The Olmec Heads 

A long-standing enigma surrounding the Olmec civilization is the significance of the colossal stone heads found at the Olmec sites. Till date, 17 monumental stone heads have been recovered; 16 from the Olmec ceremonial centers at San Lorenzo, La Venta, and Tres Zapotes, and a solitary one - the La Cobata head - which is also the largest, from a mountain pass in Sierra de los Tuxtlas. The La Cobata head weights nearly 40 tons while the smallest one is close to 6 tons.

Olmec Stone Head - San Lorenzo Colossal Head 1
Fig 1: San Lorenzo Colossal Head 1. Source: Wikipedia
Olmec Stone Head - La Venta Monument 1
Fig 2: La Venta Monument 1. Credit: Bibhu Dev Misra
Olmec Stone Head - Tres Zapotes Monument A
Fig 3: Tres Zapotes Monument A. Source: Wikipedia
Olmec Stone Head - La Cobata Head, Santiago Tuxtla
Fig 4: La Cobata Head, Santiago Tuxtla. Source: Wikipedia
It is a mystery why the Olmecs expended so much time and effort to carve these stone heads. What do they represent, and why were they carved in such a monumental fashion?

Archaeologists continue to be in the dark as to how the large basalt boulders were transported over hundreds of kilometers for sculpting these heads. There is, as yet, no archaeological evidence of the wheel being used for transport, although a number of “wheeled toys” have been recovered from Mayan tombs, which indicates that the Mesoamericans were aware of the physics of the wheel. Many ancient cultures, however, had the ability to move, carve, lift, and maneuver into position, massive blocks of stone to create grand structures. How our ancestors accomplished this without the aid of any modern equipment, has been the subject of many books, debates and controversies.
 

If we look at a sample of Olmec heads from the main ceremonial centers, what comes across in a very striking manner is that, most of them have pronounced negroid features with a flat nose and full lips. This was noted even when the first Olmec head was discovered at Tres Zapotes by Jose Melgar in 1862, who wrote that, “what astonished me was the Ethiopic type represented. I reflected that there had undoubtedly been Negroes in this country.”[2]  Since then, many researchers have espoused the view that some of the Olmecs could have been of African origin. 

The African origin hypothesis, however, does not find genetic support. There is no evidence of Pre-Columbian African populations in Mesoamerica.[3]  The modern day inhabitants of the Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco bear no resemblance to the stone heads either. I also noticed in course of my research into the Olmecs that the hundreds of Olmec clay figurines discovered till now have well-defined mongoloid features i.e. epicanthic eye folds and downward-curving lips. Not a single one of them have negroid features. If there had been an African component in the Olmec culture wouldn’t there have been at least one clay figurine which would have substantiated this?


Many historians interpret the Olmec heads as “portraits of individual rulers.”[4]  La Fuente writes that, “but for the La Cobata head – that represents a dead individual –, the other sixteen are faithful enough portraits of Olmec rulers and sacred individuals.”[5]  But, the question which has been generally skirted by archaeologists, is, why would the Olmec rulers have prominent negroid features and look so different from the ordinary people depicted in the clay figurines?


Overall, there is a big mystery surrounding the stone heads. The Olmecs, who were of mongoloid stock (as is evident from the numerous clay figurines), had sculpted monumental basalt stone heads with prominent negroid features. Why did they do that? What do these heads symbolize? An answer to this riddle begins to emerge when we consider the manner in which these heads were placed in the Olmec ceremonial centers.


Olmec Heads as Dvarapalas

 
Both at Tres Zapotes and at La Venta, the Olmec heads were found at the edges of the ceremonial zone and seemed to function as the protectors of the site. Christopher A. Pool, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Kentucky, writes that the Olmec heads at Tres Zapotes,

“are located on the edges of the Middle Preclassic site. That is, they seem to mark the perimeter of the center, perhaps announcing the entrance to the heart of the Olmec polity. Similarly, three of the colossal heads at La Venta were placed at the northern edge of the ceremonial zone. Consequently, it seems possible that before the end of the Middle Preclassic the colossal heads had acquired a meaning…as icons and guardians of the polity.”[6]
This is a very interesting observation. The Olmec heads at La Venta and Tres Zapotes are located near the entrances to the central ceremonial zone, and appear to act as the guardians of the site. They correspond, in their size and placement, to the giant door-guardians of Hindu-Buddhist temples called dvarapalas (or dwarapalas; dvara / dwara = door, pala = protector).  
 
