olmec civilization

Recognize this face? The Museum’s Olmec head is a plaster replica of a sculpture that was discovered in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1945. Colossal carved heads found in Mesoamerica are thought to be portraits of powerful rulers from the ancient Olmec civilization. Only 17 such sculptures have been discovered. 

Fun fact: the Museum’s replica is based on a sculpture that is estimated to weigh 40,000 lbs, the equivalent of 16 hybrid cars, 133 manhole covers, or 40,000 heads of iceberg lettuce!

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El Tajin, Veracruz


Chronology studies at Tajín and nearby sites show that the area has been occupied at least since 5600 B.C. and show how nomadic hunters and gatherers eventually became sedentary farmers, building more complex societies prior to the rise of the city of El Tajin. The pace of this societal progression became more rapid with the rise of the neighboring Olmec civilization around 1150 B.C., although the Olmecs were never here in great numbers. It is unclear who built the city. Some argue in favor of the Totonacs and the Xapaneca; however, there is a significant amount of evidence that the area was populated by the Huastec at the time the settlement was founded. In the 1st century CE. Monumental construction started soon after and by 600 CE, El Tajín was a city. The rapid rise of Tajin was due to its strategic position along the old Mesoamerican trade routes. It controlled the flow of commodities, both exports such as vanilla and imports from other locations in what is now Mexico and Central America. From the early centuries, objects from Teotihuacan are abundant.

From 600 to 1200 C.E., El Tajín was a prosperous city that eventually controlled much of what is now modern Veracruz state. The city-state was highly centralized, with the city itself having more than fifty ethnicities living there. Most of the population lived in the hills surrounding the main city, and the city obtained most of its foodstuffs from the Tecolutla, Nautla and Cazones areas. These fields not only produced staples such as corn and beans but luxury items such as cacao. One of the panels at the Pyramid of the Niches shows a ceremony being held at a cacao tree. The religion was based on the movements of the planets, the stars and the Sun and Moon, with the Mesoamerican ballgame and pulque having extremely important parts. This led to the building of many pyramids with temples and seventeen ballcourts, more than any other Mesoamerican site. The city began to have extensive influence starting around this time, which can be best seen at the neighboring site of Yohualichan, whose buildings show the kinds of niches that define El Tajin. Evidence of the city’s influence can be seen along the Veracruz Gulf coast to the Maya region and into the high plateau of central Mexico.

At the end of the Classic period, El Tajín survived the widespread social collapse, migrations and destructions that forced the abandonment of many population centers at the end of this period. El Tajín reached its peak after the fall of Teotihuacan, and conserved many cultural traits inherited from that civilization. It reached its apogee in the Epi-Classic (900-1100 C.E.) before suffering destruction and the encroachment of the jungle.

El Tajín prospered until the early years of the 13th century, when it was destroyed by fire, presumably started by an invading force believed to be the Chichimecas. The Totonacs established the nearby settlement of Papantla after the fall of El Tajín. El Tajín was left to the jungle and remained covered and silent for over 500 years. While the city had been completely covered by jungle from its demise until the 19th century, it is unlikely that knowledge of the place was completely lost to the native peoples. Archeological evidence shows that a village existed here at the time the Spanish arrived and the area has always been considered sacred by the Totonacs. However, there are no records by any Europeans about the place prior to the late 18th century.