Campus: CSU Long Beach -- March 2, 2005
Cal State Long Beach Anthropology Professor Has Research on Olmec
Pottery Published in Science
Cal State Long Beach Anthropology Professor Hector Neff saw his research paper
on Olmec pottery published in the February issue of the prestigious Science
Titled "Olmec Pottery Production and Export in Ancient Mexico Determined Through
Elemental Analysis," the article presents new evidence that the fabled Olmec
sculptors of Mexico's colossal stone heads were the region's first dominant
civilization, a "mother culture" that set the pace for emerging cultural
complexity in the region over three millennia ago.
Neff's article, written in cooperation with George Washington University's Jeffrey
R. Blomster and the University of Missouri's Michael D. Glascock, is his first in
Science. "It's great," he said. "Science is the cream of the crop in terms of
scientific publishing and certainly for archaeological publishing." The journal
is published by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science.
For decades, a debate has raged in anthropological circles between the mother-culture
hypothesis and the theory that the Olmec were just one of several "sister" cultures
that developed at the same time. The article by Neff and his colleagues demonstrates
that, while other ancient settlements made pottery with symbols and designs in the
Olmec style, only the early Olmec themselves at San Lorenzo on Mexico's Gulf Coast
exported pottery with the distinctive carved designs.
"It turns out, to my complete astonishment, that there is quite a bit of pottery
with Olmec designs outside that heartland that comes from the heartland," he said.
"San Lorenzo imports appear on the Pacific coast of Chiapas, in the basin of Mexico,
and in the highlands of Oaxaca. But there isn't a single example out of the 800
or so ceramic samples we analyzed that went back in the other direction, from the
Pacific coast or the Mexican highlands to San Lorenzo."
Moreover, there is no evidence that the highland centers traded pottery among
Neff suspects that proponents of the "mother culture" idea will welcome the new
findings. "This is a fairly straightforward ceramic provenance investigation.
We used concrete chemical-fingerprint data to establish patterns of interaction,
but the patterns we found are strikingly one sided. If the Olmec were not
colonizing, they were certainly exporting ceramic pots with their distinctive
iconography. Mother-culture proponents will view this as evidence that the Olmec
were also exporting ideas about how to organize society to the rest of Mesoamerica."
Neff points with pride to his association with CSULB's Institute for Integrated
Research in Materials, Environments and Society (IIRMES), which seeks to embrace
and extend existing interdisciplinary research collaborations between the College
of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and the College of Liberal Arts using
"Thanks to technology such as the laser ablation system and our time-of-flight
ICP-MS, we can ask questions that wouldn't have been possible even ten years ago.
For instance, we plan to expand the Olmec study by investigating whether the Gulf
Coast Olmec might also have been exporting pigments used to decorate vessels with
Olmec symbols made outside the heartland," he said.
Neff, who was named in July 2004 as a member of Guatemala's Academy of Geography
and History, worked on a post-doctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution
in Washington, D.C., for four years before joining the University of Missouri for
12 years as a senior research assistant. He received his A.B. from Stanford and
his M.A. and Ph.D. from UC Santa Barbara.
Media Contacts: Rick Gloady, 562/985-5454,
Shayne Schroeder, 562/985-1727,