Olmec Epigraphic Ties to the Far East

by Bibhu Dev Misra

Olmec Ganesha 
Let us turn our attention to a curious Olmec clay figurine, which Zecharia Sitchin described as a “toy elephant”. It was spotted by Sitchin, when he had visited the Anthropology Museum in Jalapa, Veracruz.[7] However, when he had returned to the museum in 1999, the toy elephants were nowhere to be seen. Apparently, they had been removed for an “overseas exhibit”, never to be seen again. An elephant figurine in Mesoamerica raises uncomfortable questions, since elephants had disappeared from the Americas at the end of the last Ice Age at around 10,000 BCE.[8] How would the Olmecs, who flourished between c.1500 – 400 BCE, model a figure in its likeness?

Although Sitchin describes the artifact as a “toy elephant”, it is unusual for an elephant to stand upright comfortably on its hind legs. The artifact looks surprisingly similar to the portly, elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesha. Ganesha is a pan-Asian deity, and one of the most popular gods of Hinduism. As the remover of obstacles and the patron of arts and sciences, he is honored at the beginning of any religious ceremony. Ganesha is also the son of Shiva. If the Olmecs were aware of Shiva, they could have been acquainted with Ganesha as well.

Ganesha in Olmec iconography

The presence of Ganesha in Mesoamerica is borne out by yet another figurine which was found in Campeche, Mexico, dated to c.600 – 900 CE.[9] It is that of a portly, elephant-headed person, dressed in ornaments and a crown, with his left hand raised in blessing, and holding a mace in his right hand. The figurine is certainly that of Ganesha, which establishes beyond doubt that the Mesoamericans were familiar with the deity by 600 – 900 CE. This makes it more likely that the Olmec figurine of the elephant-headed person is that of Ganesha.

Ganesha figurine found in Campeche, Mexico, c.600-900 CE. Source: http://el-libertario.webnode.es

The Ganas 
Another Olmec sculpture suggestive of Hindu influence in Olmec culture is on display at the Museum of Anthropology in Jalapa, Mexico. It is an Olmec altar supported by a pair of dwarves with upraised hands. Scholars speculate that the altar may have been used for religious ceremonies, or it could have been a throne on which the ruler sat.

Exactly the same type of dwarf figures called “ganas” are often depicted below the cornices in Hindu-Buddhist temples! They are a portly bunch of merrymaking dwarves, who hold up and protect the temple. They are depicted with upraised hands supporting the temple, as well as in a variety of poses – singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, clapping etc. The ganas are dressed in loincloths, ornaments, and sometimes a head-dress as well. It is astonishing to see how much they resemble the dwarves on the Olmec altar. There is no doubt that the same concept was being put into execution by both cultures.

 Ganas in Olmec and Hindu iconography.

Interestingly, the ganas are regarded as attendants of Shiva and the leader of the ganas is Ganesha (who is called ganapati i.e. “Lord of the Ganas”). Thus, a set of closely linked religious constructs of Hinduism – Shiva (the Lord of Yoga), Ganesha (the son of Shiva), and the ganas, who are the attendants of Shiva and the followers of Ganesha – appear to have been known to the Olmecs.

The ancient Egyptians also worshipped a dwarf deity called Bes, who was the protector of the household and of childbirth. He is depicted below a cornice at the Denderah Temple complex, which suggests that he played a similar function of supporting the temple in Egypt. However, stylistically the dwarf figures in the Olmec altar most closely resemble those seen in Hindu-Buddhist temples.

The dwarf deity Bes depicted below a cornice in the Denderah Temple complex. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kalamukha: The Face of Time 
One of the most significant pieces of monumental Olmec sculpture is the Altar 4 at La Venta. The altar shows a figure seated at the entrance of a central niche which symbolizes a cave. The Olmecs and other Mesoamerica cultures regarded caves as sacred places. Human beings were fashioned inside a cave at the center of the world from where they emerged to serve their patron deities. Caves also provided a pathway to the underworld – the land of the ancestors. Given the sacred connotations associated with a cave, it appears that the figure seated at the entrance is that of a deity or a revered ancestor (although some scholars think of it as a ruler).

