There are no words to describe the mystery of the ancient ‘rubber people’


That which we know the least about is often the most interesting. A case in point is the civilization of the Olmecs. This flourished in Mexico between 1500 B.C and 400 B.C., leaving behind much intriguing evidence in its art and archaeological remains but no written record to explain anything. Because of this, the Olmec have become a fertile source of historical riddles, mysteries, and speculation. This lost world is the subject of “Olmeca: the Most Ancient Civilization of the Americas,” a medium-size exhibition at the slightly out-of-the-way Ancient Orient Museum.

Located on one floor of a building in the Sunshine 60 complex in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro area, the museum’s space has very little of the mystique and glamour of the ancient times to which it is dedicated. But, for this exhibition, it has made some attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the Olmec world. At the entrance, visitors are greeted by a full-size replica of one of the giant stone heads for which the Olmecs are famous, flanked by a bit of tropical shrubbery and a stuffed jaguar.

The distinct features of these stone heads have prompted imaginative speculation in some quarters that the Olmecs may have been immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa. This, though, is the same sort of overambitious, blue-sky thinking that attributes the pyramids in the New World to architects from the Old. More down-to-earth theories point to artistic stylization and technical reasons, such as stone-carving techniques, as the reason behind the characteristic look of these statues.

Whatever the truth, these giant heads lie at the heart of our understanding of this civilization, which first began to be recognized in the 19th century when antiquarians and historians began to take notice. The word “Olmec” (meaning “the rubber people” in the language of the Aztecs) was then coined to describe this mysterious race and their culture.

As to what the Olmecs actually called themselves, this is an intractable mystery. However, rubber — extracted from trees native to Central and South America — seems to have been important to them. It was used to make large, solid balls that were then used in a sport, which, archaeologists believe, had great ritualistic and religious significance. One interesting theory is that the large stone heads are representations of successful players. Even an alternative theory that suggests the heads are of rulers admits the importance of the sport by conceding that those rulers chose to dress in ball-playing gear.

The exhibition includes a replica of one of the rubber balls, which visitors are encouraged to pick up. Weighing several kilograms, it was used in a game known as “the Mesoamerican ballgame,” which continued to be played by later Central American civilizations, such as the Mayas and Aztecs. Thought to resemble volleyball, but without a net, the density of the solid rubber ball meant that a game could include particularly bruising encounters. Also, there is a theory that losing teams were sacrificed to the gods.

The importance of sport provides a point of contact with a modern audience. Another area of fascination for people today is the so-called “Mayan Prophecy” that suggests 2012 will be the end of an immensely long cosmic cycle and the start of new one with potentially dire consequences. Although it is popularly associated with the later Mayan civilization, the calendar on which this “prophecy” is based is thought to have originated with the Olmec. However, apart from a couple of extremely ambiguous stone carvings, the exhibition has very little to offer on the subject except copious explanations in Japanese.

Among the pieces of pottery and fragments of masonry, there are few items that impress at this exhibition, but a couple of jade masks, dating from between 1500 B.C. and 1000 B.C. stand out. Carved using only stone tools, these beautiful representations of the human face show how skillful the Olmec craftsmen could be. Artefacts such as these suggest that — despite the limitations of a civilization that lacked writing, metal tools, and the wheel — the Olmec possessed some profound wisdom, rather like an idiot-savant. Perhaps it is this that fuels our contemporary belief that these ancient Mesoamericans saw something in the year 2012 that our more scientific minds may have missed.

“Olmeca: The Most Ancient Civilization of the Americas, a Road to Maya” at the Ancient Orient Museum runs till Dec. 19; admission ¥1,400; open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information visit,