Researching the Olmec, Mesoamerica’s oldest civilization
安·赛弗斯 Ann Cyphers
(墨西哥国立自治大学 National Autonomous University of Mexico)
我们在圣洛伦佐设计并实施了一个系统钻探项目，以探查该处的垂直尺寸并记录其深埋的地层和结构。超过2600个系统的土壤钻孔穿透了奥尔梅克首都的文化土壤，最大深度为25 m。通过GIS的应用，我们能够：1）重建可追溯到公元前1600年的高原建设阶段。 2）将遗址范围确认为775公顷，并确定最大居民数量为12,000人； 3）确定居住集群的大小，从而确定人口密度；和4）在圣洛伦佐确认了公元前1400年左右城市化的开始。我们证明高原是一个巨大的人工建筑，是用七百万立方米土填筑而成的神圣山的完美复制品。实际上，土的用量大于埃及胡夫金字塔（250万立方米）和危地马埃尔·米拉多尔的丹塔金字塔（280万立方米）。
The Olmec culture arose almost 4000 years ago in the humid tropics of Mexico’s southern Gulf Coast region. Its emergence and early development occurred at San Lorenzo, Veracruz State, between 1800 and 800 BC. During its period of greatest splendor it managed a regional system of communication and transportation crossing the coastal plains and wetlands and established a distinct geo-political territory and regional and long-distance trade systems. Its well-known monumental stone art focuses on themes related to rulers, government and cosmology. Olmec monumental stone sculpture was the materialization of a pre-existing social and political capability to consolidate specialized production and organize the large labor force necessary for the long distance transport of the multi-ton stones from the source area located 60 km away. It also points to stratified social organization and centralized political systems that were sponsored by religion and led by hereditary rulers. Supernatural notions related to water and the underworld comprised the ideological charter of royal descent groups.
San Lorenzo was discovered in 1945 by Matthew Stirling and his wife Marion in the midst of a hot debate about its antiquity and presumed genetic and developmental relationship to the Maya. The next major investigation of the site, directed by Michael D. Coe, who established the antiquity of San Lorenzo, conducted the first stratigraphic excavations, added numerous sculptures to the existing corpus of art and studied the modern environment. Research by the San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán Archaeological Project was initiated in 1990 after a long lull in archaeological work in the Olmec region. Its express purpose was to examine relatively unknown aspects of Olmec life and cultural development with a multidisciplinary approach.
Geomorphological studies provided surprising results about the landscape that existed in Olmec times and helped us understand risks for human life. River anabranching produced the island on which San Lorenzo is located in the lower Coatzacoalcos River drainage, a low gradient wetland plain where the fluvial channels tend to divide and bifurcate. The identification and sequencing of ancient rivers shows that the channels surrounded the San Lorenzo Island migrated outward through time due to generalized and specific uplift. These rivers provided directionality to the movement of people and goods to and from the Island node, a unique natural focal point in the transportation and communication network. Water sets the rhythms of life in the soggy coastal plains and the hydrologic cycle is a renovating force that supplies important subsistence resources necessary to sustain growing populations.
The Island is composed of a low 2000-hectare ridge surrounded by rivers and wetlands. San Lorenzo is located on high ground in the center and two satellite centers were founded at each end. The high ground, called the plateau, is the central part of the site which is ringed by multiple levels of terraces. It covers an area of 150 hectares and has an altitude of 65 meters above sea level. Beyond the terraces, the periphery is a broad and rolling terrain that sometimes borders the wetlands. These topographic divisions appear to have been recognized in similar fashion by the Olmec since systematic excavation reveals the location of administrative, ceremonial, craft and elite residential structures on the heights of the plateau, the dwellings of lesser elite and some craft workshops on the terraces and the huts of commoners in the periphery. Social position is reflected in the spatial distribution of the population such that greater altitude and central location correspond to high status, which diminishes with increasing distance from the center and lower altitude. Excavations designed to explore the size, shape, construction style and organization of domestic spaces confirm this tendency. For example, structures with sandy, red-hematite floors are elite markers occurring on the heights of the plateau. The Red Palace, covering an area of 2200 m2, is centrally located on the heights and, as its name indicates, was liberally embellished with red hematite. Group E is a large, one hectare, administrative-ceremonial precinct with a red surfaced construction stage that was used by the rulers for managing the affairs of the capital and practicing private and public rituals in a carefully designed setting imbued with sacred symbolism related to origin myths, water, fertility and the Underworld.
