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Spring 2012

Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture

Professor Carolyn Tate unearths the stories of the Olmec in her new book

by Rachel L. Pierce

Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture

For more than a decade, Texas Tech art history Professor Carolyn Tate has been examining monuments, figurines and other sculptural objects created by the Olmec of ancient Mexico in an effort to unearth their stories. She shares her findings in “Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture,” which was published in January by the University of Texas Press.

The Olmec lived during Mesoamerica’s Formative Period, which lasted from about 1400 BC to 400 B.C., and constituted Mexico’s first major civilization. Through her studies of artifacts at La Venta and other sites, Tate gained insight into the Olmec society’s values, which–like the Mesoamerican cultures that followed–were taught through creation stories.

Women, infants, embryos and other gestational imagery were featured significantly in the Olmec’s creation narrative.

“When you look at the seeds of plants–say somebody hands you a lettuce seed–you realize it’s a seed, but you may not know what plant it will become,” she said. “Embryos are a similar case. An embryo of a human looks like the embryo of another mammal. It’s only after the ninth week, when the embryo transitions into what we call the fetus, that we start looking human. So when we are embryos, we appear in a relatively generic form, at least to someone who is not a medical specialist. Mesoamericans thought of the embryo as a human seed.”

Tate’s analysis is a departure from her peers’ widely held view that the beings represented are “were-jaguars,” supernatural creatures that were part human and part jaguar.

“What I identify as a human embryo image, others call a were-jaguar, despite the fact that this image has no pointy ears, no fangs, no claws, no spots, no tail, and it looks in no way like a jaguar,” Tate said.

“Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture” includes illustrations that compare human embryos with selected Olmec figurines, showing one-to-one morphological correspondences in proportion, head shape, facial structures and limb development. Bradley Smith of the University of Michigan supplied images of human embryos from his project, “The Multi-Dimensional Human Embryo,” funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Among the Olmec, Tate reasoned, creation stories took shape through the placement of sculptures along a path at La Venta. In her book, Tate reconstructed the original locations of monumental sculptures at the site, a demanding effort that took about five years to complete. The challenge arose because the site at La Venta had been taken over by an oil refinery in the 1960s, and the monuments were removed with minimal documentation of where they had been uncovered.

“I devoted four chapters of this book to La Venta, which was unique in many ways,” Tate said. “One chapter covers the ‘Massive Offerings’ that consisted of hundreds of tons of greenstone rock that people carried across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec–a distance of over 100 miles. Another reconstructs the unusual caches and ‘pseudoburials.’ These were deposits of jade regalia that served as memorials to deities or individuals. Two of the chapters discuss the original location of monuments, then my arguments about how certain monuments formed a series of ritual stations. I propose that ritual practitioners selected the spaces near particular sculptural groups for their ceremonies. Or when it was appropriate to re-enact a creation narrative, the whole site was used as the theater for ritual performances.”

Her study of memorial caches and “pseudoburials” contributed to a more speculative section of the book centering on practices akin to shamanism.

“There’s a lot of evidence for female healers and feminine healing power, that’s what a lot of these umbilical cord symbols, cave womb symbols, and even embryo symbols probably have to do with–the sort of positive healing power wielded by these women,” Tate said. “To consider this, I constructed an ethnographic analogy between the Olmec of La Venta and the modern-day descendants of the Olmec; there are some people who still speak a much later version of the language that the Olmec spoke. They still perform healing ceremonies, and women comprise at least 50 percent of the healers. These women focus on midwifery and childbirth, and they use a set of symbols that includes sweat baths, flowering umbilical cords and caves. We can see these elements both in the ritual practices of the Olmec and of their descendants, 2,000 years later.”

The Olmec culture has been the focal point of Tate’s research since she joined the faculty at Texas Tech in 1993. Her scholarly work got underway, however, when she was a curator at the Dallas Museum of Art. Through her research, Tate has co-curated exhibitions about the Olmec at Princeton University and the National Gallery of Art, as well as authored articles, reviews and lectures.

To learn more about “Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture,” its author or to purchase a copy, please visit the UT Press website.

Meet the Author

Carolyn Tate

Carolyn Tate is professor of the history of Pre-Columbian art in the School of Art at Texas Tech.

Before coming to Texas Tech, Tate spent five years as associate curator of Pre-Columbian art at the Dallas Museum of Art where she worked on the museum’s permanent collections of Andean and Mesoamerican art. Tate also was part of a team that organized the first major exhibitions of Olmec art to be shown in the U.S., The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership, (Art Museum, Princeton University and Houston Museum of Fine Arts), and Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico, (National Gallery of Art).

In 2011, Tate was chosen as an Integrated Scholar by the Office of the Provost (Watch her video). She also has received the Barney Rushing Research Excellence Award, Appreciation Award from the Consulado General de México, and Fulbright-Hayes Dissertation Fellowship.

Rachel L. Pierce is a Senior Editor in the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University.

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