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Olmec, Middle Preclassic
900 BCE - 300 BCE
9.21 cm x 3.81 cm x 5.08 cm (3 5/8 in. x 1 1/2 in. x 2 in.)

Not on view


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Carved of soft talc, this statuette has a rich brown patina, presenting an appearance of carved wood. The sculpture portrays a chinless dwarf in a crouching position. Because the legs have strongly planar angles, they are somewhat difficult to interpret at first glance. The lower legs are encircled by a pair of large, segmented anklets, with the exception of the elaborate anklets; the talc figure is nude and appears to be male. Drilled perforations through the earlobes and septum, however, indicate that the figure originally may have been supplied with jewelry. In spite of his corpulent abdomen, the figure has withered limbs and clearly delineated shoulder blades. This combination of a swollen belly with wasted physiognomy often occurs in Olmec representations of old women. Although not female, this statuette probably portrays an aged dwarf.

The crouching chinless dwarf is a well-known motif in Middle Formative Olmec art, and usually is found in the form of small, portable sculptures. The squatting stance and frequently upturned head suggest a posture of attendant supplication, a seemingly appropriate position for dwarfs in royal courtly life. The dwarfs rarely carry objects in their arms, which are often crossed over their chests or raised with the hands near the side of the head. The squatting position, hunched over back, and upturned head of the sculpture and many other examples of Olmec dwarf figures strongly suggest the physical act of raising or lowering the burden of a heavy tumpline. In two instances, the burden appears to be the dwarf’s overgrown head. It is quite possible that many of the crouching dwarf sculptures held miniature burdens slung by tumpline across the brow of the figure. Some sculpture portrays a squatting dwarf carrying a maize-filled sack by tumpline. Olmec dwarfs were probably identified with rain, lightning, and maize. Rather than simply being droll entertainers of the Olmec court, dwarfs were probably considered chosen beings having a special link to powers of rain and fertility.

Benson, Elizabeth P. 1963 Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C., p. 6, cat. 22.

Benson, Elizabeth P. and Beatriz de la Fuente (EDS.) 1996 Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., p. 224, fig. 63b.

González Calderón, O. L. 1991 The Jade Lords. O.L. González Calderón, Coatzacoalcos, Ver., pl. 419.

Tate, Carolyn and Gordon Bendersky 1999 Olmec Sculptures of the Human Fetus. In P.A.R.I. Online Publications, Newsletter #30. fig. 3.

Tate, Carolyn and Gordon Bendersky 1999 Olmec Sculptures of the Human Fetus. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine Spring 42 (3):303. fig. 6.

Taube, Karl A. 2004 Olmec Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks; No. 2. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 56-8, pl. 4.


Delgado, Agustin 1965 Infantile and Jaguar Traits in Olmec Sculpture. Archaeology 18 (1):55-62.

Lothrop, S. K. 1936 Zacualpa, a Study of Ancient Quiché Artifacts. Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication; 472. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington. fig. 105.

Piña Chan, Román, Luis Covarrubias and Miguel Covarrubias 1964 El Pueblo Del Jaguar (Los Olemecas Arqueológicos). Consejo para la planeacion e instalacion del Museo nacional de antropología, México.

Tate, Carolyn 2012 Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture: The Unborn, Women, and Creation. 1st ed. The William and Bettye Nowlin Series in Art, History, and Culture of the Western Hemisphere. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Vaillant, George Clapp 1949 Artists and Craftsmen in Ancient Central America. Man and Nature Publications. The American Museum of Natural History, New York City. p. 79.

Exhibition History
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, September 1960 to April 1962.

"Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 6/30 - 10/20/1996.

Acquisition History
Purchased from John A. Stokes Jr., New York (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1960.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1960-1962.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.

Anthropomorphic | Olmecs