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The shark supernatural is an important, albeit poorly understood, element in Olmec iconography. This paper suggests that the shark-monster may have served as a central character in an Olmec world-creation story. As reconstructed, this story pits the water beast against a mythic hero—the hero loses a limb but the struggle results in the formation of the earth's surface. Iconographic referents to the shark-monster include "V-shaped" clefts, fine-line "finning," tooth-tipped scepters, and sharks integrated within elite headdresses. These readings offer an important alternative to conventional accounts that privilege terrestrial symbolism in Olmec iconography.
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PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
The shark supernatural is an important, albeit poorly understood, element in Olmec iconography. This paper suggests that
the shark-monster may have served as a central character in an Olmec world-creation story. As reconstructed, this story
pits the water beast against a mythic hero—the hero loses a limb but the struggle results in the formation of the earth’s
surface. Iconographic referents to the shark-monster include “V-shaped” clefts, fine-line “finning,” tooth-tipped scepters,
and sharks integrated within elite headdresses. These readings offer an important alternative to conventional accounts that
privilege terrestrial symbolism in Olmec iconography.
Department of Anthropology, Loyola University
Chicago, Chicago, IL 60626
The eye of the beholder seems eager to take up
where the Olmec left off.
Barbara Stark 1983:72
Readings of Olmec iconography do not
want for lack of inspiration. Serpents, jag-
uars, toads, manatees, crocodiles, and corn
are merely the first round of contenders
vying to crack the Olmec code (e.g., Coe
1989). Stark’s (1983) point is characteris-
tically understated and certainly well taken.
With the field already so congested, one is
loath to insert one more player into the
melee. Nonetheless, that action is precisely
the purpose of the following exercise. Be-
low I argue that piscine imagery, specifi-
cally related to the shark-monster or shark
supernatural, has been undervalued in ac-
counts of Olmec iconography. This circum-
stance may result from multiple causes, but
two factors particularly stand out. First,
Olmec archaeology has generally empha-
sized the importance of terrestrial re-
sources such as maize while overlooking the
aquatic bounty of a coastal, estuarine envi-
ronment (Arnold 2000). Second, an over-
reliance on the “continuity hypothesis” (Coe
1989:71) means that the Early and Middle
Formative (ca. 1500-400 BC) Olmec are
continuously recreated in the image of
groups some two millennia their junior and
who may share only the most distant of lin-
guistic and cultural affiliations.
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
As a consequence of these and other
factors, corn and bloodletting are domi-
nant themes in current treatments of
Olmec iconography. Still lacking, however,
are viable, context-dependent accounts of
why these meanings were relevant to the
Formative-Period Olmec. I offer one such
context below. Specifically, I suggest that
a portion of Olmec imagery references an
early version of a possible world-creation
myth. As reconstructed, part of this story
involves the defeat of a shark-monster
whose body was transformed into the
earth’s surface. The shark-monster-as-
earth, in turn, provides the foundation on
which the world tree is raised, thus estab-
lishing the axis mundi.
I explore this theme throughout the
following discussion. First, I offer archaeo-
logical background to justify the statement
that aquatic resources were probably more
germane to lowland coastal Olmec groups
than agricultural products. I focus on
coastal Olmec for the simple reason that
most permanent Olmec artwork was in-
stalled either in lowland settings or in up-
land sites with strong coastal ties. My less-
than-subtle working hypothesis is that
much of Olmec iconography originated in
the Mexican coastal lowlands (cf. Flannery
and Marcus 2000).
I then address shark-
monster imagery itself. Building on the
work of previous studies (e.g., Grove 1987;
Joralemon 1971; Joyce et al. 1991; Stross
1994) this section sets out the evidence for
a shark supernatural and reviews the suite
of motifs that may identify it. Finally, I
consider the possible sacred role of the
shark-monster, noting the various contexts
in which it appears. These contexts include
ritual offerings, sacred spaces, and the re-
galia used by elite individuals.
A Context for Reading Olmec
In 1942, scholars convened the Second
Mesa Redonda in Tuxtla Gutiérrez to con-
sider the temporal status of the newly
crowned “La Venta culture. In addition to
their consensus regarding the culture’s pre-
Classic status, these scholars also adopted
the term “Olmec” as a convenient short-
hand (e.g., Jiménez Moreno 1942:19). As
many readers are aware, “Olmec” derives
from the Nahua word “Olman” or “land of
the rubber” (e.g., Bernal 1969:11). Con-
tact-period documents linked an indigenous
group called the “Olmeca” with the south-
ern Gulf lowlands of Veracruz and Tabasco
(de Sahagún 1938:Tomo III, Libro X,133-
Fewer readers may realize, however,
that “Olmeca” was but one of several names
for the occupants of this coastal estuarine
zone. For example, de Sahagún
(1938:Tomo III, Libro X, 133, 139) also
referred to these people as “Uixtotin” or
“olmecas uixtotin” (also Piña Chan
1989:17; Scholes and Warren 1965:776).
“Uixtotin” means “people of the salt wa-
ter, an apt moniker that emphasizes an
equally important, albeit very different,
component of Gulf lowlands life ways. In-
terestingly, the Quiche Maya’s Popol Vuh
offers a parallel identification—an ances-
tral group “from the east” (i.e., coastal
Tabasco or southern Veracruz) is referred
to as both “Sovereign Oloman” (“Tepeu
oloman or oliman”) (Tedlock 1985:167-177,
361) and also as “Fishkeepers” (“Char [4hah]
car”) (Tedlock 1985:189, 336; also
Edmonson 1971:194).
Thus, contact-period sources clearly
linked Gulf lowland groups with a mari-
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
time lifestyle. Ironically, the decision to
call the archaeological culture “Olmec” and
not “Uixtotin” undercut this connection—
it set the stage for an emphasis on terres-
trial plants and animals as opposed to ma-
rine life and aqua-culture. Today, a subsis-
tence economy based on maize farming has
become the sine qua non of Gulf Olmec so-
ciety (e.g., Coe and Diehl 1980a:389,
1980b:144-146; Diehl 1996:31; Grove
Unfortunately, this emphasis on maize
agriculture has not lived up to its own bill-
ing (Arnold 2000, 2002). Early work at
San Lorenzo did not produce direct evi-
dence for corn; instead, conclusions regard-
ing an agrarian adaptation were drawn from
the presence of ground stone artifacts (Coe
and Diehl 1980b:144). Fieldwork reported
by Rust and Leyden (1994) near La Venta
recovered only minimal evidence of maize
dating before the site’s Middle Formative
occupation. More recent studies at Early
Formative San Lorenzo produced botani-
cal evidence in the form of maize phytoliths
(Zurita N. 1997), but the relative paucity
of that evidence speaks volumes.
settlement archaeology around Laguna de
los Cerros, located to the west of San
Lorenzo, suggests that the upland zone best
suited for corn faming was not utilized until
the end of the Early Formative Period
(Borstein 2001).
In fact, published subsistence data from
Gulf Olmec sites consistently emphasize
the role of fish rather than corn; for ex-
ample, snook (Centropomus sp.) was among
the most important protein sources at an-
cient San Lorenzo (Wing 1980:383). Rust
and Leyden (1994) recovered considerable
evidence for fish and other aquatic re-
sources at La Venta. This same pattern has
been confirmed by more recent fieldwork
at Isla Alor, on the outskirts of La Venta
(Raab et al. 2000).
The ubiquity of aquatic resources, at
the expense of domesticated cultivars,
dovetails nicely with the newest settlement
pattern studies conducted at San Lorenzo
and its hinterland (Symonds et al. 2002).
This research indicates that small, seasonal
sites (islotes) were the most common settle-
ment during the Early Formative period—
these sites were located in the floodplain
and probably represent the exploitation of
backwater swamps (Arnold 2000:129;
Symonds et al. 2002:63, 74). Even today,
flooding within the Coatzacoalcos Basin
remains a serious issue, with major floods
every 3-5 years and catastrophic flooding
on the order of every 50 years (Ortiz P.
and Cyphers 1997:39, Figura 1.4).
These data suggest that water, annual
flooding, and aquatic resources played a sig-
nificant role in Gulf Olmec life ways (e.g.,
Wendt 2003). Seen in this light, we are
encouraged to consider coastal lowland
Olmec iconography, particularly Early For-
mative iconography, in terms other than
maize symbolism. In fact, such a recon-
sideration has already begun; Taube
(2000:298-299) recently observed that
corn motifs and referents did not become
common in Olmec art until the Middle
Formative period was underway. An in-
triguing question, therefore, is what was
Olmec iconography depicting for the half-
millennium prior to ca. 700 BC?
The Olmec Shark-Monster
The Olmec shark-monster appears
among these earlier images. It can be found
on megalithic sculpture, on low relief
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
carved into living rock, on portable green-
stone celts, and on ceramic vessels. It is
especially associated with the Gulf low-
lands—most megalithic representations
derive from Veracruz and Tabasco, where
its depiction continued well into the Clas-
sic Period.
Surprisingly, the potential role of the
shark-monster in Olmec iconography has
received only sporadic attention. Published
papers by Joyce et al. (1991) and Stross
(1994) directly address this piscine super-
natural, while Grove (1987) anticipated
several of their observations. A two-vol-
ume treatise by Hellmuth (1987a, b) con-
siders the shark-monster and other aquatic
imagery dating to the Late Formative-Early
Classic transition. Joralemon (1996a:55)
identifies the “fish monster” as “an impor-
tant Olmec supernatural.
