Secrets of the Ancients: Olmec Heads

1999, History  -   89 Comments
Ratings: 6.00/10 from 44 users.

Secrets of the Ancients: Olmec HeadsOver three thousand years ago, in the fertile jungles of lowland Mexico, the first civilization in the Americas was born. Five hundred years before Rome was founded, the Olmec were building great cities with pyramids and ball courts.

Considered by most archaeologists to be the mother culture of Mexico, the roots of the later Maya and Aztec cultures lie with the Olmec.

One of the most extraordinary feats of the ancient Olmec was their monumental sculptures.The inhabitants of the site of La Venta erected huge sculptures, some of which weighed up to 40 tonnes.The most famous of these are the massive stone heads.

Believed to be portraits of their leaders, they are over two meters high and sculpted entirely without the help of metal tools.There are thousands of tonnes of stones at the site but, most extraordinarily of all, these sculptures are found in an area where there is no rock available.

The area identified as the source of the Olmec boulders lies in the Tuxtla mountains over 160 kilometers away. And between these mountains and La Venta the land is criss-crossed with massive rivers and swamps which would have made the transportation even more difficult. So how did the stones get to La Venta?

The thumbnail is made from the cover of book by David Hatcher Childress; art by Terry Lamb.

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89 Comments / User Reviews

  1. Giorgi

    The facial features of the stone heads are not necessarily negroid; they can easily be portrayals of the Olmecs themselves. And it may be possible that the heads were created using mould and cement-like technology, as all the other megaliths throughout the world. Everyone agrees that they have no idea how those stones could have been moved, so it is time everyone admitted that the ancients had certain technology that is not necessarily like our own, such as huge machines, and that these buildings were not moved but build on site.

  2. mysterioso

    "…believed to be portraits of their leaders…". Um, no. Olmec's would not have had negroid features. Sorry, huge fail on that one.

  3. fabio

    please get these dumb ass white boys off this site!!! the moors should have left your stupid asses in the dark ages the way they found your dumb asses! how your primitive pappy found his way to the dock is beyond me.


    That is what I hate about ancient mysteries, there never seems to be a definitive solution. Of course that is why they are mysteries I suppose.

  5. Lucien

    This scholarship makes no sense, and is rather tired. The theory has been used with Stonehenge et. al. and other historical sites where massive stone monuments are a fixture. If scholars have to argue that the Olmecs moved rock from 100 miles away, then they must tell us what was so special about La Venta to require so formidable an effort. The Olmecs could have just as well set up the carved heads not too far from where they quarried the stones. Something is missing here. Why carve big stone heads? What was the significance of the sculptures? And why did the coastal locations merited this honor? Those dots need to be connected to get a hint of why the people went to so much effort.used.

  6. musiomi

    we are more civilised couldn't a bunch of learned scholars i saw in the doc. be able to think something more creative? disgusting and waste of time and resources.

  7. chinaworld

    Kathryn, Polynesias and Melansians are of African descent.

    1. Luke

      Where do you get this hypothesis from? Polynesians and Melanesians are genetically distant from one another. Polynesians are close to Americans but not Africans.

    2. jim yow

      Melanesia is a group of islands a few miles East of New Guinea and includes the Solomon Islands. Polynesia is about 2500 miles to the East of Melanesia. The ancestors of both peoples came from South Asia.

  8. Kathryn

    I think the features of the Olmec heads resemble various Polynesian groups as much as or more than "negroid" groups. Broad noses, large lips, massive frames, and fierce countenance. These are very Polynesian. Secondly, I think it is possible that the Olmec didn't relocate the stones at all, but that many were "blown" into the area by volcanic eruption occuring long before the Olmec were in the region. They may have quarried incidental pieces to augment their designs and constructions. Also, perhaps the water levels were higher and allowed for much rock displacement. Also before the Olmec were in the area. Just some Ideas I hadn't heard mentioned.

    1. Luke

      I tend to agree very much with you. The native populations of central America resemble very much the statues. Flat noses and thick lips are not exclusively African features. Polynesian link seems highly likely, since Polynesians were historically oceanically highly mobile, unlike Africans, as far as we can tell.

