The Olmecs are generally considered to be the ultimate ancestor of all subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations. Thriving between about 1200 and 400 BC, their base was the tropical lowlands of south central Mexico, an area characterized by swamps punctuated by low hill ridges and volcanoes. Here the Olmecs practiced advanced farming techniques and constructed many permanent settlements. Their influence, both cultural and political, extended far beyond their boundaries; the exotic nature of Olmec designs became synonymous with elite status in other (predominantly highland) groups, with evidence for exchange of artefacts in both directions. Other than their art (see below), they are credited with the foundations of writing systems (the loosely defined Epi-Olmec period, c. 500 BC), the first use of the zero – so instrumental in the Maya long count vigesimal calendrical system – and they also appear to have been the originators of the famous Mesoamerican ballgame so prevalent among later cultures in the region.
The art form for which the Olmecs are best known, the monumental stone heads weighing up to forty tons, are generally believed to depict kingly leaders or possibly ancestors. Other symbols abound in their stylistic repertoire, including several presumably religious symbols such as the feathered serpent and the rain spirit, which persisted in subsequent and related cultures until the middle ages. Comparatively little is known of their magico-religious world, although the clues that we have are tantalising. Technically, these include all non-secular items, of which there is a fascinating array. The best- known forms are jade and ceramic figures and celts that depict men, animals and fantastical beasts with both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic characteristics. Their size and general appearance suggests that they were domestically- or institutionally-based totems or divinities. The quality of production is astonishing, particularly if one considers the technology available, the early date of the pieces, and the dearth of earlier works upon which the Olmec sculptors could draw. Some pieces are highly stylised, while others demonstrate striking naturalism with deliberate expressionist interpretation of some facial features (notably up-turned mouths and slit eyes) that can be clearly seen in the current mask.
This powerful mask depicts the face of a human, rendered in the typical Olmec style, surrounded by the head of a jaguar, the sacred creature of the Mesoamerican jungle. While it appears as though the jaguar is going to swallow the man whole, it most likely represents a priest, ruler, or warrior wearing a jaguar headdress. Similar depictions are also known centuries later during the Mayan era, revealing the lasting socio- religious power of this image across cultural divides. The jaguar’s face is rather compressed, with two inset eyes lying just beneath its ears, which rise slightly from the otherwise characteristic contours of the mask. The jaguar’s nose is flat and broad with carved nostrils. A row of teeth and fangs are visible along the upper and lower edges of the feline’s lips, which effectively frame the mask. Wrinkle lines tracing the form of the creature’s mouth stretch from the sides of its nose, just beneath the eyes to the sides of the mask. The human face bears all the stylistic hallmarks of Olmec art, including the narrow slit eyes, broad nose, and upturned “baby” mouth with exposed upper teeth. The man’s ears emerge on either side of the mask with drilled holes in the earlobes, suggesting that they once may have been adorned with earrings or other such decorations. The presence of the ears also convincingly attests to the fact that the jaguar is merely a headdress. This stunning work of Olmec art is as mysterious as it is powerful. We can readily identify the iconography, but the ultimate meaning is outside our grasp. However, we can be sure that this mask would have been viewed with as much awe and admiration to the Olmec people in their time as it is by us in ours.
1200 BC - 1500 AD