Perhaps the most overt instances of
Olmec shark-monster imagery occur on
three different items whose proveniences
are separated by hundreds of miles. San
Lorenzo Monument 58 (Figure 1a) was
excavated atop the Group D Ridge at San
Lorenzo Tenochtitlán by Francisco Beverido
in 1969 (Coe and Diehl 1980a:364;
Cyphers 1997:204-205, 2004:122-124). It
consists of a profile view of a shark super-
natural carved in low relief on a basalt slab
and probably dates to the Early Formative
The zoomorph’s body exhibits a
clearly marked dorsal fin as well as a bifur-
cated tail. A crossed-band motif (e.g., St.
Andrew’s Cross) appears just behind the
head and runs the length of the
supernatural’s body. The shark-monster’s
eye is rendered as an unfilled crescent or
trough and a large, bulbous nose graces the
upper lip. The shark-monster’s opened
mouth reveals two important traits. First,
the upper portion of the jaw is much longer
than the lower portion, a feature common
to sharks in general. In fact, this trait may
have evolved into some of the “long-lipped”
profiles seen in later Mesoamerican imag-
ery. Second, a series of three teeth are vis-
ible, including a single, larger tooth in front
followed by two backwardly curved ex-
Two additional features of Monument
58 are relevant. First, it was excavated
from a known context and can be reason-
ably dated. Second, the stone tablet is
rather large, measuring just over four feet
in length and almost a foot thick (132 cm x
72 cm x 28 cm). Thus, in contrast to the
portable items that form the main corpus
of Olmec iconography, it is doubtful that
Monument 58 circulated widely after its
installation at San Lorenzo.
Very similar shark-monster iconogra-
phy occurs farther afield. For example, an
incised blackware ceramic bottle, possibly
from Las Bocas, Puebla, offers a compel-
ling highland counterpart to the San
Lorenzo sculpture (Figure 1b) (Joralemon
1996b). Again, we see the shark-monster
in profile; its elongated body displays a
dorsal fin and a slightly uneven bifurcated
tail. The crossed-band symbol is placed just
behind the head, while three larger hori-
zontal bands stretch towards the shark-
monster’s tail. In addition, a series of thin-
ner slashes are used to accentuate the ap-
pearance of fins (e.g., Grove 1987:62); this
“finning” occurs on both the dorsal fin and
on the tail. The eye is composed of a lower
crescent with out-flaring edges; this lower
crescent is mirrored by another crescent
above. The shark-monster’s lower jaw has
been severely reduced, and is now indicated
by the merest suggestion of a curve. A tri-
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
Figure 1. Lowland and Highland representations of the Olmec shark-monster: (a) San Lorenzo Monument 58. Redrawn
from The Art Museum 1995:121; (b) incised figure on a ceramic bottle from Las Bocas. Redrawn from Joralemon 1996b;
(c) incised figure on a ceramic tecomate from Las Bocas. Note wing-shaped cleft in place of pectoral fin. Redrawn from
Joralemon 1971:Figure 100.
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
angular tooth adorns the front of the up-
per jaw, followed by a curved element that
represents a second tooth. The shark’s bul-
bous, pug nose is clearly visible.
A second ceramic vessel from Las
Bocas also carries the shark supernatural
(Figure 1c) (Joralemon 1971:Figure 100;
Joyce et al. 1991:Figure 4). The charac-
teristics of this image mimic those already
mentioned: a profile view that includes a
well-demarcated dorsal fin and bifurcated
tail with finning highlights and a well de-
fined, pug-like nose. The lower jaw is com-
pletely absent and the two teeth in this ren-
dition are inordinately large and amply ser-
rated. The eye is more trough-shaped than
crescent-like on this depiction. In place of
the crossed-bands behind the head, we see
instead a series of diagonal lines associated
with a wing-like cleft element. The lines
probably represent gills while the cleft
may substitute for the pectoral fin (see
In addition to the shark iconography
from Highland Mexico and the Gulf low-
lands, depictions of the shark-monster have
also been documented along the Pacific
Coast. One such image, also executed on
a portable medium, appears on the “Young
Lord, a greenstone figurine from the
coastal region of Guatemala or El Salvador
(Figure 2) (The Art Museum 1995; Clark
and Pye 2000:226; Joralemon 1996a:55,
1996c). This standing sculpture exhibits a
complex iconography and displays incisions
covering its arms, legs, and feet. Here we
Figure 2. Shark supernatural depicted on the “Young Lord” figurine. Note the swept-back head with double merlons.
Redrawn from Joralemon 1996c:Figure 4.
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
focus on the imagery that occurs on the
lower half of the body.
Two incised zoomorphs are present on
the legs of the Young Lord: a crocodilian/
earth dragon aspect on its left thigh and a
fish supernatural/shark aspect on the
figurine’s right thigh (Joralemon
1996c:215; Reilly 1991, cited in The Art
Museum 1995:281). The shark represen-
tation carries several of the conventions
mentioned above, but adds a few as well.
Additional iconographic elements surround
the shark-monster and validate its aquatic
First, we recognize the opened jaw
with a reduced lower segment. A large
tooth emerges from the front of the mouth;
in this case, the tooth itself is bifurcated.
A second, curved tooth appears behind the
first and ends in a double merlon. The char-
acteristic large nose is apparent, as are the
crossed bands positioned directly behind
the shark-monster’s head. Three dots have
been placed within these bands. The shark’s
eye is more half-moon than crescent-shaped
and is placed vertically rather than hori-
zontally. An upper fringe or merlon is vis-
ible above the eye and a backward curving
cleft represents a possible eyebrow. The
tail is bifurcated and displays the finning
evident on the pottery from Las Bocas.
Additional images and anthropomor-
phic profiles surround the shark monster.
Of particular note is the profile head em-
bedded along the back of the shark
supernatural’s body. The characteristics of
this head are similar to the shark-monster
itself: a long-lipped jaw with at least two
prominent teeth; a bulbous nose; and an
eye composed of a vertical half moon
Figure 3. Highland Olmec shark-monster depicted on the interior base of a ceramic plate from Tlapacoya. Note the series
of swept-back cleft elements that substitute for dorsal and ventral fins. Redrawn from Niederberger 2000:Figure 9.
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
crossed by a horizontal crescent. Atop the
head is a double merlon, followed behind
by an outturned or swept-back cleft ele-
ment. In fact, this combination of double
merlon and swept-back cleft graces the eyes
of two of the three profiles that surround
the shark.
It may be tempting to simply gloss this
swept-back cleft convention as another
example of the oft-invoked “flaming eye-
brow” of Olmec art. However, another
rendering of the shark-monster from High-
land Mexico suggests an interesting alter-
native. This image appears on an Early For-
mative ceramic plate from Tlapacoya (Joyce
et al. 1991:Figure 4c; Niederberger
2000:185). The Tlapacoya shark supernatu-
ral exhibits a suite of traits similar to those
documented above (Figure 3). The fish
zoomorph has a reduced lower jaw and two
large teeth that emerge from the upper
gum. Above the upper jaw is a large nose
and the shark’s eye is well represented by a
curved, crescent-like band. The body is
stocky and abbreviated with a rounded,
bifurcated tail.
This image is especially noteworthy for
the several appendages that emerge from
the body. These appendages represent fins
and occur on both the dorsal and ventral
portions of the shark-monster. The first
two dorsal fins and the single ventral fin
are cleft. Several of these fins have a
curved, swept-back appearance. The char-
acteristics of the remaining dorsal fins are
unclear; they are either without clefts or
they may simply reflect an artistic conven-
tion whereby the bifurcated fin is depicted
in profile.
The association of swept-back clefts
and fish fins gains additional support
through an independent identification made
by Schele and Miller (1986:119; Plate 30).
These scholars discuss a ceramic vessel ex-
cavated from below Group 9N-B at Copan,
Honduras (Figure 4). The carved/incised
image on the vessel includes a down-
turned, crescent-shaped element within an
Figure 4. Stylized shark zoomorph on a ceramic bowl from a Preclassic Burial at Copan. The representation includes an
upside-down crescent eye and a flattened nose. Both the swept-back dorsal fin and the tail terminate in clefts. Note the
finning on both the dorsal and tail fins. Redrawn from Schele and Miller 1986:119, Plate 30.
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
outline that terminates in a bifurcation
decorated with thin line finning. A second,
smaller cleft erupts from the top of the
image and is also curves backwards. Schele
and Miller (1986:119) describe it thus:
“The third vessel from the south building
has an odd design terminating in a bifur-
cated shape scored with parallel lines. This
motif and a smaller version to its left seem
to be fish tails, but the remainder of the
design does not correspond to a known
naturalistic form. Given the above discus-
sion it is possible to identify the Copan
image as a stylized shark-monster, complete
with crescent eye (in this case down-
turned) and a cleft dorsal fin. David Grove
(cited in Fash 1991:69) offers the same
conclusion regarding the Group 9N-B ves-
The realization that clefts may substi-
tute for dorsal fins encourages us to re-visit
the Young Lord figurine and reconsider the
profile head on the back of the shark-mon-
ster. I suggest that this profile head, with
its swept-back cleft and crossed-crescent
eye, may either depict an anthropomorphic
shark supernatural or a personified version
of the shark-monster’s dorsal fin. In ei-
ther case, such representations suggest an
early perception of the shark as a sacred
and powerful entity (e.g., Schele and Miller
1986:43-44). In addition, the possibility
that the tails and dorsal fins of the Olmec
shark-monster have a personified or anthro-
pomorphic variant raises the question of
whether there are frontal versions of these
same supernaturals.
