Olmec Ceramic Baby Figurine
This baby figurine of a pudgy toddler is one of many similar examples of ceramic sculptures of infants belonging to an ancient Mesoamerican ceramic tradition that flourished during the first millennium B.C.E. The figurines are hollow and often nearly life-sized (about 25 to 35 cm, or 10 – 14 inches high), made of white kaolin clay, or ordinary clay covered with white slip. The figurines are usually without clothing, but do not show genitalia. Like others, the head of this example is oversized and seems to show artificial cranial deformation used to shape infants' heads according to cultural aesthetic standards. Their downturned mouths and adult-like, slitted eyes are seemingly symbolic. This figure has wide outstretched legs with baby-like feet, and its arm is outstretched in an open gesture. Many of these figurines display such a reaching gesture, and some are shown crawling forward. Some baby-face figurines wear a helmet-like headdress.
While the sculptures have rarely been unearthed in archaeological context, scholars associate the large figurines with early Olmec archaeological sites in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico near the Gulf coast, with other heartland areas of the Olmec culture region, and nearby areas influenced by Olmec culture. The meaning of the infant figurines is unknown. Various theories have been put forward, whereby they represent elite lineages, deities, or infant sacrifices. They may be effigies that substituted for sacrificial victims. The facial expressions resemble those of the monumental stone sculptures at San Lorenzo and La Venta, but none of the infant sculptures have been found there, possibly because the soil acid destroyed any buried remains, or because they had already gone out of use by that period.
Photograph available online under Creative Commons license at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Olmec_baby-face_figurine,_Snite.jpg. Annotated by Susan Douglass.