The design of the capital—plateau, terraces and periphery—is related to the notion of the sacred mountain. This cosmological concept, which guides all aspects of Olmec life, is reproduced in San Lorenzo’s built environment. The population distribution on this cultural landscape was determined by status and genealogy and thus reinforced the profound ideology of social differentiation.
We designed and implemented a systematic coring project at San Lorenzo in order to probe the vertical dimension of the site and to document its deeply buried stratigraphy and structures. More than 2600 systematic soil cores penetrated the cultural soils of the Olmec capital to a maximum depth of 25 m. Through the application of GIS, we were able to: 1) reconstruct the construction phases of the plateau dating from 1600 BC; 2) define the extent of the occupation as 775 hectares and determine that the maximum number of inhabitants was 12,000; 3) establish the size of residential clusters and hence the population density; and 4) confirm the beginnings of urbanism around 1400 BC at San Lorenzo. We demonstrate that the plateau is a huge artificial construction, a great replica of the sacred mountain that was built with seven million cubic meters of earthen fill. Its volume is, in fact, greater than that of the Pyramid of Khufu in Egypt (2.5 million m3) and the Danta Pyramid of El Mirador in Guatemala (2.8 million m3).
Due to the difficult conditions of preservation in the humid tropics, what we have learned about Olmec craft specialization likely is a mere shadow of what must have existed thousands of years ago. This environment provided many resources for the Olmec but destroyed them from the archaeological register except for the rare cases of water-logged contexts. Craft production of several types of goods was studied, from the procurement of raw materials, such as basalt, obsidian and bitumen, to the production techniques and the distribution of the finished products, showing that craft specialization varied from attached production located within the ruler’s palace to domestic and non-domestic manufacture of goods. The production of stone sculpture was tightly controlled within the confines of the Red Palace Complex whereas bitumen cakes were produced in the hinterland, close to the supply of raw material and obsidian blades were manufactured by independent artisans at Port Malpica. An unusual workshop was dedicated to drilling objects, particularly prestige items made of basalt, greenstone, ferrous minerals and mica.
Our investigations of subsistence focused on analyses of phytoliths, pollen, plant macro remains and archaeofauna. The foods consumed by the Olmec were obtained with a mixed subsistence economy that included fishing, hunting, collecting, cultivation and arboriculture. The subsistence base included terrestrial and aquatic species that provided protein while root crops supplied carbohydrates. A surprising discovery was that maize did not constitute a principal food for the early Olmec and, in fact, does not appear until 1200 to 1000 BC in the occupational sequence at San Lorenzo. It may have greater antiquity than is observed in the hundreds of analyzed samples but it was not a staple, rather it may have been used for making beverages late in the occupational sequence, after 1200 BC.
A previous model of early Olmec development emphasized the role of high maize productivity, based on the renewal of soil fertility on the river levees, in the development of social stratification at San Lorenzo. Our multidisciplinary studies of settlement, environment and subsistence led us to reject that model because, in addition to the discovery that maize was not the subsistence base, we were able to document that levee cultivation produces variable and often unreliable yields due to unpredictable floods.
Our alternative model is based on environmental risk and food production relating to root crops and aquatic resources. Aquatic resources proliferate in the wetlands of the southern Gulf Coast whereas dry terrain is a scarce resource. Oscillations in the hydrological cycle impact the availability of aquatic food sources and the risk involved in their procurement. The risk model takes into account limitations in food production, environmental diversity and hydrology as factors affecting the availability of wild and cultivated foods. Whereas the maize levee model stresses average and predictable harvests, this model emphasizes the extremes in food production created by unpredictable changes and how such risks can be managed through diversification, storage, trade and mobility. The diversified strategy used by the Olmec included planting root crops on high ground and building low artificial mounds in the wetlands as dry base camps for the extraction and preservation of aquatic resources. Smoked protein foods were necessary for survival in crisis times, and large yields of protein foods were important for the labor management that is required to build power.