On the cornice above the deity is a depiction of a fearsome face with sharp fangs. The deity appears to be seated in the mouth of this monster. All around the cave entrance there is a serpentine foliage pattern terminating in what appear to be “flower buds”. The same design motif can be seen carved on the lintel stone above the entrance to many Hindu-Buddhist temples of India and South-east Asia, where it is called Kalamukha (Face of Time) or Kirtimukha (Face of Glory).

Kalamukha (the Face of Time) in Olmec and Hindu-Buddhist architecture

The Kalamukha is a fearsome monster face, with large bulging eyes, and a gaping mouth with huge fangs. From its mouth, it spews forth a serpent body, wreathed in foliage, which runs downward to frame the entrance on either side. Generally, the lower jaw of the monster is absent, which creates the impression of being devoured by the Kalamukha as one enters the temple. The Kalamukha is also used as a decorative motif above niches on the temple walls.[10]

In the Indian tradition, Time is synonymous with Death, so the Face of Time is also the Face of Death or the Face of Yama – the God of Death and the Lord of the Underworld. The jaws reject what is toxic and undesirable, and allows only the pure soul to come in the presence of the Great Spirit. It controls the passage from the multiform world of senses to the state of primordial unity, from the cycle of birth and death to the realm beyond time and death. In Buddhist art, the Kalamukha represents Shinje (the Tibetan equivalent of Yama), who holds the Wheel of Life in his mouth and devours all beings figured there, signaling his control over the cycles of birth and death.

It is likely that the symbol carried an analogous meaning amongst the Olmecs. The face above the La Venta altar resembles the Kalamukha, and even the “foliage pattern with flower buds” depicted on either side of the seated deity looks similar to that seen in Hindu-Buddhist temples. So, not only is there an overlap of a complex religious concept, but even the stylistic execution is similar. 
The subsequent cultures of Mesoamerica, including the Mayans, adopted the Kalamukha motif, which was depicted above the entrances to their temples and cave sanctuaries. Mayan deities were depicted seated below the Kalamukha with the serpentine foliage coming out of the mouth and framing the sculpture.

Kalamukha in Mayan and Hindu-Buddhist Temples and cave sanctuaries.
The Kalamukha in Mayan and Hindu-Buddhist art

The Lion Guardians 
While the Kalamukha protects the temple entrance, a pair of “lion guardian” statues flanks the temple gate of most Hindu-Buddhist temples. Sometimes multiple lion statues are positioned along the access road or stairway leading to the temple entrance, and all around the temple walls. The lions are typically in a seated position, having bulging eyes and a gaping mouth exposing sharp fangs. In Olmec art, and that of the subsequent cultures of Mesoamerica, it was the jaguar that was depicted in a very similar pose.

Olmec Jaguars and Lion Guardians of Hindu-Buddhist Temples

At San Lorenzo, a pair of jaguar statues was found at the entrance to the southern plateau, which suggests that they may have served a protective function. “The two felines (at San Lorenzo) are of different sizes but fairly similar in shape. They sit so that their front and rear legs are nearly on the same plane…The cats display their upper fangs and central front teeth but without any tension that would convincingly indicate a threatening movement.”[11]

Like the lion of Asia, the jaguar was revered by the Mesoamericans. Mayan deities such as God L who is “the primary lord of the underworld” is often shown with jaguar ear or jaguar attire, and atop a jaguar throne.[12] Maya kings also donned jaguar pelts, and adopted the jaguar as part of their ruling name. One such ruling family is known as Jaguar Paw, who ruled the Maya city of Tikal in the fourth century.[13]  

Similarly, all over the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of South Asia, we find deities such as Buddha, Ganesha and others depicted seated on lion thrones. “The lion as the king of the beasts has long been the symbol of royalty; the throne on which Indian kings sat was called simhasan, “the seat of a lion” (or “lion-throne”), and had representations of lions on the base of the throne.”[14]  The surname “Singh” (meaning “lion”) was used by a long line of Rajput kings such as Jai Singh, Uday Singh etc.

