When archaeologists uncover an artifact from an ancient culture, they are only finding a tiny piece of a massive puzzle. For every carved tablet and ancient statue, there are millions of other artifacts which never survived the centuries. So there is much more that we just don't know, and people are often tempted to fill in the gaps with imaginative theories. The alternative origin of the Olmecs is one such theory; it's creative, but widely discredited by scientists.
The Olmecs were the first major advanced civilization in ancient Mesoamerica; colossal stone heads, polished miniature figurines, and intricate statues, are among the interesting works that these people, who lived as long ago as 1500 BC, left behind. But despite having access to these incredible works, relatively little is known about the Olmecs; they left relatively little behind, and their ultimate fate is still undetermined. Most Mesoamerican historians agree that the Olmecs arose out of traditions that were already indigenous to the New World, sharing a common set of traits with other populations in the Western Hemisphere.
Some writers claim that the Olmecs are more directly related to the indigenous peoples of Africa. They conclude this based on examinations of Olmec statues, which show very distinct facial features: a wide flat nose, thick fleshy lips, and the broad jawline seen in native African men. They also claim that the Olmec writing system--the first in Mesoamerica, and still untranslated--is related to native scripts from the Libyco-Berber culture in North Africa.
Mainstream researchers have refuted all of these claims and found no support for them. Genetic studies have failed to yield any evidence of African contribution to the pre-Columbian gene pool. These speculations have been made based on a very narrow classification of race and a staggeringly high rate of sample bias.
It is also thought by some, that perhaps Chinese refugees came to Mesoamerica at the end of the Shang dynasty, and the Olmecs may have descended from them. Researchers have pointed to the same untranslated Olmec scripts, arguing for their resemblance to Chinese characters; both cultures valued jade, and some Olmec masks show faces with slit-shaped eye holes. However, once again, there is no reliable material evidence to suggest that this theory could be real. While these alternative origin concepts are popular in pop culture, scientists have never found a shred of proof.
In the end, the fascination about the Olmecs and their possible alternative origins speaks more about the modern human mind than it does about this mysterious civilization. Human brains seek patterns and naturally want to fill in missing gaps. These cognitive biases take a lot of self-awareness and study. The fact that both Chinese and Olmec cultures valued jade is an example of the association fallacy; just because two things share a common property doesn't mean that they are the same. The speculations also illustrate confirmation bias, wherein answers are found because the researcher wants to find them. Even today the Olmecs are a topic for scientists, writers, and other inquiring people, as current theories seek to uncover more fascinating facts about the Olmecs.
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