Evidence of the African Migration to America and Olmec Religion


Clyde Winters

Clyde Winters

INTRODUCTION The Stelae no.5 from Izapa, is an important historical document from Mexico. This monument has interesting iconographic representations that prove some of the migration traditions handed down from generation to generation by the Mexicans. The Izapa style art is characterized by upright stone stelae found at the site of Izapa, situated near Tapachula, Chiapas. Izapa is located on the Pacific coastal plain in an area known as Soconusco. This area in middle preclassic times was a center of Olmec civilization. (Morley,Brainerd & Sharer 1983: 64-66)

The research of the New World Archaeological Foundation indicate that this site has been continously occupied since 1500 B.C. Much of what we know about the art from Izapa comes from the work of Virginia Smith' Izapa Relief Carving (1984), Garth Norman's Izapa Sculpture (1976) and Jacinto Quirarte's Izapan-Style Art (1973). V. Garth Norman (1976) of the New World Archaeological Foundation has published many of the stone stalae and altars found at Izapa and discussed much of their probable religious significance. Most researchers including Norman believe that the Izapans were "Olmecoid". Smith (1984) disagrees with this hypothesis, but Michael D. Coe (1962: 99-100,1965:773-774, 1968:121), Ignacio Bernal (1969:172) support an Olmec origin for the Izapan style art. Quirarte (1973:32-33) recognized obvious Olmec cultural traits in the Izapa iconography.

The Stelae no.5 from Izapa records many glyphic elements common to other preclassic artifacts including the jaguar, falling water, mountain, bird, dragon tree, serpent and fish motifs.(Smith 1984:28-29) This stelae also provides many elements that relate to Mexican and Maya traditions as accurately analyzed by Norman (1976:165-236). Some ideological factors not fully discussed in regards to this stelae is its discussion of elements of the Olmec religion, and the migration traditions of the Mexicans.

ANCIENT MIGRATION STORIES OF MEXICO The Maya were not the first to occupy the Yucatan and Gulf regions of Mexico. It is evident from Maya traditions and the artifacts recovered from many ancient Mexican sites that a different race lived in Mayaland before the Mayan speakers settled this region. The Pacific area was early colonized by Olmec people in middle preclassic times.(Morley, Brainerd & Sharer 1984) The Olmec civilization was developed along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in the states of Tabasco and Veracruz. (Pouligny 1988:34) The linguistic evidence suggest that around 1200 B.C., a new linguistic group arrived in the Gulf region of Mexico.

M. Swadesh (1953) has presented evidence that at least 3200 years ago a non- Maya speaking group wedged itself between the Huastecs and the Maya. Soustelle (1984: 29) tells us that "We cannot help but think that the people that shattered the unity of the Proto-Mayas was also the people that brought Olmec civilization to the region".

Traditions mentioned by Sahagun, record the settlement of Mexico by a different race from the present Amerindian population. Sahagun says that these "Eastern settlers of Mexico landed at Panotha, on the Mexican Gulf. Here they remained for a time until they moved south in search of mountains. Other migration to Mexico stories are mention in the Popol Vuh, the ancient religious and historical text compiled by the Quiche Mayan Indians.

This new race may have come from Africa. Sertima (1976), and Weiner (1922) believe that some of these foriegn people may have come from West Africa. Dr. Wiercinski (1972) claims that the some of the Olmecs were of African origin. He supports this claim with skeletal evidence from several Olmec sites where he found skeletons that were analogous to the West African type black. Wiercinski discovered that 13.5 percent of the skeletons from Tlatilco and 4.5 percent of the skeletons from Cerro de las Mesas were Africoid (Wiercinski & Jairazbhoy 1975) (For information on African Olmecs see Clyde A Winters Homepage.

Friar Diego de Landa (1978:8,28) , in Yucatan Before and After the Conquest, wrote that "some old men of Yucatan say that they have heard from their ancestors that this country was peopled by a certain race who came from the East, whom God delivered by opening for them twelve roads through the sea". This tradition is most interesting because it probably refers to the twelve migrations of the Olmec people. This view is supported by the stone reliefs from Izapa, Chiapas , Mexico published by the New World Foundation. In Stela 5, from Izapa we see a group of men on a boat riding the waves.(Wuthenau 1980; Smith 1984 ; Norman 1976)

It is clear that Stela No.5, from Izapa not only indicates the tree of life, it also confirms the tradition recorded by Friar Diego de Landa that the Olmec people made twelve migrations to the New World. This stela also confirms the tradition recorded by the famous Mayan historian Ixtlixochitl, that the Olmec came to Mexico in "ships of barks " and landed at Pontochan, which they commenced to populate.(Winters 1984: 16) These Blacks are frequently depicted in the Mayan books/writings carrying trade goods.

