La Venta
La Venta is a pre-Columbian
The pre-Columbian era incorporates all period subdivisions in the history and prehistory of the Americas before the appearance of significant European influences on the American continents, spanning the time of the original settlement in the Upper Paleolithic period to European colonization during...

 archaeological site
Archaeological site
An archaeological site is a place in which evidence of past activity is preserved , and which has been, or may be, investigated using the discipline of archaeology and represents a part of the archaeological record.Beyond this, the definition and geographical extent of a 'site' can vary widely,...

 of the Olmec
The Olmec were the first major Pre-Columbian civilization in Mexico. They lived in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, in the modern-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco....

 civilization located in the present-day Mexican
The United Mexican States , commonly known as Mexico , is a federal constitutional republic in North America. It is bordered on the north by the United States; on the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; on the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and on the east by the Gulf of...

 state of Tabasco. Some of the artifacts have been moved to the museum "Parque - Museo de La Venta", which is in Villahermosa
Like most of the Tabasco, Villahermosa has a tropical climate. The city specifically features a tropical monsoon climate. Temperatures during spring and summer seasons reach upwards of 40°C , with humidity levels hovering around 30% during the same period...

, the capital of Tabasco.


The Olmec was one of the earliest civilizations to develop in the Americas
The Americas, or America , are lands in the Western hemisphere, also known as the New World. In English, the plural form the Americas is often used to refer to the landmasses of North America and South America with their associated islands and regions, while the singular form America is primarily...

. Rising from the sedentary agriculturalists of the Gulf Lowlands as early as 1600 BCE
Common Era
Common Era ,abbreviated as CE, is an alternative designation for the calendar era originally introduced by Dionysius Exiguus in the 6th century, traditionally identified with Anno Domini .Dates before the year 1 CE are indicated by the usage of BCE, short for Before the Common Era Common Era...

 in the Early Formative
Mesoamerican chronology
Mesoamerican chronology divides the history of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica into several periods: the Paleo-Indian , the Archaic , the Preclassic , the Classic , and the Postclassic...

 period, the Olmecs held sway in the Olmec heartland
Olmec heartland
The Olmec heartland is the southern portion of Mexico's Gulf Coast region between the Tuxtla mountains and the Olmec archaeological site of La Venta, extending roughly 80 km inland from the Gulf of Mexico coastline at its deepest...

, an area on the southern Gulf of Mexico
Gulf of Mexico
The Gulf of Mexico is a partially landlocked ocean basin largely surrounded by the North American continent and the island of Cuba. It is bounded on the northeast, north and northwest by the Gulf Coast of the United States, on the southwest and south by Mexico, and on the southeast by Cuba. In...

 coastal plain, in Veracruz
Veracruz, formally Veracruz de Ignacio de la Llave officially Estado Libre y Soberano de Veracruz de Ignacio de la Llave , is one of the 31 states that, along with the Federal District, comprise the 32 federative entities of Mexico. It is divided in 212 municipalities and its capital city is...

 and Tabasco.

Roughly 200 kilometres (124 mi) long and 80 kilometres (50 mi) wide, with the Coatzalcoalcos River system running through the middle, the heartland is home to the major Olmec sites of La Venta, San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán
San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán
San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán is the collective name for three related archaeological sites -- San Lorenzo, Tenochtitlán, and Potrero Nuevo -- located in the southeast portion of the Mexican state of Veracruz. From 1200 BCE to 900 BCE, it was the major center of Olmec culture...

, Laguna de los Cerros
Laguna de los Cerros
Laguna de los Cerros is a little-excavated Olmec and Classical era archaeological site, located in the vicinity of Corral Nuevo, within the municipality of Acayucan, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, in the southern foothills of the Tuxtla Mountains, some 30 kilometers south of the Catemaco.With...

