As a land made famous for its strange temples, monuments, carvings, and cultures, Guatemala is home to more unsolved mysteries than almost anywhere in the world. With a tumultuous past, and a people ravaged by war, conquest, disease, and economic disaster, it is a place known for holding tightly to its secrets, demanding outsiders respect the history they seek to decipher.
Guatemala may in fact be the birthplace of Mesoamerican culture. Its earliest settlements date to as early as 18,000 BCE, as is evidenced by the finding of rare obsidian arrowheads throughout the country. Those early Pre-Columbian peoples are thought to have been the first in the region to develop agrarian practices in South America, with evidence of the cultivation of maize along the Pacific Coast, and spreading in-land over the centuries. In any event, the area we now know as Guatemala was once the center of the great Mayan Empire, and as such, much priceless archaeological bounty lies within its borders.
One of those indecipherable mysteries is the story of the Olmec Colossal Heads. The Olmec peoples, who got their start in southwest Mexico in about 1500 BCE, were the first builders of the Americas. They were the pioneers of monumental construction, their culture gave rise to stone temples, pyramids, altars, statues, and they were the first to live in defined towns and cities. There is much we don’t know about who they were, but what we do know is pretty cool.
The Colossal heads are a collection of some 17 huge carved-stone (basalt) heads found throughout the jungles of central Guatemala. All known examples depict the same basic features: male faces with fleshy cheeks, flat noses, and slightly crossed eyes. Those features are consistent with the facial structure of modern Olmec descendents, and it’s believed by most scholars that the heads – which were quarried from the Sierra de los Tuxlas Mountains of Veracruz, suggesting that they were moved a long distance at great effort – depict the faces of important leaders of early Olmec society. Most of the known heads were buried at around 900 BCE, which means that they were carved and placed well before that, though unfortunately the heads themselves can’t be dated accurately.
There is one example that doesn’t fit this tidy narrative though.
In 1987, Dr. Rafael Padilla Lara (a doctor of philosophy, a lawyer, and a notary) received a photograph of a massive stone head said to have been found in the jungles of Guatemala in the 1950’s. The photo had been sent by the owner of the land upon which the statue had been found, but no other information was provided.
Now, the finding of a stone head in a country littered with stone heads isn’t really something to get terribly excited about, except for the fact that this head looks nothing like any of the others. Where all other known examples of carved stone heads in the region showed a clear anthropological consistency, this one seemed to depict someone altogether different. Thin, pronounced lips, shallow cheeks, a large piqued nose, and its face upturned.
Some, namely David Childress, famed author and Ancient Alien proponent, have claimed that Padilla’s colossal head is evidence that Caucasian (read: European) faces were known to pre-Hispanic cultures of South America. Childress claims to have met and interviewed Padilla, who in turn claimed that the head was found near a small village called La Democracia in southern Guatemala. Unfortunately, the statue was destroyed by militant revolutionaries in the 70’s, ten years prior to Padilla having been made aware of it, and as such, the only evidence we have of its existence is Padilla’s photo. Though, the photo provides us with a good amount of detail, so the cause isn’t totally lost. And here’s where things might get a little weird.
Virtually all of the researchers who’ve studied the photo have concluded that Padilla’s stone head is either a (relatively) modern forgery, or is evidence of pre-colonial contact between Europeans and the Olmec. Despite all evidence to the contrary, there are those who believe that conclusion is reasonable. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But there’s another possibility that’s come to light recently, one that seems to have gone overlooked by most researchers.
When you look at the photo of Padilla’s stone head, does it remind you of anything? Does it remind you of facial features you’ve seen many times before, in pictures and documentaries about a little island nestled some 3,500 kilometers west of the pacific coast of South America? It should.
The face we see in Padilla’s stone head photo is strikingly similar (though admittedly not identical) to the faces we see lining the shore of Easter Island. Thin lips, large piqued noses, upturned faces. That might hit you like a brick wall, or you might think this is ridiculous. There’s a pretty good reason why this has gone overlooked all these years, but it’s a reason that’s no longer valid.
Up until October of last year, it was thought that contact between the Rapanui, or Easter Islanders, and the cultures of pre-colonial South America was impossible, or at the very least highly unlikely. Indeed, the very idea was preposterous. A primitive race of islanders who may or may not have caused their own demise through deforestation and starvation, found their way 3,500 kms across the open Pacific Ocean in small boats no more sophisticated than lashed rafts? If anyone had attempted it, surely they perished along the way, or perhaps they made it, but that’s certainly a one-way trip.
Well, not so, according to DNA results reported by the journal Current Biology. The paper, explained here, clearly proves regular bi-directional contact between Easter Island and early Mesoamerican cultures, including the Olmec, long before European contact of any kind. In addition to those findings, researchers have found genetic similarity between certain varieties of sweet potato grown in both South America and Easter Island (as well as other Polynesian islands). So this, it seems, is settled…more or less.
What seems, if not obvious at this point, then perhaps likely, is that cultural practises, beliefs, traditions, and even methods of carving, tool-making, and the stylisation of artwork were readily exchanged by these early peoples. Indeed, repeated contact over several hundred years could not help but contaminate each culture with the others.
In light of this, does it not seem reasonable to suppose that Padilla’s colossal head, is in fact an attempt to replicate the look of the moai of Easter Island by an Olmec stone craftsman? Whether that craftsman, or craftsmen as the case may be, need not ever have stepped foot on the shores of Rapanui to gain knowledge of the artistic style involved, he could very well have been creating homage to a visitor from another land.