In sum, a complex of several traits de-
notes the shark-monster in Olmec iconog-
raphy (also Joyce et al. 1991:9). These traits
include an elongated upper jaw and a re-
duced or abbreviated lower jaw. A single
large tooth usually erupts from the front
upper portion of the jaw; on occasion this
tooth is bifurcated. One or more smaller
teeth are placed behind the large front
tooth. These secondary teeth are often
curved backwards toward the interior of
the jaw.
The shark-monster often carries a bul-
bous or pug-like nose. This nose may be
clearly depicted or it may only be suggested
by a curved line. A crossed-band element
frequently occurs behind the head of the
shark-monster. In some cases this band is
replaced by a series of lines and “wing-like”
elements. These wing-like motifs are re-
ally the top of clefts and represent fins. The
shark-monster’s tail is bifurcated. Other
fins, especially the dorsal fin, are commonly
portrayed as backward curving appendages.
Fins can be augmented with a series of fine
lines; this process of finning occurs on the
dorsal fins as well as the shark-monster’s
The Shark-Monster as a Sacred
Although useful, the shark-monster
identification made above is by no means
novel—as already noted, several scholars
recognized the particular piscine charac-
ter of this zoomorph. Rather, based on the
prior discussion it is now possible to de-
tect the shark supernatural with greater
confidence and perhaps even distinguish
some of its geographical and chronological
variants. We are also better equipped to
consider the circumstances within which
Olmec shark-monster imagery occurs.
These circumstances are considered
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
below. First I address the rarer instances
in which the provenience of relevant Olmec
material is well established. This exercise
underscores the apparent sacred nature of
the shark-monster in Olmec thought. I
then investigate several images in which the
shark-monster interacts with human fig-
ures. These representations imply a
Mesoamerican world-creation event in
which a deity or mythic hero subdues the
shark-supernatural, ultimately resulting in
the formation of the world’s surface. Fi-
nally, I explore the association of the shark-
monster and ritual regalia. One set of ex-
amples involves scepters and batons tipped
with a shark’s tooth. The second group of
examples includes headdresses in which
shark imagery plays a central role. In these
cases the ruler appropriates the shark-su-
pernatural imagery to exemplify and rein-
force his position as axis mundi.
Shark Imagery from Known
In a series of studies dating to the
1970s, Peter David Joralemon (1971, 1976)
tentatively identified a suite of
supernaturals that occurred in Olmec ico-
nography. Among these representations
was “God VIII, one of four images that also
appeared on the Las Limas figure. This
sculpture, uncovered by children in the
small village of Las Limas, Veracruz in 1965,
consists of a seated, cross-legged individual
holding a smaller individual across his lap
(de la Fuente 1996; Joralemon 1996a). The
God VIII profile is located on the left knee
of the Las Limas figure (Figure 5).
defining characteristics are simple, but
should now be familiar: a reduced lower
jaw, a single large tooth emerging from the
upper gum, and an unfilled crescent that
serves as the eye. Although this image is
still occasionally characterized simply as a
“Death God” (e.g., de la Fuente 1996:170),
most scholars now accept it as the shark-
monster (Joralemon 1996a:55; Coe
1989:76; Grove 2000:279-280).
The presence of the shark supernatu-
ral on the Las Limas figure bespeaks the
central relevance of this entity to coastal
Olmec ideology. This importance is ech-
oed in additional Gulf lowlands contexts.
For example, a shark-monster effigy occurs
within the spectacular jade cache from
Cerro de las Mesas (Drucker 1955:Figure
4, Plate 40c). This cache was discovered
when excavations trenched Mound 1 at the
site (Drucker 1943, 1955). Although this
offering dates to the Classic Period, it con-
tained many greenstone artifacts that ap-
pear to be Olmec in origin. The inclusion
of the shark supernatural in this offering,
as well as the presence of shark-monsters
on Cerro de las Mesas stelae (see below),
indicates the powerful longitudinal impact
of this water beast along the Gulf lowlands.
It should not be surprising, however,
that shark remains per se are rare; as mostly
cartilaginous creatures, sharks have few
parts that will survive the ravages of time.
Shark teeth, therefore, are the most com-
mon direct evidence for this fish in archaeo-
logical contexts (e.g., de Borhegyi 1961).
Excavations at La Venta produced shark
teeth in a highly ritualized context. Dur-
ing the 1942 field season, workers explored
the area known as Complex A, located to
the north of the great Mound C-1 (Drucker
1952). A trench placed in Mound A-2 re-
vealed a closed “tomb” constructed entirely
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
of basalt columns. The remains of two
bundle burials were found within this fea-
ture—based on osteological and dental in-
dicators, Drucker (1952:23) concluded
that both individuals were probably juve-
Each bundle included a variety of ob-
jects. Among the items associated with
Bundle #2 was a single shark’s tooth, the
only such tooth in either of the burials
(Druker 1952:26, 196). A later investiga-
tion by de Borhegyi (1961) indicated that
this was the tooth of a great white shark
(Carcharodon carcharias). Coe (1989:79)
reports that “great white shark teeth, per-
haps in some cases of fossil origin, have
been excavated at both La Venta and San
Lorenzo. Coe’s reference to “fossil ori-
gin” suggests that some of these examples
are megalodon (Carcharodon megalodon)
teeth; these teeth are particularly large
(some exceed 10 cm in length) and derive
from Miocene sharks. Megalodon teeth
also occur as offerings at Palenque within
Figure 5. The Olmec shark-monster (“God VIII”) on the left knee of the Las Limas figure. Redrawn from The Art Museum
1995: Catalog 35, Figure 1 and Joralemon 1971:Figure 253.
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
the Temple of the Cross, the Temple of the
Foliated Cross, and Temple V, North Group
(de Borhegyi 1961:Table 1; Ruz-Lhuillier
Another relevant example of the asso-
ciation between shark teeth and ideologi-
cal contexts comes from the Early Forma-
tive site of El Manatí, located just to the
east of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán and south-
west of La Venta (Ortiz C. et al. 1997).
The El Manatí locale apparently served as
a sacred location, a place where ritual ob-
jects including wooden busts, greenstone
celts, and rubber balls were placed as of-
ferings. The waterlogged conditions of El
Manatí provide a preservation-friendly con-
text, yielding unparalleled information on
Olmec artifacts made from organic mate-
Among the items recovered from the
sacred spring is a cylindrical wooden ba-
ton or scepter more than three feet long
(110 cm) (Ortiz C. et al. 1997:89). A
shark’s tooth was embedded into one end
of the baton; this end is ovoid and bulbous,
recalling the characteristic nose of many
Formative shark images (Figure 6). The
baton was covered with red paint and may
have been purposefully interred between
two separate groups of wooden busts
(Ortiz C. and Rodríguez 1999:243-244;
Ortiz C. et al. 1997:89). The tooth-tipped
scepter straddled strata X and IX, a posi-
tion that dates the baton to the site’s Manatí
phase (pre-1200 BC).
The El Manatí finding, again under
controlled excavation conditions, confirms
that Olmec staffs were occasionally sancti-
fied through their association with the
shark-monster. The placement of the tooth
on the end of a three-foot long pole also
suggests that these batons were overt sym-
bols of power and prestige, rather than ev-
eryday bloodletters. The fact that Olmec
staffs were tipped with shark teeth also has
implications for conventional identifica-
Figure 6. Wooden scepter from El Manatí with shark tooth embedded in one end. Redrawn from Ortiz C. et al. 1997:Foto
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
tions of “torches” and “feather bundles, to
be discussed below.
The Shark-Monster and the World
The above examples demonstrate that
shark referents were sacrosanct; they were
incorporated into rituals and marked hal-
lowed contexts. Nonetheless, shark-mon-
ster imagery is manifest in other ways. One
such context involves depictions of the
shark supernatural engaged with an anthro-
pomorphic actor.
Perhaps the clearest example of this
interaction comes from the Codex
Ferjérváry-Mayer, a Postclassic-Period
document from Mexico. According to Karl
Taube (personal communication, 2004)
Folio 42 of the Codex Ferjérváry-Mayer
depicts Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli struggling
with the great water beast Cipactli (Figure
7). Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli ultimately looses
his foot to the supernatural’s terrible maw.
A parallel rendition of this event occurs on
Folio 26 of the Codex Vaticanus B. This
interaction is strongly reminiscent of an
Aztec world creation myth. According to
one version of the story, Quetzalcoatl and
Tezcatlipoca engage Cipactli, ultimately
Figure 7. The Aztec world creation story and the Cipactli shark monster as depicted in the Codex Ferjérváry-Mayer. Note
heterocercal tail and absence of saurian legs. After Nicholson 1985:107
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
tearing off its lower jaw. This jaw, in turn,
is transformed into the surface of the earth
(e.g., Nicholson 1985:107). During the
struggle Tezcatlipoca loses his leg to the
water beast’s mouth (e.g., Miller and Taube
1993:164). The fact that
Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli substitutes for
Tezcatlipoca in these images reminds us that
the continuity hypothesis must be applied
with caution.
The zoomorph depicted in the Codex
Ferjérváry-Mayer exhibits the tell-tale
traits of the shark-monster: a reduced jaw;
a single, large tooth emanating from the
front of the upper gums with smaller teeth
behind; and a bifurcated tail. According
to the Historia de los mexicanos por sus
And then they created the skies,
beyond the thirteenth, and they
made water and created a great
fish, called Cipactli, that is like a
crocodile, and from this fish they
made the earth…Afterwards,
when all four gods were together,
they made the earth from the fish
Cipactli, which they called
Tlaltlecuhtil, and they painted it
as a god of the earth, lying on top
of a fish, since it was made from
it” (Maria Garibay 1965:25-26,
cited in López Luján 1994:254).