  9. audiophile75

    THIS WAS A LAME DOC!!!!! I was hoping to learn something about the Olmec civilization but instead watched a bunch of idiots try to move some rocks for 40 minutes.

  10. Russell Sanford

    I feel stupider for watching this. The only reason I kept watching was in hopes to see these idiots drop a massive rock into the water. This doc wasn't on the Olmec at all, it was about 3 white dudes trying to move large stones. One of them was smart enough to stay at home.

  11. voxpop2012

    I think the olmecs covered these heads in rubber and rolled them as if they were rolling a giant ball

    1. Devon Griffiths

      Their rubber wasn't vulcanized - it wouldn't have been much use for that.

      I love these kind of documentaries, they are so incredibly arrogant and naieve. A few guys, in a week or two, are going to figure out the techniques it took an entire civilization centuries to perfect. It may have been similar to this the very first time they tried to move a stone, but after they'd been doing it for a couple hundred years, it would've been very routine and they would've been experts at doing it with the technology available. Just like master carpenters who have been at it for generations - you can't conclude anything about what they were capable of, from some amateur rookie spending a weekend at it.

  12. StinkyF

    There is also an argument that the Olmecs were Philipino, based on the facial features and evidence of trans-pacific travel.
    Who is right?

    1. chinaworld

      Indigenous Philipinos, the Dumagats, are of African descent.

    2. Luke

      I don't think she's talking about the negritos. The Olmecs may well be linked to Austronesian populations though that colonised the philippines and polynesia.

  13. Eniki520

    AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH wow, he didn't realize it would go faster down hill? obviously he was the most qualified expert to do this.

  14. noconman

    Just more evidence of the existance of physics beyond modern mans ability to understand, explain or duplicate. Good doc
    Makes one wonder what other secrets our hidden past holds.

  15. Ero Tui

    what if....
    - Olmec stone heads are giant clay made of LA VEnta sand+water+rubber+ volcanic materials+weather+ manpower shaped,curved in that very detail by their own hand ...

  16. KingHockeyMan

    From the Egyptiams to the Olmecs & the many others cultures whos knowledge of raw physical talents are lost to time. Imagine that, ...the lack the printed word. How frustating!

  17. Morenthal

    Looking at the figure heads it looks like if you spent the time to round the stone you could roll it instead of dragging it.
    Rock and Roll people !!

    1. Albert Shabani

      Thats exactly what i thought too, its much more practical and the heads seem to have a round shape anyway. Did they actually check if they were carved on the spot???

  18. Morenthal

    Looking at the figure heads it looks like if you spent the time to round off the stone you can roll it instead of dragging it. Just a thought

  19. Muhamed Al-humaid

    Just a few improvements to the model used:

    1. Build a bigger model. It seemed that the model used to carry the stone is a little bit small for carrying the rock, which also will make the model weak.
    2. Use strong people to move the model; maybe strong people like wrestlers or bodybuilders. I think that Olmec people where very strong since they live in an age where the human body is used a lot.
    3. Or use strong animals to move the model; elephants maybe I don’t know or other strong animals in the area. Where there any elephants in this area at Olmec times?
    4. Or use a combination of human- and animal power.
    5. Give yourself more than 10 days. Or better; forget time.

    This is what I can think of at the moment.

    1. Eniki520

      no beasts of burden in mesoamerica

  20. biomagic

    The intellectual vanity of archeologists, lack of creative thinking and not giving ancient peoples enough credit for their intelligence. Also, geniuses were born just as often then as they are today, not to mention just plain smart people.
    At the other end of the spectrum are the ones who say they must of had help from space aliens. Surely they had more important things to do.
    I know how they did it and I'm not classically trained.
    The field is replete with examples of this, such as depicting them wearing ragged animal skins and badly tailored clothing with dirt on their faces.
    You have to live it and think it. Most people have lost touch and become strangers to their own planet and nature. They die in the forest without their gadgets but I love it. It's the best church I have been in.

  21. Guest

    "Right," said Fred, "Both of us together
    One on each end and steady as we go."
    Tried to shift it, couldn't even lift it
    We was getting nowhere
    And so we had a cuppa tea and

    "Right," said Fred, "Give a shout for Charlie."
    Up comes Charlie from the floor below.
    After strainin', heavin' and complainin'
    We was getting nowhere
    And so we had a cuppa tea.

