Villahermosa La Venta Park Museum
The famous colossal Olmec heads are in Parque Museo la Venta, a charming outdoor museum, set in a tropical woodland park beside a lake in the town of Villahermosa. It is my view that without understanding the Olmec, we can't understand the Maya, so this visit is a must for any Maya fan.
You will be able to spot a colossal Olmec head at the main entrance. Inside, the walk around the park is very pleasant indeed. The 'Olmec' walk in the park (about 1km) is lined with finds from La Venta, one of the main ceremonial centres of the Olmec, who are believed to be the ancestors of the Maya culture. It also contains a zoo for animals from Tabasco but my focus is on the Olmec park. Animals that pose no danger (such as coatis, squirrels and black agoutis) roam freely around the park.
La Venta itself was located on an island in a swampy area beside the River Tonalá near the Gulf of Mexico. Due to the construction of an oil refinery and an airport, large parts of this historical site have been destroyed. The park museum was created in 1958, to save the sculptures and move them here from La Venta.
I have been to Villahermosa twice so far. During my second visit to La Venta in April 2017, we asked at the ticket office to skip the zoo and a security guard volunteered to take us around the Olmec park, to save us time. That was so fortunate because he knew everything about the Olmec displays. He proudly told us that he was an Olmec descendant. Ramiro Arias Sanchez has lived in Tabasco all his life, now with his wife and 5-year-old daughter. His father and grandfather also always lived here. He feels that he has the same facial features as the Olmec heads that he guards so proudly. I can clearly see that ancestry in him.
The PeopLe: the colossal heads
So who were the people portrayed with colossal heads? Take the Young Warrior colossal head (700-400 BC). The scientists still debate the Olmec head's African facial features. Others maintain that the features are Asian (such as slanting eyes), since many original populations of countries like Cambodia and the Philippines have similar characteristics. In addition to the broad noses and thick lips, the heads have the Asian eye-fold, and all these characteristics can still be found in modern Mesoamerican Indians. That is how Ramiro looks and while we spotted it immediately ourselves, he was proudly presenting himself as a descendant with those features. He gladly posed in front of 'his ancestor'.
Even the sculpture of the unfinished Human Head (Monument 78) with typical flame-shaped eyebrows has the features that can be found in Ramiro. The heads were once theorised to be ballplayers (after all, they invented the ball game that the Maya also practised). Or could they be the temple guardians? The Hindu-Buddhist cultures used giant sculpture guardians at the entry to their temples. Could this culture have been imported from Asia, if that is where the Olmecs are originally from? It is now generally accepted that these heads are portraits of rulers or warriors, perhaps dressed as ballplayers (well, the rulers played this game). Infused with individuality, no two heads are alike.
I must also note that many Olmec heads had the symbol of the jaguar in different headpieces. The Olmec used the shaman during a sacred ritual to transform into a jaguar. They believed that the jaguar was both the living and the dead. So Olmec shamans had to have the ability to assume the powers of animals. Common motifs therefore include downturned mouths and slit-like slanting eyes, both of which can be seen in most representations of "were-jaguars" or jaguar gods. Such animals are called nahuales, and in Olmec art the most common of these is the jaguar. So I wonder whether the slanting eyes may have been simply exaggerated, to express the power of the jaguar god and having nothing to do with Asian features?
The Olmec culture was first defined as an art style, and this continues to be the hallmark of the culture. La Venta consisted of several pyramids constructed as mounds, built from clay. The peak period of the La Venta culture started around 1200 BC. The site was abandoned from 400 BC onward.
It is also very important to note that the Olmec, being the 'original' inhabitants of Mexico, invented everything, as Ramiro emphasised. The Maya took over the elements of their culture and further developed them, but they did not invent them. So it was the Olmec who invented the concept of zero, the Long Count calendar, the bar and dot system for the numbers, the writing system, human sacrifice rituals, the worship of the Gods of Sun, Rain and the Feathered Serpent, the Maize God's rebirth creation mythology, the underworld concept, the tree of life concept and even the cross band motif. I was overcome by emotion to see all the Maya culture already expressed on Olmec sculptures in la Venta. So let's have a closer look at some of those elements.
The FOCUS: Warriors and astronauts (?)
I always like to look closely at the people of each culture and each Mayan ruin site. The Old Warrior (700-400 BC, top left) has the typical iconographic elements. A claw, possibly a harpy eagle, can be seen on his helmet. It is a symbol of the ability to fly through the jungle with nocturnal vision, to perceive the prey's movements. Those then represent the qualities of the old governor-warrior. So how did the Maya develop it further? As an honour to the bravery of the eagle and the jaguar, they became symbols of the two highest ranks in their military. Young men, after having done 20 or more great deeds (capturing foes to be used as sacrifices), they were eligible to become either a jaguar or eagle warrior. Those were the only two classes of warriors who could reach noble rank without previous noble lineage in both Maya and Aztec society. The warrior's path was a way to change one's social status. They were granted much of the same privileges as the hereditary nobles were.
The Grandmother (700-400 BC, top right,) is hunched down on her knees and is holding a vessel in an offering gesture. On her head she has a tuft as a headdress from which a cloak emerges and falls over her shoulders. Again, we know that Maya nobles all wore cloaks.
In Mesoamerica the Indians claimed in their histories they were visited in ancient times by fair-skinned strangers from across the sea. The Aztec have the same story of the god Quetzalcóatl (feathered serpent) He was said to have a full beard. Maybe that is why the Aztec warmly welcomed the Spaniards on their arrival, as they were bearded (although as a result, The Aztec lost their kingdom to the conquistadores).
