A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A possible Olmec outpost in southern Mexico
The last section of the excavation was finished, but a few large potsherds still jutted from the side wall. I must have walked past that open pit and those tempting sherds at least a hundred times before eventually deciding to extend the excavation. Within an hour, a polished jade ax was found, then another, then another. When the dirt was cleared, what lay in front of me was a 3,000-year-old burial, the skeleton of an adolescent surrounded by 15 jade axes arranged in the shape of a giant ax. A decapitated adult was found two yards to the south, no doubt associated with the momentous event that brought the juvenile and the axes together.
This extraordinary discovery typifies the archaeology of Cantón Corralito, a possible colony of Gulf Olmec people located in the Soconusco, a narrow strip of coastal Chiapas and Guatemala with some of the richest agricultural soils in Mesoamerica ("A City by the Sea"). What makes Cantón Corralito so intriguing is the incredible quantity and quality of foreign "Olmec-style" objects and its location in the center of a territory occupied for centuries by the Mokaya people, a culture with its own distinctive traditions and styles.
Yet the Olmec inhabited the low-lying coastal region of southern Veracruz and western Tabasco, a 4,000-square-mile area roughly 300 miles north of Cantón Corralito that archaeologists call the "Olmec heartland." Olmec culture flourished there from approximately 1250 to 500 B.C., a time frame that can be divided into three periods--Initial Olmec (1250-1150 B.C.), Early Olmec (1150-1000 B.C.), and Late Olmec (900-500 B.C.)--based on distinctive artifacts and practices. (The dates used in this article and in "A City by the Sea" are in radiocarbon years. Calendar years are about 150 years earlier.)
The most important Early Olmec period site is San Lorenzo. This 1,200-acre urban center--the first of its kind in the Americas--is famous for its colossal heads and multi-ton stone altars quarried from volcanic outcrops 40 miles away and then dragged or rafted to San Lorenzo, an incredible feat at the time considering the required organization and labor. Lesser known are the site's distinctive ceramic figurines and vessels decorated with abstract religious themes and supernatural creatures such as bird-serpents and crocodiles. These objects are also found at sites hundreds of miles away, where they were both locally made and imported from San Lorenzo.
Given this distribution, archaeologists use the term "Olmec" to signify both an archaeological culture--the Olmec of the Gulf--and Mesoamerica's first widespread art style, which transcended cultural boundaries and set the stage for later developments. Where did this style emerge? How did it spread? These are two of the most fundamental and fiercely debated questions in Mesoamerican archaeology.
Since there is no precedent for the grandeur of San Lorenzo, some archaeologists interpret Olmec-style artifacts found outside the Olmec heartland as evidence of San Lorenzo's influence on less complex societies. This is often called the "mother culture" interpretation. Others consider the Olmec style a visual expression of deeply rooted religious beliefs shared by numerous Mesoamerican cultures. After 1200 B.C., with increased contact between regions, these beliefs began to be depicted on pottery and other objects. According to this view--held as the "sister cultures" interpretation--the Gulf Olmec were not solely responsible for the creation and spread of the Olmec style, nor were they more advanced than the cultures they contacted.
At the heart of the matter, but often sidestepped, is the extent of similarity between Olmec-style artifacts found at San Lorenzo and at distant sites. This point may seem obvious, but despite decades of research, few detailed comparative studies have appeared (see "Olmec People, Olmec Art"). Many sites in Mesoamerica are worthy candidates for this kind of investigation, but the quantity and quality of Olmec-style artifacts at Cantón Corralito demands it. If this site was an Olmec colony, it will change the perception of culture contact in early Mesoamerica and shift the tenor of this decades-old debate.
David Cheetham has been a research associate with the New World Archaeological Foundation since 1997. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Arizona State University.