  22. geofred

    i think the olmec were smart enough to carve the rocks into sphereical shapes where they first found them. then roll the large spherical rocks to the site where they would then carve the heads. it would use less wood to lash twoo beams into a rail like system to roll the spheres down and the spherewould impose mch less drag than a flat bottomed rock. there have been large shereical rocks found else where in jungles that would help to support this therory . just a thought

  23. RileyRampant

    a number of these pieces, including heads, large stone objects, small figurines, etc., were displayed at the De Young in SF, and i had a chance to view them about a month ago. what is apparent to me, at least, is that these people retained a cultural memory from asia.

    some of the more natural faces on the non-ritualized masks or plates were dead-ringers for east asians.

    didnt see any evidence of african influence whatsoever. i'm not a pro. archaelogist, just a person who looks around at things, but the asian evidence was overwhelmingly clear.

    it also answers the question of how the heck did this culture arise, without local antecedent, while presenting such a high state of artisanship.

  24. msiax

    Those guys were hilarious!! This should be in the comedy section! When all those dudes were pulling on the rope and it broke! Classic! Only question, Did the rock just stay on the raft forever????

  25. Benoit

    Who are those two loonies? Really. This is not a documentary. It is more of a freak show.

  26. myles

    re Kari Chisholm--nobody's found any Olmec skeletons yet. They just found a cave which seems to contain some organic matter from Olmecs, but the Mexican govt hasn't given permission DNA studies yet.

  27. rtm

    to put it mildly, why do you think that the bush-men of africa are used as an example of early primative human behaviour?

  28. rtm

    I donèt get why everybody tries to prove that black people had something to do with white people existing and trying to prove that black people had some kind of advanced knowlendge of something hahahahah laughable in my opinion.

  29. Kari Chisholm

    What is it that African-American men can't get about DNA tests? Get a clue. They work. DNA is real. Olmec skeletons clearly contain Mesoamerican DNA, negroid!

    But this is par for the course. 90% of Americans decide what they want to believe, then work backward from the conclusion cherry picking the data.

    Exterminate all the brutes!!!

  30. anoneemus

    "African facial features'??? Rewriting/rethinking history??

    What are you going on about??

  31. greezy

    Great doc but there info is wrong the chinchorro from chile is older than the olmec

  32. Un manned keyboard

    Cogrates Vlatko on 20k subscribers you have a great site

  33. Sceptic

    Like the Egyptians, the Olmecs had an easy way of doing it all ... else why would they choose to do things the hardest way possible? They must have had developed technologies which are not mentioned here .
    This is a good documentary in the sense that it is entertaining to watch but it is too light as it is not very explanatory.

  34. coyote03

    We move 20 ton rocks and carve faces all the time, just not with primitive tools that would take us years upon years to complete. Most of these peoples weren't motivated by money, they were motivated by pain of death, I'd say we've come a long way!

  35. Jaguar

    The Olmecs are the same human being that we are today the only difference is time and motivation they had. At the moment the only motivation we seem to have is money no need to move 20 tons rock and carve faces. It sucks but that is how it is.

  36. coyote03

    @ squid

    It's not fake deadlines, it's about money! In the case of the documentaries, it is very expensive to pay for a film crew to travel to these locations, buy supplies, and pay the locals. They want to recreate things as best they can, but they do know it took incredibly long amounts of time to complete most ancient monumental tasks, they are simply doing the best they can under the circumstances.

    In the case of the loggers, time is money, if you can't produce enough logs in the allocated amount of time, you aren't making a profit! Your productivity needs to be very high to make a profit in that field of work.

    The crab season is short because they fill their quota in that set amount of time, it's not for drama, but for conservation of the species that they can only fish a certain tonnage during a small timeframe. Also, you don't want to keep crab on a boat for weeks at a time while you slowly fish, they'll die!

