Carolyn Tate, Ph.D. and Gordon Bendersky, M.D.
1999 Precolumbian Art Research Institute online publications, news letters #30 winter.
The human figure as a subject has intrigued sculptors since Paleolithic times. As humans, we areinterested in representing the different stages of our bodily development from infancy to corpsehood to skeletonization. In art around the world, individuals have been portrayed with marked physical differences, such as dwarfism and disease.
Similarly, many ontological states are explored in art, ranging from youthful innocence to drunkenness, spiritual ecstasy, painful suffering, sexualarousal, 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.
Until now, the earliest known drawing of an accurately defined human fetus was the celebrated one by Leonardo da Vinci, probably dating to the early 16th century, and the earliest known sculpture of thedeveloping human was an 18th century piece intended for medical instruction. My colleague in Philadelphia, Gordon Bendersky, M.D., and I 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.
Fetus effigy with head tilted back and raised arms, of unknown provenance. Stone. Amparo Museum,Puebla. Drawing: G. Bendersky.
This article summarizes our evidence that these sculptures represent the human fetus. It explores the possible significance of the fetus effigies using three lines of investigation. The first situates the fetus as a subject within the corpus of Olmec portable stone sculpture. Next, the archaeological contexts of fetus sculptures and of fetal remains will provide afew clues. Then it considers the attitudes and customs of contemporary Indian groups toward the fetus and maize, to which the fetus is closely related. Finally, I'll reflect upon the LACK of representation of human fetal development in art, a situation which raises questions about Euro-American attitudes toward our own fetal development.
Several years ago, during research for an exhibition ofOlmec art, we had the opportunity to examine first-hand hundreds of Olmec sculptures and to study photographs of even more. We realized that there exist over two dozen representations of an unusual and poorly identified anthropomorphic subject. These sculptures have 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 arefor a fetus of 12-30 weeks. 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, instead of "dwarfs", "crouching figures," or "dancers" as they had been identified previously.
Fetus effigy with crossedarms, of unknown provenance. Talc; H: 9.3 cm. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. Drawing: C. Tate
However, once we had compiled this group of similar sculptures, there was little proof that they indeed represent fetuses. Since the peoples of Formative Period Mexico (1200-400 BC) did not engage in writing, there are no contemporaneous texts that could label or identify thesesculptures. In terms of direct evidence for our contention that the sculptures represent fetuses, we are limited to comparative morphology, or as art historian say, form.
To determine whether our hypothesis that the Olmec created accurate images of perinatal infants had some validity, we turned to experts. We invited a group of eleven obstetricians, gynecologists, neonatologists, perinatologists,...