Thus, while the Cipactli water beast of
Postclassic accounts is often understood as
a crocodile, it is instead a fish with some
crocodilian attributes.
Similar world-creation narratives per-
meate Mesoamerican ideology. One ver-
sion among the Yucatecan Maya holds that
Itzam Cab Ain (“Giant Fish Earth Caiman”
[Taube 1993:69]) is slain by Bolon-ti-ku.
Five trees are then raised on the back of
the dispatched creature to support the sky.
Perhaps the best-known version of the
Figure 8. The Olmec world creation story as depicted on Chalcatzingo Monument 5. Note pectoral fin behind the head
and cleft-fin markings on the tail of the shark-monster. Redrawn from Joralemon 1971:Figure 262.
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
Mesoamerican world-creation story comes
from the Popul Vuh of the Quiché Maya
(e.g., Edmonson 1971; Tedlock 1985). In
this telling the hero twins battle a water-
monster named Zipacna. Most scholars
agree that Zipacna and Cipactli are low-
land and highland variants of the same
word; nonetheless, their etymology re-
mains unclear. Interestingly, Edmonson
(1971:36) indicates that a prior translation
glossed Zipacna as “wise fish earth.
his part, Tedlock (1985:372) simply notes
that the Quiche Maya term for crocodile is
“ayin” rather than “zipacna” and observes
that the word “ayin” is absent from the
Popul Vuh. Thus, as de Borhegyi
(1961:293) proposed over forty years ago,
it is quite possible that the shark-monster
played an early role in the Mesoamerican
world creation myth.
The examples just noted derive, of
course, from the Postclassic Period. None-
theless, several Formative-Period images
represent a struggle between a human form
and a shark supernatural; these renditions
may recount an earlier version of the story.
For example, Chalcatzingo Monument 5
depicts a long, sinuous zoomorph with an
almost beak-like mouth apparently in the
act of devouring an individual (Figure 8).
A long bifurcated element extends just
behind the head of the human.
zoomorph has occasionally been identified
as a “feathered” or “avian” serpent (e.g., Coe
1989:76; Joralemon 1996a:58; Taube
1995:84), but an alternative reading is pos-
sible based on the following observations
(also Joyce et al. 1991:5).
First, the creature on Chalcatzingo
Monument 5 exhibits several of the traits
common to the shark-monster. Although
the lower jaw is not reduced, the mouth
displays a long, larger tooth at the front
followed by several backward curving teeth
(compare with Figure 1). Also present is
the accentuated nose common to Olmec
versions of the shark-monster. Just behind
the head are the crossed-bands that often
accompany the shark-supernatural and a
bifurcated/cleft dorsal fin adorns the back
of the creature.
The tail is rounded at the
end, but it carries two parallel clefts that
are consistent with a fin identification.
While some might be tempted to read these
marks as a snake’s rattles, Angulo V.
(1987:147) astutely observes that, if they
depict rattles, the rattles are inverted. A
greenstone Olmec “bloodletter handle” also
shows a cleft on a shark-monster’s tail
(Reilly 1995:Figure 35). In this case, a fig-
ure with a swept-back head “rides” the back
of the shark supernatural. As discussed
below, such riders” may occasionally serve
as personifications of the shark’s dorsal fin.
Another fin appears just behind the
shark-monster’s head on Chalcatzingo
Monument 5. Elsewhere this appendage
has been characterized as a “wing” or “paw-
wing” motif (e.g., Joralemon 1971:83).
According to Angulo V. (1987:147), how-
ever, it is “a clearly carved, fish-like fin.
Taube (1995:84) flirts with a similar iden-
tification for Monument 5: “On the Olmec
Avian Serpent, the paw-wings are imme-
diately behind the head, like the pectoral
fins of fish.
The swirls just below the
Chalcatzingo Monument 5 zoomorph have
also been used to support a presumed aerial
context; such swirls are sometimes associ-
ated with clouds or rain (e.g., The Art
Museum 1995:121). Given the additional
evidence, however, I agree with Grove
(1968:489) and Angulo V. (1987:148) that
in the present context the swirls are best
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
Figure 9. The Olmec world creation story as depicted on La Venta Monument 63. Redrawn from Follensbee 2000:Figure
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
read as water symbols. Reminiscent scrolls
adorn Olmec fish effigy ceramic vessels
from Highland Mexico (e.g., The Art Mu-
seum 1995:178, Plates 52 and 54; Benson
and de la Fuente 1996:190).
The interaction between the zoomorph
and the individual depicted on Chalcatzingo
Monument 5 provides additional clues to
its meaning. At first glance it may appear
that the shark-monster is in the process of
devouring the human. However, a particu-
larly insightful comment regarding this ac-
tion allows for an alternative scenario:
Esta feroz criatura está
representada en el momento de
devorar o de regurgitar a una
figura humana. Este personaje está
claramente delineado, excepto su
pierna izquierda que está
profundamente en la garganta del
monstruo (Reilly 1994a:249, em-
phasis added).
Thus, with the individual’s leg deep in the
shark supernatural’s throat, we encounter
the same relationship between actors indi-
cated in the Ferjérváry-Mayer and Vaticanus
B codices. Coupled with the evidence al-
ready discussed, it is reasonable to propose
that Chalcatzingo Monument 5 represents
an Olmec version of the world-creation
A second artistic rendering may also
represent this primordial clash. La Venta
Monument 63 is a rarely discussed stela
reported by Williams and Heizer (1965).
The monument was found within the cen-
tral area of La Venta, although the specific
location is not indicated. It stands over
seven feet tall (256 cm) and is sculpted on
a basalt column.
The image on La Venta Monument 63
depicts a smaller human who is facing and
apparently struggling with a creature al-
most twice his height (Figure 9). The hu-
man may sport a small pointed beard and
wears a headdress topped by a tied bundle.
His left arm is raised and his fist is clenched;
the arm awkwardly raps around the back
of the fish zoomoph. His right arm hangs
down toward the lower register of the stela
and may actually grab the attenuated tail
of the water creature. A fan-like element
behind the human represents one of the
shark supernatural’s fins. The shark-mon-
ster represented on La Venta Monument
63 towers over the human figure, look-
ing down with menacing intent. The
creature has the long upper jaw and re-
duced lower jaw of Gulf lowland shark-
monsters; it also displays the bulbous
nose associated with those same images.
A series of teeth erupt from the upper
jaw. A large dorsal fin appears at the top
of the shark-monster’s head and several
smaller fins are visible along its body.
In their description of La Venta Monu-
ment 63, Williams and Heizer (1965:19)
quote Carlos Pellicer who simply describes
the image as “a man hugging a monster.
Piña Chan (1989:239, Plates 78 and 79)
identifies the stela as “a figure holding an
enormous mythical fish with shark-like
teeth. More recently, Follensbee
(2000:207) presents it as a “profile figure
holding a huge, monstrous supernatural
fish. Although the human image is not
depicted as one-legged, the scene clearly
conveys a sense of impending peril.
A third lowland monument, Izapa Stela
3, may also represent this interaction. The
sculpture comes from the Pacific Coast
piedmont just along the Chiapas-Guatemala
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
border (Norman 1973, 1976). Izapa is
particularly noteworthy for its extensive
body of megalithic monuments; although
lacking inscriptions, Stela 3 probably dates
to the end of the Formative Period (e.g.,
Norman 1976:324-325; Smith 1984:45-
47). Several figures appear on the stela;
nonetheless, the main activity takes place
between a large human figure facing toward
the viewer’s left and an equally large sinu-
ous creature with a gaping jaw (Figure 10).
The human figure wears an elaborate mask
and headdress and, with his left arm raised,
seems to threaten the creature with an L-
shaped object.
Only the upper portion of the shark-
monster’s body is represented; it emerges
from between the human figure’s legs. The
result of this arrangement is that only one
leg of the human is visible—the other leg
is effectively missing.
The shark-monster
has a long upper jaw, a reduced lower jaw,
and a bulbous nose. A single, large bifur-
cated tooth erupts from the front of the
gum line. As with the Chalcatzingo Monu-
ment 5, a second, long bifurcated element
is present. A fish barbel is clearly visible
behind the shark-monster’s jaw. One ad-
Figure 10. The Izapan world creation story as depicted on Izapa Stela 3. Note obscured (i.e., missing) leg of standing
figure. Redrawn from Norman 1976:Figure 3.4.
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
ditional aspect of Izapa Stela 3 supports the
identification of an aquatic context. Di-
rectly above the opened jaws of the shark-
monster is the profile of a human head po-
sitioned within a U-shaped outline. The
human profile looks toward the action, as
if intently watching the outcome. Accord-
ing to Smith’s (1984:27) analysis of Izapan
sculpture, the “canoe-shaped U element
with a human head…always appears in the
context of water.
