National Geographic : 1943 Sep
La Venta's Green Stone Tigers BY MATTHEW W. STIRLING Leader of the National Geographic Society-Smithsonian Institution Expeditions to Southern Mexico With Illustrations by Staff Photographer Richard H. Stewart GREEN stone "tiger" masks and the New World's first precious jade of Burma quality were among the outstanding discoveries of the fifth expedition to southern Mexico jointly sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic So ciety. In the third exploration of ancient, buried La Venta, our shovels laid bare two room-size mosaic floors tiled with polished green stone to resemble a jaguar's face. Nothing like them, so far as we know, has been brought to light outside La Venta. Newcomers to La Venta this year were Dr. Waldo Wedel, my fellow archeologist, and Walter A. Weber, ornithologist and artist, both from the Smithsonian Institution, and Miguel Baltazar, our Mexican assistant. They got a nice introduction to native living on dirt floors when our beds and mosquito nets burned in a warehouse fire. An old hand around the place was Richard H. Stewart, National Geographic Society staff photographer, whose camera illustrated pre vious accounts of La Venta.* Our local counselor was again Don Sebas tiin Torres, 86-year-old patriarch of a small clan speaking Aztec among themselves and Spanish to us. He saved us a tedious week of constructing headquarters by having kins men vacate two thatched houses for lease to the expedition. Two Searches-for Oil and Ruins-3 Miles Apart La Venta is an island, about four miles across, in the coastal mangrove swamps near tide-swept Tonala River, State of Tabasco. Except for a petroleum test well, three miles distant from the ruins, it contained no activity of consequence when we arrived early in Feb ruary, 1943 (map, page 325). Anciently, La Venta was the shrine of a cultured people and burial place for some of their prominent citizens. True name of this Indian people perished with their broken altars. For convenience, archeologists at first labeled their civilization "Olmec" and, more recently, "La Venta," after the site. Their culture developed side by side with that of the Old Empire Maya, but it differed widely in most aspects. Tools and other belongings tell this much: La Ventans were agriculturists, engineers, artists, and lapidaries. Between 500 and 800 A.D., La Ventans abandoned their shrine to the jungle or, more probably, surrendered it to conquerers. Their successors tried to smash every object sacred to La Venta's gods. But colossal stone heads and ten-ton memorial posts were too sturdy for the vandals to shatter. And, entombed beneath burglar-proof pillars, precious offer ings to La Venta's rulers remained undis turbed. On two earlier expeditions we uncovered many of these treasures, including five mon strous stone heads (Plate III). Last year we uncovered a basalt-pillared tomb and a jaguar faced sarcophagus. There now remains above ground little to show what La Venta was like. It had no stone temples or palaces. Undoubtedly there were a few thatched dwellings which long ago decayed. Following a "Lode" into History Most prominent feature of the site is a 105-foot mound topped with vegetation. In the jungle surrounding it is a rectangular plot of green we called the Corral because of its being fenced. The fence consisted of the ex posed tips of ten-foot posts quarried from columnar basalt. Such stout construction hinted that here were buried secrets of im portance. La Venta's geometry-minded builders, we determined, oriented their constructions so that they were bisected by a line running almost due north through the Corral from the summit of the mound. To explore this imaginary line, we recruited 25 laborers and started digging a deep, wide trench. Results gained from following the cross section fulfilled expectations. A few of the discoveries merit special attention. One jaguar-mask mosaic was encountered to one side of the central trench at a depth of 23 feet. Those 23 feet cost a picked crew * See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, "Finding Jewels of Jade in a Mexican Swamp," by Matthew W. and Marion Stirling, November, 1942; "Expedition Unearths Buried Masterpieces of Carved Jade," September, 1941; "Great Stone Faces of the Mexican Jungle," September, 1940; and "Discovering the New World's Oldest Dated Work of Man," Au gust, 1939, all by Matthew W. Stirling.