Crocodilians and olmecs: Further interpretations in formative period iconography

Terry Stocker, Sarah Meltzoff, Steve Armsey

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


An ecological approach to religion is utilized to examine crocodilians represented in highland and lowland Mesoamerican art from the Early Formative to European contact. It is suggested for certain Formative New World religions, the Olmec in particular, that the crocodilian may have attained religious importance because it served as a major food source, is a predator of humans, and is an anomalous and striking animal. It is further proposed that crocodilian products (meat, skins, etc.) may have been lowland items used in an exchange network with highland groups, that the crocodilian motif and crocodilian products became elements of elite status regalia, and that Olmec ideology thereby gained a foothold in central Mexico. Subsequently, a decline in the supply of crocodilians due to overhunting or other causes may have undermined one basis of Olmec strength and hastened their downfall in the Middle Formative. Crocodilians remain in the art up to European contact, but their role seems to change as they transcend the secular-mundane, as the elite establish other status regalia, and as a greater variety of religious expressions develops.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)740-758
Number of pages19
JournalAmerican Antiquity
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1 1980
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Archaeology
  • Museology


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