Mayan Jaguar throne and Hindu Lion throne

The concept of lion guardians was prevalent all over West Asia, Greece and Egypt. In Mesopotamia, lions were the symbol of kingship. The Processional Way from the Ishtar Gate (in Babylon) to the temple of Marduk, was adorned with lion reliefs. In Assyria, Persia, and Anatolia, winged lions with the head of a man called lamassu (meaning “protective spirit”) were placed at the entrances to palaces and cities. A set of twelve squatting, snarling “guardian lions” were placed along the Sacred Way in Delos, Greece, reminiscent of the Avenue of Sphinxes in Egypt. 

Interestingly, in Egypt, the pharaoh sometimes sat on a “lion throne”, having images of lions sculpted into the throne. The Egyptian god Aker, who guarded the gates to the netherworld through which the sun entered the underworld at sunset and again emerged at dawn, was depicted in the form of two lions sitting back to back, supporting the horizon containing the sun-disk. Twin lion statues representing Aker were placed at the doors of palaces and tombs to protect against evil spirits.

Therefore, the ideas associated with the jaguar in Mesoamerica were not unique or unusual, but were widely prevalent in many Old World cultures. Stylistically, however, the Mesoamerican jaguars are most similar to those found in the Hindu-Buddhist temples. 

Guardian Lions in West Asia and Greece
Egypt – Lion Throne and Aker

The Olmecs, therefore, were not only earnest practitioners of yoga, but they appear to have been acquainted with the Hindu deities Shiva and Ganesha, and had adopted many elements of Hindu temple architecture such as the ganas, Kalamukha and the lion guardians. Their sudden appearance in Mesoamerica sometime around 1500 BCE, with all the evolved elements of their culture, can be most easily explained by a migration from the other side of the Pacific.

When we look at the various Olmec figurines in yogic poses, it becomes obvious that the Olmecs had distinct mongoloid features. Interestingly, some of the ceramic figurines of the yoga-practicing Western Mexico shaft tomb culture were named “Chinesco” by art dealers due to their Chinese-like appearance. For quite some time there have been talks of a Chinese presence in the Americas. In 1882, thirty ancient Chinese coins were discovered by a miner in British Columbia, in the auriferous sand twenty five feet below the surface.[15] The coins depicted the Chinese chronological cycle of sixty years, invented by the Emperor Huungti in 2637 BCE. In 1975, large numbers of Chinese stone anchors were discovered in 12 to 25 feet of water off the Palos Verdes peninsula south of Los Angeles. In an article titled Stone Anchors: Asiatic Shipwrecks Off the California Coast published in the Anthropological Journal of Canada, Prof. Moriarity and Prof. Pearson said that geological studies showed the stone anchors were not of Californian origin and cited this as evidence that Asiatic vessels reached the New World in pre-Columbian times.[16] 

Further fuel was added to the trans-pacific diffusion theory in 1996, when Dr. Michael Xu of the Texas Christian University put forward the hypothesis that the Olmecs may have emigrated from the Shang dynasty of ancient China.[17]

Migrations from AsiaMichael Xu had spent many years analyzing the inscriptions on a large number of Olmec jade, stone, and pottery artifacts, in particular the inscriptions on the six jade celts in Offering No.4 at La Venta. He was struck by how closely the symbols on these artifacts resembled Chinese bone inscriptions from the Shang dynasty (c. 1600 – 1046 BCE) who ruled in the Yellow River valley. “When I first brought my artifacts from the Americas to China, scholars there thought that I just had more samples of Shang writing” Xu says, “…The similarities are that striking.”[18] 

An emerging view amongst researchers is that the migration from China may have taken place during the Xia dynasty (c.2070 – 1600 BCE), which preceded the Shang dynasty.[19] The Olmecs called themselves “Xi” which could be derived from “Xia”. In addition, since the Olmecs did not have knowledge of metallurgy, the emigration should have taken place prior to the emergence of bronze metallurgy in China at around 1800 BCE during the Xia dynasty.

