"Insemination and Generation or Sowing and Dawning: La Venta as... Creation Story."

"Insemination and Generation or Sowing and Dawning: La Venta as a Processional
Creation Story."
By Carolyn E. Tate
Texas Tech University, School of Art
Lubbock, TX 79409
Beginning in 1400 BC, Mesoamerican individuals made sculptures of the human fetus in
the womb (Marcus 1998; see Tate and Bendersky 1999). My further investigations of the
imagery in Formative Period art have revealed that by 1250 BC in the Valley of Mexico,
images of the human embryo formed part of the first repertoire of symbols on pottery
(Tate n.d.). Shortly thereafter, images of the human embryo appeared in the Gulf Coast
lowlands at San Lorenzo. By 950 BC, as disparate knowledges and beliefs coalesced into
a widespread belief system throughout Middle Formative Mesoamerica, the embryo
image had become one of the principal emblems of rulership, appearing as a subject of
monumental sculpture, as at Teopantecuanitlan, and more frequently, on greenstone
regalia. (Embryo images previously have been identified as a variety of gods and also,
most persistently, as the “were-jaguar”). The tiny human embryo of 6 – 8 weeks gestation
(about 1 1/2 inch long), which spontaneously aborts in about 25% of known pregnancies,
was shown in numerous compositions in a variety of contexts. Sometimes it emerged or
sprouted from an earth band, alternating with hands in a “scattering” gesture. In other
instances, individuals carved stone into mask-like images of the human embryo face. It
often appeared incised onto other objects, such as celts or masks. Columns and stelae
also depicted embryo images, some of them wrapped with three knots to refer to the three
sacs that surround the embryo in the womb. On the other hand, fetus sculptures were
much less common (I have identified about 50), and were always carved as threedimensional objects, ranging in size from 1 inch to 8 feet high.
My approach to approaching the significance of these images and objects has involved
analyzing them within compositional, ritual-spatial, and ethnographic contexts. I have
adapted a procedure that Alfredo Lopez-Austin (1993) has used in tracing mythic
elements through Mesoamerican societies. For each archaeologically-retreived or
monumental image I have constructed a “web of associations” that includes iconography,
context, and ethnographic tales involving embryos. This method, which traces both
consistency and variation in symbols through time and space, suggests that the Formative
Period peoples considered the embryo as a “human seed” that linked human identity with
maize in the current era of “true people.” The fetus was likely considered to be a symbol
of an earlier “creation” or era of humanity, and as such, their ensouled images served as
intercessors between human beings and their predecessors.
At the Gulf Coast Olmec site of La Venta, between 900 and 400 BC, individuals included
images of embryos and fetuses as elements in caches and on monumental art. Over the
past ten years, I have plotted the locations at which monuments and cached items were
left on a large map and have been able to observe obvious patterns of placement. There
are six locations at the site, each of which contains a group of 3, 4, or 5 nearly identical
sculptures. The subject of each group is distinct. The groups extend along the site’s
central axis, which was marked with five stone columns. I have proposed that these
groups form a narrative series that was engaged performatively as persons moved from
south to north along the central axis. Not only that, but the successive groups contain
many elements common to known creation stories in Mesoamerica, along with other
elements that are specific to the Formative Period.
In this presentation, I’ll illustrate and discuss possible meanings for the creation story at
La Venta as it unfolded along the narrative stations. From colossal fetuses on a wombshaped U group to the phallic columns of red and green stone that penetrate the site’s
surface, to ballgame –related symbols, the site of La Venta expressed unions of female
and male on all conceptual scales, from human womb and seed to female earth and male
rain, initiated cycles of sprouting, birth, and growth, or as the Maya later expressed it,
“sowing and dawning.” The peoples who created this vast narrative brought conceptual
elements –and also raw materials-- that had originated at various locations across
Mesoamerica to create a coherent, and probably culturally unifying, statements about the
roles of humans-- male and female, commoner and hero-- within larger cycles of nature
and cosmos.
The earliest Mesoamericans found the processes of all biological life so powerful that
they made maize seeds and “human seeds” --embryos and fetuses— the principal
symbols of a sacred transformational vital energy that they perceived. While such
transformation was most evident as seeds sprouted and became plants and while the
embryo (of humans and other animals) rapidly metamorphosed from a tadpole-like state
to a tailed being to a form related to that of its species, it continued once a being was
born. It is well known that Mesoamericans viewed the human life cycle as parallel to that
of maize. Humans matured, flowered (in terms of physical beauty and reproductive
capacity), produced seed and fruit, and finally withered and died. La Venta’s attempt to
codify a creation story shares many traits with the slightly later one recently discovered at
San Bartolo.
López-Austin, A. 1980. The Human Body and Ideology: Concepts of the Ancient Nahuas. Salt Lake City:
University of Utah Press.
—. 1993. The Myths of the Opossum: Pathways of Mesoamerican Mythology. Salt Lake City: University of
Utah Press.
Marcus, J. 1998. Women's Ritual in Formative Oaxaca: Figurine-making, Divination, Death, and the
Ancestors. Vol. No. 33. Memoirs of the Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan. Ann
Arbor: Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan.
Tate, C. E. in press-a. "The Colossal Fetuses of La Venta and Mesoamerica's Earliest Creation Story," in
Imagining the Fetus:. Edited by V. Sasson.
—. in press-b. "Olmec Knowledge of the Human Body and Gestation," in The Encyclopaedia of the History
of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Edited by H. Selin. Dordrecht,
The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publsihers.
—. n.d. 2005. Unmasking the Embryo: the Emergence of the Human Embryo
in Olmec art and Contemporary Scholarship.
Tate, C. E., and G. Bendersky. 1999. Olmec Sculptures of the Human Fetus. Perspectives in Biology and
Medicine 42:303 - 332.