    These deadlines are out of necessity, the only fake deadline is the ones on shows like building a bike in a week, where it is strictly for the OMG can he do it in a week factor. Hope that clears some things up :)

  37. squid

    I am so tired of this "put a fake deadline on things to make them dramatic" style the bbc and discovery channel have taken up. Building a motorcycle? Put a deadline on it and let a bunch of melodramatic i@#$%& get worked up about the fake deadline to create false drama.

    Catching crab? put a fake deadline on it and let a bunch of melodramatic i@#$%& get worked up about the fake deadline to create false drama... Even though they are only allowed to catch a said amount.

    Pulling logs out of a forest? Put a fake deadline on it and let a bunch of melodramatic i@#$%& get worked up about the fake deadline to create false drama... The trees are not going anywhere.

    Just stop with the fake deadline drama c@#$ and let people build things without the drama. I am sure the Olmec people pissed on the fire when they didn't get it done in 10 days :/ Stop trying to make everything "reality TV".

    1. Jack1952

      Convince someone to underwrite all expenses until the job was complete. It would have to be someone with deep pockets. It would a very rare individual you would give Carte Blanche to such a project.

  38. Eric T

    I guess what really irritated me the most is that here is this white ex military guy, who I'm sure is very handy with ropes, and I won't denigrate his challenge, considering Mr. Engineer is laid low... and I'm not denying it would be hard no matter how you slice it; but when the going gets tough, and he needs a hand... Who do they send in? Another white guy, the sculptor. The dudes from the fishing village have worked with ropes and undoubtedly low tech solutions their whole lives, but the doc treats them like muscle. What about that Mexican dude we see right at the beginning who said they obviously brought the stones by water? Why didn't they get his help? The whole thing smacks of ethnocentrism. Not to the Olmecs, but to the Mexicans. Who knows? Maybe they did get all this input, but you'd never know it by watching.

  39. Carl Hendershot

    @Madhi what makes you think they were black. What if they were blue? Green?

  40. Madhi

    I suppose it is too far fetched to consider that these black people used mind power to both create the images in the stones and to move the stones to where they were discovered!

  41. Wayne

    I wonder why they didn't put wood rails under the barge to prevent the barge from digging into the soft lake soil? They used rails to move the stone. The idea was already there.
    I guess no one had any engineering computers handy to animate the idea before they took action.

  42. gero2006

    I enjoyed this documentary. Not sure it was very useful as archaeology but it was engaging. I admired Bob's ability to learn from his mistakes. This is what mature people do. Quite a few life lessons to be learned watching this.

  43. ez2b12

    I got to say I agree with "the loler" on this one. I mean we can build virtual reality environments and are on the verge of merging man with machine. We have mapped the human genome and understand a lot about genetic engineering. We can grow a human ear on a mouse that can later be used on a person, that's cool. Not to mention the world wide web, micro processing, electron microscopes, being able to engineer at the atomic level. Compared to this the pyramid or these carved heads just seem primitive to me. True enough we have trouble replicating their technics, but I think that's because instead of a priority it is a curiosity.

    I mean we put people on the moon and are soon going to Mars (I hope). So what if we can't move a bunch of heavy stuff without using our current technology. If we where willing to just go at it like we do building a skyscraper (cranes, cement,hydraulics- all that stuff) I'm sure we could build the pyramids, or any other man made structure from the past.

    I also agree with whom ever said they thought these people probably had the wheel. They said at the beginning that wood almost never survives to present day so what if they built them out of wood. Even if they where just sections of trees that where fairly round, its still a primitive wheel.

  44. coyote03

    They have only ten days because of their budget (ten days with a large crew is EXPESNIVE!!!), the BBC, PBS, and National Geographic all have specials where they go and attempt to rebuild or recreate the way in which an ancient culture erected or built one or several of their famous structures. The ten day trip is pretty standard, which is why they normally have to plan things out in advance. That being said, they have failed many other attempts in these type of shows, conditions on site always play a large factor.

    I'd say the water way seems most logical, the Egyptians were able to move their Obelisks (which weighed WAYYY more then the Olmec heads) by boat. These ancient cultures specialized in making and building things these ways, they perfected the techniques through trial and error over long periods of time. The people attempting to recreate these structures generally don't have the time, money or real desire to build them. You can't fault anyone for that, remember, most of these objects were built for Kings, it was their everlasting legacy and generally took years and incredible man-power to complete.

