Fans of the sci-fi sitcom “3rd Rock from the Sun” will remember the extraterrestrials reported to The Big Giant Head – a character played by William Shatner who was the king of the universe. Archeologists who talk about big giant “colossal” heads are usually referring to mysterious monuments and relief sculptures of enormous helmeted heads with contorted features made by the Olmec culture – the earliest known major Mesoamerican civilization. While “Olmec” means “rubber,” the ‘rubber face’ of these statues has nothing to with the bouncy stuff. However, rubber contributed to the making of balls and Olmecs being the accepted inventors of the famous Mesoamerican ballgame. Two new colossal contorted heads were found recently in in Tenosique, Tabasco, Mexico, and may help researchers finally discern the true meanings of these mysterious figures and add more to the history of the most unusual ancient culture that created them.
“The reliefs, made of limestone and with an approximate diameter of 1.40 meters, have a similar iconography: in the upper part and surrounded by celestial jaws, a diadem formed by four corncobs stands out, and in the center, a mirror with the so-called "Olmec cross". ” (glyph that marks the attire of the elite and is associated with the figure of the jaguar); footprints can be seen on the sides; in front, the arms crossed and, in the middle part of the scene, the face from which the “grumpy mouth” stands out, which alludes to the roar of the jaguar.”
The Instituto Nacional De Antropologia E Historia (INAH) press release gives a good description of the two newly found similar colossal heads (you can see photos here) measuring 4.5 feet in diameter and weighing a colossal 1,543 pounds (700 kg) each. The release mentions alludes to two common characteristics of these giant heads – a crown or diadem, and a grumpy mouth. Earlier archeologists who found similar statues and reliefs mistook the crown for a helmet and the giant heads were thought to depict helmeted players of the often violent ballgames. The ‘grumpy mouth’ was a mystery when the heads were misidentified as ballgame players. Eventually, the helmet was determined to be a crown, which would make what was underneath them the giant heads of rulers. The ‘grumpy mouth’ face was then taken to be a depiction of an unusual practice of Olmec leaders explained in the press release.
“The five monuments have in common the representation of large faces, possibly of local rulers, who also practiced contortionism not in a playful sense, but ritual. By adopting the position in which they appear portrayed –which reduces the irrigation and oxygenation of the blood to the brain–, the characters reached trance states in divinatory ceremonies, and that conferred powers on them.”
Only three other contorted face reliefs have ever been discovered in Mexico – one was found in Balancán, another which is at the Pomoná Site Museum, and a third from Tenosique. The last brings the number of giant contortionist heads in relief to five. Seventeen more colossal head sculptures have been unearthed to date. The researchers have concluded that the new Olmec reliefs date back to about 400 BCE, a time when the Tabasco area was becoming Mayanized or incorporated with other tribes into the general Mya culture.
The Olmecs are an interesting and unusual culture worthy of the attention the colossal heads have brought it. They began around 1500 BCE in what is now known as the San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán site near the coast in southeast Veracruz. Having formed from the small farming cultures that had been in the area since about 2500 BCE, they became large enough and organized enough to become the first Mesoamerican civilization. The rich, well-irrigated sandy soil gave it a strong agricultural base, and the location in the Coatzacoalcos Tiver basin put it in a prime position for establishing a trade network. That trade was based on, as the Olmec name suggests, rubber. Its production became an industry that centralized the local population and soon created an elite class which became the rich leaders of the eventual colossal head fame. The elites and the local gods became models for the artifacts both large and small that the Olmecs became known for. However, besides rubber, ballgames and giant heads, the Olmecs gained infamy for yet another strange practice – bloodletting.
While it is easy and tempting to link Olmec bloodletting to the practice of ritual human sacrifices, there is no evidence they were. There are some suspicious signs – skulls, leg bones and sadly, skeletons of newborn or unborn infants – but no concrete evidence as to whether they were sacrificed or how they died, although some Olmec art shows dead animal babies.
On the other hand, the is plenty to support the bloodletting -- natural and ceramic stingray spikes and maguey thorns used for cutting open a vein have been found at many Olmec sites. Again, there is no evidence, not even artwork, to support the idea that the bloodletting was part of human sacrifices, and archeologists are hoping some answers can eventually be found.
That evidence could be from the last interesting innovation of the big head people – writing. The Olmecs are quite possibly the first civilization in the Western Hemisphere to develop a writing system. Symbols and glyphs have been found that date back to between 650 BCE and 900 BCE, predating the oldest known Zapotec writing from about 500 BCE. A stone now called the Cascajal Block, which dates between 1100 BCE and 900 BCE, shows a set of 62 symbols may be put the writing even earlier, but the symbols differ enough from the later ones that it hasn’t yet been accepted as legitimate. However, their use of symbols and writing has led some archeologists to speculate that the Olmec were responsible for the Long Count calendar. And for mathematicians, there is some thought that the Olmecs were aware of the concept of zero. A zero would certainly come in handy when keeping score at those long ballgames.
Which brings us back to the big heads and contorted faces. Could the colossal heads have been a sign that the Olmec recognized that they were smarter than the average Mesoamerican? Could those facial contortions have been a sign of intense concentration rather that brain-killing, hallucination-generating oxygen deprivation?
Don’t look to “3rd Rock From the Sun” for an answer. William Shatner’s Big Giant Head was known for making faces and being a leader, but he wasn’t too smart.