Olmecs and the civilizations of the Gulf of Mexico | The first Mexican civilization told in Montreal

They lived for over 2000 years on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, from 1600 BC. BC until the year 400. The Olmecs preceded all the Mesoamerican civilizations that we know: Toltecs, Mayans, Aztecs, etc. For its summer exhibition, Pointe-à-Callière brought together nearly 300 objects from a dozen Mexican museums.

Even the coordinator of the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia of Mexico, Juan Manuel Garibay Lopez, was delighted last Wednesday to see all the objects, stone sculptures, steles, jade figurines and other archaeological treasures brought together in one place of the oldest Mesoamerican civilization.

And yet, very little is known about this pre-Columbian people established mainly in the towns of San Lorenzo, in the south of the state of Veracruz, and La Venta, in the north of the state of Tabasco.

In fact, all of the objects on display here – and in Mexico – were discovered from the 19th century onwards.e century, some were even found just a few years ago!

“It is a little-known and recently discovered civilization,” said the general director of Pointe-à-Callière, Anne Élisabeth Thibault, during the press visit.

We are only beginning to have some keys to understanding this civilization, the oldest known to date in Mesoamerica, which is part of the great heritage of humanity.

Anne Élisabeth Thibault

The Olmecs settled down, developed tools for agriculture, irrigated the land, set up an administrative system, built the first pyramids in Mesoamerica, but also learned the first forms of writing, with pictograms, and created rituals. as well as artistic works, in short, Olmec culture dominates the entire Mexican territory.

Monumental sculptures

Upon entering the first room, we find ourselves face to face with a colossal head weighing four tonnes representing a high leader, a shaman or a warrior. These monumental sculptures are emblematic of Olmec culture – Mexico today has 17 of these colossal heads found in the towns of San Lorenzo, La Venta or Tres Zapotes.


The colossal head exhibited at Pointe-à-Callière measures 1.80 m in height and weighs four tonnes.

The characteristics of this head discovered in San Lorenzo (which is more than 3000 years old!) are found in almost all the other sculptures that we will see during this exhibition: flat nose, almond-shaped eyes, squint, fleshy lips and elongated head.

We also find the sculpture of a jaguar man, a wrestler, as well as our numerous objects linked to the cults of the jaguar, corn or water.

One of the major works of the exhibition is in the second room. It is a miniature scene of life – found as is in 1943 in La Venta, which has the oldest pyramid in the region. There are around fifteen figures sculpted in jadeite and serpentinite surrounded by six small granite steles. They seem to be listening to another person. Is this the gang leader? Are we attending a political council?

The work dated 800 BC. BC is simply magnificent.

Another exceptional piece, this disc-shaped sculpture representing an acrobat, discovered just a few years ago, exhibited for the first time in the world!

Specialists in the Olmec civilization have not yet finished interpreting it. We see faces with jaguar features, crossed arms and always this typical face with these almond-shaped eyes and this flat nose.


A ceramic female figure attributed to the Olmecs

Ball game

We will also see several characters (men or women) representing deities, warriors, but also players. Because it is to the Olmecs that we owe the famous ball game, a heavy rubber ball that had to be thrown back and forth, which was adopted by subsequent civilizations, including the Mayans, who sacrificed during certain major events , the players of the losing team…

“They are also nicknamed “rubber people,” Anne Élisabeth Thibault tells us, because of their mastery of this material, with which they manufactured, among other things, bullets. »

Why did they disappear? The end of the Olmec civilization remains a mystery, specialists of this period tell us. “Could extreme weather phenomena or social factors have pushed the Olmecs to change regions? Have emerging cultural groups supplanted their influence? Could political conflicts, social tensions or changes in the power structure have led to the decline of this civilization? »

These are all questions asked by the exegetes of this ancient civilization, which nevertheless bequeathed to the civilizations that followed an important part of its heritage. To find out more, you have to go to Pointe-à-Callière. Much closer than the famous Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico, which has lent several of these valuable objects.

Until September 15 at the Pointe-à-Callière museum

Visit the exhibition page

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