  45. the loler

    @ Stefan, so how did they come by this technology? And what did it consist of? You say they were WAYYYY more advanced than us, because we have a few dozzen pretty hardcore stone structures? You think a pyramid points to a technology that surpasses our own, even when looked at beside a city like Paris, London or New York? You talk about technology but theres more tech in your phone than there is in any of these stone structures which on a technical level are big stones arrange in alignment with stars. Spiritually maybe, we cant know, we have nothing solid to base that on.

    If you look at the steal skeliton of a skyscraper, the amount of floors, the people and objects it can contain, elivators, running water on tap, hot and cold, air conditioning.... What it takes to put one together technologicly is a hell of a lot more advanced than 'we worked out how to cut, move and stack big rocks'.

    Dig up some kind of buck rogers laser cutter and anti gravity lifting device from 5000 years ago and we will have something to go on, but all we have right now is big stones. One thing is for sure, if we were all wiped out by a killer bug tomorrow, an alien landing here in 50,000 years time would be able to have a good dig and find a layer of earth a fair bit down containing the remains of billions upon billions of bits of technology, machines that are perfectly formed on an ATOMIC level, sod this 'we cant get a credit car between the stones', compared to the intricacies of the processor in your computer its prehistoric in sophistication.

  46. Ben

    The parts about the olmec were interesting, the 10 day rock moving challenge was like a bad monte python skit. For one, why only 10 days? The olmec could have spent years on one one piece, considering how important it must have been for them. Also, they could have brought more people.

  47. Reasons Voice

    Honestly I think that it is modern mans over dependence on technology that is the failure. We need tech to get things done. They had no problem simply busting their A$$ all day every day for years. My guess is that in addition to being master craftsmen of their trade the stone tool using sculptors were in slightly better shape than that pudgy britt was.

  48. Stefan

    If your read "The Thiaoobu Prophecy" it will tell you how all the big rocks were moved :) Guess its a matter if u believe it or not. But how about Puma Punku. That site makes the great pyramids look like childs play. Ancient civilizations that have roamed our planet were WAAAY more advanced than were are. more importantly than technologically but spiritually. Just because they didnt have cell phones and computers dosnt mean they didnt have a technology that surpassed our own.

  49. the loler

    well the problem is A, we probably could build the pyramids, it would take too much money to make it happen but theres nothing actually stopping us in terms of physics. B, if their tech was greater than ours it must have been a very strange technology because theres no trace of it. If they became industrialised at some point, like us, we would know about it already. Theyve dug dinosaurs that are millions of years old out of the ground, and never once came across anything that sugests an industrialised city. You can find pots and carts, sword setc from Egyptian times, if they had a million+ metal cars, planes, skyscrapers etc like we do we would have found some of them.

    Im willing to humor the idea that maybe aliens came down and shared their tech with us for a time, then took it away with them, thats a possiblity, mankind having gone through a pervious industrial revolution and actually getting further ahead tech wise than we are now, on this planet, no, that just doesnt work out.

    Neither do people rolling 100+ tons rocks on palm trees over 100s of miles and carving obsidian statues using copper chissels. I love the atunning assumptions made by historians, 'they didnt have any wheels or pullys', right ok. The stonework guy said the carvings were masterfull, modern inteligent men are struggling to work out how to replicate what theyve done but theyre obviously too stupid to have udnerstood the principal of a wheel (even through theyre rolling the stones on.... round logs :facepalm:) or how to create a pully because we havent found evidence of them. To me thats just way too much assumption and it seems quite obvious that whoever build the pyramids and the sphinx, and other such wonders of the ancient worlds, aligned with planets and full of advanced astronomy were more than capable of understanding the concept of a wheel and a pully and didnt carve shit using copper chissels.

  50. TJ

    I wouldn't say that ancient peoples were more "advanced" than us just because we can't do what they did. They may have had more advanced techniques but remember that they spent decades on these projects, and that stone technology was the status quo. We probably can't do these feats because we've simply lost the techniques since leaving the stone age. Modern technology can't always compete with intense traditional specialization.