, and Tres Zapotes
Tres Zapotes
Tres Zapotes is a Mesoamerican archaeological site located in the south-central Gulf Lowlands of Mexico in the Papaloapan River plain. Tres Zapotes is sometimes referred to as the third major Olmec capital , although Tres Zapotes' Olmec phase constitutes only a portion of the site’s history, which...


By no later than 1200 BCE, San Lorenzo had emerged as the most prominent Olmec center. While a layer of occupation at La Venta dates to 1200 BCE, La Venta did not reach its apogee until the decline of San Lorenzo, after 900 BCE. After 500 years of pre-eminence, La Venta was all but abandoned by the beginning of the fourth century BCE.

Located on an island in a coastal swamp overlooking the then-active Río Palma, La Venta probably controlled a region between the Mezcalapa and Coatzacoalcos rivers. The site itself is about 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) inland with the island consisting of slightly more than 2 square miles (5 km²) of dry land. The main part of the site is a complex of clay constructions stretched out for 20 kilometres (12.4 mi) in a north-south direction, although the site is oriented 8° west of north. The urbanized zone may have covered an area as large of 2 km².

Unlike later Maya
Maya civilization
The Maya is a Mesoamerican civilization, noted for the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas, as well as for its art, architecture, and mathematical and astronomical systems. Initially established during the Pre-Classic period The Maya is a Mesoamerican...

 or Aztec
The Aztec people were certain ethnic groups of central Mexico, particularly those groups who spoke the Nahuatl language and who dominated large parts of Mesoamerica in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, a period referred to as the late post-classic period in Mesoamerican chronology.Aztec is the...

 cities, La Venta was built from earth and clay—there was little locally abundant stone for the construction. Large basalt
Basalt is a common extrusive volcanic rock. It is usually grey to black and fine-grained due to rapid cooling of lava at the surface of a planet. It may be porphyritic containing larger crystals in a fine matrix, or vesicular, or frothy scoria. Unweathered basalt is black or grey...

 stones were brought in from the Tuxtla mountains
Sierra de los Tuxtlas
The Sierra de Los Tuxtlas are a volcanic belt and mountain range along the southeastern Veracruz Gulf coast in southcentral Mexico....

, but these were used nearly exclusively for monuments including the colossal heads, the "altars" (actually thrones), and various stelae. For example, the basalt columns that surround Complex A were quarried from Punta Roca Partida, on the Gulf
Gulf of Mexico
The Gulf of Mexico is a partially landlocked ocean basin largely surrounded by the North American continent and the island of Cuba. It is bounded on the northeast, north and northwest by the Gulf Coast of the United States, on the southwest and south by Mexico, and on the southeast by Cuba. In...

 coast north of the San Andres Tuxtla volcano.

Today, the entire southern end of the site is covered by a petroleum
Petroleum or crude oil is a naturally occurring, flammable liquid consisting of a complex mixture of hydrocarbons of various molecular weights and other liquid organic compounds, that are found in geologic formations beneath the Earth's surface. Petroleum is recovered mostly through oil drilling...

 refinery and has been largely demolished, making excavations difficult or impossible. Many of the site's monuments are now on display in the archaeological museum
A museum is an institution that cares for a collection of artifacts and other objects of scientific, artistic, cultural, or historical importance and makes them available for public viewing through exhibits that may be permanent or temporary. Most large museums are located in major cities...

 and park in the city of Villahermosa, Tabasco.

Major features of La Venta

La Venta was a civic and ceremonial center. While it may have included as-yet-undiscovered regal residences, habitation for the non-regal elite and the commoners were located at outlying sites such as San Andrés
San Andrés (Mesoamerican site)
San Andrés is an Olmec archaeological site in the present-day Mexican state of Tabasco. Located 5 km northeast of the Olmec ceremonial center of La Venta, San Andrés is considered one of its elite satellite communities, with evidence of elite residences and other elite activities...

. Instead of dwellings, La Venta is dominated by a restricted sacred area (Complex A), the Great Pyramid, and the large plaza to their south.

