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Olmecs: Strangers in a Strange Land

A Chinese Exodus to America?

In 1046, Duke Wu of Zhou led 50,000 troops to parlay with the Shang King’s army at the bloody battle of Muye, which secured the end and final fall of the Shang Dynasty. The Yin diehards that supported the Shang Dynasty even after defeat refused to submit to the new King, and mounted a rebellion for a few years. The rebelliousness of the loyalists lingered on, and one legend in particular told of a disgruntled Shang Prince named Jizi that escaped China with a sizable army. The earliest sources such as the Bamboo annals, which survived the fires of Emperor Huangdi’s historical revisionist fanaticism, describe the prince’s flight to a land called Gija Joseon, but does not specify where that land existed. Later sources gave the location of Joseon as Northwest Korea, but many scholars today debate the accuracy of that claim and some even contend that it may represent an invention by the latter Qin emperor. Where did these loyalists really go?

According to diffusionist academics such as Betty J Meggers, Director of the Latin American Archaeology Program at the prestigious Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C., a “Shang stimulus” kickstarted the Olmecs in the Central American Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Guatemala and the Tabasco state of Mexico. In 1975, Meggers published a controversial paper in the American Anthropologist, entitled “The Transpacific Origin of Mesoamerican Civilization” and compared many aspects of Shang Chinese characters and religious beliefs with that of the Olmecs. Meggers specifically points to the similarities between the Olmecs and Shang in writing styles, use of batons as symbols of rank, settlement patterns, architectural styles, long-range acquisition of luxury goods, the esteemed use and long-distance trade in jade, feline deities, and cranial deformation. 

Below, note the similarities in sculpture between the Olmec fish vessel on left with Longshan Chinese fish vessel right.









"When China Ruled the Seas"

Louise Levathes, a staff writer that wrote for National Geographic for ten years, now writing for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications, also supported the idea of Chinese diffusionism in ancient America in her book, “When China Ruled the Seas”. She makes the argument that the Shang Chinese sailed to the Americas at least by 1000 BC. Levathes also describes the massive ocean-going exploits of Emperor Zhu Di of the Ming dynasty who assigned the powerful Eunuch admiral Zheng He to explore the seas and bring back wealth to China on over 3000 “treasure ships.” Levathes describes the largest ships as being over 400 feet long with nine masts, dwarfing Columbus’ later caravels that landed in the Caribbean. Emperor Zhu Di, famed for building the Forbidden City in Beijing, also planted vast orchards of Tung trees to provide oil for sealing the many wooden hulls of Zheng He’s fleet. In all likelihood, the technical mastery and large-scale of Zheng’s He's fleet probably represents the pinnacle of many centuries of long development in engineering and Chinese ingenuity.

The impetus for such fleets apparently came from the overflowing powerbase of the loyalist imperial eunuchs, a group that often acted independently and even eclipsed the authority of the Emperor in some instances, the grand secretaries and the Confucian-scholars that formed the conservative opposition to liberal expansionist policies outside China. However, since the eunuch’s did not represent a threat to the emperor due their inability to raise a rival heir, the eunuchs became especially revered and trusted by the emperors, who frequently granted them extensive privileges and autonomy over the bureaucrats.

The Chinese historian and philosopher Ray Huang, argues that the imperial eunuchs in actuality represented the “personal will of the emperor” and formed the direct opposition to the conservative and alternate political will of the vast bureaucracy formed by the Confucian elite, a clash which often resulted in conflicts of opposing “political ideologies.” Levathes shows how this political “showdown” finally ended with Confucian triumph and the dismantling and shutting down of the navy trade network, resulting in the now familiar and famous xenophobic distrust amongst Chinese of foreign trade and influence, a fear which has only just begun to diminish in recent years.

Olmec figurine, without genitalia. A Shang Chinese eunuch of the Imperial court?

Could these powerful eunuchs be responsible for colonizing and establishing part of the Olmec presence in Mesoamerica? By the Ming dynasty, over 70,000 eunuchs worked in the imperial court, and records of eunuch service go back to at least the Shang dynasty. In fact, the records show that many prisoners of war, upon being conquered by the Shang kings were castrated and recruited into imperial service. Why would the Shang seek to settle and trade in Mesoamerica though?