Systematic and intensive regional settlement pattern studies covering 800 km2 of difficult lowland terrain traced the changing political and economic situation of the region and showed the development of a complex multi-tiered settlement hierarchy surrounding the first Olmec capital. Settlement studies show that population growth between 1200 and 1000 BC reduced the amount of high ground that could be used for carbohydrate production on the San Lorenzo Island. The consequences of this trend included house-yard production, food imports and the incursion into high risk ecotones such as the river levees.
The diachronic development of the San Lorenzo settlement system is associated with demographic increase over a millennium and the formation of administrative hierarchies in the transition to a state-level society. During the apogee phase, 1200-1000 BC, San Lorenzo controlled five other types of permanent sites. The area around San Lorenzo contained a population of 20,000 inhabitants in a space of 400 km2.
San Lorenzo was a primate center, covering a 775 hectare area, with a mean population of 12,000 inhabitants. It extended its influence across the southern Gulf Coast and beyond largely through trade relations. The establishment of lesser centers at important transportation nodes was an important regional expansionary tactic and was characterized by the presence of stone sculpture at key sites. Two such sites are Tenochtitlán and Loma del Zapote at the north and south ends of the Island, respectively. As well, the island’s southern tip is commanded by Port Malpica, the main entrance to the Island, where we discovered evidence of port infrastructure and the earliest obsidian blade workshop in Mesoamerica.
The Olmec transport network consisted of a complex web of water and land routes that bolstered economic and social interaction in the wetlands. Transportation systems configured the coastal plains in a heterogeneous fashion which encouraged the integration of isolated communities in larger entities, favored economic specialization and a wide distribution of goods. Less storage was necessary because the transportation systems worked efficiently. Rivers are the most efficient transportation systems and, accordingly, the Olmec and other first civilizations emerged on their banks.
Our studies of the Olmec transportation systems rely strongly on the upriver-downriver model of fluvial corridors that is used in the study of the great river systems and settlement hierarchies of Southeast Asia. This model shows that the scale of monumental architecture corresponds to site hierarchy and to key locations at river confluences, meanders and islands. This pattern holds true in the Olmec region of the southern Gulf Coast of Mexico with regard to site importance and location, architecture and stone monuments in the transportation network. This strategy promoted interactions on several levels that led to an intertwining of geographical, political and ceremonial landscapes.
Our correlation of regional settlement and sculptures suggests that social, religious, and political activities and alliances included diverse kinds of involvement of the San Lorenzo ruling establishment. Royal lineages at the capital ruled smaller lineages in satellite centers. Rural elites participated in the hierarchy via assorted mechanisms that were adjusted to their particular social spheres. The regional organization transformed and institutionalized social and genealogical distance as political hierarchy. This suggests the existence of a political administration in which official elite genealogy is ritually acclaimed within a prestige system intimately related to hierarchical social forms. Rural sites may have taken part in periodic, centralized, rituals by including their stone sculpture in the ceremonies. Such ritual activities forged and preserved elite identities and increased integration by promoting the lateral unification of the distant hinterland in the belief system. They also were a means to create pathways for dependency relationships, trade, and social interaction and overcome or minimize problems of sociopolitical integration and the movement of people and goods that are affected by the hydrological cycle.
Another notable objective of our research centers on the systematic and precise documentation and study of the context of monumental Olmec sculpture in order to complement interpretations based on formal traits and intrinsic symbolism. The unearthing of sculpture in controlled excavations, including the most recently discovered colossal head, has led to interpretations of these art forms on the basis of their context, form and iconography. The archaeological context of previously discovered sculpture was re-examined in new excavations in order to recover and understand contextual and temporal associations. Curiosity about the context of an enormous stone column found several decades ago led to the discovery of the first rulers’ palace in Mesoamerica, dubbed the Red Palace. The reexamination of the setting of a great stone throne and long aqueduct led to the discovery of a buried ceremonial administrative precinct, the first known government palace in Mesoamerica.