In the center of the boat on Stela No.5, we find a large tree. This tree has seven branches and twelve roots. The seven branches probably represent the seven major clans of the Olmec people. The twelve roots of the tree extending into the water from the boat probably signifies the "twelve roads through the sea", mentioned by Friar Diego Landa.

The migration traditions and Stela No.5, probably relates to a segment of the Olmec, who landed in boats in Panotha or Pantla (the Huasteca) and moved along the coast as far as Guatemala. This would correspond to the non-Maya speaking group detected by Swadesh that separated the Maya and Huasteca speakers 2000 years ago.Bernardino de Sahagun (1946) a famous authority on Mexico also supports the extra-American origin of the Olmecs when he wrote that A"Eastern settlers of Mexico landed at Panotla on the Mexican Gulf. Here they remained for a time until they moved south in search of mountains".The reported route of the Panotha settlers recorded by Sahagun interestingly corresponds to the spread of the Olmecs in Meso-America which extended from the Gulf of Mexico to Chalcatzingo, in the Mexican highlands along the Pacific coast.(Morley, Brainerd & Sharer 1983, p.52)


The Olmec people had their own writing. This writing system was deciphered by Winters(1977,1979; Wuthenau 1980) This decipherment of the Olmec writing allows us to discover much about the Olmec people and their culture.

The Olmecs had two different religious associations (gya-fa):the jaguar-man or humano-feline cult and the humano-bird cult. The humano-feline cult was called the nama-tigi (see Illustration No.7 below) by the Olmecs, while the humano-feline cult was called the kuno-tigi(see Illustration No.6 below). The leadear of the Olmec cult was called the tigi or amatigi "head of the faith". The tigi of the Olmec secret societies or cults exerted considerable influence both dead and alive. Alive he could contact the spirits of the deceased, and serve as intermediaries between the gods and mankind. Upon his death his grave became a talisman bestowing good to all who visited his tomb.

Dr. Sertima (1976) and Wiener (1922) have both commented on the possible relationship between the amanteca of ancient Mexico and the amantigi of Africa and the Olmecs. It is interesting to note that tec / tecqui means "master, chief" in a number of Mexican languages including Nahuatl (Wiener 1922).

Many Meso-Americanists have suggested that the Maya inherited many aspects of their civilization from thew Olmec.(Soustelle 1984) This is interesting because in the Maya Book of Chumayel, the three main cult associations which are suppose to have existed in ancient times were (1) the stone (cutters) cult, (2) the jaguar cult and (3) the bird cult. In lines 4-6 of the Book of Chumayel , we read that "Those with their sign in the bird, those with their sign in the stone, flat worked stone, those with their sign in the Jaguar-three emblems-".(Brotherston 1979) The Book of Chumayel, corresponds to the gylphs depicted on Monument 13 at La Venta

. On Monument 13, at La Venta a personage in profile, he has a headress on his head and wears a breechcloth, jewels and sandals, along with four glyphs listed one above the other. The glyphs included the stone, the jaguar, and the bird emblems. Monument 13, at La Venta also has a fourth sign to the left of the personage a foot gylphs. This monument has been described as an altar or a low column.

The foot in Olmec is called "se", this symbols means to "lead or advance toward knowledge, or success". The "se" (foot) sign of the komow (cults) represent the beginning of the Olmec initiates pursuit of knowledge.

The meaning of Monument 13, reading from top to bottom, are a circle kulu/ kaba (the stone), nama (jaguar) and the kuno (bird). The interpretation of this column reading from left to right is "The advance toward success--power--for the initiate is obedience to the stone cutters cult, jaguar cult and the bird cult". The Jaguar mask association dominated the Olmec Gulf region.

In the central and southern Olmec regions we find the bird mask association predominate as typified by the Xoc bas relief of Chiapas, and the Bas Relief No.2, of Chalcatzingo. Another bird mask cult association was located in the state of Guerrero as evidenced by the humano-bird figure of the Stelae from San Miguel Amuco.