The shark-monster’s dorsal fin is par-
ticularly interesting in this rendition. Izapa
Stela 3 includes a personified version of the
shark-monster’s dorsal fin, a depiction that
recalls the shark-monster engraved on the
“Young Lord” figure (see Figure 2). The
dorsal fin profile on Izapa Stela 3 is large
and sweeps backwards; it displays a promi-
nent nose and behind the head is a back-
ward curving double merlon. The personi-
fied dorsal fin displays its own large tooth
to emphasize its association with the shark-
monster. Although rendered using distinct
styles, the similarities between the two
images are noteworthy. Given that both
Izapa Stela 3 and the Young Lord were found
along the Pacific Coast, the personified,
profile dorsal fin may well be a particu-
lar artistic convention of this coastal re-
In sum, at least three different Forma-
tive-Period sculptures represent the
struggle between a shark-monster and a
human figure.
Moreover, in two of the
three cases only one of the human’s legs is
clearly visible. Thus, it is quite possible that
these Formative monuments represent ver-
sions of a creation myth whose later Aztec
telling pits a mythic hero against Cipactli.
The hero loses his leg in the struggle, but
the battle’s outcome is the formation of the
earth’s surface and a place to raise the axis
One final aspect of the A-2 tomb burial
at La Venta is relevant here. As noted above,
a shark’s tooth was found with Bundle #2
within the Mound A-2 basalt column tomb.
According to Reilly (1994b:7), Bundle #2
included an “unusually large shark’s
tooth…on which was placed a translucent
blue jade standing figurine…” The fact that
the standing figurine was positioned on top
of the tooth is consistent with the inter-
pretation that the tooth (i.e., the shark pars
pro toto) represents the interface of water
and terra firma.
Finally, it is worth emphasizing that
these non-portable renditions of the pri-
mordial struggle appear at La Venta, Izapa,
and Chalcatzingo. La Venta and Izapa are
lowland sites situated along the Gulf Coast
and Pacific Coast, respectively.
Chalcatzingo is well-known for its Gulf
lowlands connections—for example,
Chalcatzingo is the only site outside the
Gulf lowlands that contains a version of the
lowland table-top throne (Grove
2000:287). Thus, it is reasonable to sug-
gest that this world-creation story origi-
nated in the isthmian lowlands but may have
later traveled to other areas. It is also quite
possible that, as it traveled through space
and time, the story changed with each re-
telling. As these recountings took place,
cultural groups likely replaced the coastal
shark-monster with other mythological
creatures more consistent with their re-
spective environmental settings (e.g., de la
Fuente 2000).
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
Tooth-Tipped Scepters
As noted above, archaeological data
from El Manatí demonstrate that a shark’s
tooth was affixed to the end of long wooden
scepters and batons. Although the unpar-
alleled preservation at El Manatí makes this
find almost unique, portrayals of such items
are not. To date, similar artifacts have been
identified as “torches, “vegetation, “feather
bundles, and “maize ear fetishes” (e.g.,
Grove 1987; Joralemon 1971:16; Schele
1995:106; Taube 2000). And while it would
be unrealistic to suggest that all such de-
pictions are tooth-tipped scepters, the El
Manatí evidence indicates that at least some
of them are.
The tips of many such staffs are trian-
gular, sometimes blunted at the end, and
carry lateral tick markings (Figure 11). The
tick markings may represent the serrations
on the shark-monster teeth. Among the
Figure 11. Olmec tooth-tipped scepters: (a) detail of scepter carried by Olmec “swimmer”. Redrawn from Taube 2000:Figure
11b; (b) detail of tooth-tipped scepter. Redrawn from Taube 2000:Figure 11d; (c) scepter worn by Olmec figure from
Puebla. Redrawn from Piña Chan 1989:Figure 56; (d) bas-relief figures carrying scepters from El Salvador. Redrawn from
Bernal 1969:Figure 39; (e) tooth-tipped scepter from El Manatí (see Figure 6).
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
best candidates for tooth-tipped scepter are
those staffs that also carry a double merlon
(Figure 12). As noted above, the double
merlon is associated with the personified
dorsal fin of the shark-monster and also
marks the second tooth of the Young Lord’s
shark-monster (see Figure 2). In his dis-
cussion of “torches, Grove (1987:64) pro-
posed that the double merlon may have
served as a tooth referent. Interestingly,
Bernal (1969:73) observed that the most
common forms of Formative-Period hu-
man dental mutilation include a double
merlon-like cut (A-2) on the end of the
incisor and a series of ticks (D-4) along the
laterals sides of the tooth.
Taube (1995:90-91, Figure 9) notes
that double merlons form earth bands at
the bottom of several Formative-Period
lowland stelae. Quirarte (1973:13-15;
Figure 12. Olmec scepters with a shark’s tooth and double merlons: (a) detail of headdress on Rio Pesquero figurine. Note
triple-dot motif. Redrawn from Taube 2000:Fig.13a; (b) detail of El Salvador bas-relief (see Figure 11d); (c) scepter from
Teopantecuanitlán figure (Schele 1995:4c); (d) scepter held by Young Lord. Note triple-dot motif and series of double
merlons. From Schele 1995:Figure 5a; (e) scepter on vase from Chalcatzingo. Redrawn Taube 2000:Figure 11e.
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
1976:78-79) reduces these “base-line de-
signs” into smaller components that include
“stepped frets” and “triangles. When dis-
aggregated in this manner, the earth bands
can be read as a series of triangular shark’s
teeth embedded within double merlons
(Figure 13). Double merlons set within
triangles also flank the mouth of the image
on Stela C from Tres Zapotes (e.g., Coe
1965:Figure 42). Double merlons appear
on the mosaic masks from La Venta
(Drucker 1952; Drucker et al. 1959).
Reilly (1994b:10-11) relates these double
merlons to the open mouth of the earth-
crocodilian (here identified as the shark-
monster). The observation that the shark
tooth at the end of a scepter should be “em-
bedded” within a double merlon gum line
is perfectly consistent with these readings.
In some instances the tooth-tipped
scepter is paired with “knuckle-dusters” or
“manoplas” (e.g., Grove 1987; Joralemon
1971; Piña Chan 1989:Figure 150). Ac-
cording to Schele (1995:107), E. Wyllys
Andrews proposed the now-widely ac-
cepted interpretation that these objects are
horizontal sections of large conch shells.
The precise function of these items remains
Figure 13. Lowland earth bands consisting of shark’s teeth embedded in double merlons: (a) earth band from the Alvarado
Stela. Redrawn from Taube 1995:Figure 9e; (b) earth band from Izapa Stela 5. Redrawn from Smith 1984:Figure 33f; (c)
earth band from Chiapa de Corzo Stela 7. Redrawn from Taube 1995:Figure 9f; (d) earth band from Tepatlaxco monument.
Redrawn from Quirarte 1973:Figure 7c and Coe 1965:Figure 43h.
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
enigmatic; nonetheless, the conch shell
identification is consistent with the marine
context of the shark supernatural.
Headdress Shark-Monsters
Several Gulf lowlands sculptures mani-
fest the shark-monster as an integral com-
ponent of an individual’s headdress. La
Mojarra Stela 1 is an excellent example
(Figure 14); this sculpture was recovered
between Tres Zapotes and Cerro de las
Mesas, in the Papaloapan River drainage of
south central Veracruz. Although better
know for its glyphic text (e.g., Justeson and
Kaufman 1993), La Mojarra Stela 1 also
contains complex iconography dating to the
second century AD. The bas-relief image
presents a figure facing toward the viewer’s
right, clad in an elaborate costume and
wearing an immense headdress.
A representation of the shark-monster
hangs off the upper, rear portion of that
headdress (e.g., Stross 1994). Although the
zoomorph’s eye is difficult to discern, the
shark supernatural exhibits the diacritic
Figure 14. Shark-monster headdress on the La Mojarra Stela 1 (After Stross 1994:Figure 1). Note four smaller sharks
along the spine of the larger piscine zoomorph.
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
long upper-jaw and lower, reduced jaw
noted previously.
Still more explicit are
the four smaller shark-monsters perched
along the back of the larger fish zoomorph.
Each of these four smaller versions is de-
picted with a large tooth that erupts from
an extended upper jaw. These shark
supernaturals also display the characteris-
tic bulbous nose and a backward arching
dorsal fin. Finally, several of the images
exhibit a heterocercal tail that occasionally
accompanies shark-monster and other pis-
cine representations from the Late Forma-
tive onward (compare with Figure 7).
Two additional stelae include the shark-
monster as an integral component of the
ruler’s headdress. These sculptures are
Cerro de las Mesas Stela 3 and the
unprovenienced San Miguel Chapuletpec
Stela (Miller 1991; Sterling 1943). Al-
though the two monuments may have come
from different locales, they clearly depict
the same scene or commemorative event
(Figure 15). Each stela contains a standing
figure in profile, facing toward the viewer’s
left. The left side of the monuments car-
ries a glyph column—unfortunately, these
glyphs are mostly eroded and have not been
deciphered. The figures’ headdresses, al-
though not exact copies, are strikingly simi-
lar. Seated atop a zoomorphic mask is the
shark-monster. The creature has an opened
Figure 15. Classic-Period Gulf Coast shark-monsters positioned atop headdresses: (a) Cerro de las Mesas Stela 3. After
Miller 1991:Figure 2.10a; (b) San Miguel Chapultepec Stela. After Miller 1991:Figure 2.10e.