In 1975, Betty Meggers, a research archaeologist at the Smithsonian Institution, proposed a Shang dynasty influence in the Olmec culture. She thinks that Asian contact goes back even further, to around 3000 BCE. In 1965, she had observed striking similarities in the techniques and decoration motifs of the Jomon pottery of Japan and those excavated in Valdivia, Equador, and proposed a migration from Japan’s Jomon culture to Equador – an idea which was roundly criticized by archaeologists at that time – but has now found genetic corroboration.[20] 

Both Betty Meggers and Mike Xu believe that natural Pacific water flows, such as the Kuroshio Current from Japan and the Black Current from China, transported boats to the New World.[21] From the 1600s to the mid 1800s, several dozen Japanese ships were carried from Asia to North America along the powerful Kuroshio Currents.[22] It is improbable that such contact would have started only after the Europeans landed in America.

Mike Xu has pointed out that the Olmecs, like the Chinese, viewed jade as a precious and pure stone, which they carved into a variety of artifacts, including jade masks. A particular design called “Taotie” appears on Chinese jade artifacts and bronze vessels from the Shang dynasty. It is a gluttonous ogre mask, with large eyes, sharp fangs, and sometimes with no lower jaw. Scholars of religious symbolism regard it as the Chinese version of the “Kalamukha” depicted above the entrances to Hindu-Buddhist temples. The same design is depicted on the Olmec altar 4 at La Venta.

Fig 21: Jade Masks –  Chinese and Olmec
Fig 22: Taotie and Spiral motifs in China and Mesoamerica

The presence of the Kalamukha motif in Shang dynasty China is not surprising since there had always been a great deal of overlap between Chinese and Hindu religion, culture, philosophy, astronomy, and architecture. The Taoist philosophy is barely different from that of the Upanishads; the concept of energy meridians and chakras was known to both cultures; the Chinese concept of 28 lunar asterisms is same as the Indian Nakshatra system; and the Chinese calendric system, with its 12 year and 60 year cycles, is also prevalent in India.
Mike Xu mentions that both the Chinese and the Olmecs used a red pigment called cinnabar to decorate ceremonial objects.[23] I want to add that the custom of anointing ceremonial objects with red vermillion powder (which is obtained from cinnabar) continues to this day in India. Mike Xu also writes that the Olmecs and the Chinese have the practice of placing a few jade beads inside the mouth of the deceased.[24] An analogous practice in India is to place a few gold pieces on or inside the mouth (for gold carries the same sense of preciousness and purity in Indian culture as jade does in China).  Throughout Mesoamerica, right since the time of the Olmecs, conch-shell trumpets were used in a ritual context to announce the presence of the gods [25] – a practice that is still followed in Hindu and Buddhist religious ceremonies. Aztec kings signaled their troops to attack with conch shell trumpets [26], reminiscent of the Hindu mythological heroes in the epics such as the Mahabharata, who blew their conch-shells at the beginning of the battle. 

Fig 23: Conch shell trumpets were used extensively on either side of the Pacific for ritualistic purposes and announcing the beginning of battles.

It occurred to me that, because of the immense cultural overlaps between India and China, the Hindu-Buddhist influence in Olmec culture can be effectively explained by a migration from the Xia or Shang dynasty of China. Even yogic asanas, which the Olmecs practiced ardently, were known to the Chinese in the pre-Buddhist period. A number of jade statues from the Shang dynasty show people seated in the “Vajrasana” posture.

