Image of an Olmec ruler at Juxtlahuaca, Mexico

Michael D. Coe

Figure 1
Figure 1. Click to enlarge.

The extraordinary Olmec cave paintings at Juxtlahuaca, in the Mexican state of Guerrero, were first professionally explored and described by Gillett Griffin of Princeton University and the late Carlo T. E. Gay (Griffin 1967; Gay 1967). The cave is a very long cavern; to reach the paintings, one descends for over two hours through a series of large chambers connected by relatively narrow passages.

The most striking scene consists of an imposing figure of a ruler, standing over a much smaller, seated individual. The ruler is attired in a tunic with horizontal red and yellow stripes, a black cape, and a headdress fronted by green quetzal plumes. The limbs of a jaguar cover his arms and legs, and a jaguar's tail even hangs down between his legs like a very large phallus. In his right hand (or paw) he brandishes what seems to be a trident-like weapon - perhaps a so-called 'eccentric flint'. It may be that the smaller figure is a captive destined for a beheading.

The colour photographs that illustrate Gay's popular report in Natural History were taken under very bad conditions by the light of a Coleman lamp, and the ruler's portrait appears faceless, as though a vandal, ancient or modern, had smeared the paint. Gay kindly loaned me his image, which I published in my book America's First Civilization (Coe 1968: 101). During their joint exploration of 1966, Griffin had made an ink sketch of the principal figure, and it is also lacks a face.

During the summer of 1968, Griffin and I were taken into Juxtlahuaca Cave by the cave's guide and guardian Andrés Ortega, accompanied by archaeology aficionados Alberto Ulrich and Reinhold Ruge. When we arrived at the paintings, I took a series of colour photos with my Nikon 35mm camera, using Kodachrome film. I had no flash, but kept the lens open while either Ulrich or Ruge set off the flash from their cameras. The results were quite good, but I only used the resulting slides for lecture purposes.

This past June, I scanned my 1968 slide of the Olmec ruler into Adobe Photoshop CS, and made adjustments to the image with the Levels command. To my astonishment, the ruler's previously missing face appeared: the black outline had been there all along, but had faded to such an extent that only digital 'tweaking' could rescue it from oblivion. As a result, this black-bearded, long-dead Olmec king appears even more scary and threatening than he had previously been, and I am convinced that human sacrifice was the message of the painting.

The remaining question about these paintings is, how old are they? The only other known Olmec paintings are those in a cave overhang in Oxtotitlán in Guerrero (Grove 1970). These feature a polychrome painting of an Olmec ruler seated upon a throne. It is only a guess, but on stylistic grounds I suggest that the Oxtotitlán murals are Middle Preclassic in date (c. 900-400 BC, uncalibrated) and contemporary with La Venta; while Juxtlahuaca might probably be Early Preclassic (1200-900 BC, uncalibrated), and this coeval with the San Lorenzo Phase in Veracruz. Only direct dating of these paintings could provide the answer.

Our bearded ruler may well be the New World's first painted portrait.


  • COE, M.D. 1968. America's First Civilization. Discovering the Olmec. New York: American Heritage.
  • GAY, C.T.E. Oldest paintings in the New World. Natural History 76, 4:28-35.
  • GRIFFIN, G.G. 1967. Cave trip discloses earliest American art. University 34: 6-9.
  • GROVE, D.C. 1970. The Olmec cave paintings of Oxtotitlán Cave, Guaerrero, Mexico. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology 6. Washington: Dumbarton Oaks.


  • Michael D. Coe