief systems. These exquisite faces and heads have
been carved from wood, a material that would normally
have rotted away. But these were discovered,
preserved, in the mud of a bog
near San Lorenzo. These objects have been really
beautifully made. You can see some of the cut marks
from some of the tools and then these faces have been polished
down to a really fine level. But because they were waterlogged,
some of them have been crushed
during the time of being in the bog, so you get these quite
distorted faces. It’s incredibly rare to find wooden
artefacts like this in the Olmec region but, in reality,
these wooden objects, these organic materials,
would have made up a huge part of the everyday objects
that the Olmec would have used. But, unlike the colossal
stone heads, these wooden representations of the
Olmec weren’t for public display. Instead, they were deliberately
thrown into the waters of the bog. They were cast in as an offering
to the spirit world. In the Olmec realm of swamps,
lagoons and rivers that surrounded
San Lorenzo, water was everywhere. Their sacred jaguars hunted in it. It made their crops grow,
so had life-giving power. And so springs
and pools were sacred places. This is an ancient
volcanic crater lake and locals believe this water
to be bottomless. To the Olmec, bodies of water like
this were entrance ways to the underworld and to break its surface is to enter into another
dimension. This underworld was where the Olmec
believe their ancestors resided. By casting objects like the wooden
heads into a lake like this or a watery bog,
they were making offerings to them. This practice tells us that the Olmec worshipped their ancestors
and that by remembering them, they empowered
and legitimised their civilisation. Other artefacts recovered from these
Olmec underworlds have made it possible to see even more clearly
how sophisticated their society was. Archaeologist, David Morales Gomez,
is responsible for the care of thousands of artefacts
found in this region. But at this storage facility, his team look after
a set of unique items. These spheres are made of solid
rubber and along with the wooden busts, were made as offerings
to the underworld, 3,500 years ago. This is the first time that these
balls have ever been filmed or seen on television and they represent something much
more than just an offering. This is one of the earliest rubber
balls in the world. It dates to 1,600 BC. People were using rubber
in the Americas over 3,000 years before it was
introduced into Europe. And the Olmec were playing
one of the world’s first sports. This example is the start
of an incredibly important tradition here in the region,
the Mesoamerican ball game. The Mesoamerican ball game was
still being played in Mexico in the 1970s
when this footage was shot. The object was to keep
the ball in play, moving it in the air at all times
using your hips or arms. But for the Olmec, it served
a greater purpose than just sport. Incredible. So this is one of the largest
rubber balls and very, very difficult to conserve, but it
gives you a sense of the scale of this sport and this would have
been used as one of the balls played between two
people in one of these ball courts, bouncing it from side to side, but the weight of the ball must have
left some serious bruising on the hips and shoulders which they
would have been using to play with. But it’s amazing. The legacy of the Olmec ball
game can be seen today in modern Mexico, where the
ritual of ball sport remains just as much a part of society as it
was 3,000 years ago. The rubber balls really represent
the earliest sport in the Americas, but sport is crucial,
I think, to any society. Within the Olmec, we start to see
the origins of that sport play out, because as societies grow,
as populations grow, we need other
people to represent us, represent our communities
and that is what football teams do, they represent communities,
regions, countries even. And so the Mesoamerican
ball game is so much more than just a sport,
it’s a mechanism for playing out relationships between
communities, between city states. In some ways, it allows individuals
to live vicariously through those who represent them. I’ve been invited to represent
a local team. We don’t know if the Olmec just
played among themselves or against neighbouring
societies, but later, Mesoamerican cultures used the ball
game as a form of proxy warfare. As there is very little evidence
that the Olmec were ever engaged in military conflict, it may have been
that to them, their ball game was a means of resolving disputes
as well as a ritual spectacle. WHISTLE BLOWS The development of organised sport
