Pre-Columbian, Mexico, Olmec culture, ca. 1200 to 800 BCE. An incredibly rare, lifelike portrayal of a human figure, probably a child based on its delightful, pudgy face, hand-carved from dark grey volcanic stone. The child sits with its legs crossed, its hands resting on its knees, and its torso erect. The fingers, toes, and musculature of the torso are nicely carved. The face is classically Olmec, with a large forehead, almond-shaped eyes, a wide nose, and large-lipped mouth. Small teeth are visible between the slightly parted lips. Deep lines are incised into the head to create eyebrows, giving the impression that the child is scowling. Ears are carved on either side of the head. The hollow eyes likely once had an inlay, perhaps of shell, and based on similar known sculptures, the entire child was probably once painted white with red details. Size: 9.7" W x 15" H (24.6 cm x 38.1 cm)
The Olmec are the ancestors of all Mesoamerican civilizations, and their artistic style, practiced in the tropical lowlands of south central Mexico and diffused outward through extensive trade networks that stretched into northern Mexico and central America, was inspirational for those who came after. The Olmec style became synonymous with elite status in the highlands. They created enormous stone heads, probably the first thing many of us think of when we remember the Olmec, but they also made more easily transportable figures like this one. Many of these portrayals are of children or infants, but their meaning remains a complete mystery. Based on a few known sculptures and the much later Maya practice of referring to young people as "ch'ok", referring to a maize sprout, there seems to have been a symbolic connection between children and the sprouting of the harvest. Roughly life-sized figures like this one may also have been stand-ins for actual children who were ritually sacrificed to bring on that harvest. For example, at the El Manati archaeological site in Mexico, the remains of several infants were found with wooden busts of children with similar facial expressions to the better-known stone and ceramic representations. This stone example was probably placed into a tomb.
Accompanied by a Preusser analysis from 2010 that concludes that it is indeed ancient - that there is nothing about the piece to suggest it is not of the correct age.
Provenance: private Southern California, USA collection, acquired in the 1970s
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