As a ceremonial center, La Venta contains an elaborate series of buried offerings and tombs, as well as monumental sculptures. These stone monuments, stelae, and "altars" were carefully distributed amongst the mounds and platforms. The mounds and platforms were built largely from local sands and clays. It is assumed that many of these platforms were once topped with wooden structures, which have long since disappeared.

Great Pyramid

One of the earliest pyramids known in Mesoamerica, the Great Pyramid is 110 ft (33 m) high and contains an estimated 100,000 cubic meters of earth fill. The current conical shape of the pyramid was once thought to represent nearby volcanoes or mountains, but recent work by Rebecca Gonzalez-Lauck has shown that the pyramid was in fact a rectangular pyramid with stepped sides and inset corners, and the current shape is most likely due to 2500 years of erosion. The pyramid itself has never been excavated, but a magnetometer
A magnetometer is a measuring instrument used to measure the strength or direction of a magnetic field either produced in the laboratory or existing in nature...

 survey in 1967 found an anomaly high on the south side of the pyramid. Speculation ranges from a section of burned clay to a cache of buried offerings to a tomb.

Complex A

Complex A is a mound and plaza group located just to the north of the Great Pyramid. Surrounded by a series of basalt columns, which likely restricted access to the elite, it was erected in a period of 4 construction phases that span over 4 centuries. Beneath the mounds and plazas were found a vast array of offerings and other buried objects, more than 50 separate caches by one count, including buried jade
Jade use in Mesoamerica
Jade use in Mesoamerica was largely influenced by the conceptualization of the material as a rare and valued commodity among pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Olmec, the Maya, and the various groups in the Valley of Mexico. The only source from which the indigenous cultures could...

, polished mirrors made of iron-ores, and five large "Massive Offerings" of serpentine blocks. It is estimated that Massive Offering 3 contains 50 tons of carefully finished serpentine blocks, covered by 4,000 tons of clay fill.

Also unearthed in Complex A were 3 rectangular mosaics (also known as "Pavements") each roughly 15 ft × 20 ft and each consisting of up to 485 blocks of serpentine. These blocks were arranged horizontally to form what has been variously interpreted as an ornate Olmec bar-and-four-dots motif, the Olmec Dragon, a very abstract jaguar mask
Jaguars in Mesoamerican culture
The representation of jaguars in Mesoamerican cultures has a long history, with iconographic examples dating back to at least the mid-Formative period of Mesoamerican chronology. The jaguar is an animal with a prominent association and appearance in the cultures and belief systems of pre-Columbian...

, a cosmogram
A cosmogram is a flat geometric figure depicting a cosmology. Some of them were created for meditational purpose. Mandalas are the best known cosmograms, but similar diagrams, known as schema, were also used in western Europe during the Middle Ages....

, or a symbolic map of La Venta and environs. Not intended for display, soon after completion these pavements were covered over with colored clay and then many feet of earth.

Five formal tombs were discovered within Complex A, one with a sarcophagus
A sarcophagus is a funeral receptacle for a corpse, most commonly carved or cut from stone. The word "sarcophagus" comes from the Greek σαρξ sarx meaning "flesh", and φαγειν phagein meaning "to eat", hence sarkophagus means "flesh-eating"; from the phrase lithos sarkophagos...

 carved with what seemed to be an earth monster. Diehl states that these tombs "are so elaborate and so integrated to the architecture that it seems clear that Complex A really was a mortuary complex dedicated to the spirits of deceased rulers".

Other notable artifacts within Complex A include:
  • Monument 19 (see photo below). This relief sculpture is the earliest known example of the feathered serpent in Mesoamerica.
  • Offering 4. Sixteen figurines and six celts
    Celt (tool)
    Celt is an archaeological term used to describe long thin prehistoric stone or bronze adzes, other axe-like tools, and hoes.-Etymology:The term "celt" came about from what was very probably a copyist's error in many medieval manuscript copies of Job 19:24 in the Latin Vulgate Bible, which became...

     form a strange tableau.

