Dirty Secrets of the Olmec Civilization

Plus . . . how I became friends with the famous author, Jim Loewin

The Talking Heads on TV programs and Youtube documentaries keep on replicating inaccurate speculations about the “Olmec Civilization” made by a Gringo archaeologist during the 1940s. They talk about the Olmecs doing this and the Olmecs doing that . . . when in fact, the invading Olmecs arrived inTabasco and southern Vera Cruz around 1500 years AFTER the first civilization in southern Mexico faded. Yes, that’s right. The Olmecs had absolutely nothing to do with the “Olmec Civilization.”

Unlike virtually everybody who writes and talks about the Olmec Civilization, I am partially descended from the people, who created that civilization and have thoroughly roamed about its territory . . . and we are not talking about Gringo package tours. At my initial meeting with Dr, Román Piña Chan in his office at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia , he quickly realized the close cultural ties of the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Alabamas and Creeks with the Gulf Coast Peoples of Mexico. He then altered my fellowship syllabus to focus on that region. Those on-site studies were just the beginning of a lifetime of study.

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

Dr. Román Piña Chán (1920–2001), my fellowship coordinator in Mexico, wrote the first internationally published book on the so-called Olmec Civilization.  The book, originally entitled, The Mother Culture, was written in advance of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, to take advantage of the millions of tourists coming to Mexico that year.  Dr. Piña Chán told me that the first limited printing in Spanish, La Cultural Madre,  revealed that the Gringo version of early Mexican history had so saturated the world that the title had to be modified to include “Los Olmecas” for most people to know what the book was about. 

From the very beginning of the discovery of this early civilization in 1905 by Mexican archaeologist,  Leopoldo Batres, Mexican scholars had known that the Olmecs were Nahua-speaking barbarians, who invaded southern Mexico around 1150 AD.  However, the overwhelming power of United States culture brainwashed the world into thinking that “the Olmecs did it.” The faulty version of Mexican history promulgated in the United States became its official history in the rest of the world.

One thing that clearly bugged Dr. Piña Chán was that North American and European archaeologists focused on the elite when working in Mexico. They really didn’t care how 95% of the Mayas lived or what happened to them. Thus, to this day very few archaeologists in the United States are aware that illiterate Maya Commoners were allowed to make only shell-tempered Redware, because it needed less wood for firing. The arrival of large numbers of Maya Commoner refugees in North America would be marked by the sudden appearance of shell-tempered Redware . . . and that exactly is what marks the beginning of the “Mississippian Culture” in the Southeast.

Two of the most poignant moments during my fellowship occurred during that first meeting with Dr. Piña Chán. He, his graduate assistant, Alejandra and I were going through two books on the Southeastern Indians, which I had given him as a “propina academica.” While looking at the pages on Etowah Mounds, he came to the two famous marble statues found under Mound C. He asked me, “Ricardo, why did your Indios make marmel (marble) statues of Maya slaves?”

Then, when reading about Moundville, Alabama, Dr. Piña Chán, suddenly uttered a mild Spanish profanity . . . stood up . . . turned around, and then pulled off the shelf his book on the Toltec People, Los Toltecas. As he thumbed through his landmark text, he pointed out numerous artifacts and artistic symbols which were almost identical in the Toltec capital of Tula and this famous mound complex in northwestern Alabama.

Dr. Piña Chán also wrote the guidebook to the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, still used today. SPOILER ALERT – An ancient log tomb, identical to the one on the cover of the Spanish language version of Piña Chán’s book was also found under Mound C at Etowah Mounds in Cartersville, GA. The collapsed tomb contained the two marble statues.

The Zoque or Soque People have always claimed to be the founders of the Mother Culture, but also admitted that several distinct ethic groups lived in its towns and villages. Yes, that’s the same Soque as the Soque River in Northeast Georgia. English speakers wrote the word as Soque, Sokee or Sukee, but it is correctly pronounced as Sjō : kē. Interestingly enough, Sjøke is also what the Norse called the Sea Sami . . . the indigenous Asiatic people of Northern Scandinavia, who taught the Norse how to build ocean-going sailing ships. We’ll talk about them in our next article.

