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Antiquity Vol 77 No 298 December 2003

Earliest Mesoamerican human-duck imagery from Cuauhtémoc, Chiapas, Mexico

Robert M. Rosenswig

The Mesoamerican Formative period (1600 BC - AD 300) represents the time when agricultural dependence and sociopolitical complexity developed in the region for the first time. It is also during this time that Olmec civilization emerged on the Gulf Coast of Mexico and an artistic horizon is documented across Mesoamerica. While inter-regional interaction was widespread, nowhere was it more intense than with the peoples inhabiting the Soconusco region on the Pacific coast of southern Chiapas, Mexico (Clark 1997; Rosenswig 2000).

In 2002, the Soconusco Formative Project began work at the site of Cuauhtémoc and documented its occupation during the first seven ceramic phases in the Soconusco, from 1600 to 700 BC (Figure 1). The site measures over 5 ha and is cut by a number of deep irrigation trenches cut for banana cultivation. While the damage is unfortunate, it provides a remarkable subsurface view of the site. A 2 by 6m block was excavated as Suboperation 1 to recover artefacts from a stratified midden documented in the profile of a deep irrigation trench (Figure 2). One of the most remarkable objects recovered from these excavations was a globular, rimless jar (a tecomate in Mesoamerican parlance) from the Locona (1400-1250 BC) phase (Figures 3 and 4). This partial vessel was sculpted into a human upper face with a duck beak descending from just below the nose.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Cuauhtémoc site limits, find spot and location of sites mentioned in text
Figure 2 (Click to view)

Figure 2: Irrigation canal at Cuauhtémoc and Suboperation 1, the 2 x 6m excavation block where the human-duck effigy vessel was recovered.

Human-duck imagery is previously known from Middle and Late Formative (900 BC- 300 AD) contexts on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. The most famous such combination is the Tuxtla statuette that combines human eyes, nose, ears and earspools with a duck beak, wings and feet (Bernal 1969: Plate 47). This small, greenstone artefact is carved with epi-Olmec text, including a date of 162 AD. A less well-known human duck combination is represented on Altar 7 at La Venta (Drucker 1952: Plate 65). On this monument, a human face emerges from the niche with a duck beak that descends to the ground. The badly eroded figure has a human shaped head, human eyes, large ears and ear spools. Altar 7 is located prominently at the base of the main pyramid at La Venta. A third example of human-duck imagery is Monument 5 at Cerro de Las Mesas (Sterling 1943: Plate 28). This monument resembles the smaller Tuxtla statuette in overall form but human arms and legs as well as male genitalia are represented.

The human-duck effigy vessel recovered from Cuauhtémoc is a millennia earlier than the Tuxtla statuette and Monument 5 at Cerro de Las Mesas and approximately 500 years earlier than Altar 7 at La Venta. However, more important than how much earlier this object dates to, is that the rather particular iconographic combination of elements predate the Olmec-style horizon. Not only is this vessel earlier, but it comes from outside of the Mexican Gulf Coast where these other early examples are from (see Figure 1). Together, these two facts remove the origins of the idea of human-duck transformation (or imitation) from the Olmec realm. It is also significant that this mythical being, and/or religious specialist dressed as a duck, has now been documented from the near the beginning of ceramic use in Mesoamerica and so may even have a preceramic origin.

Figure 4

Figure 4: Drawing of the Locona phase human-duck effigy tecomate (by Joe McGreevy).


The 2002 season of the Soconusco Formative Project was supported by grants from the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, the National Science Foundation, the Yale Center for International and Area Studies and the Albers Travel Fund, Yale University. This note was written while the author was the recipient of a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada doctoral fellowship. Thanks go to John Clark, Norman Hammond and an anonymous reviewer for their comments.


  • BERNAL, I. 1969. The Olmec World. University of California Press: Berkeley.
  • CLARK, J. E. 1997. The arts of government in Early Mesoamerica. Annual Review of Anthropology 26: 211-234.
  • DRUCKNER, P. 1952. La Venta, Tabasco: A Study of Olmec Ceramics and Art. Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 153. Washington.
  • ROSENSWIG, R. M. 2000. Some Political Processes of Ranked Societies. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 19: 413-460.
  • STERLING, M. W. 1943. Stone Monuments of Southern Mexico. Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 138. Washington.
Figure 3

Figure 3: Locona phase human-duck effigy tecomate

Department of Anthropology, Yale University, 51 Hillhouse Ave., New Haven CT, 06520, USA. E-mail:

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