Several ancient figures in the region are consistent with the bearded portraits. The Bearded Man on stela 3 depicts 6 figures in movement. Two of them are floating figures, who carry animals on their backs. They are clearly suspended in the air. They could represent ancestors or sacred beings, an expression of legitimising the power of a ruler. Some maylogists now believe that it depicts the ruler in the acto of crossing, or flying, through the open portal into the underworld. Or could they be ancient astronauts who visited the planet and taught the Olmec their astronomy, agriculture, writing and mathematics? I leave that question open to you.
The stelae form was introduced by the Olmecs later than the colossal heads, altars, or free-standing sculptures. Over time stelae moved from simple representation of figures toward representations of historical events, particularly acts legitimising rulers. Well, again, the Maya copied this practice. There are plenty of Mayan sites that have stelae representing their rulers, such as in Tikal, Cobá, Bonampak, Ek' Balam; you name it.
The traveller (700-400 BC) is a character in a walking attitude, and he is also a bearded man! As a footprint behind him shows, it is an iconography that symbolises a 'path' or a 'trip'. This iconography was also used by the Maya. In front of him, underneath the flag that he carries, are three glyphs: a calendric cartouche, a clover-shaped glyph and the head of a bird (which could have been the name of the individual). This could be the oldest attempt at proto-writing that the Maya developed so well afterwards.
The Governor (700-400 BC) is seated with crossed legs and his garments suggest high rank: a richly elaborated cloak, the cruciform pectoral on his chest, and a headdress. Note his downturned mouth and slit-like slanting eyes. The decoration in his ears, like folded paper, has been seen at other Olmec sites (San Lorenzo and also in Azuzul in Veracruz) but the Maya also used ear decorations. The nobles wore them made of jade but, interestingly, the war captives were stripped of their jade ear decorations and were given paper ones, as a symbol of humiliation.
The Mystery: The altars
Triumphal altar (700-400 BC)
The central character is emerging from a cave, representing the underworld. Above the niche is a stylised jaguar face and jaws. Between the fangs appears the cross band motif, depicting the feline's skin spots. This feature occurs frequently in other Olmec sculptures and ceramics and, of course in most Maya artwork. The cross band used by the Maya got a different interpretation as time went by. What I have managed to find out so far is that a Maya ruler wore a belt with a cross band as a sign of kingship, sometimes also on his chest. If the cross band motif was on the forehead of the character, it represented a deity. For me it is fascinating that the cross band goes back to the jaguar symbol of the Olmecs. After all, it generically symbolised the mighty powers of a jaguar, which both the king and the deity had to possess.
It is a sculpture of the were-jaguar baby being held by the central figure and some scientists see it as an indication of child sacrifice. It was formerly thought that the Olmec worshipped only one god, a rain deity depicted as a 'were-jaguar', but study has shown that there were at least ten distinct gods represented in Olmec art. Olmec mythology has left no documents comparable to the Popul Vuh from Maya mythology, and therefore any exposition of Olmec mythology must rely on interpretations of surviving monumental art. Olmec art shows that such deities as the Feathered Serpent and a rain supernatural were already in the Mesoamerican pantheon in their times. The same applies to the ritual of human sacrifice, 'copied' by the Maya, and the creation mythology – is this character being reborn in the cave (the underworld), like all the Mayan kings?
Don't miss: the Acrobat
The Acrobat is supporting himself on his tiny forearms and legs, held up by his hands in such a complicated posture that the hands are bent toward the bottom of the head. Perhaps this is a 'were-jaguar' shaman depicted in acrobatic poses; this represents the agility of the feline. Shamans were believed to have the ability to flip backwards and transform before they landed. There have been a number of figures found that incorporate acrobatic poses. Shamans are shown in complex poses and they seem to achieve each pose with ease.
So how did the Maya deal with this as time went by? Each court had a dwarf, as deformity was a symbol of spiritual power. Moreover, the theme of ancestral resurrection embodied by the acrobatic pose was evoked through Mayan dance imagery. As an example, here are acrobats depicted on a carved jade on Stela 7 in Copán (drawing by Matthew G Looper). For more details on ancient acrobats, click on my post Acrobats.
Each day 8am to 4pm. The entry fee was 40 pesos in 2016 (discounts for locals), which included the zoo part. It is worth asking the staff to take you around, they will do so happily for a tip but don't expect English language. We were grateful that we could skip the zoo part and had a shortcut to the Olmec statues. Bring a repellent as the museum walk is in a tropical garden.
How to get there:
Parque-Museo La Venta lies 2km north-west of the Zona Luz, beside Avenida Ruíz Cortines, the main east–west highway crossing the city. The formal address is Boulevard Adolfo Ruíz Cortines.
If you are driving from Palenque, you will be arriving on road 180; cross the first bridge over the river Grijalva and then the second bridge over the Laguna de las Illusiones and you will see the Olmec head of the Museum on your left. Take the first U-turn to get back to the museum. It is important to note that the main entrance and car park (where you will see a large replica of the Olmec head) has been closed for a few years; you will need to walk about 100m back along the highway to the side entrance.
The museum is situated by a lovely lake (apparently with crocodiles). If you have time, it is a charming walk along the lakeside, and you will see coatis running around.
MIX and Match
The obvious thing is to stay in town but I didn't particularly like Villahermosa. Too much traffic, not much to see. If you stay here for the night and are determined to get to know the city, take a stroll about the pedestrian Zona Luz in the old city centre. Otherwise, after this museum, head straight to Palenque town and see the Palenque ruins and Palenque Museum.