Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Usumacinta Olmec

For years, people have talked about the Olmec "heartland" as a western Gulf Coast phenomenon anchored by the three major sites San Lorenzo, La Venta, and Tres Zapotes, all of which took their turn as the capital city. Archaeologists referred to Olmec sites outside this relatively small area as the "hinterland."
Traditional Olmec Heartland in Orange
In 2006, V. Garth Norman and I visited Pomona in Tabasco on the western bank of the Usumacinta.
Pomona Relative to the Traditional Olmec Heartland
Pomona is generally considered a Classic Maya site, but we saw this monument on display in the INAH site museum.
Olmec Iconography on Display in Pomona
Photo by Kirk Magleby, September, 2006
This photo does not do the monument justice. It is Olmec, about as Olmec as you get. Seeing this carving started me on a quest to map known Olmec sites. Until today, my map looked like this.
148 Sites with Olmec Influence, 52 of which are in the Heartland
Olmec influence reached into every part of Mesoamerica, but the culture core was still in the heartland, or so we thought.

The 84th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology just concluded in Albuquerque, NM. My friend, Richard Terry, presented two papers at the conference on the soil chemistry of sites in Belize and Utah. Richard sent me abstracts of two papers presented by the dynamic team of Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan, both from the University of Arizona. I wrote blog articles entitled "Takeshi Inomata" and "75 BC" describing some of their ground-breaking work at Ceibal and Aguateca. Inomata finished his Sabbatical year at Dumbarton Oaks (a research center in Washington, DC affiliated with Harvard University) and is now back in the field. What he and his team have found will re-write history and could have profound implications for the Book of Mormon.

Since 2017, Inomata and Triadan have been excavating a massive Olmec site they named Aguada Fénix at the great bend of the San Pedro river in Balancán Municipality, Tabasco. This is near the large Maya trading site, Moral Reforma.
Aguada Fénix on the San Pedro
What we know about this site after two seasons of work:
  • It is the largest of 15 newly-discovered middle Preclassic sites in the area.
  • These 15 sites are so standardized in their rectangular layout Inomata and Triadan have coined the name "Middle Formative Usumacinta" (MFU) pattern to describe the site plans.
  • Dates are coming in from 1,000 BC to 800 BC. Since Inomata is a master of precise dating, we can expect more clarity soon. 
  • It had an E Group, as did Ceibal in the middle Preclassic. It remains to be seen which predates the other. Prior to Aguada Fénix, the Ceibal E Group was the earliest known in Mesoamerica.
  • It is so large it may have been the Olmec capital after the collapse of San Lorenzo and before the rise of La Venta.
  • It had cultural ties with Ceibal, 185 air kilometers to the SE. 
Stay tuned. These 15 new sites headed by Aguada Fénix may force a re-evaluation of what constituted the Olmec heartland and may demonstrate a much closer connection between the Olmec and the early Maya than we have heretofore realized. They may also force us to re-think the proposed boundaries of the land northward during Jaredite times.

John Clark: "Aguada Fenix is the most important site found in mesoamerica in my lifetime" is what Francisco Estrada-Belli tweeted referring to Clark's presentation at SAA 2019 in Albuquerque.