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Giant Stone Reliefs Show Ancient Olmec Leaders In Trance-Like State Roaring Like Jaguars

You'd be correct if you think these faces look pained (or a little bit high).

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Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockAug 11 2022, 17:00 UTC
Why so serious? Angry leaders are seen on two Olmec limestone reliefs recently discovered in the Mexican state of Tabasco.
Why so serious? Angry leaders are seen on two Olmec limestone reliefs recently discovered in the Mexican state of Tabasco. Image credit: National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).

Carved reliefs depicting two fierce-faced rulers from the Olmec civilization have been found by a team of archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). They believe that the characters’ pained expressions show a pair of leaders in a trance-like state, roaring like a jaguar, in the midst of a “contortionist” ritual designed to induce black-outs.

Discovered near the city of Villahermosa in Tabasco, the pair of reliefs are fashioned out of limestone and have a diameter of approximately 1.4 meters (4.5 feet). Although the reliefs also feature engraved footprints, corncobs, and crosses, their most prominent features are the depictions of human faces. 

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The INAH says the faces represent local rulers of the Middle Usumacinta region from the late Olmec civilization (900-400 BCE), the first major civilization in Mexico that thrived before the Maya. With arms tightly crossed around them, their bold faces are wide open with a “grumpy mouth,” which alludes to the roar of the jaguar.

A rather judgy looking face carved into a huge round stone
The grumpy-looking reliefs date to the late Olmec horizon (900-400 BCE). Image courtesy of INAH Tobaco Center


The jaguar is an extremely common figure in many pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, with practically all belief systems from this time featuring a jaguar god. There's even some archeological evidence that the Maya kept jaguars as pets. As the largest big cat in Central and South America, not to mention their majestic beauty, it’s not hard to see why this animal gained so much admiration and respect.

Other similar monuments from the Middle Usumacinta region suggest that the reliefs are depicting the leaders during a “contortionist” ritual, in which they were effectively strangled into an otherwordly trance.

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“By adopting the position in which they appear portrayed – which reduces the flow of oxygenated blood to the brain – the characters reached trance states in divinatory ceremonies, and that conferred powers on them,” Tomás Pérez Suárez, an archaeologist at the INAH, explained in a statement.

This style of relief is typical of the late Olmec civilization prior to the process of "Mayanization" that struck the culture around 500 to 300 BCE. 

It does appear, however, that the legacy of the Olmec civilization lived on. Archaeologists from the INAH speculate that the style seen in this duo of reliefs perhaps evolved into the classic Maya “ajaw” inscriptions, which depict leaders with a similarly gaping mouth. 

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“The word ajaw means 'he who shouts', 'he who commands', 'he who orders'; and in these Mayan monuments the mouth stands out, a feature that must come from Olmec times, especially from these circular reliefs of 'contortionists' that are portraits of local chiefs,” added Pérez Suárez.


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