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 ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olmec_colossal_heads ).
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.