ART FROM ANCIENT LANDS

Olmec Jade Sculpture of a Standing Were-Jaguar - X.0682
Origin: Mexico
Circa: 900 BC to 600 BC
Dimensions: 8.25" (21.0cm) high x 3.125" (7.9cm) wide
Collection: Pre-Columbian
Style: Olmec
Medium: Jade

The Olmecs are generally considered to be the ultimate ancestor of all subsequent Mesoamerican civilisations. 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 permanent settlements, including San Lorenzo Tenochtitlˆ°n, La Venta, Tres Zapotes, Laguna de los Cerros, and La Mojarra. However, the consolidation of their city-states led to notable cultural influence far beyond their heartland, and throughout the Mesoamerican region. This was confirmed in 2005 with the use of NAA (Neutron Activation Analysis) and petrography to demonstrate the spread of Olmec ceramic vessels. It would appear that the Olmec style became synonymous with elite status in other (predominantly highland) groups, although there is evidence for exchange of artefacts in both directions. A non-literate group, the Olmecs nevertheless paved the way for the development of writing systems in the loosely defined Epi-Olmec period (c. 500 BC). Further innovations include arguably the first use of the zero, so instrumental in the Maya long count vigesimal calendrical system. They also appear to have been the originators of the famous Mesoamerican ballgame so prevalent among later cultures in the region, and either retained or invented several 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. The art forms for which the Olmecs are best known, the monumental stone heads weighing up to forty tons, are generally assumed to pertain to some form of kingly leader or possibly an ancestor, although this is of course difficult to prove conclusively. It has also been suggested that they are representations of successful ball-players, or perhaps symbols of specific Olmec groups. The smaller jade figures of which this is one are believed to be domestically or institutionally based totems or divinities. The quality of production is astonishing, particularly if one considers the technology available for production, 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 interpretation of some facial features (notably down-turned mouths and slit eyes) that can be clearly seen in the current figure. The wide noses and thick lips of the were-jaguars have been used to claim an African ancestry for the Olmec. However, this belief has not been demonstrated in any way, and there is absolutely no anatomical, osteological, dental, mtDNA or Y-chromosome DNA evidence to support such a belief. These all point at an East Asian origin for all recent Native American groups. Academics have also pointed out that the epicanthic folds on the colossal stone heads is an East Asian trait, and the continuous recurrence of the half-man-half-jaguar figure in Mesoamerican magico-religious artwork is an interpretation of a belief rather than a literal recording of a specific persons facial features. It therefore appears that the Olmec truly were master agriculturists, settlers and sculptors, carving a new identity from the swampy jungles of the Mexican heartland, and giving us a startlingly beautiful artistic heritage of which this is such an excellent example. This figure is typical of the were-jaguar style, with large lips, small eyes and a highly paedomorphic facial shape. The figures have been so named because they are believed by scholars to represent a shamans transition between anthropomorphic and zoomorphic form. The owner of the piece is also likely to have been involved in the magico-religious world. The dark stone is highly polished, with a light tracery of veins running through it. The figure has no sexual organs or much detail on the limbs or torso, possibly indicating that the figure was once clothed. Despite the small size of the sculpture, it has a very powerful presence that presages much of what was to come in Mesoamerican culture. This is a stunningly beautiful piece of ancient art, which would be the pride of any collection. - (X.0682)

 

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