Exploration of African Presence in Meso-America: The Olmecs

To grow up African American in the United States you learn at an early age that you are a descendant of slaves. To believe that all of your ancestors were slaves – people considered unfit or unable to contribute anything to society other than manual labor – exacts a heavy toll on the self-esteem. To later discover that you could be a descendant of distant African kings and queens is redemption, of sorts.
But the thought that Africans may have preceded Europeans such as Columbus to what is now America upends all conventional thinking on how, when and in what status Africans first arrived on these shores. The thesis that those who were among the first to discover the Southwest may have been African or of African descent is a revelation that changes, for some, the entire paradigm of prehistoric life in the part of the world that is now Mexico and Texas.
But a number of anthropologists and scientists have theorized just that and there is more than a little evidence to support their theories.
The liveliest debates about when and in what condition Africans first set foot in Mesoamerica (the area from Central Mexico south to Costa Rica), often centers around what is called the Olmec civilization. Not unlike much of African American history in this country, the history of the Olmecs is largely undocumented.
No one knows, definitively, how the Olmecs referred to themselves. Nineteenth century researchers classified this culture Olmec, which means the "rubber people" or “people from the rubber country” in Nahuatl, the accepted language of the Mexica ("Aztec") people. Ancient Mesoamericans, spanning from ancient Olmecs to Aztecs, extracted latex from a type of rubber tree in the area. The recent discovery of several rubber balls at the Olmec site of El Manati, near San Lorenzo, strongly suggests that ball games were played by the Olmec people. Other aspects of the civilization uncovered point to their use of irrigation systems, a well-defined religious structure, social stratification and a knowledge of seafaring.
Most historians, anthropologists and scholars refer to the Olmecs as the “mother culture” of pre-Hispanic Mexico. The presence of the Olmecs predates the Mayan civilization by more than 1,500 years and the Aztecs in Mexico by as many as 2,500 years, which would, indeed, make it the oldest pre-Columbian civilized society in Mesoamerica.
Emerging from the jungles of Mexico’s southernmost Gulf Coast, the Olmec influence spread through Central America and manifested itself in art, architecture, religious rituals and other areas. There is enough evidence from architectural digs to support the idea that the Olmec civilization possessed several of the characteristics of a civilization: a social structure, a political structure, an economic structure, religion and art.
What is considered the Olmec domain extended from the Tuxtlas mountains in the west to the lowlands of the Chontalpa in the east, a region with significant variations in geology and ecology. More than 170 Olmec monuments have been found within this area, and eighty percent of those were found at the three largest Olmec centers:

•        La Venta, Tabasco (38%)
•        San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, Veracruz (30%), and
•        Laguna de los Cerros, Veracruz (12%).

These three major Olmec centers were infused with natural resources that would have been valuable to the sustenance of the Olmec life as well as the overall Olmec economy. La Venta, the eastern center, is near the rich estuaries of the coast, and also could have yielded crops such as maize, cacao, rubber, and salt. San Lorenzo, at the center of the Olmec domain, controlled a vast flood plain area that included trade routes.
Laguna de los Cerros, adjacent to the Tuxtlas mountains, is positioned near important sources of basalt, a key stone that would have been needed to manufacture tools and monuments. Some anthropologists theorize that marriage alliances between Olmec centers helped maintain an effective and cooperative exchange network between the regions.
There are many theories about how the Olmecs came to be in Mexico. Some theories have them as Asian hunter-gatherers who trace their beginnings to shortly after the last Ice Age, about 12,000 years ago. Other scientists, historians and anthropologists, however, make convincing and cogent arguments that the Olmecs trace their roots to Africans, perhaps expelled from Spain as early as 1892 BC.
And it is this theory that is, perhaps, the most intriguing when one looks at the point in time as well as the place in history where the African presence first manifested itself in what we now know as Mexico and Texas. Numerous sources suggest that global winds and currents support the idea that ships could have traversed from Africa to the southernmost shores of Mesoamerica, intentionally or accidentally. For example, one branch of a North Equatorial current could have carried African sailors from North or West Africa into the Gulf of Mexico.
Those who espouse this latter theory point to artifacts said to have a hieroglyphic style of writing that is similar to those of the Mande/Manding-speaking people from West Africa. Scholars recognize that the Olmecs engraved many symbols or signs on pottery, statuettes and other objects that have been identified by some as a possible form of writing.
The Olmec may very well have been the first Mesoamericans to develop a writing system. Although there are disputes as to whether markings on artifacts found rise to the level of writing as we know it, there is enough evidence to suggest
that symbols found in 2002 dated to 650 BC are actually a form of Olmec writing, preceding the oldest Zapotec writing dated to about 500 BC. The markings are similar to the writing used by peoples in ancient West Africa. Likewise, theories abound that the Olmecs spoke a form of the Manding (Malinke-Bambara) language spoken in West Africa, based on the writings that have been found. If these theories are true, it means the Olmec either took or created a full fledged literate culture to Mexico.
Anthropologists, despite varying theories on the origins of the Olmec civilization, generally espouse to a belief that they lived in the region for as much as 12 centuries. Then, about 300 B.C., the Olmec civilization vanished. There is speculation that the Olmecs migrated (perhaps because of a failed crop) and were killed by civil war or another civilization of Native Americans. But no one actually knows why they vanished. A theory less discussed is that they did not disappear, but intermingled and intermarried with another Native American civilization.
Despite the competing theories about the existence of the Olmec civilization, one cannot help but be struck by the power of the Olmec heads. In 1862, during an oil drilling expedition, the first Olmec heads were found. Many have agreed that their features -- kinky hair, thick lips and broad noses -- are distinctly African. Also, the ornamentation of the hair and marks that appear to be scarification support theories that the artisans were African or modeled the works on Africans they had seen.
If one believes that ancient art was comparable to present day photography, then the Olmec art represented likenesses of themselves. And the size of the heads conjure comparisons of the Pyramids, the Sphinx and other larger-than-life works of art that trace their roots to Africa. Many of the heads were used as large altars.
Art historians and archaeologists agree that the Olmec produced the earliest and most sophisticated art in Mesoamerica and that their distinctive style provided a model for the Maya, Aztec and other later civilizations in the region.
Ironically, as this debate on the veracity of African roots in Mexico continues, in contemporary Veracruz there lives a large percentage of black Mexicans. It was generally accepted that some of these people were descendants of fugitive slaves, brought in by the Spaniards. But could the roots of these blacks extend all the way back to the Olmecs? We may never know, definitively, the answer to that question.
But look closely at a mammoth Olmec head, with its square jaw, broad flat nose and thick lips, features so visibly African. That head seems to whisper, in a centuries old African dialect: “I was here. I was here.”

Contributed by Roxanne Evans

Sources:

  • Paul Alfred Barton, A History of the African-Olmecs, Black Civilizations of America from Prehistoric Times to the Present Era. First  Books Library, 1998.
  • Richard Diehl, The Olmecs, America’s First Civilization, London, Thames and Hudson,  2004.
  • Ivan Van Sertima, They Came Before Columbus, The African Presence in Ancient America. New York, Random House, 1976.
  • Alexander Von Wuthenau: The Art of Terracota Pottery in Pre-Columbian South and Central America.  London, Methuen, 1969.
  • Ivan Van Sertima, They Came Before Columbus, The African Presence in Ancient America. New York, Random House, 1976.