Complex B

South of the Great Pyramid lies Complex B. Whereas Complex A was apparently restricted to the elite, the plaza of Complex B seems to be built specifically for large public gatherings. This plaza is just south of the Great Pyramid, east of the Complex B platforms, and west of the huge raised platform referred to as the Stirling Acropolis. This plaza is nearly 400 meters (437 yards) long and over 100 meters (109 yards) wide. A small platform is situated in the center of the plaza.

This layout has led researchers to propose that the platforms surrounding the plaza functioned as stages
Stage (theatre)
In theatre or performance arts, the stage is a designated space for the performance productions. The stage serves as a space for actors or performers and a focal point for the members of the audience...

 where ritual drama was enacted for viewers within the plaza. These rituals were likely related to the "altars", monuments, and the stelae surrounding and within the plaza. These monuments, including Colossal Head 1, were of such a large size and were placed in such a position that they could convey their messages to many viewers at once.


The arrangement of the mounds, platforms, complexes, and monumental artifacts at La Venta created a unique civil and ceremonial center that, in the words of Rebecca Gonzalez-Lauck, constitutes "one of the earliest examples of large-scale ideological communications through the interaction of architecture and sculpture".

Monumental artifacts at La Venta

Colossal heads

Certainly the most famous of the La Venta monumental artifacts are the four colossal heads. Seventeen colossal heads have been unearthed in the Olmec area, four of them at La Venta, officially named Monuments 1 through 4.

Three of the heads—Monuments 2, 3, & 4—were found roughly 150 meters north of Complex A, which is itself just north of the Great Pyramid. These heads were in a slightly irregular row, facing north. The other colossal head—Monument 1 (shown at left) -- is a few dozen meters south of the Great Pyramid.

The La Venta heads are thought to have been carved by 700 BCE, but possibly as early as 850 BCE, while the San Lorenzo heads are credited to an earlier period. The colossal heads can measure up to 9 ft 4 in. in height and weigh several tons. The sheer size of the stones causes a great deal of speculation on how the Olmec were able to move them. The major basalt quarry for the colossal heads at La Venta was found at Cerro Cintepec in the Tuxtla Mountains, over 80 km away.

Each of the heads wears headgear reminiscent of 1920s-style American football helmets, although each is unique in its decoration. These helmets probably served as protection in war and in the ceremonial Mesoamerican ballgame
Mesoamerican ballgame
The Mesoamerican ballgame or Tlatchtli in Náhuatl was a sport with ritual associations played since 1,000 B.C. by the pre-Columbian peoples of Ancient Mexico and Central America...

 played throughout Mesoamerica. The consensus
Scientific consensus
Scientific consensus is the collective judgment, position, and opinion of the community of scientists in a particular field of study. Consensus implies general agreement, though not necessarily unanimity. Scientific consensus is not by itself a scientific argument, and it is not part of the...

 is that the heads likely represent mighty Olmec rulers.

Altars 4 & 5

Seven basalt
Basalt is a common extrusive volcanic rock. It is usually grey to black and fine-grained due to rapid cooling of lava at the surface of a planet. It may be porphyritic containing larger crystals in a fine matrix, or vesicular, or frothy scoria. Unweathered basalt is black or grey...

 "altars" were found at La Venta, the most familiar being Altar 4 and Altar 5. These altars, roughly 2 meters high and twice as wide, both feature an elaborately dressed and sculpted figure on the center front.

The figure on Altar 4 is sitting inside what appears to be a cave or the mouth of a fantastic creature, holding a rope which wraps around the base of the altar to his right and left. On the left side, the rope is connected to a seated bas-relief figure. The right side is eroded away but is thought to be similar to the scene on the right.

