Posts Tagged ‘Olmec’

the Case of Authorship

April 10, 2010

I am seeing more and more articles ascribing the creation of the calendar to the Olmecs or some other more primitive unknown tribe.

Since there is no record of the calendar at any of the Olmec sites, I think that if they had constructed such a thing they would have put it to use, especially in their larger ceremonial centers. But there is absolutely no record of it.

The Maya not only utilized it more than any other Mesoamerican civilization, they used more of it – the many various calendars they used – and made record of it in their few existing codices (as well as the Spanish chroniclers’ writings) more so than any other culture there.

Their history claims that they created it and all its parts over centuries of observations, calculations, and prophecy.

The current Maya still use the calendar (or parts of it) and maintain they had created it. Rather than giving credit to some mythological or unknown culture of the past, I suggest we call it the Maya’s calendar until there is proof to the contrary.

Please let the issue rest.

Where the Maya Fit In

March 28, 2010

With all the history of the Mesoamerican region pretty well mapped out one might think this should be rather simple to explain. But there are still so many questions about the ancient Maya and their culture that even consulting the present Maya cannot answer.

We do know that they followed a lot of the same cultural characteristics of the Olmec culture that (possibly) preceded them but were they borrowing from the Olmec, or did both of them borrow from a third source, or – as believed by the present Maya – the Olmec borrowed from them as they were far older?

There are a few inscriptions that historians have uncovered that they term proto-Olmec but until enough are found to begin actual work at translation, they are nothing more than a curiosity. Perhaps though, someday, enough will be found to help fill in the blanks.

Yet for all the declaimers among some historical circles attempting to move the credit for a lot of the discoveries to one or another of the cultures in Mesoamerica, it remains that the first and only truly literate culture we have found is the Maya.

Many historians point to Teotihuacan and claim that the Toltecs were the “great” civilization of ancient Mexico but I have yet to see any evidence that the historically known Toltecs had anything to do with the site of Teotihuacan. That ancient city seems to be outside the current scheme of Mesoamerican history and the inhabitants were not kind enough to leave us written evidences of themselves.

The classic Maya alone seem to come down to us as the only completely cohesive culture, almost as if (and this is extremely hypothetical) they were trying to make sure their message got through. Now that’s rather a New Age thought, I know, but it could very well be.

And the widely believed notion that the Maya simply abandoned their cities is now thought to be an erroneous conclusion. Many of the Maya cities continued, some merging with Toltec invaders, others continuing for centuries holding out against the Spaniards. The cities that were abandoned, were simply vacated by the inhabitants as they melted back into the forests from which they came.

Again, one wonders if this could be to make sure their message continued?

But, then, what exactly was their message?

the Olmecs, c.1400BC-400BC

March 25, 2010

The earliest civilization we have a record of is one we call the Olmec culture. They left behind no written texts for us to tell us what they were like. (There are some written fragments but not enough to build a history – much less a language – on.) Apart from the archaeological remains and the memories passed down by their neighbors we have no real knowledge of them or their culture.

Still, many historians believe they were the creators of the calendar used later by the Maya and the Aztec; in fact, by all the civilizations of Mesoamerica. That the earliest calendar notations were after their heyday and in the border region where the Maya civilization arose clouds the issue. So, until the certified authors of the calendar can be verified, I shall continue calling it the Mayan Calendar.

The forerunners of the Olmec are assumed to have passed over the Bering land-bridge from Asia, 15,000 to 12,000 BC (or so). The earliest group has been termed the Clovis people from their earliest known site in New Mexico. Some authorities take a dim view of claims of sites that pre-date Clovis. Virginia Steen-McIntyre, and the team she joined at Hueyatlaco (not to be confused with Hueyapan, now Tres Zapotes), an archeological site in Valsequillo, Mexico, determined the site to have been built around 250,000 BC.

This debate will not be settled any time soon, I am certain, even though the pro-Clovis group is holding their own at the moment. Others are finding sites that push the envelope backward as well.

Regardless of earlier sites, the earliest actual civilization we know of is the Olmecs. We know little of their society as all they left us were some large stone heads and other artifacts. Even so, most scholars still attribute the calendar to this mysterious group as well as the ball that is used by all the later cultures that survived in the region: Toltec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and the Maya.

Early celestial observatories can be traced to the Olmec civilization as can the ball courts. The rubber balls came from the region of the Olmecs and the culture’s name comes to us from the Aztecs who called them the “rubber people”.

Perhaps new discoveries will tell us more about this mysterious and yet influential people.

the Maya and Their Place in the Sun

March 20, 2010

Much of what we know of the Maya culture has been gained in the last few decades. Before that time all we had to go on was the remnants of the tribes living in Central America today and the scant records left us by the Spaniards who conquered the region over four centuries ago – the few conscientious priests who decided to spare a little of the culture from the flames of the Inquisition.

A lot of the early period of the Maya is cloudy and only just now coming to light as archaeologists are finding new sites, so the field is in flux. The theories of their origins is constantly changing because of this new inflow of data, but a few basics can be listed.

First, their civilization is the one that has left more written records than any other and, secondly, their descendants still maintain a cultural cohesion greater than the other ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. It is perhaps these two facts that give us a clearer view of the Maya than their predecessors and neighbors.

In many respects they are similar to ancient cultures around the world: agricultural orientation, a multitude of gods, and an intense interest in the movements of the planets in the heavens.

Their differences set them apart from other cultures beyond Mesoamerica: varieties of a ritual ballgame, ritual bloodletting, an intricate multi-part calendar, the lack of domesticated animals, and no evidence of wheeled vehicles. These qualities were also represented in the other civilizations of the area. Whether the Maya invented any of these things is still in debate, but none deny that the Maya were the first to utilize all these and create an extensive culture.

Did the Maya invent any of the calendars they lived by? Some think their Olmec predecessors should be credited with it but though the oldest dated fragments lie beyond the standard Maya area, the oldest lie beyond the Olmec territories as well. Until data can be found assigning authorship to others, I would prefer to continue calling it the Mayan Calendar.

And though the Maya have left us a few written records, the full understanding of their temple inscriptions has been slow coming. The work of Linda Schele and others finally cracked the barrier to more completely reading the temple inscriptions. We learn more daily.

Meanwhile satellite images are helping uncover Mayan cities in Guatemala today. All this will give us further insight into these mysterious people and the calendar they have left us. Some finds in the Puuc region have pushed the inception of the Maya culture back almost a thousand years.

Who knows what they will find next about this amazing civilization.