Two massive stone Olmec reliefs depict rulers in a rare divine trance pose


Massive monuments and two carved limestone Olmec reliefs of local rulers have been recovered from the municipality of Tenosique in southeastern Mexico. The rulers of this extremely rare Olmec relief style are depicted in a state of divine trance in a ritual contortionist pose, believed to reduce oxygen levels in the brain.

The Olmec civilization and two very strange Olmec reliefs

Archaeologists from the National Institute of Archeology and History (INAH) announced the find on Friday, after receiving information from some residents of Tenosique, Tabasco, Mexico.

The large, circular limestone Olmec reliefs measure approximately 1.40 meters (4.59 feet) in diameter and show a face with “celestial” jaws, wearing a diadem consisting of four ears of corn and a mirror with the “Olmec cross” in the center .

This cross is marked with a glyph associated with the figure of the jaguar and is traditionally featured in Olmec elite clothing, according to a INAH press release .

On either side of the face are jaguar footprints. The mouth is depicted in the “grumpy mouth” style, which alludes to the roar of a jaguar.

Both Olmec reliefs have a square-shaped face with a diadem, which archaeologists have traced to the central Usumacinta region of Mexico, between the mouth of the Chacamax River and the mouth of the San Pedro River.

The Olmecs were one of the earliest Mesoamerican civilizations and are often referred to as the mother culture of Mesoamerica. The word Olmec derives from the Nahuatl word, Olemactl Where Olemecawhich means “rubber people”.

Tenosique, where the two Olmec landforms were discovered, is located along the Usumacinta River and was the key region during the Olmec formative period (900-400 BC), reports Heritage Daily .

It is the second of the few huge Olmec contortionist reliefs found in the province of Tabasco along the Usumacinta River on new farmland. ( INAH)

These Olmec reliefs suggest early Mayan influences

“It is possible that these faces evolved and drifted into Maya ‘jaw’ altars, such as those of the Caracol site, in Belize, which tells us about the permanence of this theme for more than three centuries, already by the classical periods. The word ajaw means ‘one who shouts’, ‘one who commands’, ‘one who commands’ and in these mayan landmarks the mouth sticks out, a characteristic that must come from the Olmec period, in particular from these circular reliefs of ‘contortionists’ which are portraits of local chiefs”, explained the director of the INAH Tabasco Center, Carlos Arturo Giordano Sanchez Verin.

He attributes the discovery to a report by researcher Tomas Perez Suarez, a researcher at the Center for Mayan Studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Suarez cited the existence of these transitional Olmec landforms in 2019. And the circular Olmec landforms in 2022 are remarkably similar to a circular stone landform discovered in the early 2000s in the Belen district of the city of Tenosique.

The two newly discovered reliefs were found on a property in Villahermosa, the capital of Tabasco, and verified by INAH Deputy Director José Luis Romero Rivera. The findings emerged on a ranch while grading farmland, when a worker noticed something sticking out of the ground. Further investigations of the ranch will soon be conducted to determine if there are any other artifacts.

The earlier style of Olmec head carving was more like this example known as the Olmec San Lorenzo Head No. 1, carved around 1200-900 BC.  (Mesoamerican / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The earlier style of Olmec head carving was more like this example known as the Olmec San Lorenzo Head No. 1, carved around 1200-900 BC. ( Mesoamerican / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Contortionist Olmec reliefs: the influence of Mayanization

Scholars of the history of Olmec archeology have concluded that a stylistic transition occurred in Olmec reliefs around 400 BC. At that time, the coastal plains of Tabasco underwent a process of Mayanization (500-300 BC). Over time, this accelerated and entered the domain of Palenque, Chiapas, which clashed with the territory of the Mixe-Zoque tribes.

Mayanization can be broadly understood as the continent’s cultural and social practices that appropriated and subsumed a number of indigenous tribes and their practices.

To date, there are only five known contortionist Olmec reliefs. One comes from Balancan and is on display at the Regional Museum of Anthropology in Villahermosa. Another was found in the town of Ejido Emiliano Zapata, which is now in the INAH Pomona site museum. The other three were all found at Tenosique (including the two reliefs from 2022 and the one discovered in 2000).

Top image: This is one of two huge Olmec reliefs from 900 to 400 BC found in the province of Tabasco, Mexico, that signal the transitional Mayanization of Olmec motifs, according to INAH archaeologists . Source: INAH

By Sahir Pandey


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