Other Mexican Sites:



La Venta.

San Lorenzo.

Olmec Stone Heads.

Guatemala Stone Heads.

Olmecs Homepage.

Mexico Homepage.

Pre-Columbian Americas.


Index of Ancient Sites.








About Us.

A-Z Site Index.

Gift Shop.

Contact Us

 Location: Tres Zapotes, Veracruz, Mexico.  Grid Reference: 18� 28' N, 95� 26' W.


      Tres Zapotes: (Olmec Capital).

Located on the slopes of the Tuxtla mountains, this is one of the most important Olmec cities, and the first to be written about in 1868, along with the first reports of colossal heads. Tres Zapotes is sometimes referred to as the third Olmec Capital, as it followed on the demise of both La Venta and San Lorenzo.

Of particular interest to archaeology is that the site was continuously inhabited for over 2000 years (1)

(Layout of Site)



   Tres Zapotes (Three Sapodillas).

Founded c. 1500 BC, it is believed that Tres Zapotes achieved prominence during the Early Formative period, between 1200 and 900 BC. During the Late Formative, 400 BC to 100 AD, when other Olmec centres such as La Venta were already in decline, Tres Zapotes sculptures showed the influence of other artistic styles, such as that of Izapa in the Guatemalan Highlands, and other regional styles (2). This indicates ongoing trade connections with other cultures, which would have influenced Tres Zapotes. Despite the fact that the Olmec culture may have no longer existed as such, Tres Zapotes continued to be occupied until well into the Early Postclassic (1000-1200 AD).

There have been several important discoveries at Tres Zapotes, not least of all, the first discovery of a monumental Stone head, which have since inspired much debate over the origin and influence of Olmec cultural connections.


The Stone Heads

It was near Tres Zapotes that the first colossal head was discovered in 1862 by Jos� Melgar. To date, only two 'monumental' heads have been found locally, labelled "Monument A" and Monument Q". Smaller than the colossal heads at San Lorenzo, they measure slightly less than 1.5 m (4 ft 11 in) high. Together with the cruder and significantly larger head at Rancho la Cobata, these colossal heads show evidence of a specific style of dress and sculpture, differing from that of San Lorenzo and La Venta.

Scarcely 10 km (6 mi) to the east stands Cerro el Vig�a, an extinct volcano and important source of basalt and other volcanic stone, sandstone, and clay. The nearby small site of Rancho la Cobata, on the northern flank of Cerro El Vig�a, may have functioned as a monument workshop � most of the basalt stonework at Tres Zapotes was crafted from the colossal, "spheroid", smooth-faced boulders found even today at the summit of Cerro El Vig�a. Some of these boulders are more than 3 meters in diameter.



Monument A: Height 1.47m (4.82 ft). Carved from a block of Basalt. Current location, Community museum, Veracruz. Monument Found near the Calendar stone (Stela C), Stirling (seen kneeling beside it) had this to say of it:

"...The head was a head only, carved from a single massive block of basalt, and it rested on a prepared foundation of un-worked slabs of stone ... Cleared of the surrounding earth it presented an awe-inspiring spectacle. Despite its great size the workmanship is delicate and sure, the proportions perfect. Unique in character among aboriginal American sculptures, it is remarkable for its realistic treatment. The features are bold and amazingly Negroid in character..." (3)





Monument Q - Height 1.47m (4.82 ft). Carved from a distinctive porphyritic basalt and weighing over eight tons, this was the second colossal head to be discovered at Tres Zapotes. Current location Santiago Tuxtla Museum, Veracruz.

Image (Right): The rear of Monument Q showing Ethiopian style braided hair. This monument in particular offers one of the strongest arguments in favour of the heads representing people of African origin.



It is interesting that the two colossal heads found at Tres Zapotes, monument A and monument Q, were not found in the core zone of the site, but rather in the residential periphery, in Group 1 and Nestepe Group.

(Old World - New World contact in Pre-Columbian America)

(Images of All the Mexican Stone-Heads)


The Olmec Long-Count:

In Addition to the stone heads, Tres Zapotes excavations revealed the earliest example of a dated 'Long Count' inscription from 'Stela C', in the year of 31 BC.

Tres Zapotes Stela C: Tres Zapotes is famous for Stela C, a rectangular stone block with a post-Olmec Izapa-style mask on one side, and a Long Count date expressed in bars and dots on the other (below). The date, 6 Eznab (31 B.C.), was at the time, the Mesoamerica's oldest 'Mayan' Long Count inscriptions. What was shocking about this was that Tres Zapotes was not a Maya site�not in any way at all. It was entirely, exclusively, unambiguously Olmec. This suggested that the Olmecs, not the Maya, must have been the inventors of the calendar, and that the Olmecs, not the Maya, ought to be recognized as �the mother culture� of Central America.

Illustration of Stela C: Front and Back, showing the date 31 BC.


This very important fact has revealed several interesting aspects of Olmec culture. The Olmecs were much, much older than the Maya. They�d been a smart, civilized, technologically advanced people and indeed, it appears that it was they, and not the Maya, who invented the bar-and-dot system of calendrical notation, including the enigmatic starting date of 13 August 3114 BC.

In addition, and of equal importance, a nearby stela has produced the longest glyph text in Meso-America, leading to a question over the origin of writing.




Tres Zapotes: Gallery of Images.



Tres Zapotes Stela D: This monument shows the open mouth of an animal, possibly representing the Earth Monster. Three human figures are carved in low relief in the back of the mouth. In 1939 Stirling described the style of this stela as �quite suggestive of Mayan art.� This was, however, before the style was recognized as preceding the Maya and before the name Olmec was applied to the style and to the civilization that produced it.

This single Stela took 20 men to remove it from the ground. It has been compared to the Izapa Stela, and is tentatively dated to c. 600 - 100 BC (4).





'One of the major differences between the ancient civilizations of Eurasia and those of the Americas was the absence of wheeled transportation in the latter...'

Soon afterwards the American archaeologist made a second unsettling discovery at Tres Zapotes was also the place where archaeologists unearthed the first example of a Pre-Columbian wheeled object. Since then several more have been found in both Olmec and Mayan locations dispelling the myth that the wheel was unknown before the conquest.

(Other Examples of the Wheel in Pre-Columbian America)



Bearded Olmecs.?

This particularly significant discovery is of the head of a man, with pointed beard, earplugs and headdress, from one of the mounds near Tres Zapotes.

Neither the beard of the moustache are found in the Amerindian genotype.

There are several other bearded figures in Olmec art, again placing an emphasis on the idea that the Olmecs were a multi-cultural society with influences from different cultures from the both Pacific and Atlantic..

(Photo Credits: Smithsonian Olmec Legacy)


(Olmecs Homepage)

(La Venta)   (San Lorenzo)

(The Olmec Stone Heads)

(Mexico Homepage)

(Pre-Columbian Americas)


1). Pool, Christopher A. Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica. 2007. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2). http://anthropology.si.edu/olmec/english/sites/tresZapotes.htm
3). Matthew W. Stirling, �Discovering the New World�s Oldest Dated Work of Man�, National Geographic Magazine, volume 76, August 1939, pp. 183-218
4). Virginia Grady Smith. Izapa Relief Carving: Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology. 1984. Dumbarton Oaks.


About Us Homepage  |  A-Z Site Index  |  Gift Shop  |  Contact-Us