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
Stross 1994:12-13). In both cases the shark-
monster retains is place atop an individual’s
headdress. Both images depict the shark su-
pernatural with an opened mouth, clearly
showing the extended upper jaw and reduced
lower jaw. Kaminaljuyu Stela 11 (Figure 16b)
also indicates the large front tooth of the
shark-monster. Moreover, both images carry
three dots on their body, reminiscent of the
shark-monster imagery on the Young Lord and
the tri-dot motifs on several tooth-tipped
The most notable similarity among the
two Maya versions of the shark-monster
headdress is that their dorsal fins and tails
are morphed into sprigs of foliage. Thus,
these shark-monsters have become “world
trees”; by donning this image, rulers de-
clare themselves to be the axis mundi of their
realm (e.g., Schele 1995; Schele and Miller
mouth with large upper jaw. The charac-
teristic nose is better represented on the
Cerro de las Mesas stela (Figure 15a), while
the large front tooth is easier to identify
on the San Miguel Chapultepec monument
(Figure 15b). Like their La Mojarra coun-
terparts, the bodies of both shark-monsters
hang down toward the nape of the neck of
the standing figure and exhibit a bifurcated
The shark-monster-as-headdress also
occurs within the Maya region. These rep-
resentations reveal an interesting diver-
gence from the Gulf examples; within the
Maya area the Late Formative-Early Clas-
sic shark-monster images are explicitly in-
corporated into the world tree (Figure 16).
Two examples that clearly mark this inte-
gration are found on the Dumbarton Oaks
Pectoral and Kaminaljuyu Stela 11 (Coe
1966; Schele and Miller 1986:Plate 32a;
Figure 16. Early Classic Maya shark-monsters as headdress elements and personified trees: (a) image from a Dumbarton
Oaks jade pectoral; (b) image from Kaminaljuyu Stela 11. Redrawn from Schele and Miller 1985:Plate 32a.
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
Figure 17. Shark-monster tails serving as foundations for the world tree: (a) unprovenienced celt with crossed bands and
finning found on the Young Lord shark monster. Redrawn from Taube 2000:Figure 6d; (b) detail of incised celt from Rio
Pesquero with finning. Redrawn from Benson and de la Fuente 1996: Catalog 117; (c) detail of incised headdress on a celt
from Tabasco. Note bifurcated tail and crossed-band motif adopted from Las Bocas shark-monster. Redrawn from Benson
and de la Fuente 1996:Catalog 116.
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
It seems that Olmec iconography an-
ticipates these later depictions of the tran-
sition from shark-monster to world-tree
headdress. Several of the greenstone celts
reported in the literature appear to include
elaborate headgear. Such regalia have been
particularly difficult to decipher; our un-
derstanding of Olmec shark-monster im-
agery, however, may provide a clue. The
cleft head is one of the most widely recog-
nized elements of Olmec iconography. As
we have seen, in certain contexts such a
cleft may also substitute for the fin or the
tail of the shark-monster. This association
is reinforced when additional elements are
added, such as thin-line finning and/or the
crossed-band motif (e.g., Figures 1b, 1c,
2a, 3, 4).
Several Olmec figures wear these head-
dress combinations (Figure 17). For ex-
ample, the tail of the shark-monster on the
Young Lord is very similar to the headdress
on an unprovenienced celt (Figure 17a) and
a celt from Rio Pesquero (Figure 17b). The
former includes both finning and the
crossed-band design while the latter is ac-
companied by finning. The image on the
Rio Pesquero celt also serves as a basis for
a world tree. A third celt from Tabasco
(Figure 17c) incorporates the crossed-band
motif seen on a Las Bocas shark-monster
and likewise provides a foundation for the
axis mundi.
As these examples demonstrate,
Olmec iconography foreshadowed later
depictions of the shark-monster as the ba-
sis for the world tree headdress. But these
depictions are not constant through time.
For example, an interesting divergence
marks the Late Formative-Early Classic
transition. Along the Gulf lowlands, the
more literal shark-monster zoomorph per-
sisted within headdress depictions (e.g.,
stelae at La Mojarra and Cerro de las Me-
sas). In the Maya area, however, the image
was transformed into a more obvious world
tree (e.g., shark tail sprouting vegetation).
It is said that, were a fish to become
self aware, the last thing it might notice
would be its own watery milieu. This
axiom is also applicable to Olmec research.
With the innocent adoption of the very
name Olmec, scholars’ attention was irre-
sistibly drawn towards the terrestrial
realm. Only recently have Olmec studies
begun to appreciate the relevance of a mari-
time adaptation.
This new awareness spills over into all
aspects of research, including iconography.
Again, visions of terrestrial denizens tra-
ditionally rule Olmec readings; in fact,
Jiménez Moreno (cited in Bernal 1969:12)
once suggested that the name Olmec be
replaced with “Tenocelome” or “people of
the jaguar mouth. With a greater appre-
ciation of coastal lifeways, however, we are
able to approach this Formative-Period
imagery anew. So, it should come as no
surprise that, when we take a second look,
aquatic motifs and referents become appar-
In this paper I have suggested that shark
imagery ranks among the most important
of these marine referents. But while sharks
may be intimidating, that fact alone is no
cause to celebrate them on megalithic
sculpture, on greenstone celts, on ceramic
vessels, and on headdresses and ritual re-
galia. The permeation of shark imagery in
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
Olmec iconography owes itself to some-
thing more basic, more fundamental, than
the bad press of a particular fish. This per-
vasive iconography is rendered intelligible
when we consider the role of the shark-
monster in ancient stories of world cre-
ation. Versions of this creation myth
abound in Mesoamerica—in one form or
another someone struggles with a fantas-
tic water monster and usually has one less
limb to show for their efforts. But through
their victory the land surface is established
and the world tree is raised. Such a feat
certainly merits immortalizing in iconog-
raphy and appropriation by the powers that
be. The selfless act implied by this story
may also account for the frequent associa-
tion of shark-monster imagery and blood-
letting. By letting blood, one recreates the
sacrificial act of losing a limb or other body
part. A possible function of bloodletting,
therefore, is to replay the origin story and
reaffirm the cosmic order.
In sum, shark-monster representations
are ubiquitous throughout Olmec iconog-
raphy. But the case need not be over-
stated—jaguars, crocodiles, harpy eagles,
and corn also have their place. In some
cases these entities may substitute for the
shark-monster; in other instances they rep-
resent different stories and other associa-
tions. The trick, of course, is teasing apart
these differences. Stark (1983) is correct
that beholders are eager to take the bait of
Olmec iconography. By emphasizing arti-
facts from valid archaeological contexts,
and by judiciously invoking the “continuity
hypothesis, we help to insure that such
readings offer more than just another fish
A previous version of this paper was
presented at the 2002 Midwest
Mesoamerican Archaeology and Ethnogra-
phy conference in Ann Arbor. Many par-
ticipants there offered positive comments
and suggested additional avenues to pur-
sue. I would especially like to thank Joel
Palka for his unflagging encouragement.
Without his support and patience this ef-
fort may never have come to fruition.
Conversations with David Mora-Marin
have also been quite beneficial. Thanks to
Julia Kappelman and Elizabeth Brumfiel for
forwarding copies of unpublished papers or
hard-to-acquire articles and to Karl Taube
and David Grove for comments on an ear-
lier version of this paper. Finally, thanks to
Shannon Fie, who not only offered insight-
ful comments on the paper and assisted
with the figures, but graciously tolerated
my incessant prattle about sharks and
Olmec iconography.
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
1. Although it may be tempting to do so, my comment here should not be construed as advocating the role of the
Gulf Olmec as “Mother Culture” to the rest of Mesoamerica. Elsewhere I have argued against that simplistic view (Arnold
2002). Thus, while I suggest that much of Olmec iconography originated in the coastal lowlands, it does not necessarily
follow that Olmec ideology or complexity followed a similar path.
2. To account for the lack of plant remains, some scholars might point to the acidic, destructive soils of the Gulf
lowlands. While it is certainly true that these soils take their toll on archaeological material, acidic soils cannot shoulder
the entire blame. After all, significant numbers of fragile fish bones and other delicate faunal items were recovered from
San Lorenzo excavations (e.g., Wing 1980).
3. Although a recent description of this sculpture dates the image to the Middle Formative Period (Castro-Leal
1996), archaeological data suggest that San Lorenzo and its environs were only superficially occupied at that time (Coe and
Diehl 1980a; Symonds et al. 2002). In keeping with the main Olmec occupation at San Lorenzo, an Early Formative date
for this monument is more likely.
4. These images include two scalloped shells (Joralemon 1996c:215) as well as an odd, snail-like entity. Joralemon
suggests that this latter image may be an early version of an oyster dragon” depicted in Late Classic Mayan art. Schele
(1979, cited in Hellmuth [1987a:147]) refers to a similar image as a “shell-winged dragon.” Regardless, these readings
support the aquatic context of the shark supernatural on the Young Lord.
5. Grove (2000:286) suggests that this swept-back cleft may be associated with legless (“underworld’) zoomorphs,
in contrast to the legged (“upperworld’) creature depicted on left thigh of the Young Lord. Grove (2000:286) refers to the
image on the Young Lord’s right thigh as a “serpent and/or fish” representation.
6. The position of images on the Las Limas figure is strongly reminiscent of the images on the Young Lord. Specifically,
the Las Limas figure includes a profile on each leg which, like the images on the Young Lord’s thighs, are thought to
represent the lower portions of the world. These images are mirrored, however: a crocodilian earth dragon is represented
on the left leg of the Young Lord but occurs on the right knee of the Las Limas figure, while the shark monster is found on
the right leg of the Young Lord but on the left knee of the Las Limas figure. Given that these two sculptures are separated
in space, time, and probably cultural affiliation, such variation should not be surprising.
