MNN Galleries

8 amazing structures with mysterious origins

May 23, 2014, 8:19 a.m.
Olmec Colossal Heads

Photo: Ruben Charles/Flickr

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Olmec colossal heads

Carved from basalt boulders, these large, head-shaped statues are much older than the more-famous statues on Rapa Nui. Found at various sites in the Olmec heartland along the Caribbean coastline in both Mexico and Guatemala, many of the heads are remarkably well-preserved and quite lifelike. They bear distinct features still seen in the Central American peoples who are descended from the Olmec. 

Each head is carved out of a single boulder, with the smallest example weighing six tons and the largest (an uncompleted head) topping 50 tons. The best kept examples are now found in the Mexican state of Veracruz. The methods of transporting these boulders remains unclear, and heads found in different areas have sightly different characteristics, leading to the theory that they were modeled on actual people. The Olmec were very skilled artists and other works have been found throughout the Veracruz area. The Olmec civilization went into steep decline and virtually disappeared over 2,000 years ago, with the carvings among the only clues to the story of a once-thriving civilization.