  51. dustin

    Not even scientists by my standards. Should have made a small scale model and done the physics before hand. Anthropology is c@#$.

  52. Philosophocles

    It was only ten days because after thousands of years of evolution, we more 'civilized' cultures should be able to move and carve a rock in no time at all. But goes to show you we are not as smart or as civilized as we think. We still have no idea how the olmecs made their heads, the Easter island heads, or the great pyramids. We speculate, but even with all our technology today, we still cannot recreate the great pyramid.

    Which brings up the question. How advanced are we really? And why is it so unbelievable that ancient civilizations had some better technology than we have ever heard/thought of? Just because you can't prove it does not mean it can't be possible.

    If we had a nuclear war, or major natural catastrophe almost all of our technology would be lost. Who would survive? Not the engineers and scientists, but probably your everyday, regular people.

    So why is it so implausible that these people were indeed more advanced than us? The proof is (as they say) in the pudding. If we can't recreate some uncivilized statues and monuments, then they must have been more advanced than us.

    Common sense. Most scientists don't use it.

    1. Jack1952

      We don't know how they did it. We know how we would do it but our way would obviously be different than theirs. We don't do it because we have no reason to and the expense would be exorbitant. Their religious beliefs compelled them to do these projects. The expense was of minor consideration. It had to be done. Their ability to complete the project was not due to an advanced technology but due to an advanced will. If someone, today, wanted to build a replica of the pyramids and had the money and time, it would be done. No one has come up with a good enough reason to justify the time and expense.

      You have no proof of advanced technology. When you can demonstrate these abilities and how it was used or even show one piece of archaeological evidence that this existed, then you will have this proof that you need. Until then, your claims are pure religious, magical mumbo-jumbo.

  53. Dr. Dunkleosteus

    I believe this doc was shown in class so our Professor could make a joke of the british anthropologists. I agree with Eric, why did it have to be just 10 days? Seems like they were setting themselves up for failure from the start.

    I'd really enjoy a doc that talks more about the Olmecs themselves.... not just how they moved rocks.

  54. Eric T

    The Olmecs were amazing and fascinating and we've learned so much about them and the challenges they faced... Instead we get to see an uninformed BBC crew muck around when hundreds of years of trial and error likely arrived at a solution we never get to learn of. This subject subject deserves the attention it deserves, but not in a 10-day Top Gear style. I'll grant that we don't know all that much about the Olmecs, but this doc barely scratches the surface of what we really do know.

  55. Totoeskhoo

    The doc is ok, it puts a nice light on the achievements of the olmecs, but i feel that the "engineer-rope-man" doesn't have enough knowledge of physics especially in the calculations for his water attempt. All in all i enjoyed the opportunity to ponder on the forces needed for such feats to be done.

  56. Joe_nyc

    This reminds of me of Coral Castle in Florida. But I believe he moved and carved mega tons all by himself.

  57. Carl Hendershot

    It was worth a shot. I would like to see them succeed in another documentary.

  58. twiggy

    White people...

  59. rtm

    hahaahaahahahaha wat a bunch of twats

  60. bert

    watching this i would say they (olmec) had another way of doing it!

  61. Dr. Dunkleosteus

    Haha, this is actually the doc we watched in class. Still worth another look though. Nice one, V.

  62. Dr. Dunkleosteus

    Love this subject! Learned lots about it in my Meso-American Anthropology class. *Watches*

  63. Achems Razor

    Enjoyed this doc. But still a mystery of how they moved the rocks.

  64. Tommy S.

    African facial features. This supports the rethinking of how America should re-write/re-teach its history.

    1. 666kkk6

      You better believe if the Olmec heads looked like Europeans , they
      would on television 7 days a week at prime time . The history and the
      real truth about the Olmec civilization is one of the greatest secrets
      that Eurocentric western academia is keeping under wraps because it
      would totally destroy all the myths of European White Supremacy

    2. Winston Smith

      There is no 'white supremacy' because 'race' is simply the result of ancestral adaptation over long periods of time to local conditions. . We all come from Africa and no two of us are more than 50th cousins apart, -however different we may look superficially