According to the Miccosukee (Leaders of the Sokee) Migration Legend, many of their people fled to the mountains of Chiapas, when the Nahuas invaded their lands, but their own ancestors migrated northward out of Tabasco. The barbarians practiced human sacrifice and ate their victims. The Soque were the last branch of the Creek Confederacy to enter the Southeastern United States. That sure does sound like the Olmecs drove them out.

Matthew Williams Stirling (August 28, 1896 – January 23, 1975) was an American ethnologist, archaeologist and later an administrator at several scientific institutions in the field. From 1928 to 1957, he was Director of the Smithsonian Institute’s Bureau of Ethnology . . . which at that time included all of the institution’s archaeological expeditions.

In 1938, he and his wife Marion went on a vacation in southern Mexico, where they visited Tres Zapotes.  Stirling arranged to have himself photographed at many stone carvings and earthen pyramids  When he returned to Washington, DC he published a report in which he claimed to have been the first person to theorize that the ruins in western Tabasco were older than Maya cities. He also coined the words, Olmec Civilization.  Readers were not told that Mexican archaeologists excavated the sculptures, causing many assume that Stirling had made the discoveries.

Matthew and Marion Stirling returned to Tabasco numerous times after 1938 to excavate “Olmec Civilization” sites that had been overlooked by Mexican archeologists. Unfortunately, they never used radiocarbon dating on these sites and never consulted with Mexican anthropologists.  It was Matthew Stirling, who also created the myth that the Olmec Civilization mysteriously disappeared before the Maya Civilization rose. That’s just not true. The peoples who created the first civilization evolved into a second, third and fourth cultural periods, The second and third were more sophisticated than the first, but no longer built massive earthen pyramids and seemed to have less centralized control.

1200 BC – 400 BC: The large city of La Venta was a modest village from around 1200 BC then beginning around 800 BC grew into a capital city. The people of Southern Mexico began making pottery and building earthen mounds around 900 BC. Their sophistication in agriculture allowed rapid population growth after this time. The period of cultural brilliance ran roughly 700 BC to 500 BC.

Most of its occupants had left the city of La Venta by 400 BC,  but many other towns were occupied much longer . . . even to the arrival of the Spanish.   However, after about 400 BC the other towns stopped constructing large earthen pyramids and instead focused on more sophisticated sculptures.

400 BC – 200 AD: This second cultural phase is called the Epi-Olmec Culture by Gringo archaeologists and the Late Formative Period by Mexican anthropologists. The towns and villages were very similar to those built in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and eastern Tennessee, a few centuries later. This is also when the peoples of southern Mexico began developing a writing system.

Whereas the later Maya writing system has now been translated, the earlier one in southern Mexico has not. The Creek writing system used in 1735 appears to be a combination of the Epi-Olmec writing system and one used in southern Sweden during the Bronze Age. Perhaps if I can ever translate all of the Creek writing system, scholars will be able to translate the Epi-Olmec system.

Apology – During the time that I was scheduled to be in western Tabasco and southern Veracruz, we had monsoon-like weather with dense clouds. As a result, the color slide film of that era did not take crisp, high resolution photos. Over the five decades since then, the slides from this particular roll of film has deteriorated far more than the previous slides that I took a few days earlier in Campeche and Chiapas.

200 AD – 800 AD: Totonac armies began conquering southern Veracruz, Tabasco and Chiapas. By 200 AD, Totonac princes ruled the entire region, plus several major Maya cities. At this time the region saw the first construction of stone masonry buildings with lime plaster . . . typical of Teotihuacan. The architecture was not as sophisticated as the architecture of Teotihuacan, but far more sophisticated that previous cultural periods.

