The Art and Architecture of Ancient America: The Mexican, Maya, and Andean Peoples

By George Kubler | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
THE GULF COAST
FROM south to north, the coastal plains with their dense forests can be divided into three archaeological regions.
1. (1) The deltas of the rivers of southern Veracruz and Tabasco, on the gulf side of the isthmus of Tehuantepec. These were occupied by a branch of Olmec civilization, which had other manifestations from pre-Classic times onwards, in the Petén Maya district, at Monte Alban in Oaxaca, in the Guerrero and Puebla highlands, and in the Valley of Mexico.
2. (2) Central Veracruz, including the Mistequilla district in the south. This is bounded on the north by the Pánuco river. The district about Cempoala was inhabited at the time of the Spanish Conquest by Totonac tribes. Their name is often, but inaccurately, used to describe the artifacts of the whole central region.
3. (3) The Huasteca territory, north of the Pánuco river. This is named from tribes speaking an archaic form of Maya, tribes who were separated from their Maya relatives during the first millennium B.C.1

The southern, or Olmec, peoples were most influential in pre-Classic times. The central coast was most advanced in the Classic and post-Classic eras. The Huasteca region produced its most distinctive forms of art under Toltec influence and later. The three regions are usually discussed together because of geographical and climatic similarities, rather than because of resemblance in culture. Indeed, the external relationships of the three regions were usually closer to the highland territories of central and southern Mexico, or to the lowland Maya, than to one another. The result is a chequered history, reflecting many cross-currents of migration and trade.


THE OLMEC STYLE

The term signifies the rubber-people, the dwellers in Olman. To the Aztecs, whose history is limited to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the name signified an ethnic group strewn to the south, but it included many tribes and several historical transformations, which have still to be elucidated.2 Archaeological knowledge of Olmec culture is restricted to the Formative and Classic periods, especially in southern Veracruz and western Tabasco, on the sites of Tres Zapotes, La Venta, and San Lorenzo.3 Like the art of Teotihuacán and of the central Maya peoples, Olmec art is a recognizable and definable entity. It appears in the highlands of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Puebla, as well as in the Valley of Mexico. Traces of it are evident in the earliest monumental art of the central Maya. The style centres upon anthropomorphic representations of jaguars (Plate 28A), in sharp contrast to the Maya and Mexican highland preoccupation with plumed serpent

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