7. It is not my intention to detail all of the Mesoamerican sites in which shark’s teeth are found. Stephan de
Borhegyi (1961) offers what is now a forty-year-old accounting; among the sites most relevant to our discussion are Cerro
de las Mesas, Palenque, and Piedras Negras. An updating of this list would certainly include many additional Olmec and
Maya sites, not to mention the Templo Mayor (e.g., Broda 1987; Lopez Lujan 1994).
8. Several different “water-monsters” were apparently recognized during the Postclassic Period. Offerings within
the Temple Mayor, for example, include remains of sharks, swordfish, and crocodiles (Broda 1987; Lopéz Luján 1994).
However, it is not clear if all of these entities substitute for one another, or if they represent different avatars of a more
generic “water-monster. The possibility that the Fejérváry-Mayer Codex originated in Veracruz (e.g., Taube 1993:18;
Thompson 1970:46) is consistent with the shark-supernatural variant of the water monster.
9. Conventional translations would gloss Itzam Cab Ain as “Giant Earth Caimain. However, Taube (1992:36-37)
notes that in the Colonial Yucatecan dictionaries, the term Itzam Cab Ain is defined as “ballena” or whale (also Thompson
1970:21). Thus, it is not unreasonable to associate Itzam Cab Ain with a decidedly non-crocodilian water-monster.
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
10. This reading was offered by George Raynaud (1925), of whose translation Edmonson (1971:x) speaks favorably.
Although the association of “wise” and “earth” may ring odd to Western ears, it is certainly in keeping with indigenous
Mesoamerican beliefs. For example, Lipp (1991, cited in Tate 1999:178) reports that, among the contemporary Mixe, the
earth’s surface is considered to be an important supernatural called Na·š w i·ñ. To the Mixe, Na·š w i·ñ is “all knowing
of human affairs and the maternal repository of primordial wisdom. Among the Postclassic Maya, the deity Itzamna (e.g.,
God D) was a soothsayer who “commonly appears with the sacred world tree, frequently identified with the nadir, zenith,
of the four quarters in Mesoamerican thought” (Taube 1992:36). According to Taube (1992:35), during both the Classic
and Postclassic periods Iztamna was “closely identified with wisdom and esoteric knowledge.Taube (1992:36-40) also
discusses the strong linkages between Iztamna, Itzam Cab Ain, and Cipactli.
11. At first glance this motif appears to be a bifurcated tongue. However, Chalcatzingo Monument 4, just 10 m west
of Monument 5, allows for a different interpretation. Monument 4 represents two human images, each engaged with a
single feline zoomorph (Grove 1968:489; Grove and Angulo V. 1987:121-122). The humans’ position in all three renditions
is quite similar; moreover, a series of ribbon-like elements emerge just behind the head of the lower human figure in
Monument 4 (Grove 1968:Figure 5). These motifs, as well as the motif behind the head of the human-like figure on
Monument 5, may represent blood rather than a tongue.
12. Joyce et al. (1991:Figure 5) correctly relate Chalcatzingo Monument 5 to the shark-monster image displayed in
Painting I-c from Oxtotitlán Cave in Guerrero (Grove 1970:Figure 12). To aid their comparison Joyce et al. (1991) use a
depiction of Painting I-c redrawn from Joralemon (1971:Figure 244), which includes two crossed bands on the Oxtotitlán
image. The image provided in Grove (1970:Figure 12), however, does not include these crossed bands. Nonetheless,
Grove (1970:16) offers a footnote indicating that these crossed bands may be present. Thus, discussions that rely exclusively
on the Oxtotitlán image from Grove (1970) may miss the important crossed-band diacritic of the Olmec shark-monster.
13. In many languages fins and wings are identified by similar terms. This pattern it true for Tzotzil Maya (e.g., šik’
[Laughlin 1975:321]) and Yucatecan Maya (e.g., xik’ [Barrera Vasquez 1980:943]), as well as Spanish (e.g., aleta).
14. Miller (1986:61) and Coe and Koontz (2002:99) both suggest that the zoomorph on Izapa Stela 3 is actually the
serpent foot of the human figure. Thus, they may dispute the interpretation of the zoomorph as a shark-monster, but they
would agree that Stela 3 represents a variant of Tezcatlipoca/God K. Norman (1976:96) hedges his bets: he indicates that
the zoomorph “begins…as if from between [the standing figure’s] legs, but he goes on to say that the close positioning
could suggest “a symbolic extension or consort of the standing deity.
15. In fact, it is quite likely that a fourth sculpture, dating to the Classic Period sculpture and also from the coastal
lowlands, depicts the same interaction. This image comes from Panel 3 of the Pyramid of the Niches at El Tajn. It shows a
long zoomorph actively engaged with a human figure (e.g., Kampen 1972:Figure 6a; Ladrón de Guervara G. 1999:Figura
5). In fact, the human figure extends his foot towards the zoomorph, in an apparent attempt to ward off the shark-
monster. Joralemon (1976:Figure 25) would place this El Tajín zoomorph within his God I category, thereby linking it to
the shark-monsters on Chalcatzingo Monument 5 and on Oxtotitlán Painting I-c.
16. Although clearly piscine, the identification of this particular image as a shark-monster remains tentative. Not
only is it less obvious than the four shark-monsters the ride its back, the “dorsal fin” curves slightly forward in a reversed
position and appears to have been tied to the back of the fish (e.g., Stross 1994:13). Similarly, the tail apparently comprises
two items affixed with a knot (e.g., Stross 1994:13). However, if not a shark-monster per se, the zoomorph substitutes for
the same creature in this particular context.
PHILIP J. ARNOLD III, “The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography”
Mesoamerican Voices, 2 (2005)
17. Hellmuth (1987a:125-126) refers to the heterocercal tail as a “hooked” tail or a “crab claw” tail. Surprisingly, he
expresses concern that the “hooked” tail is “unlike that of any Caribbean Sea, Pacific Ocean or fresh water fish.Although
the Early Classic Maya images are certainly stylized, these tailfins easily concord with the uneven, bifurcated tail of sharks
(e.g., Stross 1994:13, Figure 7b).
Had it been clear that the uneven bifid tail can denote a shark, Hellmuth (1987a:127-129) might have been able
to make better sense of the creatures he calls “slug snails” or “forehead slugs. In fact, such bifid creatures, positioned atop
two Homul shell carvings (Hellmuth 1987b:Figure 74e, 74f), are almost identical to the four sharks that sit atop the La
Mojarra Stela 1. Of course, Hellmuth (1987a, b) was unable to discuss the La Mojarra Stela 1, as it was reported after his
dissertation was finished.
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... Las Higueras is close to the Gulf coast, and today sharks pose a threat to swimmers at the otherwise bucolic beaches, with their white sands and turquoise waters. These predators play an important role in Gulf Olmec iconography (Arnold 2005 showing the struggle between a human and a shark, with creation. Arnold believes that it is an earlier version of the Cipactli myth (Arnold 2005). ...
... These predators play an important role in Gulf Olmec iconography (Arnold 2005 showing the struggle between a human and a shark, with creation. Arnold believes that it is an earlier version of the Cipactli myth (Arnold 2005). The connection between sharks and Cipactli, the zoomorphized earth that takes the form of a crocodile, can be seen in a relief-carved stone monument dated to the Epi-Olmec period (600-100 BC), now in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. ...
... ). Sharks are believed to inhabit the watery Olmec underworld, identified with graves in Middle Formative burials (Princeton University Museum of Art 1995: 121). San Lorenzo Monument 58 depicts a shark, carved in relief, its mouth stretched open, revealing a triangular tooth(Arnold 2005; Benson and de la Fuente 1996: 180, cat. no. ...
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Mural paintings from Las Higueras Mound 1 depict deities, courtly life, and politico-religious processions. Revealed through three major construction phases and a staggering number of painted layers, the murals offer us a penetrating view of cultural change throughout Classic and Epi-Classic period central Veracruz. In this chapter I examine how artists documented the distinct dress, accessories, and objects used by their elite patrons and their attendants. Themes, color palette, and canons of proportion used by artists shifted over time. In concert with these changes, women are portrayed as increasingly taking an active part in ceremony and statecraft, eventually dominating the narrative as key protagonists in the stories played out on the painted walls.
... En consecuencia, un análisis más detenido nos conduce a describir la figura de Chalcatzingo, como la de un ser mítico que combina, primordialmente, las características físicas de la serpiente y del águila. No es un tiburón, como sostiene Arnold (2005), ni un pejelagarto. Se trata de un ser mítico que combina, principalmente, las características de la serpiente de cascabel y del águila. ...
... Phillip J. Arnold III (2005) ha realizado una extensa y minuciosa labor, documentando todas las imágenes del Preclásico al Postclásico que considera que representan a un tiburón mítico que, desde su punto de vista, participa de manera esencial en el mito de la creación, no obstante, no puede confirmarse la presencia del tiburón en todos los casos que él refiere, ni si el tiburón juega un papel fundamental en los mitos de origen olmecas. Al igual que nuestra interpretación, se trata de hipótesis que no se pueden confirmar, dada la ausencia de documentos. ...
... El tiburón es un temible depredador marino, comparable, como cazador, con el caimán, el águila y el jaguar, todos ellos, habitantes de la región del Golfo. Los dientes del tiburón son triangulares y aparecen en varias ofrendas o asociados a artefactos como cuchillos y cetros, así como formando parte de los accesorios de lujo, propios de las élites (Arnold, 2005;Pool, 2007: 78, 141 y 164). ¿De ser correcta la interpretación de Angulo sobre los dientes, se debería inferir, entonces, que el monstruo mítico del relieve de Chalcatzingo está devorando al ser humano? ...
