While Mexico is known to be the land of the ancient Aztec and the Mayan civilization, the mysterious Olmec civilization that flourished far ahead of the two, even prior to the birth of Jesus Christ was based on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. The huge Olmec heads of the striking civilization, which continued from 1200-400BC, are considered amongst the most mysterious and debated artifacts from the ancient world.
So far, seventeen heads have been discovered in four significant Olmec sites in Mexico, namely La Venta, San Lorenzo, Tres Zapotez and Laguna de Los Cerros. The enormous heads, weighing between 20 to 40 tons and reaching up to three metres in height, were carved from huge basalt boulders, some quarried in the Tuxtlas Mountains; some from the basalt of Cerro Cintepec and others from basalt found on San Martin Volcano. It is, therefore, evident that, for the carving of the heads, huge stone slabs were transported over 150 km from the source of the stone to the corresponding sites of carvings. However, how those ancient people of the Stone Age, prior to the birth of Christ and far ahead of the more famous Mayans and the Aztecs, transported the massive stone slabs, is really surprising, especially since they lacked beasts of burden and conception of wheels.
The Olmec heartland is one of the six cradles of civilization worldwide, the others being the Norte Chico culture of South America, the Indus Valley Civilization of the Indian Subcontinent, the Erlitou culture of China's Yellow River, the Sumerian Civilization of ancient Iraq and the civilization of ancient Egypt. Of these, only the Olmec civilization developed in a lowland tropical forest setting and is regarded as the first civilization developed in Mesoamerica.
The Olmec dominated Central America over a millennium before the Mayans and over two millennia before the Aztecs appeared in Central America. Their civilization reigned over Mexico's Yucatan peninsula and their influence extended throughout Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Costa Rica, and El Salvador. They had a rich and vibrant culture, establishing many of the traditions found in the latter Mayan and Aztec cultures.
Olmec heads were sculpted using hard handheld stones and facial details were drilled into the stone, using reeds and wet sand, so that prominent features such as the eyes, mouth, and nostrils have real depth. Some also have deliberately drilled dimples on the cheeks, chin, and lips. The enormous heads portray mature men with fleshy cheeks, flat noses, and slightly crossed eyes.
Each head is carved with a distinctive headgear, leading people to believe that they were meant to be leaders or the powerful Olmec rulers. Their physical characteristics resemble a type that is still common among the inhabitants of Tabasco and Veracruz. The heads are meant to be viewed from the front and sides, as they are generally flattened at the back and not carved all the way around. The presence of some traces of plaster and pigments on one of the San Lorenzo heads indicates that, probably once they were painted.
However, it is also suggested by many that the headgears were actually protective helmets, which were worn by the Olmec in battle and during the Mesoamerican ballgame. The helmets vary in design and pattern and sometimes the subject also has jaguar paws hanging over the forehead, probably representing a jaguar pelt worn as a symbol of power, political or religious, a common association in many Mesoamerican cultures.
Due to some unknown reasons, most of the Olmec heads were buried sometime before 900 BC and forgotten for nearly three thousand years, until the first head was re-discovered, in 1871 AD, with the last being excavated as recently as 1994.