Fig 5: The La Venta archaeological site at Tabasco, Complex I, where three of the colossal Olmec heads were found, in a line along the perimeter of the site. Credit: Dr. Günther Eichhorn, aerobaticsweb.org.
Before we go any further, I would like to point out that the Olmecs were not only ardent practitioners of yoga asanas, but they had also adopted many principles of Hindu-Buddhist temple architecture, as I had argued in my earlier article titled “Olmec Yogis with Hindu Beliefs: Did they migrate from ancient China?”[7] It would not be surprising, therefore, if the Olmecs had also adopted the Hindu-Buddhist concept of dvarapalas i.e. door-guardians. Let us explore this possibility in more detail.

Dvarapalas are giant figures, armed with a weapon (usually a mace), who stand guard in pairs on either side of the entrance to a Hindu-Buddhist temple. While this is the most common configuration there are some variations. A small shrine may have only one dvarapala; while a large temple complex with many entrances can have many multiple dvarapalas. 
 
For instance, at the Sewu Temple in Central Java, there are four entrances leading to the outer court of the temple complex, each of which is guarded by a pair of dvarapala statues. From the outer court to the inner court there are four more gates, each guarded by a pair of dvarapala statues, identical to the ones at the outer gates. Each of the dvarapala statues, made of a single block of stone, is 6.9 feet high, and placed on a square base 3.6 feet high.
A Dvarapala or door-guardian outside a Shiva shrine in the Elephanta caves near Mumbai
Fig 6: Dvarapala standing guard outside a Shiva shrine in the Elephanta caves. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Bas-relief of a Dvarapala or door-guardian at Banteay Kdei in Angkor, Cambodia
Fig 7: Bas-relief of a Dvarapala at Banteay Kdei in Angkor, Cambodia. Source: Wikipedia
One of a pair of Dvarapalas or door-guardians guarding the Sewu Temple, Java
Fig 8: One of a pair of Dvarapalas guarding the Sewu Temple, Java. Source: Wikimedia Commons
A 12 feet high Dvarapala or door-guardian at Candi Singosari, Java
Fig 9: A 12 feet high Dvarapala at Candi Singosari, Java. Source: Wikimedia Commons
In Indian and Cambodian temples, the dvarapalas are generally depicted in relief on the temple walls near the entrance, while in Java or China, the dvarapalas are large stand-alone statues placed near the temple entrance. 
 
The largest dvarapala statue discovered so far is in Candi Singhasari in East Java. It dates from the 13th century AD and is more than 12 feet high. In contrast, the largest Olmec head (the La Cobata head) is 11 feet high. 
 
Archaeologists have found that at San Lorenzo, the first site established by the Olmecs in c.1500 BCE, each shrine seemed to be guarded by an Olmec head. Cyphers Guillen writes:
“Each display contained a colossal head wearing a helmet, a monument in the form of a feline, a large rectangular throne containing a human adult emerging from a cavelike niche and a water conduit and trough.”[9] 
The "human adult emerging from a cavelike niche" is probably an "underworld deity", since throughout Mesoamerica caves were believed to contain entrances to the watery underworld of nine levels. Thus, each shrine at San Lorenzo appears to be guarded by a dvarapala and a lion guardian. This is not an uncommon practice in Hinduism or Buddhism. A single dvarapala along with lion guardians may be associated with a small shrine. 

Thus, the size and placement of the Olmec heads at the primary ceremonial centers of San Lorenzo, La Venta and Tres Zapotes are correlated with the dvarapala motif of Hindu-Buddhist temples. While at Tres Zapotes and La Venta the Olmec heads appear to be guarding the entrance to the ceremonial center, at San Lorenzo they are attached with individual shrines. The use of monumental stone blocks for sculpting these heads is in keeping with the tradition of depicting dvarapalas as giant door-guardians. 
 