During the 530s and 540s AD, a series of volcanic eruptions, plus a comet strike off the Florida Coast caused a drastic population decline in southern Mexico. Construction of major public building ceased. Very few stone buildings were constructed after agricultural conditions improved several decades later. Population declines in Tabasco and Campeche coincided with the appearance of Mesoamerican style houses in Georgia . . . particularly in the Nacoochee Valley and Upper Savannah River Basin. After 600 AD, Teotihuacano princes ceased to rule the region. It became dominated by the city known to us today as Palenque, which was in the mountains of Chiapas.

In 800 AD, the Chinchonal Caldera in northwestern Chiapas exploded. Much of western Chiapas, southwestern Tabasco and southern Veracruz was incinerated . . . including the capital city of Palenque. The cataclysm ended the occupation of cities and large towns in the former realm of the “Olmec Civilization.” Many, many thousands of its residents were killed almost instantly. The primary impact zone was unsuitable for agriculture for many years, This is the real end of the “Olmec Civilization” in Mexico, but it was to continue in southeastern North America.

800 AD – 1500 AD – Much of Chiapas and western Tabasco was unsuitable for agriculture for many years. Many thousands of Itzas either were killed or fled to other regions. This was the “breadbasket” for the Maya Civilization and so triggered increasing food shortages and resultant warfare in the entire region. The warfare, combined with food shortages triggered a rapid collapse of Maya cities in present day Tabasco, Chiapas, Guatemala and Honduras . . . but NOT in Campeche and Yucatan. The large cities in northern Yucatan date from after the “collapse” of the Maya Civilization TV and Youtube talking heads don’t tell you this.

The Nahua-speaking Olmecs arrived in southern Veracruz western Tabasco around 1100 AD, perhaps a little earlier. They were probably hunter-gatherers at first, but soon adopted the sophisticated agricultural practices of the aboriginal peoples of the region. For the next 400 years, there was very little cultural change in Tabasco. The region became a patchwork quilt of numerous ethnic groups, living in tribal societies. There was really not much difference from the Native peoples in Tabasco and the Native peoples in the lower Southeast.

Town in Tabasco in the period 1000 AD – 1500 AD

Remembering Jim Loewen

Lies your teacher told you about the Americas

Most people don’t know that from 2013 until 2021, when he died, Dr. Jim Loewen, the famous author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, was my constant mentor and grammar checker. Despite the money coming in from his best-selling books and paid speaking engagements, Jim taught sociology part-time at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.

How did Jim and I make contact? The December 21, 2012 broadcast of the premier of “American Unearthed” had created quite a stir throughout North America, except in Georgia, where it had been blacked out in most of the state, outside the Atlanta Area. Jim quickly picked up from the program that I was a “history changer” like himself.

Loewen emailed me with a question about the Georgia State Historical Markers in the northern part of the state, relating to Native American history. He had found many comments on the internet, which complained that Georgia was pushing folklore as factual history on these monuments. He was working on a new version of his famous book, called Lies Across America.

I wrote back that most of the Native American history markers were fictional, except those in front of structures, built in the 1800s. Jim wrote back, asking if I would be willing to do a paid interview over the phone, while both of us looked at the Georgia Historical Marker website. I said yes.

It went well. Jim learned a lot of factual Native America history, I learned a lot of recent American history . . . whereby Jim explained what was going on sociologically and politically in Georgia, when these monuments were erected. I assumed that was the end of that . . . however.

Three days later, Jim emailed me again. He asked if I would mind, if he brought my check in person. He and his wife, Susan, had decided that they wanted to see the Georgia Mountains. He added that he knew that I had never gotten over the Great Recession financially and so I would be their guest for everything we did together.

He and his wife immediately booked tickets on an Amtrak train, headed to Atlanta, then rented a car. They stayed in a motel in Downtown Dahlonega. My rat-infested cabin was about 7 miles west of town and not suitable for guests.

