The book Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture – The Unborn, Women, and Creation, by Carolyn E. Tate and her lectures destroyed my existing conceptions of what art is and what it can be. The creative artistic power of the Olmec people began about 1800 BC when the many early cultures living in what we now call Mexico spawned what we now call the Olmec art style. These people grew into the first civilization in the Western Hemisphere at the southernmost tip of the Gulf of Mexico. It was a coherent society and so unique that it can be identified by its art, and it lasted for over a thousand years until about 400 BC.

The powerful thing is that these Olmec people’s art is what seems to precede the development of their cities, and perhaps even settled agriculture. It was based on such a strange idea that it probably only occurred a single time and then it dominated the thoughts and world view of the people who were exposed to it. It is so bizarre that it wasn’t an inevitable thing like so many inventions that we are exposed to these days. It was a truly unique idea that founded their civilization! And it was an artistic idea.  Image from

Carnegie Stages of Human fetal development 10-23

Image from

Okay, I know what I am asserting is outrageous, and going beyond what Tate has suggested, but there is a tiny event that occurs spontaneously in approximately twenty percent of human pregnancies about the 56th day of pregnancy. Perhaps, in the jungles of tropical Mexico, it happens more often, and that is spontaneous miscarriages. The embryo at this time has several very unusual characteristics and these are shown consistently in many of their art objects. See Tate Chapter 3, pages 35-74 for a full, and for me convincing, demonstration of the ideas.

I have been working on a list of aesthetic subqualities that include EMOTION, THOUGHT, INVENTIVE, ARTISTICALLY AGGRESSIVE, RISKY, CLEAR, DISTINCT, CULTURALLY ASTUTE, MOTIVATIONAL, RARITY, SALES VALUE. What is now intriguing me is that possibly other civilizations have foundations in unique art objects. One of these that permeates European civilization long before civilization exists involves  artistic representations of cattle presented as ritualistic beings. The power of the bull was evident in 30,000-year-old cave paintings and still evident in Egypt from 5,000 until 2,000 years ago. It is still represented in Spain in the form of bullfighting.

The Olmec use of these tiny aborted human beings as ritual objects is eerily weird but wonderful and for the Olmecs unforgettable.