It has become clear that Olmec rulers used large sculpture for political reasons. For example, studies have shown that the large thrones were recycled and re-shaped as colossal heads in order to commemorate ancestral rulers by transforming their seats of power into their portraits. Then these heads were set out in two huge lines crossing the plateau to form a commemorative display bounding a large plaza. This display was never finished due to the downfall of the ruler and the abandonment of the capital around 1000 BC. One partially recycled large throne and three unfinished colossal heads were abandoned before they could be incorporated into this majestic scene.
After 1000 BC, a dramatic reduction in the frequency and types of sites indicates a substantial population loss, about 93%, in the region. Likewise, the capital suffers a great population decline as people moved out to colonize more distant areas. The burning and destruction of the Red Palace suggests that the inhabitants rose up against the ruler perhaps in response to their inability to cope with environmental changes and the social and economic demands of the elite which opened the way for discontent, famine and migrations. Despite the major population decline, a few people continued to live at the site during the Middle Preclassic.
The collaborators currently and previously involved in this research include the following specialists and students from Mexico, the United States of America, Italy, Spain and Japan: María de la Luz Aguilar, Alejandro Alonso, Virginia Arieta, Nadia Aroche, María Arnaud, Luis M. Alva, Fernando Botas, Joshua Borstein, Elisabeth Casellas, Kong Cheong, David Yiro Cisneros, Robert Cobean, Adriana Cruz, Anna Di Castro, Carmen Durán de Bazúa, Enrique Escobar, José Manuel Figueroa, Nilesh Gaikwad, Rolando Salvador García, Ivonne Giles, Ranulfo González, Lilia Gregor, Louis Grivetti, María Eugenia Guevara, Jennifer Guillén, José Guillén, Esteban Hernández, Sergio Herrera, Alejandro Hernández, Elvia Hernández, Kenneth Hirth, Luis Fernando Hernández, Emilio Ibarra, Gerardo Jiménez, Hirokazu Kotegawa, Marci Lane Rodríguez, Jason de León, Artemio López, Roberto Lunagómez, Arturo Madrid, Brizio Martínez, Enrique Martínez, Timothy Murtha, Ariadna Ericka Ortiz, Fernando Ortega, Mario Arturo Ortiz, María Isabel Pajonares; Rodolfo Parra, Terry Powis, Carolina Ramírez, Isaura Argelia Ramírez, Nicolas Felipe Ramírez, Rogelio Santiago, Stacey Symonds, Jaime Urrutia, Valentina Vargas, Marisol Varela, Enrique Villamar, Carl Wendt, Belém Zúñiga and Judith Zurita.
Ann Cyphers is a full-time, tenured senior researcher at the Institute of Anthropological Research-UNAM. She is a member of the Mexican Academy of Sciences. Her principal research interest is the development of the early cultures of Mesoamerica, particularly the Olmec civilization. Her interdisciplinary research on the Olmec has fomented the formation of research groups composed of recognized international and national academic figures in the fields of ecology, biology, geomorphology, geology, physics, population, restoration and physical anthropology. Her work has revolutionized Olmec archaeology with its integrated perspective and holistic long-term interdisciplinary research. The research and explanatory models about the Olmec developed by her are world renowned. She is considered an authority on the origins of civilization and urban life, ancient productive strategies, trade and transport systems. Her publications have gone around the whole world and are indispensable references on the Mesoamerican Preclassic period and the Olmec civilization. She is the author of 14 scientific books, 74 articles, 75 book chapters and three edited volumes. Her academic leadership and international prestige are manifested in the awards she has received, such as the Alfonso Caso Award, the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the University of Illinois, the Chairman’s Award of the National Geographic Society and the Medal of the Anthropology Museum of Xalapa, Veracruz.