This is further supported by the fact that, “with only two or three exceptions, the (Olmec) heads have a flat, and mostly plain, back”, which suggests that the backside “was not intended to be seen, as if the heads were standing in rows against a wall.”[10] It would appear, therefore, that the Olmec heads were placed against near entrances, like dvarapalas.
 
Dvarapalas as Nature Spirits

Now, Dvarapalas were not ordinary human beings. They belonged to a class of "nature spirits" called Yakshas (or Jakkhas), who were associated with forests, trees, lakes and wildernesses. Yakhshas were regarded as the gatekeepers of the subterranean realms (where the underworld gods and the naga kings dwelt), and the guardians of earthly riches. They were believed to possess magical powers, and were worshiped as minor gods. Yakshas were generally beneficient towards human beings, but could turn malevolent if not appeased. They taught people useful skills, and functioned as their protectors.

In Hindu-Buddhist art, Yakshas may be depicted as pot-bellied dwarfs with bulging eyes, or as giant, fearsome warriors standing near the entrances of temples i.e. as dvarapalas. In some cases, they were depicted with a grotesque face with fangs, a flat broad nose, wearing a tight-fitting ornamental cap and large earrings. In this respect, Yakshas bear a resemblance to the Olmec heads, because most of the Olmec heads are shown wearing a tight cap with ornamentation, and they have long ears adorned with earrings.
Fig 10: Terracotta rattle in the form of a crouching Yaksha, 1st century BCE, Chandraketugarh, West Bengal, India. Source: Met Museum, Public Domain.
Fig 11: Yaksha, 6th–7th century CE, Southern Cambodia or Vietnam. Source: Met Museum, Public Domain.
Moreover, when Yakshas were depicted as Dvarapalas, they had a range of expressions - stern, smiling or passive - which correspond to the expressions on the Olmec heads.
 
Many Olmec heads have a fearsome grimace, with the forehead wrinkled in a frown; some have a placid, unperturbed face; while a few of them sport a wide grin. In case of dvarapalas as well, we can see similar variations. Some have serene facial expressions with an welcoming smile, some are passive, while some have stern, frowning expressions.  
 
An Olmec Stone head and Dvarapala (door-guardian) with a smiling face
Fig 12: Olmec heads and dvarapalas with a smiling expression


An Olmec stone head and Dvarapala (door-guardian) with a stern expression
Fig 13: Olmec heads and Dvarapalas with a stern expression
Thus, not only is the size and placement of the Olmec heads at the ceremonial centers consistent with the dvarapala custom, but the different facial expressions of the Olmec heads can be seen on dvarapalas as well.

When we look at the dvarapals of China, we see that some of them were depicted with negroid features, with a distinctive, tight-fitting headdress, made of cloth or animal hide, bearing a close resemblance to the Olmec heads.


The Dvarapalas of China


While exploring depictions of dvarapalas in ancient China, I found that sometimes they were shown wearing a tight-fitting head-dress similar to the ones found on the Olmec heads. As we have already noted, dvarapalas belong to a class of nature spirits called Yakshas, who are typically shown with an ornamental, tight-fitting headress.
Chinese Dvarapala or door-guardian wearing a tight-fitting head-dress, Yuan Dynasty (1234 – 1368 CE)
Fig 14: Chinese Dvarapala wearing a head-dress, Yuan Dynasty (1234 – 1368 CE). Source: Artvalue.com
Chinese Dvarapala or door-guardian wearing a tight-fitting head-dress, Tang dynasty, 7th century AD
Fig 15: Chinese Dvarapala wearing a head-dress, Tang dynasty, 7th century AD. Source: www.flickriver.com/mharrsch
A particular dvarapala head from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644 CE)  not only possesses distinct negroid features i.e. thick lips and flat nose, but wears a tight-fitting head-dress similar to the Olmec heads. The dvarapala wears a head-band with a central circular ornament, tied in a knot at the back of the head, which can be seen on some of the Olmec heads as well. The dvarapala also has unusually long ears like some of the Olmec heads.
A Chinese Dvarapala (door-guardian) with a tight-fitting headdress, ear ornaments, and negroid features closely resembling the Olmec Stone Heads
Fig 14: A Chinese Dvarapala head depicted with tight-fitting headdress, ear ornaments, and negroid features very closely resembling the Olmec Stone Heads.
Overall, the resemblance between this dvarapala head from the Ming dynasty and the Olmec heads is so striking, that we can claim, with a fair degree of conviction, that the Olmec heads were fashioned in the likeness of the dvarapalas of China. This agrees with my earlier article, where I had suggested that the Olmec culture received migrants from Asia, possibly during the Shang dynasty of China.
 
