By LIZ HAGER
Last weekend, after securing my entrance time to the Dale Chihuly show at de Young, I received an unexpectedly treat, an extra 40 minutes of unplanned time. I decided to spend it with a few of my favorite friends at the de Young, the pre-Columbian figurines. No matter how often I visit them, these figures remain fresh and vigorous. They are a demanding lot—to fully enjoy their company I find I must pay full attention to the ancient world they inhabit, a world full of mysterious, incomprehensible rites and unanswerable questions. Invariably I notice some new detail about them that propels me down a new and thrilling path of discovery that links us over the centuries. Our relationship is ever evolving. In this respect, the Pre-Columbians are the best sort of friends.
I submit to you the chubby fellow above, a relic of the Olmec culture. I had always thought of him as an effigy—a representation of a dead child, a remembrance for grieving parents. He is adorable in his particularly babe-like pose; and I imagined his distressed parents. This time around, however, I noticed the remnants of red paint on his hands and feet. Odd. The Museum label offered no explanation. Certainly there was more to the story of this child.
The Olmecs populated the Mexican Gulf lowlands from from around 1500 BCE to 400 BCE. With their hallmark complex social organizations, ingenious construction methods, and system of writing (the first in Mesoamerica) experts consider the Olmec to be the earliest civilization in the Americas. Our modern introduction to Olmec art is almost always through through one or another of their colossal basalt heads, those neckless warriors with characteristic flattened noses and downturned “jaguar” mouths (so-called because they resemble the fierce snarling of that big cat, I suppose).
A tiny cousin of the giant heads, Crawling Baby one of a larger (but not huge) group of “hollow babies,” crawling or sitting infant-like figurines, which have been unearthed over the years throughout the Olmec territories, now present-day Mexican states of Veracruz, Tobasco and Puebla. Although hollow, these figurines were not used as vessels.
Incredibly naturalistic in comparison with later Mayan and Aztec sculpture, the de Young baby nonetheless displays the typical stylized elements of the art form—elongated head, impressionistic features with winged eyes, and paw-like hands. These features make him seem more like a miniature adult, which would seem to indicate a purpose beyond simple effigy. The elongated head is a most interesting element; generally, it is thought to reflect the practice of head binding, a customary way the Olmec differentiated their elite.
If Crawling Baby represents the elite class in Olmec culture, he probably had a ceremonial purpose. Perhaps the remnants of red paint on his hands and feet tie are clues to the his specific use. The Olmecs were the first people in the Americas to bury offerings with their dead. Other types of infantile figures appear throughout Olmec art as obvious sacrificial objects. Additionally, the Olmecs had a healthy belief in shamanism; the jaguar was a most potent spirit. Figures in crawling poses are believed to have been emulations of the jaguar, who, among his many roles, transported bodies to the underworld. Thus these figures have come to be viewed as symbols of the transition from life to death.
Was Crawling Baby meant to be a stand in for an infant in a sacrificial ceremony or, worse, the effigy of an infant sacrificed?
Michael Coe, Ed., The Olmec World—Ritual and Rulership
Colossal Sculptures at La Venta
Tribal Arts Magazine