- Zumpango del Rio
About the Artist
This figure was created by an Olmec [ole-mek] artist. The term Olmec refers to the pre-Columbian culture that flourished on the Gulf Coast of Mexico from 1400–500 BC, and to the style of art found throughout Mesoamerica during this period. Mesoamerica is defined by a group of cultural traits, including agriculture and a diet based on a triad of crops (maize, beans, and squash); the use of a 365-day solar calendar and a 260-day ritual calendar; the playing of a sacred ballgame; the construction of monumental public architecture; and a religion that emphasized blood sacrifice. The Olmec was Mesoamerica’s first civilization to embody all or most of these traits.
The artist who crafted this hollow earthenware figure modeled it from pinkish clay and covered it with a smooth white slip (a mixture of clay and water) to give it a skin-like look. The artist then applied red and black pigments to the head and face, possibly after the figure was fired (heated to harden the clay).
What Inspired It
Figures like this one are called “babies” because of their large head proportions and often short, fleshy limbs. The faces on Olmec figurines are distinctive, with heavy eyelids and thick lips with down-turned corners. Some, like this one, have a jaguar-like mouth. Some scholars think that in Olmec belief, powerful individuals had jaguar alter egos and Olmec shamans (intermediaries between the human and spirit worlds) were able to transform themselves into jaguars. Called were-jaguars (like werewolves), these figures have snarling or crying mouths, are sexless, and suggest possible shamanic transformation of humans into animals. The purpose of these types of figures is unknown. In other Olmec depictions, supernatural baby-like figures are held on the laps or in the arms of sculptured Olmec rulers. The baby-like figures may have had an association with the natural elements such as earth or water.
The figure sits in a relaxed asymmetrical pose with the head slightly cocked.
The limbs are soft, thick, rounded, and don’t reflect any anatomical reality of bones and muscle. The hands and feet are small and elegant.
The head is an elongated oval with narrow eyes, a slender nose, and delicately outlined eyebrows and hairline. Red and black pigment heightens the features, perhaps to indicate the figure is wearing a helmet or other headdress.
The mouth has strongly down-turned corners. This mouth shape has been compared to a jaguar’s snarl.