Well, not was all as it seemed. As soon as Susan left our company to visit shops in Downtown Dahlonega, Jim turned serious. He said that within an hour after he interviewed me, he received three frantic calls from Georgia cops . . . one was a campus cop at the University of North Georgia . . . demanding that he have nothing further to do with me. Jim confided that they obviously had no clue, who he was, because they “talked down” to him like he was a black sharecropper in Mississippi, who had run a red light. He said that they described me as the most evil person on the planet.

Jim thought that the cops were “lying through their teeth,” but just to be sure he contacted a friend at the Justice Department. He called back and said that all he could find on me was that I was a former NATO asset, had cooperated FBI agents on several occasions, had been a federal witness in an undisclosed case, had been on the Federal Witness Program and had an FBI file that was classified for National Security. Jim’s friend didn’t have high enough clearance to look at it. Jim finished by telling me that I need to get out of Georgia. I told him that at the moment, I didn’t have the money to drive to Chattanooga.

He understood the situation. He explained that a disproportionate number of rural, white deputies in the Southern Appalachians are marginally educated and members of fundamentalist denominations . . . mostly Southern Baptists or mega-churches . . . who say they are Christian, but in practice, believe the opposite of what Jesus taught. In particular, they believe that the richer a man is, the more he has been blessed by God because his spiritual purity, but that poor people are vile sinners and criminals, who are being punished for their sins. So, these Georgia cops see me poor and figure there is some crime that I have committed.

History Fact Check: Jim was partially wrong on this assumption. I have been tipped off by honest law enforcement officers in this area that it was highly educated prosecuting attorneys in the cities of Cleveland and Clarkesville, plus Lumpkin, Habersham and White Counties, who personally conceived the worst crimes against me and authorized wire taps. Some fascist deputies eagerly went along, but others were forced to follow orders against their will. However, yes, these attorneys are fundamentalists, but they also know what the laws of this nation are . . . and they ignore them, when a political agenda takes precedence.

After the private conversation and Susan returned to the park, they said that they wanted to give me tips on how to evaluate history books and TV programs on history. He convinced me that just because a university-published book, newspaper or a TV program says something, it does not mean it is true.

Thereafter, Loewan quickly sent me criticisms of any published article, which he felt contained poor grammar or sloppy research. He steadily raised the bar for what he thought was acceptable writing work for me.

You see . . . from March 2010 to August 2015, I was the national architecture columnist for the Examiner. That’s right, while living in a tent, I was writing about fancy buildings.

From December 2011 onward, I was consistently in the top ten with readership. However, I was instantly fired by the Republican owner, because I wrote an article about my personal experiences as a college intern for Jimmy Carter . . . just after it was announced that he had terminal brain cancer. However, firing all writers, who didn’t think that Donald Trump was the Messiah, quickly killed the Examiner. It ceased to exist within a few months.

Lies that Wikipedia tells you

Wikipedia: “The Olmecs flourished during Mesoamerica’s formative period, dating roughly from as early as 1500 BCE to about 400 BCE. Pre-Olmec cultures had flourished since about 2500 BCE, but by 1600–1500 BCE, early Olmec culture had emerged, centered on the San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán site near the coast in southeast Veracruz. They were the first Mesoamerican civilization, and laid many of the foundations for the civilizations that followed.

Despite what Wikipedia tells you, there was nothing even approaching “civilization” status in Tabasco until around 700 AD. These peoples did not build earthen pyramids and make pottery until after 900 AD. The Olmecs were destroyers of civilization (1100 AD) not its founders.

Believe it or not, there are other articles in Wikipedia, which correctly tell you that the Olmecs arrived in southern Mexico around 1100 AD or even tell you that the Zoque (Soque) wee responsible for Mexico’s first civilization.

Stone altar at La Venta Venta (800 BC – 400 BC)

Except in agriculture, Mexico lagged behind Western South America and Southeastern North America until around 700 BC! In the next article we will look at a comparative timeline between eastern North America, Mesoamerica and South America. Then we will examine the ethnic groups that created the first civilization in Mexico.

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