Xoc: A Broken Past

In December 2015, the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City recuperated the Bas-relief known as Xoc. An Olmec sculpture, just over 2 meters tall, once sat in the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas until it was chipped off its original location and sold to a private collector in France.[1] Xoc is carved on limestone, and the seven-foot-tall figure displays a male wearing an elaborate headdress and a breechcloth; he has Olmec-like thick limbs, an absent neck, and small feet. Based on the talons drawn on his feet and the beak-mask over his face, he appears to be a representation of a man-bird or man-jaguar combination, carries a knife-like object in his right hand, and a large bundle of a maize plant on his left arm.[2] While held together by a metal harness and displayed as part of an exhibition upon its return, Xoc represents the mystery that surrounds the Olmecs to this day.

The Olmecs were situated along the humid lowlands in the Gulf Coast of Mexico that includes todays southern Veracruz in San Lorenzo’s Tenochtitlán and Hidalgotitlán (directly south of the coastal city of Coatzacoalcos), and stretching west into La Venta, Tabasco. The original name by which they called themselves is unknown, and the only thing we have to examine them by are the huge basalt monuments that depict rulers and supernatural beings. The peak for the Olmecs was during the Early (1200 BC to 900 BC) and Middle Formative Periods (900 BC to 400 BC). During this time, they transitioned from small-scale societies to settled towns and cities, and incorporated a water drain system made of stone which can still be found today. The Olmecs were some of the earliest complex societies in Mesoamerica that began as hunters, planters, and fisherman, to eventually established warriors, long-distance traders, stone carvers and craftsman, master town architects, and supreme rulers. They often buried jade, ceremonial axes, woodworking tools, large natural rubber balls (representing the earliest sign of the ball game of anyplace in ancient Mesoamerica), and other ceramic vessels that served as mortuary offerings.[3]

The Olmecs sculpted animals from their geographic region to represent themselves such as jaguars, serpents, alligators, sharks, and harpy eagles. Their figurines have commonly depicted babies in chunky, naked forms combined with jaguars and crocodiles while also physically representing spiritual beings that once inhabited the Olmec cosmos. These babies were normally carved in the arms of a more noble seated character displaying similar mystical features. This incorporation of natural elements of earth, sky, and water in their stylistic legacy influenced later civilizations. Olmec sculpture has come to be recognized as some of the finest art styles in Pre-Columbian America.[4]

Officially discovered in 1928, Xoc received multiple visits from scholars over the next forty years until it was taken by looters sometime between 1968 and 1972. Xoc’s first photograph was published in 1959 by photographer Wolfgang Cordan and was revisited several times by archeologist Susanna Ekholm-Miller, until its departure. Further studies of Xoc have found that it originates from the Middle Pre-classic period based on discoveries found along its base prior to its removal. Archeologists have found items including ritual axes made of jade and copper, pottery, and a protohistoric copper axe, all of which have aided in dating Xoc’s origination date.[5] The mask worn by Xoc is another clue indicating who he might generally be, as masks were commonly worn by “priests,” and the items found near the rock site suggest the sculpture may have been created for ritual performances. Stone carvings were also commonly used in ritualistic practices and played performative roles during the Formative Period, all aligning with Xoc’s characteristics.[6] The successful date placements of other Olmec sculptures have shown similar iconographic motifs, like the statue found along the Pacific Coast of Pijijiapan. While not yet fully understood, further studies of Xoc provide a clearer picture as to how far Olmecs thrived geographically, how they viewed themselves in the world, and how vast their scope of influence was.

Xoc once stood as a solid figure along the Jatate River in Ocosingo, Chiapas for over three thousand years, but is now part of the collection in Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology. The Olmec’s influence is present across multiple Gulf states in Mexico which helps scholars pinpoint discoveries akin to Xoc. For instance, the styles used in the chubby Olmec infant figurine found near Mexico City links the piece to Early Formative San Lorenzo. Similarly, rock carvings, figurines, and other ceramic pieces found in the Mexican state of Morelos have tied the styles to Middle Formative La Venta. While cultural pieces similar to Xoc have been studied repeatedly, there is still an absence of a complete picture. The fact that Xoc is no longer in its original location creates a new wave of challenges for historians and archeologists as they must now utilize two separate areas. For the native people of Mexico, it means completing a large part of their cultural identity that has been stripped from them over hundreds of years. The Olmecs are certainly one piece of many, but still carry foundational knowledge of the natives of Mexico. Nevertheless, the recuperation of Xoc is one step in the right direction for Mexico in their search for ancestral legacy.