This monumental stone sculpture was made by a master carver of the Olmec people, in the early- to mid first millennium BC. It is a deconstructed representation of a jaguar, with a schematically reductivist body and the head greatly exaggerated in terms of size and detail of execution. The limbs are short and compressed, and with the tail are curled around the base of the piece as if in alert readiness. The face is set in an expression of aggression, with a snarling mouth, lips drawn back to expose the teeth, and bunched skin over the nose and eyes. The expressive interpretation of anatomy is outstanding. The bands over the eyes slope backwards and become interlaced swirls that proceed down the length of the back. The piece evidently had a specific function over and above a devotional or aesthetic quality. The apex of the head is hollowed out with a raised rim, and the depression moves down the back as a trough, widening out at the bottom. This would permit any liquids poured onto the top of the sculpture to flow down its back. The texture of the stone suggests that it has seen considerable handling and probably the application of libations, presumably as part of some ritual procedure. The possibilities are discussed further below.
The Olmecs are generally considered to be the ultimate ancestor of all subsequent Mesoamerican civilisations. Thriving between about 1200 and 400 BC, their base was the tropical lowlands of south central Mexico, an area characterized by swamps punctuated by low hill ridges and volcanoes. Here the Olmecs practiced advanced farming techniques and constructed many permanent settlements. Their influence, both cultural and political, extended far beyond their boundaries; the exotic nature of Olmec designs became synonymous with elite status in other (predominantly highland) groups, with evidence for exchange of artefacts in both directions. Other than their art (see below), they are credited with the foundations of writing systems (the loosely defined Epi-Olmec period, c. 500 BC), the first use of the zero – so instrumental in the Maya long count vigesimal calendrical system – and they also appear to have been the originators of the famous Mesoamerican ballgame so prevalent among later cultures in the region.
The art form for which the Olmecs are best known, the monumental stone heads weighing up to forty tons, are generally believed to depict kingly leaders or possibly ancestors. Other symbols abound in their stylistic repertoire, including several presumably religious symbols such as the feathered serpent and the rain spirit, which persisted in subsequent and related cultures until the middle ages. Comparatively little is known of their magico-religious world, although the clues that we have are tantalising. The best- known forms are jade and ceramic figures and celts that depict men, animals and fantastical beasts with both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic characteristics. The quality of production is astonishing, particularly if one considers the technology available, the early date of the pieces, and the dearth of earlier works upon which the Olmec sculptors could draw. Therianthropic (animal-human transformation) sculptures are also known, notably the “were-jaguar” figures. Some pieces are highly stylised, while others demonstrate striking naturalism with deliberately expressionist interpretation of some facial features: notably up-turned mouths and slit eyes. The jaguar appears to have been the single most important animal to the Olmecs, and a jaguar cult of some sort is generally agreed to have been at the very centre of their symbolic life. As far as can be ascertained, they never had a Jaguar God as such. It is instead more likely that they considered themselves to have jaguar progenitors – that they were themselves descended from jaguars (a common belief in Central/South America even today). While not easily demonstrated, this would certainly explain the therianthropic sculptures and the apparent preoccupation they had with the jaguar. The intrinsically powerful and supernatural creature is viewed as an exceptional human being who can bridge the gap between the real world and the hereafter, using a shaman to do so. While it is unrealistic to assume that Olmec society followed these ethnographic tendencies to the letter, their position of ancestor to most subsequent Native American groups in the area may imply that it is an ancient belief that they would have shared, especially in light of their sculptural heritage.
So far as can be ascertained, this is a unique piece. It is therefore uncertain what role it played in Olmec society. However, the existence of similar objects in related societies – notably the Aztecs – for which there is ethnographic data, strongly suggests that these items were used as sacrificial altars. The Aztecs are infamous for their habit of removing the heart of human sacrifices while they were still alive, then placing it upon a hollowed dish on the chest of reclining anthropomorphic altars. While there is no specific evidence to suggest that this was also the case for the Olmecs, the design of this piece makes it – or related procedures – a serious possibility. The run-off trough suggests that the piece might have been designed to collect blood, or that it poured off the piece onto some person or object that was to receive the libation. Whatever it’s precise function, however, this is an outstanding and highly important piece of Olmec art.
See: Coe et al. 1996. The Olmec World: Ritual and Leadership. The Art Museum, Princeton University, and Harry N. Abrams Inc.