within Olmec society has led to an even greater
appreciation of how sophisticated
their civilisation was. When you take in the complexity
of Olmec art, their spiritual beliefs and social
organisation, you really do have to remind yourself that this
was happening 3,000 years ago. Yet in 900 BC, the Olmec raised their culture to
even greater heights, by planning and building a new city, one that
put San Lorenzo in the shade. The Olmec chose a site 30 miles
northeast of San Lorenzo for the city,
at a place called La Venta. And they built it from scratch to
a very specific design. Like at San Lorenzo, at La Venta
we have these complexes of low earthen platforms and mounds,
but what’s different is there has been careful urban
planning at this site. The whole cityscape sits exactly
eight degrees off a north/south axis. We don’t know why it’s on this line, but it tells us it was constructed
this way deliberately. But what dominates this city, is
that. This is a man-made pyramid. Constructed from 100,000
cubic metres of clay, it was the first
pyramid in ancient Mexico… ..starting a tradition that would
last 2,000 years. Building it would have been
a massive civic project requiring thousands of labourers, all of whom would have needed food
and sustenance. So this pyramid demonstrates
that the Olmec were still generating huge food surpluses from
their rich flood plain farmlands. It can be seen from miles around. It’s clear that by 900 BC, the Olmec had become a supremely
confident society. Rebecca Gonzales has been the lead
archaeologist working at La Venta
for the last 20 years. It’s a huge site, the first urban
planned city in Mesoamerica. It’s a display of power, basically. The whole architecture,
the whole layout of the site, it’s telling you, we’re here, we have
the manpower, we have the ideas and the architects
and everything to do this. One of the first things Rebecca did
when she came here 20 years ago, was to create a map of the city’s
layout. This is the map. It gives you a sense of the scale
of the site, because if you look at the scale, it’s 200 metres, it’s running for almost more than a
kilometre. More than a kilometre.
We’re standing on the Acropolis facing a four hectare plaza which
was probably used for public ceremonies and we cannot see the
rest of the site because it’s covered with vegetation,
but it has been mapped. That gives you
an idea that it would be hundreds, maybe thousands of people who
could fit into that plaza in front of the pyramid, looking at
the spectacle. There must have been
a big population here. They estimate there might have
been 10,000 people here. You can absolutely see it. It gives a sense of the urban
environment and the creation of an urban
landscape. You see so many things here
that are continued on within wider Mesoamerican cultures for thousands
of years. Yeah. What percentage of this site do you
think has been excavated scientifically? Not even 1%, not
even 1%. We have excavated very,
very, very little. Rebecca’s map of the site not only
gives a sense of scale, but shows us how it was built to
hold huge ceremonial gatherings. Dozens of pieces of art have
been found here, some relating to or depicting Olmec
rituals and ceremonies. And one set of finds tells us
that at La Venta, the Olmec were making more extravagant ritual
offerings than ever before. Tonnes and tonnes of serpentine
rock, much of it shaped
into beautiful axe heads, was buried in a massive offering
pit at the foot of the pyramid. This huge pit that was dug between
four and seven metres deep and then rows of serpentine blocks
were deposited and these were placed… As they were filling it up,
covered up, these were placed there and the massive offerings of these
underground offerings of 1,000 tonnes of serpentine, it’s huge
amounts of stone that was brought in. Why do you think these offerings
were taking place? They are obviously probably one of
the most important tools that they used. They were stone working people. They were set up standing
up like this or some were placed pointing to north, south, east, west,
like this. Do you think they are making
offerings to the rulers of the site or do you think
it’s the rulers making the offerings in order to
show off their own wealth and their ability to make
these offerings? It’s again a show of power and a show
of wealth and I like the idea that the massive offerings
are offerings to Mother Earth. But serpentine rock isn’t found
anywhere near the Gulf Coast. Just as the Olmec sought basalt
rock for their colossal heads, from La Venta, they were reaching
out even further to source serpentine. Where is this stone coming from?
