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PERSPECTIVES IN BIOLOGY AND MEDICINE Volume 42 ¦ Number 3 ¦ Spring 1999 OLMEC SCULPTURES OF THE HUMAN FETUS CAROLYN TATE* and GORDON BENDERSKY* The human figure as a subject has intrigued sculptors since Paleolithic times. Humans have represented the different stages of life from infants to corpses and skeletons. In sculpture around the world, individuals have been portrayed with marked physical differences, such as dwarfism and polydactylism. Similarly, many ontological states have been explored in sculpture, ranging from youthful innocence to drunkenness, spiritual ecstasy , painful suffering, sexual arousal, and transformation into an animal or vegetal state. But one aspect of human life has not been widely identified in the corpus of world art: that of the prenatal stage, that is, the fetus. Heretofore, the earliest known image of an accurately defined human fetus was the celebrated drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, probably dating to the early 16th century, and the earliest known sculpture of the developing human was an 18th-century piece intended for medical instruction [1, 2]. However, recent research into the sculpture of the ancient Olmec of Mexico resulted in a preliminary identification of certain Olmec stone sculptures as being representations of fetuses, carved between 900 and 600 bc [3] . Pursuing this tentative identification, we involved several specialists in *Department ofArt, Texas Tech University, and **MCP-Hahnemann University School of Medicine and The Department of History, The University of Pennsylvania. Communication: Department of Art, Texas Tech University, Box 42081, Lubbock, TX 79409. The audrors wish to drank Lewis Held, Department of Biology, Texas Tech University, and the following physicians: Arthur E. Gordon, Jay M. Sivitz, Jan J. Volin, Neil Nghia Tran, Bernard Siegel, and Jack Fitzsimmons. Librarians whose guidance is very much appreciated include Margy Grasberger, Lynda Sadusky, Judy Baker, and Anita Fahringer. The authors also wish to thank Brian Stross, Department of Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin, for his suggestions and for comments on an earlier draft, and Rebecca González Lauck, who allowed them to examine the monumental fetuses at La Venta.© 1999 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0031-5982/99/4203-1101$01.00 Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 42, 3 ¦ Spring 1999 303 Fig. 1.—Diagram illustrating changing proportions of the body during the fetal period. After Keith Moore and T. V. N. Persaud, The Developing Human, 1998, Figure 6-3. an analysis of the Olmec sculptures and performed a survey of illustrations ofprehistoric and historic art in cultures worldwide. Based on these investigations , we propose that the earliest images of the human fetus were made in Formative Period Mexico, more than 2,000 years prior to Leonardo's anatomical study. To our knowledge, few cultures documented their exploration of human development in art, a situation which raises several questions about the roles of scientific and medical knowledge in different cultures and about Euro-American attitudes toward our own fetal dvelopment. During research for an exhibition of Olmec art, we had the opportunity to examine firsthand hundreds of Olmec sculptures and to study photographs of even more. We realized that over a dozen representations of an unusual and poorly identified anthropomorphic subject existed. Instead of the 1 : 5 head-to-body ratio typical for most stone adult human figurines, this group had deeply flexed legs and a head-to-body ratio of about 1 : 3 or 1 : 4. These proportional ratios are not normal for adult humans, but they are for a fetus of 12 to 30 weeks (see Fig. 1) [4]. Similarly, the flexed-leg convention of the sculptures replicates precisely how the fetus adapts itself to the space of the womb. These characteristics prompted us to explore the possibility that the sculptures might represent fetuses. Previous interpretations ofseveral of these sculptures has been published in exhibition and collection catalogues and archaeological site reports, in which they had been called "dwarfs," "crouching figures," and "dancers" [5-8]. A few closely observed naturalistic images of dwarfs do exist in Ol304 Carolyn Tate and Gordon Bendersky ¦ Olmec Sculptures of the Human Fetus mec art, and they are well known due to the wide publication of a single jadeite figure of a dwarf (which has sometimes been erroneously called a "jaguar baby") excavated...


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