San Lorenzo (Mexico)

The Royal Center of San Lorenzo

Olmec Colossal Head, San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, Mexico
Olmec Colossal Head from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, Mexico, now at the Museum of Anthropology at Xalapa. Utilisateur:Olmec

San Lorenzo is an Olmec period site located in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. San Lorenzo is the name of the central place in the larger San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan archaeological region. It is located on a steep plateau above the Coatzacoalcos floodplain.

The site was first settled in the second millennium BC and had its heyday between 1200-900 BC. Temples, plazas, roadways and kingly residences are included in an area of about a half acre, where about 1,000 people resided.


  • Ojochi phase (1800-1600 BC)
  • Bajio phase (1600-1500 BC)
  • Chicharras (1500-1400 BC)
  • San Lorenzo A (1400-1200 BC)
  • San Lorenzo B (1000-1200 BC)

Architecture at San Lorenzo

Ten colossal stone heads representing heads of past and present rulers have been found at San Lorenzo. Evidence suggests that these heads were plastered and painted in bright colors. They were arranged in ensembles and set in a plaza paved with red sand and yellow gravel. Sarcophagus-shaped thrones linked living kings with their ancestors.

A royal processional aligned to the north-south axis of the plateau led the way to the center. At the center of the site are two palaces: the San Lorenzo Red Palace and the Stirling Acropolis. The Red Palace was a royal residence with a platform substructure, red floors, basalt roof support, steps and drain. The Stirling Acropolis may have been the sacred residence, and is surrounded by a pyramid, E-group and a ballcourt.

Chocolate at San Lorenzo

Recent analysis of 156 potsherds were collected from stratified deposits at San Lorenzo, and reported in an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in May of 2011. Residues of the pottery were collected and analyzed at the University of California, Davis Department of Nutrition. Of the 156 potsherds examined, 17% contained conclusive evidence of theobromine, the active incredient in chocolate. Vessel types exhibiting multiple occurrences of theobromine included open bowls, cups and bottles; the vessels date throughout the chronology at San Lorenzo. This represents the earliest evidence of chocolate use.

Excavators of San Lorenzo include Matthew Stirling, Michael Coe and Ann Cyphers Guillen.


This glossary entry is a part of the Guide to the Olmec Civilization, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Blomster JP, Neff H, and Glascock MD. 2005. Olmec Pottery Production and Export in Ancient Mexico Determined Through Elemental Analysis. Science 307:1068-1072.

Cyphers A. 1999. From Stone to Symbols: Olmec Art in Social Context at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán. In: Grove DC, and Joyce RA, editors. Social Patterns in Pre-Classic Mesoamerica. Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks. p 155-181.

Neff H, Blomster J, Glascock MD, Bishop RL, Blackman MJ, Coe MD, Cowgill GL, Diehl RA, Houston S, Joyce AA et al. 2006. Methodological Issues In The Provenance Investigation Of Early Formative Mesoamerican Ceramics. Latin American Antiquity 17(1):54-57.

Neff H, Blomster J, Glascock MD, Bishop RL, Blackman MJ, Coe MD, Cowgill GLC, Ann, Diehl RA, Houston S, Joyce AA et al. 2006. Smokescreens in the Provenance Investigation of Early Formative Mesoamerican Ceramics. Latin American Antiquity 17(1):104-118.

Pohl MD, and von Nagy C. 2008. The Olmec and their contemporaries. In: Pearsall DM, editor. Encyclopedia of Archaeology. London: Elsevier Inc. p 217-230.

Pool CA, Ceballos PO, del Carmen Rodríguez Martínez M, and Loughlin ML. 2010. The early horizon at Tres Zapotes: implications for Olmec interaction. Ancient Mesoamerica 21(01):95-105.

Powis TG, Cyphers A, Gaikwad NW, Grivetti L, and Cheong K. 2011. Cacao use and the San Lorenzo Olmec. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108(21):8595-8600.

Wendt CJ, and Cyphers A. 2008. How the Olmec used bitumen in ancient Mesoamerica. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 27(2):175-191.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "San Lorenzo (Mexico)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 26). San Lorenzo (Mexico). Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "San Lorenzo (Mexico)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).