We think it comes from Oaxaca which is in the western
coast of Mexico. How, we don’t know,
but they were brought in, yes. There is a colossal amount of trade
coming across hundreds of miles. Yes. It really says something about
the importance of the site if you’re getting this extent of interaction
across the whole of Mesoamerica. Yeah. From here at La Venta, the Olmec were using the
wealth they were generating from their rich farmlands to trade across
the length and breadth of Mexico. But the cultures they encountered
weren’t as advanced as they were. Archaeologists never like to use
the term “first” because you’re always going to be
proved wrong eventually. But this is the first
pyramid in Mesoamerica, the first planned layout of a town. But what’s so special
about this site, is just the way it pulls in wealth from hundreds
of miles away. You find stone
resources from Guatemala, the central highlands of Mexico
and Oaxaca. But what I want to know, is how does
this site, how does this culture influence those regions
hundreds of miles away? I’m travelling 400 miles
west of La Venta on a journey that would have taken the Olmec the best
part of a month on foot, to a gap in the mountains that
allows access between east and west Mexico, called
Chalcatzingo. Situated in Mexico’s central
highlands, Chalcatzingo was a trading post community
that controlled the flow of goods between east
and west. The Olmec came to this area to
acquire serpentine. They may have traded for it with
agricultural produce, perhaps with jaguar pelts and with
rubber which could only have been harvested from the Gulf Coast
environment. And certainly there is
evidence that the rubber ball game they seem to have originated,
found its way here. So this is a classic example
of a Mesoamerican ball court. Here in the middle is where the game
would actually have been played with maybe two to four
players on each side of the team and the rubber ball would have been
bounced up and down this channel. What’s quite interesting about this
particular ball court, is it has these raised ramps. From up here, you can get a picture
of what this game would have looked like. An audience perhaps up on this hill, looking down on the players,
playing within this channel. The rubber ball bouncing up
and down but it’s more than just a relationship between the players
and the spectators. It’s about the positioning of this
court itself. It’s located in the heart
of the ceremonial centre, just metres from this stepped
pyramid. So it gives us a sense of how
important the ball game is within Mesoamerican society and
if we think back to the rubber balls we saw from Nahuati, 1,600 years
before Christ, this game is something that lasts
within Mesoamerica and Mesoamerican
culture for thousands of years. Tellingly, it seems the Olmec came
here as influential traders rather than military conquerors. Yet it seems they had
a profound impact here and the evidence can be found
carved into the mountainside. Here you have these three
feline figures, maybe pumas or jaguars,
but if you look at the mouth, they are almost fantastical
in the way they are represented. Things like these cats,
these feline figures, they aren’t indigenous to this area,
so we’re getting the sense of iconography and art and ideas
being brought into this region. There are over 30 elaborate carvings
in the rock here at Chalcatzingo. But did the Olmec, who came here,
create them or were they carved
by the people of Chalcatzingo themselves, having been
inspired by Olmec iconography? Archaeologists have spent years
trying to find clues in the details
of the 2,500-year-old carvings in an attempt to understand
more about them. There is El Rey, the King. It’s thought to be a cave entrance. The cave is an entrance to the
underworld where the ancestors are. Travis Doering and Laurie Collins
are currently conducting a two-year study to document
the monuments at Chalcatzingo. This monument in particular shows
a ruler who seems to be wielding the same power over the elements that
the Olmec elite claimed they had. There is all
kinds of iconography on here. These are rain clouds here and these are raindrops signifying
that they can control the rain. They’re spread
out across the whole panel. They have control
of the underworld where the ancestors live and also the natural world. But the evidence of Olmec
iconography is disappearing before their eyes. You can see how much rock loss is
happening and the cracking and the defoliation of the stone. We have air pollution, acid rain,
tectonic activity. This site is on the 100 most
imperilled archaeological sites on the World Monuments Fund
list. Luckily, Travis and Laurie have a
21st-century tool to help them. This piece of kit is the latest
in 3-D laser scanning technology. In the past, archaeologists might
have photographed or taken a plaster cast of the carving, but now we can record it in a far
more accurate way. It shoots out a beam,
the beam is returned to the machine and it has an accuracy
level of 2mm or less. We’re capturing 360 degrees,
so we’re really taking in a lot of data all around us
and then from here, if we kind of zoom in on this, there