Fig 24: Shang Dynasty jade statue seated in the “Vajrasana” posture. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A pair of protective guardian lions stood outside Chinese temples, imperial palaces, and tombs from the Han dynasty onwards (206 BCE – CE 220) predating the arrival of Buddhist influence in China. The pair would consist of a male, leaning his paw upon an embroidered ball, possibly representing supremacy over the world, and a female with a cub under its paw, representing the cycle of life.[27] The stylistic representation is similar to that seen in the Hindu-Buddhist temples of India and South-east Asia, and the jaguar status of the Olmecs and other Mesoamerican cultures.

Fig 25: Stone statue of a guardian lion at Mount Emei in China. Source: Wikipedia

I could not find any Chinese version of the ganas – the dwarf figures that support the Hindu-Buddhist temple. But, what I did find is that both Shiva and Ganesha were a part of the Chinese religious tradition as early as the 4th century CE. A painting of the elephant-headed Ganesha, seated next to a four-armed, trishula-wielding Shiva, is found in Cave 285 at Dunhuang’s Mogao caves. The chamber was excavated in the Northern Wei dynasty (c.386-534 CE).[28] Thus, the knowledge of Ganesha and Shiva could have also passed on to the Olmecs through a migration from ancient China.

Fig 26: Ganesha and Shiva in Cave 285 at Duanhuang’s Mogao caves. Source: http://aasilkroad.blogspot.in/

The remarkable similarity between stepped pyramids on either side of the Pacific – which has already been pointed out by many researchers – is also very important indication of ancient contact between Asia and the Americas. The Olmec pyramid at La Venta, made of earth-fill, presently has a conical shape due to 2500 years of erosion. Originally, however, it was a rectangular pyramid with stepped sides.[29] It resembles the stepped pyramids of China, which were built as tombs for the elite, and the temple pyramids dedicated to Hindu gods in South-east Asia.

Fig 27: Stepped Pyramids on either side of the Pacific.

Undeniably, there is significant evidence suggesting that the Olmec civilization, which appeared in a fully formed state in Mexico sometime around 1500 BCE, adopted many elements of Hindu temple architecture, yogic practices and deities, as well as Chinese artistic styles, traditions, and the Shang script. 

These striking correlations can be effectively explained by migrations from Asia, most likely from the Xia or Shang dynasty of China. This was by no means the first wave of migration from Asia, or the last. Research archaeologist Betty Meggers theorizes that Asians have traveled to and from the Americas for thousands of years.  According to her, “Ancient man saw the ocean as a superhighway and not as a barrier”.[30] I have discussed further evidences for these trans-pacific contacts in a subsequent article titled “The Turtle supporting Mount Meru in Asian and Mesoamerican Art”.

Although trans-pacific diffusion theories were widely discussed in academic circles in the first half of the 20th century, since the 1970s American archaeologists have treated the subject with disdain, which has brought about a virtual moratorium on contact studies. “While European and Pacific archaeologists were still willing to consider diffusion, American archaeologists tended to see necessity as the mother of all inventions…With a few key exceptions, there was no serious discussion of transoceanic influences on the Americas between 1980 and 2005 in mainstream American journals.”[31] 

The volume of evidence in support of transoceanic contact between Asia and the Americas has been steadily growing, however, and the nature of the connections is so complex and precise that it cannot be explained away as an in-situ development.  One can only hope that a new generation of historians and archaeologists will shake off the rigid dogmas that seem to guide the mainstream version of history,  and take due account of the plethora of archaeological and cultural evidence that indicates deep connections between the ancient civilizations of Asia and the Americas.  


End Notes

 [1] “India Documents 900 Yoga Poses to Block Patents”, Voice of America News 11 Jun 2010 <http://www.tkdl.res.in/tkdl/PressCoverage/important_news/VOANews_11-06-2010.pdf>

[2] Nigel Davies, The Ancient Civilizations of Mexico (Penguin Books, 1982) 55.

[3] Andrei A. Znamensk, The Beauty of the Primitive: Shamanism and Western Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2007)182.