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Resumen Nos dedicamos a realizar un estudio detallado de algunos de los relieves, grabados durante el Preclásico medio, sobre los frentes rocosos de la ladera del Cerro Chalcatzingo, así como a presentar reflexiones críticas sobre las interpretaciones realizadas por otros autores. Toda descripción implica interpretación, consecuentemente, todo proceso de percepción y de construcción teórica, están imbuidos de un horizonte de pensamiento, determinado histórica y culturalmente. Observamos que entre los intérpretes de los relieves predomina una preconcepción que determina su observación y sus hipótesis, la cual hemos explicitado en el proceso crítico. Nos hemos dedicado a contextualizar tanto los relieves como las interpretaciones. Contrastamos las imágenes zoomorfas de los relieves con las de animales vivos que pudieron inspirarlas, así como con sus representaciones en códices, con la intención de lograr descripciones más precisas e interpretaciones construidas de manera más sólida, argumentalmente. Palabras clave: Relieves de Chalcatzingo, arte rupestre, los olmecas y Mesoamérica, Preclásico medio, mitos y símbolos mesoamericanos. Abstract This article is dedicated to carry out a detailed study of some of the reliefs that were carved on the slopes of Cerro Chalcatzingo, during the Middle Formative period, as well as to present some critical reflections about the interpretations that have been made by other authors. All descriptions imply interpretation, in consequence, every process of perception and theoretical construction embodies a framework of thought that is determined historically and culturally. We have observed that between the interpreters of the reliefs, a dominating preconception determines their process of observation and the formulation of their hypothesis, something that we have made explicit in our critique. We have dedicated ourselves to contextualize the reliefs and the interpretations, and have also contrasted the zoomorphic images of the reliefs with the living animals that may have inspired them, as well as with their representations in several codex, in order to accomplish more precise descriptions and interpretations, founded more solidly. Keywords: Chalcatzingo’s reliefs, rock art, Olmecs and Mesoamerica, Middle Formative, myths and symbols of Mesoamerica
... Philip Arnold, describiendo una escena cosmogónica en el Monumento 63 de La Venta, muestra la lucha entre un humano y un tiburón. Arnold (2005) cree que es una versión antigua del mito del Cipactli. ...
... En la parte inferior, dibujo de los paneles de la cancha de juego de pelota de Chichén Itzá Página | 301 olmecas que forman un quincunce. Arnold (2005) y otros han demostrado que el Monstruo Tiburón, que surgió en las narrativas cosmogónicas de Formativo Medio, antecede y fue sustituido por el Monstruo de la Tierra (el cual posiblemente devino del Dragón Olmeca). Durante el periodo Epiolmeca el Monstruo Tiburón continuó en la iconografía, apareciendo en asociación con el Principal Dios-Pájaro. ...
... El Manatí es un sitio Olmeca de características únicas ya que, al encontrarse en un contexto sellado de índole anaeróbico, muchas piezas de materiales perecederos como madera se conservaron a lo largo del tiempo. Fue en este lugar donde se encontró algo que podría identificarse como un bastón de madera que poseía en una de sus puntas un diente de tiburón (Ortiz Ceballos et al., 1997, Arnold, 2005. ...
... The symbol of a fish or a shark is well known in the late Olmec (Epi-Olmec) culture area. Shark iconography is especially associated with the Gulf lowlands, most deriving from Veracruz and Tabasco (Arnold 2005). This is precisely the area that most Mesoamerican Book of Mormon models place the landing place and initial settlement of the Mulekites. ...
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Mormon's Chronological Summary of the Period from the 19th Regnal Year of the Reign of Mosiah I to the Coming of the Limhites and Mormon's Synopsis of the Book of Mormon Prophetic Calendar. A small scrap of paper entitled "Caractors" (also known as the Anthon Transcript) that contained reformed Egyptian characters copied from the plates from which the Book of Mormon has remained an enigma for more than a hundred years. The characters were successfully translated in 2015. This initial translation has been recently revised and updated, with additional supporting documentation. The number system found there is extensively analyzed and shows to preferentially use the Hebrew and Mesoamerican sacred numbers. Additional work shows that the time frame of the Egyptian hieratic identified there correlate to the correct time frame as the Book of Mormon. The author's approach is meticulous and scientific. This book is a landmark event in Book of Mormon studies and is a book that must be read by every serious student of the Book of Mormon and of Mesoamerican studies.
... The symbol of a fish or a shark is well-known in the late Olmec (Epi-Olmec) culture area. Shark iconography is especially associated with the Gulf lowlands, most deriving from Veracruz and Tabasco (Arnold 2005). This is precisely the area that most Mesoamerican Book of Mormon models place the landing place and initial settlement of the Mulekites. ...
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The Olmec civilization has long been considered to be the Jaredite civilization. New evidence is presented here that provides a reliable correlation of chronology between Mesoamerican archaeology and the Jaredite timeline. New etymological and scientific evidence now provides a method of establishing a more detailed geography of the "land northward" referred to throughout the Book of Mormon, the Old World point of departure of the Jaredites, and Olmec cultural elements reflected in the Book of Mormon text.
En este libro, realizado por especialistas de la arqueología, del arte y de la representación; se reúnen los conocimientos vigentes en torno al agua, elemento de vida fundamental para las antiguas sociedades que se desarrollaron en el paisaje del Golfo de México. Las editoras han movido las aguas y las ondas de este impulso inicial, se han propagado rápidamente hasta abarcar las principales regiones y a relevantes estudios de las culturas del golfo. La motivación principal que conjuntó a las autoras y autores, es la discrepancia que existe entre el estado actual del conocimiento de las culturas antiguas y el paisaje predominantemente acuático del Golfo mesoamericano. Este punto de partida, propició una prolífera reflexión del avance de las últimas décadas, a la luz de los nuevos datos y resultados de investigaciones recientes.
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Little is known about Middle Preclassic/Formative lowland Maya belief systems or ideologies, compared to later periods, but with increasing research at Middle Preclassic sites and recognition of their nascent complexity, this topic merits investigation. Belief systems are investigated through perspectives on materialization (of ideological concepts); on order, legitimacy, and wealth; and on cooperation drawn from collective/corporate action theory and costly signaling (selectionist) theory. Early lowland belief systems are partially outgrowths of Archaic period hunter-gatherer, “tribal” lifeways, and some concepts about cosmology and supernatural forces may be pan-Mesoamerican and pan-New World (e.g., quadripartition; animacy of objects). The best-known early Mesoamerican belief system is that of the Early and Middle Formative Gulf Coast Olmecs and related peoples (especially in Oaxaca) beginning around 1700 BC or so. Middle Preclassic lowland Maya ideologies (considered primarily in terms of power relations) are examined and compared with those of the Olmecs in four material domains: site plans, landscapes, and architecture; sculpture; portable material culture; and iconography. Comparisons reveal significant differences between Maya and Olmec, visible in Olmec materializations of leaders’ power: massive sculptures and exotic goods (costly signaling). Early Maya ideology and concepts of order (including cooperation) and legitimacy (including corporate political strategies) were rooted in beliefs and myths about the creation of the world and its creatures (including humans), about cosmic renewal (especially solar movements), and about time.
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Los recursos hídricos formaron parte fundamental de los procesos que permearon la vida social e interacción de las poblaciones antiguas del Golfo de México. Particularmente, la región de Los Tuxtlas en el sur de Veracruz, se distinguió por ser un paisaje volcánico con abundancia de cuerpos de agua perennes y temporales que dieron a la zona particularidades ecológicas y culturales evidentes en una historia de ocupación humana prehispánica de al menos 3000 años. La contribución aborda el periodo de mayor poblamiento humano de la costa oriental de Los Tuxtlas (650-1000 d.C.) y se enfoca en el paisaje y su relación con el uso, manejo y control que las poblaciones locales antiguas hicieron de los recursos hídricos. Los asentamientos prehispánicos de la costa convirtieron el agua en el eje medular de un amplio e intenso desarrollo económico y político que transformó el entorno en un paisaje montañoso articulado y conectado por cuerpos hídricos de mar y tierra; este paisaje fue resultado de la concepción del agua como una posibilidad de desarrollo en contraste a la percepción del agua como límite o barrera natural. El paisaje de Los Tuxtlas, a una escala más amplia, se convirtió en un referente mítico y cosmogónico para las sociedades prehispánicas de Mesoamérica —un cuerpo montañoso flotante en el agua— pero también fue un contexto innovador que brindó alternativas y posibilidades a periodos de crisis a través del uso y manejo del agua.
The first part of this two-part essay discusses the important roles crocodiles and sharks played in Preclassic (and later) political geography and myths of cosmogenesis in Mesoamerica. They are associated with sacrifices resulting in creation of the world and births of some major gods. Crocodiles are also associated with fertility, rebirth, and renewal of seasonal and temporal/calendrical cycles. Recent investigations at Nixtun-Ch'ich’ show that its gridded urban landscape, established in the Middle Preclassic period (ca. 800–400 b.c. ), was likely modeled on a crocodile's back. The second part of the essay presents some speculations on the early role of this site and crocodiles in central Peten. At Tikal, archaeology and retrospective texts indicate that crocodiles appeared in early versions of the site's emblem glyph and in the name of an early ruler. Nixtun-Ch'ich’ might be the legendary chi place, important in the dynastic foundations of several lowland Maya centers.