Isthumus of Tehuantepec: Crossroads of Ancient America

The heartland of the Olmec, which is called the Metropolitan Olman by many scholars, consists of the narrowest land area of Mexico, an area extremely important for ocean-to-ocean trade routes. In 1853, the Gadsen Purchase contained one provision allowing the U.S. special rites to transport mail and trade goods via the Isthmus of Tehuantepec by plank road and railway. The 1859 McLane-Ocampo Treaty, signed by Benito Jaurez but never ratified by the U.S. Congress, would have given the U.S. extensive transit rights along the same route. The rail project was eventually contracted out to the British in 1888. The importance of the region for commercial trade in the modern era demonstrates just how politically important the land represented, and thus could have been just as equally important back in ancient times for the same reasons.

Compare the bronze-ware wavy and curvy designs on the Shang dynasty pot below with the Mayan depiction of the Vision Serpent of Kukulkan present on Lintel 15 at Yaxchilan , a city very close to the Olman metropolitan region, which incidentally in Mayan means "Green Stones", the color of imperial jade so praised by the Olmecs and the Chinese. The curvy designs of the smoke and the serpent's body appear remarkably similar to common Shang motifs. In Chinese myth, the curvy and wavy nature of the dragon's serpentine-like body, often depicted forming out of clouds, represented the symbolic astral vehicle allowing a Chinese "magician" or shaman to ascend into heaven. Many scholars agree that a group of elite shamans ruled the Olmec.


Ignacio Bernal elaborates on the special geographic features of the Isthmus that attracted outside interest in the region in his quintessential book on the Olmec called, “The Olmec World”. Bernal writes, “both physical anthropologists and linguists suggest, in that area and period, the probable coexistence of two or more different groups. This situation may be due to geography, since the Isthmus of Tehuantepec was a bottleneck in which the groups that passed through or established themselves were forced to mix.”

An Olmec stone statue. The Headdress is strongly reminiscent of the iconic pleated Nemes headdress of Egyptian Pharaohs, which the Phoenicians are known to have copied as well.

In fact, the relative ease in crossing the narrow land mass over to the opposite ocean to trade with Old World cultures such as New Kingdom Egypt via Phoenician sailors would have made the Isthmus the veritable trade “crossroads” of the world.

Bernal also mentions the strange lack of genitalia in Olmec sculptures…“although the latter were almost always masculine the genital organs were never carved, even though the figure was usually nude. I do not believe this to be the result of modesty; perhaps it had something to do with the curious insistence in Olmec art in representing pathological human figures. Perhaps the figures are of eunuchs.” Are these the sea-faring Chinese eunuchs of the Shang dynasty?

Left nephrite jade mask of the Longshan culture of China. The right an Olmec mask. Note similar wide nose and ear gauges.










One of Betty Megger’s most prominent students, Vincent H. Malmstrom, in a monograph entitled “Izapa: Cultural Hearth of the Olmecs”, suggests that Izapa represented the occupation of a vital Olmec transpacific port along the pacific coast. Malmstrom writes, “…in 1973, Coe discovered a small bar of polished hematite at San Lorenzo that he assumed may have been used as part of a compass. Found in a layer dated to approximately 1000 B.C., this suggests that the Olmecs were aware of magnetism about a millennium before the Chinese (Carlson, 1975, 753). However, during field work at Izapa in January, 1975, the author discovered evidence that the inhabitants of this site not only knew about magnetism but that they also seem to have associated it with the homing instinct in the sea-turtle. Such a conclusion stems from the fact that a large sculpture of a turtle head, located about thirty meters to the southeast of the main pyramid, has been carved from a basaltic boulder rich in magnetic iron and executed with such precision that all the magnetic lines of force come to focus in the turtle’s snout. Although no other magnetic stones have been found at Izapa, there are at least two other representations of the turtle present at the site.

“One of these is a sculpture near the east wall of the main pyramid which, when filled with water during the rainy season, may have provided a frictionless surface on which to float a needle or sliver of lodestone. The other is a large altar in the form of a turtle at the west end of the ceremonial ball court, in whose north wall is embedded a carving of a bearded man standing in a boat moving across the waves. That the Izapans were a sea-faring people and maintained relatively regular contacts with places as far distant as Ecuador over a long period of time has been shown by the similarities in ceramics found in the two areas (Coe, 1966, 45; Badner, 1972, 24)…In any event, it would appear that Izapa served as a major center of cultural innovation in Mesoamerica, whether as a trans-Pacific bridgehead or as a hearth in its own right.”

