Nameless Portraits on a Colossal Scale

Life is full of unanswered questions. Like, why did I once pay money to watch Tentacles? But there are bigger mysteries than that.

In the hot, steamy country around the Gulf of Mexico, in Vera Cruz, in Tabasco, there flourished long ago a civilization we call “Olmec.” That was the name given to them by people who came along much, much later. We have no idea what these people called themselves.

According to archeologists’ best guess, Olmec civilization lasted from 1500 to 400 B.C., approximately. The Olmecs had writing, but they didn’t leave many inscriptions and most of these haven’t been deciphered yet. So we know nothing of their history, their famous people, their beliefs, or their customs. We don’t know the name of even one Olmec. They do seem to have invented the ancient Mesoamerican ball game that was still being played by the Maya and the Aztecs a thousand years after the Olmec civilization disappeared.

But did the Olmec people disappear with it?

The most tantalizing remains of this civilization are 17 colossal stone heads, the biggest of them weighing almost 50 tons, all of them made sometime well before 900 B.C. The Olmecs didn’t use the wheel and had no beasts of burden, so how they transported these enormous stones is a mystery as yet unsolved. That they could do this very difficult work proves that they had skills and resources worthy of a great civilization–even if we don’t know what they were.

The cool thing about these gigantic heads is that they seem to be portraits of real people. No two are alike. Each face has its own expression, its own distinctive features. The Wikipedia article shows all 17 ( ).

Who were these men? Rulers? Gods? Ballgame stars? Epic heroes? Nobody knows. Some of them smile at us; some of them frown. It’s as if they know we’ll never know the answer.

There are people living in the Olmec lands today who seem to resemble the stone portraits. So it may be that the Olmec people survived the dissolution of their civilization, even if all knowledge of it became lost.

What will remain, someday, of our own global humanist civilization?

The stone heads of our day are still attached to the leaders’ and the wise men’s shoulders.

8 comments on “Nameless Portraits on a Colossal Scale

  1. Pretty amazing. One of them actually looks as though he’s wearing glasses! But the description says that the “eyepieces” are just wrinkles.

    I sure hope none of our modern “sculpture” survives us to give future civilizations an idea of what we were like. But then again, they’d probably assume that the pieces were part of a rubbish tip or landfill.

  2. Whenever we feel the need for some mystery in our life all we have to do is think of the Olmecs.
    It would be nice (understatement) to see all the nations of the world transformed into epistemologically self-conscience Christian Republics.

    1. I don’t know what kind of Fundamental Transformation the Olmecs attempted in their country, but they seem not to have survived it.

      I think we have to wait for Christ’s Kingdom on earth before all the nations come to Him–which, after all, God has promised will happen.

  3. That’s the deal. Much of history is completely unknown, but for a few clues. Researchers piece together what little information they actually have in hand and come up with a narrative to explain it all. They may take hints from subtle cultural clues, but I’d wager that most of it is highly speculative. Maybe the had a fad of carving giant stone heads and neglected their crops until they starved. 🙂

    1. When we were kids, the Mayan writing had not yet been deciphered and we were taught all this plop about the peaceful, philosophical Mayans. Then computers came along that could help scholars read the plentiful inscriptions–which revealed a civilization of bloodthirsty warlords that finally just wore its people out. They abandoned their civilization, which may be why the Mayans are still around today.

      Anyway, for all those years, the conventional wisdom about the Maya was hopelessly, totally wrong.

    2. I’ve come to question much of the historical narrative. If one believes that there was a literal earthwide flood, somewhere around 4,200 years ago, then anything with came before is hard to pin down.

      It is said that the America’s were not in communication with the rest of the world, but I’m not so certain of that. The theory that the seas rose slowly as the ice caps melted after the Flood would explain how the earth’s population dispersed after Babel, and especially solves the problem of how Australasia was populated. (Lower the seas very modestly and a lot of solid land appears there.) It also explains how the brutish practices of ancient Babylon spread about to far-flung reaches of the planet.

    3. When he was writing his history of the Peloponnesian War, in which he participated as a general for Athens–he even caught and survived the plague that decimated Athens–Thucydides traveled all over Greece, interviewing other participants. And yet he admitted that he had great difficulty in finding out and reporting what really happened! It ought to go to show us how hard it is for us, over 2,000 years later, to discover the true nature of those events.

    4. It seems to me that what is called science and history seems to include a lot of surmising and probably even some things which are essentially fabricated from thin air.

Leave a Reply