One of the rarest pieces in our Olmec exhibition at the de Young is a carved human bust made of a tropical variety of cedar tree. Over three thousand years old, the bust has survived this long because it was buried at the bottom of a freshwater bog for most of its life.
Archaeologists believe it was placed in the bog, along with thirty-six other busts, by the Olmec as part of a large offering, probably in response to a long-term problem facing the community, such as a flood or drought. The busts were bundled in vegetable mats and buried along with other objects of high value—some of which are also in the exhibition.
Researchers think the Olmec chose the spring, named El Manatí for a nearby hill and the manatees that were abundant in the area, as a site for important offerings because it represented a culmination of important elements. The Olmec believed water and mountains were imbued with sacred qualities, including fertility, and saw tall hills both as a meeting point between the earth and the sky and as “mansions of the rain god.” The area was also abundant in hematite, an iron-rich red pigment that researchers believe the Olmec associated with blood.