In addition to representing them in three-dimensional sculptures, the Olmec civilization, in its late phase (900-400 BC), also carved reliefs of "contortionists" in circular stones. Two of these monuments, which are portraits of local rulers, from the municipality of Tenosique, were salvaged by the Ministry of Culture of the Government of Mexico, through the National Institute of Anthropology and History
(INAH) in Villahermosa, Tabasco.
The director of the INAH in Tabasco, Carlos Arturo Giordano Sánchez Verín, comments that the retrieval of these two sculptures is due to a report by the researcher of the Center for Mayan Studies, of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) Tomás Pérez Suárez, who was informed of their existence in June 2019.
During the XI International Congress of Mayistas, in Chetumal, Quintana Roo, the specialist received images of these monuments that, from their characteristics -similar to one other circular artifact that was registered at the beginning of the year 2000, in area of Belén, in Tenosique-, must have come from this region of Tabasco, which borders with Guatemala.
The reliefs, made of limestone rock and with a diameter of approximately 1.40 meters, have a similar iconography: at the top and bordered by celestial jaws, a diadem formed by four ears, and at the center, a mirror with the so-called "Olmec Cross" (glyph that marks the attire of the elite and is associated with the figure of the jaguar); on the sides footprints are observed; in front, crossed arms and, in the middle of the scene, the face of which protrudes the "grimacing mouth", alluding to the roar of the jaguar.
Through an anonymous report, the INAH Tabasco Center was notified that these reliefs were on a site in the Tabasco capital, which was visited by its head, Carlos Giordano Verín, and deputy director, José Luis Romero Rivera, who verified their authenticity.
Giordano Sánchez Verín points out that soon an inspection of the ranch in Tenosique will be conducted where the reliefs were found when leveling an agricultural land to date them more accurately.
After the entry of the data sheets corresponding to the Single Public Registration System of Monuments and Archaeological and Historical Zones of the INAH, the transfer of both monuments (each 700 kilograms) from Villahermosa to the Museum of the Archaeological Zone of Pomoná is planned, in Tenosique, which houses the largest collection of this type of reliefs.
For his part, the archaeologist Tomás Pérez Suárez explains that these monuments come from the region of Medio Usumacinta, located between the mouth of the Chacamax River to the Usumacinta and the mouth of the San Pedro River to that same tributary.
Among the known reliefs of the late Olmec horizon (all coming from informal excavations), when La Venta emerged as the governing center of the nuclear area of this civilization, five of them represent figures of "contortionists", one of which comes from Balancán and is exhibited in the Regional Museum of Anthropology, in Villahermosa; another one, from the Ejido Emiliano Zapata, and is in the Pomoná Site Museum; and three, from Tenosique, considering the one recorded in 2000 and the last two.
"The five monuments have in common the representation of large faces, possibly of local rulers, who also practiced contortionism not in a playful sense, but rather as a ritual. By adopting the expressions in which they are portrayed-which reduces the irrigation and oxygenation of blood to the brain-the characters reached trance states in divinatory ceremonies, and that conferred powers.
"It is possible that these faces evolved and derived in the Mayan altars of Ajaw, as those of the site Caracol, in Belize, which speaks of the permanence of this theme for more than three centuries, already for the Early Classic and Late Classic periods (495 to 790 AD). The word ajaw means 'shout' and in these Mayan monuments the mouth stands out, a trait that must come from Olmec times, especially from these circular reliefs of 'contortionist' which are portraits of local chiefs".
The specialist in the history of Olmec archaeology concludes that this stylistic transition is understood because the coastal plains of Tabasco underwent a process of "Mayanization", around 500-300 BC, which accelerated later with the domination of Palenque, Chiapas and cornered the mixe-zoque speaking groups.
The recovery of the Olmec reliefs by INAH is yet another example of the accomplishment of its primary tasks, including the legal protection of Mexicos cultural heritage.
Centro INAH Tabasco recovers two Olmec reliefs of "contortionists", from Tenosique. Photo: Courtesy of INAH Tabasco Center.