The consensus today is that these "altars" are thrones on which the Olmec rulers were seated during important rituals or ceremonies. This leads many researchers to interpret the figure at the front of Altar 4 as a ruler, who is contacting or being helped by his ancestors, the figures on either side of the altar. Alternatively, some believe the side figures to be bound captives.

Altar 5 faces Altar 4 across Structure D-8 (one of the dozens of mounds at La Venta, the remains of platforms). Altar 5 is similar in design and size to Altar 4, except that the central figure holds an inert, perhaps dead, were-jaguar baby. The left side of Altar 5 features bas-reliefs of humans holding quite lively were-jaguar babies. Like the Altar 4, the right side of Altar 5 has been defaced.

Some have seen child sacrifice echoed in the limp were-jaguar baby on the front of Altar 5. Others, however, view the tableau as a myth of human emergence or as story of a spiritual journey.

Although less striking and displaying a lesser degree of craftmanship, Altars 2 and 3 are similar to Altars 4 and 5. They each show a central figure, one with a baby and one without, and they sit facing each other on the southern edge of the Great Pyramid.

Social structure

Little is known about the structure of La Venta society or about the Olmec state. From the size and diversity of La Venta, it is assumed that the society consisted of an elite class, a class of artisans, and a large pool of laborers and farmers who supported these classes.

It has been estimated that La Venta would need to be supported by a population of at least 18,000 people during its principal occupation.

Discovery and excavation

Frans Blom
Frans Blom
Frans Blom was a Danish explorer and archaeologist....

 and Oliver La Farge
Oliver La Farge
Oliver Hazard Perry La Farge was an American writer and anthropologist, best known for his 1930 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Laughing Boy....

 made the first detailed descriptions of La Venta during their 1925 expedition, sponsored by Tulane University
Tulane University
Tulane University is a private, nonsectarian research university located in New Orleans, Louisiana, United States...


La Venta was first excavated by Matthew Stirling
Matthew Stirling
Matthew Williams Stirling was an American ethnologist, archaeologist and later an administrator at several scientific institutions in the field...

 between 1941 and 1943, with several subsequent excavations following through the 1960s. Stirling is sometimes credited with identifying the Olmec civilization; although some Olmec sites and monuments had been known earlier, it was Stirling's work that put the Olmec culture into context.

Rebecca Gonzalez-Lauck led an INAH
National Institute of Anthropology and History
The Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia is a Mexican federal government bureau established in 1939 to guarantee the research, preservation, protection, and promotion of the prehistoric, archaeological, anthropological, historical, and paleontological heritage of Mexico...

 (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia) team on digs here in the 1980s.

Threats to La Venta

On January 11, 2009, 23 ancient Olmec sculptures were vandalized, prompting Mexican legislators to draft legislation "that would increase fines and jail time for vandalism and looting of monuments and archaeological sites."

See also

  • Offering 4 at La Venta
  • San Andrés
    San Andrés (Mesoamerican site)
    San Andrés is an Olmec archaeological site in the present-day Mexican state of Tabasco. Located 5 km northeast of the Olmec ceremonial center of La Venta, San Andrés is considered one of its elite satellite communities, with evidence of elite residences and other elite activities...

     - one of La Venta's well-studied satellite communities
  • Olmec influences on Mesoamerican cultures
    Olmec influences on Mesoamerican cultures
    The causes and degree of Olmec influences on Mesoamerican cultures has been a subject of debate over many decades. Although the Olmecs are considered to be perhaps the earliest Mesoamerican civilization, there are questions concerning how and how much the Olmecs influenced cultures outside the...

  • History of Mexico
    History of Mexico
    The history of Mexico, a country located in the southern portion of North America, covers a period of more than two millennia. First populated more than 13,000 years ago, the country produced complex indigenous civilizations before being conquered by the Spanish in the 16th Century.Since the...

  • List of Mesoamerican pyramids
  • List of megalithic sites

External links

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