The fact that the Olmecs were capable of using magnetic compasses, and depicted a foreign bearded man sailing on the sea on a stone stele, suggests an advanced knowledge in sea navigation among the Olmec, which in all likelihood, either came from the Chinese, or was developed by both cultures out of a mutual need for trading valuable and exotic goods.

Left, an Olmec jaguar shaman figurine. Middle, a Shang Chinese feline, or tiger figurine, and right another Shang Tiger figurine. Note the same characteristic kneeling posture of all three.










A Certain Love of Jade

Mathew Stirling, one of the original head excavators of the Olmec digs in the Tabasco region, compares the finely crafted Jade pieces of the Olmec with Chinese ones. “…The olmecs loved jade, and in the hands of their artists it was shaped to suit their ends. With apparent disregard for the difficulties involved, the tough material was mastered as though it were plastic. This is in high contrast to most later American jade products, where obvious concessions were made to the original form of the material and the finished products usually had a rigidity not present in Olmec art. In this respect Olmec jades rival the finest Chinese pieces.”

Yet, as Stirling points out, the variety in jades seems to suggest several different sources, even though only one official source in the whole of Mesoamerica has been identified in Guatemala. Stirling adds, “True imperial jade [sculpture] was found at La Venta for the first time in the New World, heretofore being known only from Burma. Imperial jade does not occur in large masses.”

Many scholars studying the origins of the Olmec agree that the sudden arrival of the Olmec sophistication to the region is wholly unexplainable. Charles R. Wicke is noted as saying, “The monuments of San Lorenzo [representing the earliest settlement and the most advanced sculptures of the culture] show a sophistication that suggests long development. Yet nothing leading up to them has been found in the Gulf area. Given the relatively thorough investigations that we have described for the region, this is remarkable. I believe, therefore, that the origins must be sought elsewhere.”

Shang Writing on American Stones

In a US News & World Report story published November 4, 1996, the article reported the testimony of a Chinese language scholar named Han Ping Chen examining famous Olmec figures that accompanied jade celts from La Venta, Tabasco, now at the National Museum of Anthropology. Chen carefully analyzed the writing on the celts and concluded that the writings are “Clearly…Chinese Characters.”

The article further commented on the unusual oriental facial features of many Olmec sculptures: “Migrations from Asia over the land bridge 10,000 – 15,000 years ago could account for Chinese features, such as slanted eyes, but not for the stylized mouths and postures peculiar to sophisticated Chinese art that emerged in recent millennia.

“[Chen] emerged from the exhibit with a theory. After the Shang army was routed and the emperor killed, he suggested, some loyalists might have sailed down the Yellow River and taken to the ocean. There, perhaps, they drifted with a current which skirts Japan’s coast, heads for California and peters out near Ecuador. Betty Meggers, a senior Smithsonian archaeologist who has linked Ecuadorian pottery to 5,000 year old ship wrecked Japanese pottery, says such an idea is ‘plausible’ because ancient Asian mariners were far more proficient than given credit for…When Prof. Mike Xu, a professor of Chinese history at the University of Central Oklahoma, traveled to Beijing to ask Chen to examine his index of 146 markings from pre-Columbian objects, Chen refused, saying he had no interest in anything outside China. He relented only after a colleague familiar with Xu’s work insisted that Chen, as China’s leading authority [on Shang script], take a look. He did and found that all but three of Xu’s markings could have come from China.

“Xu was at Chen’s side in the National Gallery when the Shang scholar read the text on the Olmec celt in Chinese and translated: ‘The ruler and his chieftains establish the foundation for a kingdom.’” In response to Xu and Chen’s findings, Betty Meggers is quoted as saying, “Writing systems are too arbitrary and complex. They cannot be independently reinvented.” The fact that someone of Megger's caliber is willing to risk professional suicide supporting the argument for transpacific contact between Shang China and Olmec America should certainly put the idea on grounds for serious consideration.


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