is El Rey right in front of us. What I’ve done is, I’ve gone in and
highlighted all of the carved areas. The detail on the carved figure
suddenly pop out. Those three clouds and the
raindrops coming down, it completely pulls it out. We’re seeing new things, basically. It makes it look almost like a
piece of art rather than being part of the landscape. The resolution you’re getting
on these images is just exceptional. To what extent does that pull out
different iconography and help you interpret it and understand
some of the cultural links? We can actually computationally
examine how similar or dissimilar things are. We can say, yes,
this site is like this site because it’s got this shared
iconographic representation on the carving and it just speaks to the
inter-relationships that were going on at this time period. Stylistically, you can
see connections between this rock art and all across
the Gulf Coast and the Olmec art land. These scans not only preserve
a visual record of the carvings but help us see them much more
vividly. They must have been a truly
awe-inspiring sight to people here 2,500 years ago. But the Olmec weren’t in
control at Chalcatzingo. This isn’t an Olmec ruler, it’s a
local one. Detailed studies of these
carvings have shown them to be inspired by the Olmec
but distinct to this region. It appears that the rulers
of the developing culture in this region were between 800 and 500 BC, adopting the elite iconography
of the Gulf Coast Olmec to justify their own claims to power
and prestige. And that spread of Olmec iconography
doesn’t just end here. Across Mesoamerica, archaeologists have found
examples of local communities and emerging civilisations imitating
Olmec style imagery as far west as the Pacific Coast
and south into modern day Guatemala. But one of the most extraordinary
can be found in Oaxaca near the Pacific Coast of Mexico… ..in a place that 2,500 years ago
would have been desperately hard to get to. And even today, it’s not easy. These caves are sacred places that
chime with the Olmec view that water pools and fissures
in the earth are entrance ways into the underworld, a portal into
another dimension. By the looks of it, this cave was
being used by people centuries ago. Down here, you can see a skeleton
that has been fossilised over time. Now it’s turned into this mineral
remnants of what was once there but here you can see the femur, the leg bone coming
up into the pelvis, a vertebrate going right up to the
cranium at the top and over time, you can see the bones have
become mineralised, covered in this calcified deposit that has come down from the water
dripping down from the ceiling. We know it’s old
but it’s impossible to date. It gives us a sense that people have
been coming here for a very long time, right
here into the heart of the cave. But this is not what
I came here to find. I have to go further, nearly
a mile down into this cave network. And the deeper I go,
the less oxygen there is. And this can make you feel
light-headed, euphoric and nauseous at the same time. OK, here it is. This cave painting or pictograph has
always been associated with the Olmec. It’s of this powerful figure
that you can see with this cape, standing up with this red
and yellow tunic. What I really like, though, is
the details on the cape, the legs and the hands,
the spotted yellow and black coverings
which are clearly jaguar pelts. In the hands, holding some
sort of rope, looking towards a figure just down there, either
cowed or bent down, sitting down. This has been interpreted
either as an evidence of power, this powerful elite figure, subjugating the poor little person
next to them, or it’s of lineage, someone coming here to
accept the power of their ancestry. This is not a piece of public art. It feels like this is an exclusive
sacred place. Were future leaders brought down into this underworld
as part of an initiation ceremony? Perhaps to be taught
about the lineage, that they were descended from the jaguar and that this was justification
for their status as a ruler. You know, it’s a bloody long way to
get down to this cave. Why are these people coming
down here to see these paintings on the walls? It has a real sense of people coming
to tap in with their ancestors and understand the power of their
culture. 1,000 years after the Olmec first
began immortalising and empowering their rulers as half
man, half jaguar beings, their ideas and iconography
had filtered right across Mexico. And by 500 BC, Olmec art, sport and beliefs were spreading
to the furthest corners of Mesoamerica to influence the
development of other civilisations. But back on the Gulf Coast, the environment that had provided
the Olmec with a stable foundation for their complex society
was beginning to change. The Olmec had risen up, thanks to their ability to
produce a food surplus. It had sustained a growing
population and fed large workforces as they undertook civic projects
and created colossal stone artworks. Their elite claimed that their
supernatural power made this possible. But either gradually or quite
suddenly, we simply don’t know, the vast farmlands of the Olmec