[4] Refer Note 1

[5] Western Mexico shaft tomb tradition, Wikipedia.

[6] Michael D.Coe,”Image of an Olmec ruler at Juxtlahuaca, Mexico”, Antiquity Vol. 79 No. 305, September 2005.

[7] “THE CASE OF THE MISSING ELEPHANT”, The Official Website of Zecharia Sitchin 2000 <http://www.sitchin.com/elephant.htm>

[8] <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2328374/A-giant-meteor–overhunting–wiped-woolly-mammoth-struggled-cope-rapid-climate-change-followed.html>

[9] Strange Figurines < http://el-libertario.webnode.es/en/estatuillas-extranas/>

[10] Adrian Snodgrass, The Symbolism of the Stupa (Motilal Banarsidass, 1992) 306.

[11] Carolyn E. Tate, Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture: The Unborn, Women, and Creation (University of Texas Press, 2012)126.

[12] Benson 1998: 64-65 taken from Wikipedia (Jaguars in Mesoamerican cultures)

[13] Coe 1999: 90 taken from Wikipedia (Jaguars in Mesoamerican cultures)

[14] Sehdev Kumar, A Thousand Petalled Lotus: Jain Temples of Rajasthan : Architecture & Iconography (Abhinav Publications, 2001)155.

[15] James Dean, “Anthropology”, The American Naturalist, University of Chicago Press for The American Society of Naturalists, January 1884, 18 (1): 98–99 taken from Wikipedia (Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact theories)

[16] Larry J.Pierson and James R. Moriarty, “Stone Anchors: Asiatic Shipwrecks off the California Coast,” Anthropological Journal of Canada, 18:17, 1980

[17] Jennifer Viegas, “Early Crossings: Scientists Debate Who Sailed to the New World First ” ABCNEWS.com <https://web.archive.org/web/20010815211144/http://www.abcnews.go.com/ABC2000/abc2000science/newworld991019.html>

[18] ibid.

[19] Christian Lemoy, Across the Pacific: From Ancient Asia to Precolombian America (2011) 45

[20] Brad Lepper, “JAPANESE FISHERMEN DISCOVER AMERICA 5,000 YEARS AGO?” Ohio History Connection 19 May. 2013 <http://apps.ohiohistory.org/ohioarchaeology/did-japanese-fishermen-discover-america-5000-years-ago/>

[21] Jennifer Viegas, “Early Crossings: Scientists Debate Who Sailed to the New World First ” ABCNEWS.com <https://web.archive.org/web/20010815211144/http://www.abcnews.go.com/ABC2000/abc2000science/newworld991019.html>

[22] James  Wickersham, “Origin of the Indians–The Polynesian Route” American Antiquarian(1892)16:323-335 taken from Wikipedia (Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact theories)

[23] Jocelyn Selim, “Chinatown, 1000 B.C.” DISCOVER Vol. 21 No. 2 (February 2000) <https://web.archive.org/web/20010807034244/http://www.discover.com/feb_00/breakchinatown.html>

[24] Ibid

[25] Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, trans. Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O Anderson (University of Utah Press, 1950-1982)I:29

[26] Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988) 96

[27] Wikipedia (Chinese Guardian Lions)

[28] Ganesh: Studies of an Asian God, ed. Robert L. Brown, (SUNY Press, 1991)271.

[29] Walter Robert Thurmond Witschey, Clifford T. Brown, Historical Dictionary of Mesoamerica (Scarecrow Press, 2012)180.

[30] Jennifer Viegas, “Early Crossings: Scientists Debate Who Sailed to the New World First ” ABCNEWS.com <https://web.archive.org/web/20010815211144/http://www.abcnews.go.com/ABC2000/abc2000science/newworld991019.html>

[31] Terry L. Jones, Alice A. Storey, Elizabeth A. Matisoo-Smith, José Miguel Ramírez-Aliaga

Rowman Altamira, Polynesians in America: Pre-Columbian Contacts with the New World (2011) 63