What this means is that the negroid features on the Olmec heads do not reflect the racial type of the Olmecs. It simply means that different cultures visualized the protective nature-spirits called Yakshas in different ways. Some gave them ogre faces, while some gave them human faces of different racial types.  
 
So, in summary, the Olmec stone heads represents protective nature-spirits called Yakshas, functioning as the guardians or Dvarapalas of the sacred Olmec sites. 
 
The enormous stone blocks used for carving them, their placement near the entrances to the ceremonial centers, the wide range of facial expressions, the long ears with earrings, the tight-fitting head-dresses with head-bands – all of this can be seen in the representations of Dvarapalas and Yakshas.

This is yet another addition to the ever growing list of Pre-Columbian Trans-Pacific contacts between the Americas and Asia.


End Notes

[1] Peter Standish, A Companion to Mexican Studies (Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2006)8
[2] Jose Melgar (1869) quoted by Pasztory Esther, Thinking with things. Toward a new vision of art (University of Texas Press, Austin, 2005)
[3] Genetic history of indigenous peoples of the Americas, Wikipedia.
[4] Michael D. Coe, Richard A. Diehl, "In the Land of the Olmec (University of Texas Press, 1980)293.
[5] La Fuente Beatriz de, “El arte olmeca”, Arqueología Mexicana, 1995 II (12), pp. 18-25.
[6] Christopher A. Pool, "Stone Monuments and Earthen Mounds: Polity and Placemaking at Tres Zapotes, Veracruz", The Place of Stone Monuments: Context, Use, and Meaning in Mesoamerica's Preclassic Transition, ed. Julia Guernsey, John E. Clark, Bárbara Arroyo (Harvard University Press, 2010)124.
[7] Bibhu Dev Misra, “Olmec Yogis with Hindu Beliefs: Did they migrate from ancient China?”, www.bibhudevmisra.com 31 Aug 2016 <http://www.bibhudevmisra.com/2016/08/olmec-yogis-with-hindu-beliefs-did-they.html>
[8] Dvarapala, Wikipedia.
[9] Carolyn E. Tate, Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture: The Unborn, Women, and Creation (University of Texas Press, 2012)126
[10] Claude-François Baudez, "Beauty and ugliness in Olmec monumental sculpture", Journal de la Société des Américanistes 2012, 98-2 p. 7-31
[11] “Gate Guardians”, Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum <http://www.btrts.org.sg/temple-first-gate-guardian>
[12] Jennifer Viegas, "Early Crossings: Scientists Debate Who Sailed to the New World First " ABCNEWS.com <https://web.archive.org/web/20010815211144/http://www.abcnews.go.com/ABC2000/abc2000science/newworld991019.html>
[13] Bibhu Dev Misra, “Olmec Yogis with Hindu Beliefs: Did they migrate from ancient China?”, www.bibhudevmisra.com 31 Aug 2016 <http://www.bibhudevmisra.com/2016/08/olmec-yogis-with-hindu-beliefs-did-they.html>
[14] Olmec colossal heads, Wikipedia.
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Bibhu Dev Misra

Independent researcher and writer on ancient mysteries, cultural connections, cosmic wisdom, religion and science. Graduate of IIT and IIM with two decades of work experience in different fields

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  1. Even Columbus wrote in his journal about the African Presence in America before he got there. The indigenous Taino also told him of these visits by the Negroids and showed the artifacts left behind but many to this day try to refute this.

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    1. There may have been an African presence in Mesoamerica before Columbus, but I dont think that there was a Negroid component in the Olmec culture. Firstly, there is no genetic evidence for the same. Second, the hundreds of Olmec clay figurines discovered till now have well-defined mongoloid features and not a single one of them have negroid features. And as I have argued in this article, I think the Olmec stone heads functioned as "Dvarapalas" and did not reflect the features of the general population.

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  2. you should read they were hear before columbus by ivan van sertima, it debunks this

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