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El Manatí is an archaeological site in the Mexican state of Veracruzmarker. El Manatí was the site of a sacred Olmec sacrificial bog from roughly 1600 BCE until 1200 BCE. Many unique objects have been recovered from the muck, including the oldest rubber balls yet discovered and the oldest wooden artifacts found in Mexico. The rubber balls were possibly used in the Mesoamerican ballgame, while the wooden artifacts are busts created in the "elongated man" style.

The site

El Manatí is located at the foot of Cerro Manatí, some 15 km (9.3mi) southeast of the major Olmec center of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlánmarker. It is notable among Olmec sites for the absence of contemporaneous local ceremonial or domestic architecture.

Archaeologists have identified three separate phases of deposits at El Manatí: Manatí A Phase (ca. 1700 - 1600 BCE), Manatí B Phase, and the Macayal Phase (ca. 1040 BCE ± 150 years). The wooden busts were all found in this later phase.

El Manati may have been chosen as a sacred place because of one or more of its natural features:

  • The presence of a natural spring, often a feature of Mesoamerican sacred sites.
  • The presence of red pigment, likely hematite, which symbolized blood.
  • Its location at the foot of a hill, Cerro Manatí. Many early Mesoamerican sites, including Chalcatzingomarker, Teopantecuanitlanmarker, and Las Bocasmarker, were situated east or west of a prominent hill.

El Manatí and other Olmec heartland archaeological sites.


Of particular note are 37 wooden busts or sculptures recovered from the bogs in 1989 by INAH archaeologists, during the third excavational phase at El Manatí. These busts were unusually well-preserved, owing to the anaerobic conditions of their interment and a stable water temperature that impeded microbial decay. Samples from two of these busts produced Carbon-14 dating results equivalent to a date of around 1200 BCE. Carved from the wood of ceiba and jobo trees, almost all of the busts had been ritually buried and wrapped in mats (petates) made from vegetable fibers—the earliest evidence of funeral wrappings in Mexico. The number of busts interred at or around the same time has led the INAH researchers to speculate that some widespread calamity, such as flood or prolonged drought, encouraged the ancient community to increase their offerings made in supplication to the mountain deities.

Despite the obviously stylized shape of the head, researchers suggest that, due to their individual expressions, the busts depicted actual people.

The wooden busts were usually accompanied by other objects. For example:

  • Sculpture 1 was associated with a wooden staff and a dark green ax (celt).
  • Sculpture 2 was associated with a large obsidian flake, tied bundles of leaves and plants, a hematite ball, a pile of sandstone rocks "common to a number of other sculptures," as well as fragments of human infant bones. Nearby to its east was the skeleton of an infant.
  • Sculptures 5, 6, & 7 were interred as a group, each laid on their sides in a triangle, facing inward. These sculptures were associated with bundles of plant material and were covered with a mat. An incomplete wooden staff and an infant cranium were associated with this burial.

In addition to the dozen rubber balls and 37 wooden busts, the excavation has turned up many jadeite ceremonial axes (celts), pottery, greenstone beads arranged in clusters (likely once two separate necklaces), "baby-face" figurine fragments, carved wooden staffs, ritual obsidian knives (with no evidence of use), bones of newborn or unborn infants, and human and animal bone fragments. Most of these objects within the bog were found to be carefully arranged rather than being haphazardly deposited, pointing to a sacred sacrificial intent.

Infant bones

The bones of the newborn or unborn infants consisted of some whole skeletons as well as dismembered femurs and skulls. These remains are particularly intriguing since they point to the possibility of human sacrifice, a ritual without direct evidence in the Olmec archaeological record. The infant remains are each associated with, and subordinate to, the burial of a wooden bust. It is not known how the infants died.

History of research

The site was discovered by locals who hoped to build a fish pond at the spring. Beginning in 1988, researchers have spent four seasons excavating the site.

See also


  1. Hosler et al. (1999)
  2. Ortíz and Rodríguez (1999, p.225)
  3. Rodríguez and Ortíz (1997, p.93)
  4. Cerro Manatí is a salt dome.
  5. Rodríguez and Ortíz (1997, p.93)
  6. After the wooden heads were excavated they were each symbolically baptized and given personal names, following a petition to INAH by locals from the nearby Macayal community, in order to "expel the demons" (pues había que quitarles el diablito). See INAH (2008).
  7. INAH (2008)
  8. INAH (2008)
  9. INAH (2008)
  10. INAH (2008)
  11. See for example Diehl (2004, p.45); also Ortíz and Rodríguez (1999, p.248), who comment: "the individuality of the busts could indicate that they were representations of chiefs, rulers, or personas who achieved a high level of prestige, leading to an attempt to immortalize them with images."
  12. Ortíz and Rodríguez (1999, p.238)
  13. Ortíz and Rodríguez (1999, p.249)


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