The iconographic representation of the Olmec priest-kings, found at Chalchapa, La Venta, Xoc and Chalcatzing indicate that usually the Olmec priest wore a wide belt and girdle. He was usually clean shaven, with an elogated bold head often topped by a round helmet or elaborate composite mask. During religious ceremonies the Olmec religious leader, depending on his cult would wear the sacre jaguar or sacre bird mask. Often as illustrated by the glyphs on the shoulders and knees of the babe-in-arms figurine of Las Limas element the mask would include a combination of the associated with the bird, jaguar and serpent.

The cult leaders of the bird mask cult usually wore claws on their feet. The jaguar cult leaders usually wore the jaguar mask.

Stelae No.5 also discusses in detail the two major Olmec religions: the nama (jaguar) komo (cult) and the kuno (bird) komo. At the top of Stela No.5 , we recognize two lines of Olmec writing across the top of the artifact. On the first line we read from right to left :I ba i. Lu tu lu. I ba i, which means "Thou art powerful Now! Hold Upright (those) obedient to the[ir] Order. Thou art Powerful Now!" On the second line we read the following I lu be. I lu , which means "Thou hold upright Unity. Thou [it] upright" (see Table of Olmec signs 1,and 2 ).

The religious orders spoken of in this stela are the Bird and Jaguar cults. These Olmec cults were Nama or the Humano-Jaguar cult; and Kuno or Bird cult. The leader of the Nama cult was called the Nama-tigi (see Nama chief Illustration 7 Stela No.5 Izapa) , or Amatigi (head of the faith). The leader of the Kuno cult was the Kuno-tigi (Kuno chief see Illustration 6 Stela No.5). These cult leaders initiated the Olmec into the mysteries of the cult.

On the Stela No. 5, we see both the Kuno-tigi and Nama-tigi instruction youth in the mysteries of their respective cults. On Stela No.5, we see two priests and members of each cult society sitting in a boat with a tree in the center.(Wuthenau 1980;Sitchin 1990,p.178) On the righthand side of the boat we see the Nama-tigi, and on the left hand side we see the Kuno-tigi.

Illustrations of the Nama-Tigi (No.7)and Kuno-Tigi(No.6)

The personage on the right side of the boat under a ceremonial umbrella is the Nama-tigi (see Illustration No.7). In Mexico, this umbrella was a symbol of princely status. Above his head is a jaguar glyph which, according to Dr. Alexander von Wuthenau (1980) indicates that he was an Olmec. This personage has an African style hairdo and a writing stylus in his left hand. This indicates the knowledge of writing among the Olmecs which is also evident in the Olmec inscriptions deciphered by Winters (1977a,1977b,1979, 1980) .

On the sides of the boat we see two Olmec signs they read: "In the company of Purity". This statement signifies that the Olmec believed that worship of the Kuno or Nama cults led to spiritual purity among the believers.

Izapa Stela No.5

On the left hand side of the boat we see a number of birds. Here we also find a priest wearing a conical hat instructing another youth, in the mysteries of the Kuno cult around a flame.

Among the Olmecs this flame signified the luminous character of knowledge. The Kuno priest wears a conical hat(see Illustration No.6). The evidence of the conical hat on the Kuno priest is important evidence of the Manding in ancient America. The conical hat in Meso-America is associated with Amerindian priesthood and as a symbol of political and religious authority . Leo Wiener (1922, v.II: p.321) wrote that:

"That the kingly and priestly cap of the Magi should have been preserved in America in the iden -tical form, with the identical decoration,and should, besides, have kept the name current for it among the Mandingo [Malinke-Bambara/Manding] people , makes it impossible to admit any other solution than the one that the Mandingoes established the royal offices in Mexico".

Stelea no.21 ,from Izapa also record the decline of the Olmec nama and kuno religions and probable raise of the Maya speakers and the sa (serpent) cult which called forhuman sacrifice. On Stelae no.21, we see a decapitated individual lieing on the ground.

An elite carries the decapitaed head. This elite may be an early Maya personage because he wears a new style headdress which resembles the Maya style headdresses.

In the background we see an elite personage being borne in an elaborate sedan chair. Above this chair we see the serpent .

This depiction of a serpent as a background but dominate figure in Olmec religion/rule corresponds to Monument 19 of La Venta. On Monument 19, from La Venta we see an Olmec personage which has a serpent behind his back and above his head. This serpent indicates hidden knowledge or powers from the serpent that the cult leader used to lead the followers of their cult.

In conclusion , Stela No.5 Izapa provides the story behind the African migration to America. It also gives us a detailed account of the separation of the Olmec religion and people into two major groups. Stela No.5 of Izapa is therefore an important historical document.

revised: June 1998

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