ceased being productive. There’s an almost industrial scale
of production clearing away all the vegetation, creating these huge fields
reliant on irrigation channels. But that process of clearance leads
to soil erosion that silts up those irrigation channels and creates huge
problems with production. In some ways, the reasons
for the rise of La Venta also sows the seeds of its
destruction. By 400 BC, La Venta had been
abandoned and the demise of the city meant
the demise of the Olmec elite themselves. It was their claimed ability to
influence natural forces that had maintained them in positions
of privilege and prestige. But in the face of failing crops,
even famine, the Olmec elite at La Venta may
well have been overthrown. This idea about La Venta tells us a fundamental
truth about civilisation. I think that the Olmec allowed
themselves to be ruled. It’s the people who
keep their rulers in place and if those rulers fail,
they can be overthrown, but this wasn’t
the end of the Olmec civilisation, they rebuilt and entered a new
phase. 400 BC to 100 AD marked a period
of adaptation for the Olmec. They reverted back to living
in smaller spread out settlements. And although they stopped
creating colossal heads in honour of their elite, the
Olmec still produced works of art. They also developed a new
way of communicating. I returned to the Xalapa Museum
to see one last truly fascinating Olmec artefact that
dates to the final phase of Olmec civilisation
in the first century AD. This is the La Mojarra Stela. The stone not only features
a carving of a remarkable figure in a headdress, it’s also
covered in hundreds of symbols. Archaeologist, Lourdes Budar, believes these represent another
first for the Olmec. Although the leaders aren’t being
immortalised by colossal heads or depicted
as supernatural beings, the Olmec still clearly
maintained a ruling elite. Attempts at translating what the
symbols actually say has provoked heated debate. But the carvings represent
a hugely significant feature of cultural development. The power of the written word
as a mechanism of order and as a device for recording a version
of history is immense and symbolic. If it’s carved in stone,
it’s permanent, indisputable. And perhaps the Olmec were trying to
ensure that they weren’t forgotten. These Olmec must have known
that they were a shadow of what they had once been. But whilst the Olmec civilisation
faded from history, their influence outlasted them. When archaeologists discovered
the colossal heads, sculptures and carvings in the jungles
of the Gulf Coast of Mexico, it was assumed they were Mayan. But over the decades, archaeologists
have begun to discover and celebrate the uniqueness
of Olmec culture and its antiquity. And this has led to
a series of startling discoveries about the nature of the relationship
between the Olmec and the Maya. This is the Maya city of Comalcalco
just inland from the Gulf Coast and it lies only 50 miles east
of the old Olmec centre of La Venta. But this settlement was
built in 500 AD, 1,000 years after La Venta had
collapsed, and here, the Maya constructed their monumental
architecture using clay brick. There are carvings on display
depicting shared beliefs. And it has large ceremonial plazas. Walking through this plaza, I can’t
help but be reminded of the Olmec site of La Venta, because this plaza has the same
earthen mounds either side, the same
demonstrations of public art and at the end, this imposing,
dominating pyramid. There are dozens of pyramids
in Mexico built by different Mesoamerican cultures but the Olmec
are credited for building the first. The cultural innovations of the
Olmec didn’t disappear with them. They weren’t reinvented by the Maya. City planning, the centralisation
of economic and agricultural resources, the creations of elite
power and divine religion and the affirmation of these through
public art and ceremony. These social institutions of the
Olmec remained with the people of this region, morphing through
time to become ever more sophisticated and complex. Civilisation is a word that
archaeologists have used to differentiate between different
stages of social development. It certainly doesn’t mean that the
people who live in civilisations are any more civilised
than hunter gatherer societies, but rather that they’ve undergone
a set of key social transformations. They can produce a food surplus, they have a hierarchical social
structure, cities and an economic system
are in place, they express shared beliefs and ideas through art
writing and ceremonial events. These are all traits that we
recognise today, perhaps even take for granted. But here in the Americas, the Olmec developed these traits for
the first time over 3,000 years ago. For too long,
the Olmec have lain dormant and it’s only now that the true power of
their culture can be fully understood. The Olmec represent
a turning point in human development of the Americas
and their legacy of urban planning, sport, public art,
complex social relationships have lasted thousands of years
down through the generations and right up to the 21st century.

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