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Hummingbird Bloodletter

Olmec, Middle Preclassic
900 BCE - 300 BCE
6.67 cm x 2.22 cm x 1.59 cm (2 5/8 in. x 7/8 in. x 5/8 in.)

On view


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Fashioned from olive-green jade, this pleasantly stylized hummingbird almost surely served as a bloodletting instrument. Although no explicit representation of penitential bloodletting is known in Olmec art, there is considerable archaeological evidence for bloodletting in Formative Mesoamerica. Although the jadeite bloodletters tend not to have very sharp points, they may have been used after an initial cut was made from obsidian or another sharp material. It is also conceivable, however, that some jade bloodletters may have been precious but non-functional votive copies of real lancets used in bloodletting. This piece was drilled for suspension, the suspension hole doubles as the eyes of the bird as other similar examples, jadeite perforators may often have been worn by the Olmec elite.

Hummingbirds are an important Olmec bloodletting motif, with the long beak serving as the piercing instrument. The identification of hummingbirds with sacrifice and bloodletting is relatively common in Mesoamerica. Despite their diminutive size, hummingbirds can be fiercely territorial, and they often attack creatures many times their size. Unlike butterflies, however, hummingbirds do not simply sip flowers but also stab them with their long, pointed beaks.

Baudez, Claude-Francois 2012 La Douleur Redemptrice: L'autosacrifice Precolombien. Riveneuve, Paris. p. 34-35, fig. Intro 5.

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. 8, cat. 35.

Bliss, Robert Woods 1957 Pre-Columbian Art: The Robert Woods Bliss Collection. Text and Critical Analyses by S. K. Lothrop, Joy Mahler and William F. Foshag. Phaidon, New York. p. 233, cat. 7, pl. I.

González Calderón, O. L. 1991 The Jade Lords. O.L. González Calderón, Coatzacoalcos, Ver., pl. 466.

Nicholson, Irene 1967 Mexican and Central American Mythology. Hamlyn, London. p. 135.

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. 122-4, pl. 19.

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

"75 Years/75 Objects", Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC, 09/08/2015 - 05/22/2016.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Earl Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1954.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1954-1962.

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

Bloodletting | Hummingbirds | Olmecs