The El Manati Olmec Archaeological Site

Olmec Celts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Madman201/Wikimedia Commons

The El Manati Olmec Archaeological Site:

Located in Veracruz State, Mexico, the El Manatí archaeological site is one of the most important Olmec sites. The marshy site sits at the foot of a small hill and was evidently an important ceremonial location for the Olmecs of nearby San Lorenzo. Many objects were left here by the Olmecs, evidently as sacrifices to their gods. The marshy environment preserved these objects, some of which are made of wood, for thousands of years.

The Olmec Civilization:

The Olmec culture thrived in the humid lowlands of Mexico's gulf coast region, mostly in the present-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco. Their culture peaked roughly from 1200-400 B.C. and their cities of San Lorenzo and La Venta (their real names have been lost) were the largest in Mesoamerica at the time. They were great artists, sculptors and traders who had a rich culture with a unique religion and a pantheon of at least eight gods. Their culture declined around 400 B.C., but their accomplishments became the base for many of the later cultures of Mesoamerica, such as the Aztec and Maya.

The El Manatí Site:

In 1988, local farmers digging a fish pond in a marshy area south of the city of Coatzacoalcos began unearthing interesting objects. Archaeologists quickly arrived and confirmed the site as an Olmec ceremonial center. Cerro Manatí (English: Manatee Hill) is a low hill surrounded by a bog, and is isolated even today.

It is the source of a freshwater spring, which may have added to its sacred value to the Olmec. Serious excavations began in 1989, and hundreds of ceremonial objects dating back thousands of years have been located.

The Olmec and El Manatí:

The Olmec culture considered certain topographical phenomena to be sacred, including mountains and caves.

Cerro Manatí, being close to San Lorenzo (it's only 17 km/10 miles away) became a place for Olmecs to leave gifts for the gods. Hundreds of items were deposited here over the course of several centuries, from 1600 - 1000 B.C. The nature of the offerings shows that they were intended as a gift for the gods. Some of the wooden busts were carefully wrapped in mats and tied with rope and were set facing the hill. Some of the jadeite axe heads were meticulously laid out in a distinctive pattern.

Objects Found at El Manatí:

Many important items have been discovered at El Manatí. These objects include jadeite axes and celts, pottery vessels, beads, hearthstones, bowls and bones. Many wooden objects, including 40 wooden busts of human heads and torsos, have been found. These are extremely important, because they are the only wooden objects of the Olmec to survive. Another treasure found at El Manatí is rubber balls, apparently used to play the Mesoamerican ball game: these are the oldest known balls to survive.

Importance of the El Manatí Archaeological Site:

The El Manatí site is one of the most important Olmec sites, on a par with the cave paintings of Oxtotitlán and Juxtlahuaca or La Venta's famous Complex A.

Because of the great amount of time that has passed - the Olmec civilization declined around 400 A.D. - nearly all perishable objects associated with Olmec culture disintegrated long ago. Olmec tombs have been discovered, but the bodies are long gone, as are objects of wood, cloth, rubber or paper. At El Manatí, however, the dampness preserved wooden sculptures for three thousand years!

Much about Olmec culture was learned from the objects found at El Manatí. Human bones of children and infants indicate that the Olmec practiced human sacrifice. A ceramic bowl found at the site was found to have residue of a cacao based drink in it, meaning that Mesoamerican elites were already drinking it as a beverage. The presence of the rubber balls indicates that the people already had the know-how to create and use rubber, and also that they played the game.

A shark tooth on a wooden staff was most likely used for ritual bloodletting, an aspect of Olmec religion that would later be adopted by most Mesoamerican civilizations.


Coe, Michael D and Rex Koontz. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. 6th Edition. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008

Diehl, Richard A. The Olmecs: America's First Civilization. London: Thames and Hudson, 2004.

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Minster, Christopher. "The El Manati Olmec Archaeological Site." ThoughtCo, Dec. 1, 2015, Minster, Christopher. (2015, December 1). The El Manati Olmec Archaeological Site. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "The El Manati Olmec Archaeological Site." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 17, 2017).