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Olmec Heads: A product of the Americas

Subject: Diffusion: Olmec Colossal Heads

REVISED ESSAY:  "Olmec Heads:  A Product of the Americas."  
(Revised September 4, 1996)
A question was posed to a public mailing list (Aztlan) asking
why it was racist to suggest, for example, that Olmec Colossal Heads
were actually sculpted by Africans who had crossed the Atlantic Ocean 
during Pre-Columbian times.  As an Olmec specialist, I could not
resist replying.  

The following is a consolidated version of my response, which I have been 
requested to write for others' future reference. (Updated 9/4/96)
The question (paraphrased to be succinct):  
Why is it racist to suggest that Africans voyaged to the New World 
in Pre-Columbian times and sculpted the Olmec Colossal Heads, 
especially when these naturalistic sculptures show very obviously
negroid features?

My response:  
Simply put, this suggestion is considered racist because it is
claiming, without proper evidence, that great artworks ascribed
to one group of people (Mesoamerican Native Americans) are actually 
the work of another people (Africans).
In general, those who have insisted that the Olmec Heads have  
"negroid" features have not taken the time to look at the area's 
Native Americans and how their features correlate with the features 
shown on these sculptures; neither have they given much thought 
to the idea that the natives could have produced these artworks 

Even worse, such theories suggest superiority.  To suggest that
someone traveled to the New World and created these monuments is to
imply that the natives themselves were not capable of making great 
artworks -- that someone had to "make it for them," or at the very 
least, "show them how to make it."  This is inherently, if not 
openly, racist.
This type of theory is directly comparable to racist theories of the 
nineteenth century that suggested, for example, that the beautiful Ife
bronze sculptures of Nigeria must have been produced by Greeks visiting 
the area (or that Greeks must have shown them how to make them), 
because these were so beautifully naturalistic, so different from 
the African art found in other areas, and so similar to naturalistic
Greek sculpture.  (Archaeological evidence, of course, has proven beyond 
a doubt that this was a wholely native Nigerian artform.)  This is as 
preposterous as suggesting that the European Renaissance artists must 
have been SHOWN HOW to paint naturalistically -- that they couldn't 
have figured out how to do it themselves, because there wasn't any 
evidence of them having done it before.
Some have argued that, since the Olmec Colossal Heads look so very 
different from the physiology of Mayan sculptures, the people who
carved them must have been of a different race.  Even setting aside the
fact that many "Mayan features" shown on sculptures involved the active 
deformation of physiology, this is not a tenable argument; the ancient 
peoples of the Gulf Coast were not Mayans -- the Olmec have been shown 
to be Mixe-Zoquean, a completely different native group, and there is 
no reason to expect them to have Mayan features.  Further, the features 
represented in the Olmec sculptures -- flat, wide noses and thick,
fleshy lips -- are common to many different Native American cultures, 
from the Inuit to the Andeans.  
A look at the Native Americans who presently live in the Gulf Coast 
area, in fact, reveals striking similarities between these peoples and 
the Olmec Heads.  There is no reason to believe, from a physiological 
standpoint, that the Olmec Heads were not created by these people's 

Taking a closer look at these peoples, it is obvious that proponents of 
African origin theories have also ignored that the naturalistic Olmec 
sculptures show other features that do not exist at all in black African 
physiology, but that are common to Native Americans (who trace their 
ancestry back to Asians).  Most notably, the sculptures have epicanthic 
("asian") folds over the eyes, and those that are not shaven have very 
straight hair.

Ignoring that these features (fleshy lips, wide noses, epicanthic folds, 
and straight hair) are common among many different Native societies 
throughout the Americas, some have claimed that this combination of 
features indicates a racial mixing of Native Americans with Africans.  
Modern-type DNA analysis, however, has so far not shown ANY African 
haplotypes among the various Pre-Columbian Amerindian populations 
Finally, there is no concrete archaeological evidence of African
cultures in the New World in Pre-Columbian times -- no imported
animals or plants, no imported artifacts, no imported techniques, 
not even any imported materials from which native objects may have 
been made.  In fact, there is no known black African culture that 
produced colossal, naturalistic stone sculptures like the Olmec 
There is, however, overwhelming archaeological evidence that the 
Olmec Colossal Heads were made by and for Native Americans.

In short, those who have claimed the Olmec Colossal Heads to be
of foreign origin have only noticed some superficial physical 
similarities with groups of people on the other side of the ocean, 
and without any concrete evidence for support, they have given 
the credit for these works to far-away foreign cultures.  This is 
both academically irresponsible and unfair to the cultures that 
truly produced them.
Billie Follensbee