Articles

AN EARLY CONE-HEAD MAN

 

The West Mexico and Pacific Ocean bordering states of Colima, Nayarit, Jalisco and Michoacan have all been inhabited by humans for at least ten thousand years.  The natives, living in this remote region, have produced ceramic pottery items for several thousands of those years.  During the period beginning as early as maybe 2,000 BC and extending until around AD 1000, these Amerinds dug necropolis chambers to entomb deceased and revered members of their societies and into which they deposited some of their pottery creations.  These shaft burial chambers have been found nowhere else in the North American continent except these four states of West Mexico.  During the course of the time period that dated from 200 BC to AD 600 an odd fired clay figurine was made in the region that would later become Nayarit.   This strange humanistic type effigy is now known as an early cone-head man.

 

The prehistoric Indians, who lived in the West Mexico region, were among the most skillful makers of pottery art the world has ever seen.  Their achievements included simple and plain bowls and jars and bottles that would have been used in the daily ingesting of food and drink.  Some of these utilitarian ceramics, though, were not so simple and plain but were decorated with colorful monochrome or polychrome slips in varied geometric and anthropomorphic designs.  Other art objects made by these ancient peoples were hollow or solid figurines that were realistically or stylistically animal and/or human being in form. The open cavity effigies of Homo sapiens were made as small as six or so inches in height and as tall as about thirty inches.  The solid mortal shapes were normally made in the four to ten inches tall range though some of the Tala-Tonala, also known as “Sheep Face”, figurines were produced in a height as small as about three inches.  The natives also apparently fabricated thousands of bowls and jars as replicas of the multitude of plants found in the region.  The surfaces of all these flora creations were, like the simple bowls, either left in the natural buff colored clay or coated with single or multi-colored paints. 

 

 

Many of these earthenware human-like models are very naturalistic with arms, legs, torsos and normal human heads.  Others, though, have an unorthodox spire or projection centered in the top of the head that today is commonly called the “one-horn” or “cone-head” manifestation and is a phenomenon for which modern archaeologists have no true realistic understanding.  Other ancient cultures, from around the world, also used human art figures that have a single pointed horn-like object seemingly growing out of or placed on the top of the head.  But what are these protuberances and why are they on the heads of the effigies?  The guess, often encountered in modern scientific thought, is that these steeple shaped objects are representations of the marine conch shell as worn like a hat or headdress.   These Mexicans, for whom we have no cultural names or understanding of their ancient language, certainly had knowledge of the ocean and its’ shellfish.  The Pacific Ocean was on their western perimeters and many ancient marine mollusk shells have been found in the remains of these natives’ prehistoric homes and burial grounds.  It is now believed that these primordial cultures began making simple cone-head human effigies as early as the period now known as the Capacha Phase which would have been the 2000-1200 BC time range.  These art objects were small solid images of the human form and were often left in the cream or buff colored fired clay without any exterior painting and are, today, commonly called the “Naked Group” because they routinely show no, or very little,  modeled or painted clothing.  Today, scholars and collectors also often use the term “gingerbread forms” because they are usually thin and flat and mostly of the same basic size and shape.

 

As time marched on, the regional artisans began making more of these human models with the pointed appendages on their heads.  Today it is theorized, by many scholars, that these effigies were made as stylized replicas of the various ethnic groups’ shamans or priests.  It is now believed that in many ancient cultures, the shamans were considered to be warriors who battled mythical witches and sorcerers and whose ceramic alter-egos were adorned with regalia not normal to other humans – regalia such as the conch shell head gear.   And some cultures, even in the world today, seemingly continue this shamanistic pointed head adornment tradition.  This particular conical-head figurine was found in the Mexican state of Nayarit and is believed to date to the period of time that is called the Colima Cultural Phase (200 BC – AD 300) or the Comala Phase (AD 100-600).  Effigies of the type, from these time periods, are often called “tecos” because a considerable number of them were found on the Teco de Ojo Incisco Site in the modern state of Michoacan, West Mexico.   This particular human-type sculpture, which was legally brought out of Nayarit into the United States in 1958, is 8 1/8 inches tall from the bottom of the feet to the top of the head cone.  It probably never had hands fabricated onto the ends of the arms and no toes are modeled into the splayed feet.   The effigy is asexual since there are no clear ceramic sex organs shown, though the short apron at the top of the legs juncture may be obscuring that fact for perhaps reasons of ancient modesty.  But it is probably meant to represent a male since no female breasts were molded onto the figure as is common on feminine type statuettes from the region. The head has small and almost obscure eyes along with pierced ear lobes from which small feathers were possibly suspended in ancient times.   There is also a large and well modeled nose with nostrils, a philtrum and a mouth of which only about a third now exists because of an ancient chip in the ceramics covering a portion of the cheek and lips.  Just below the head is a replica of a strand of shell (?) beads fully encircling the neck.  The cone or spire is 1 ½ inches tall on top of the head and is slightly curved to the rear of the figurine.  The back of the effigy is flat as if the ceramist did indeed use a gingerbread-type cookie cutter to pierce and shape the flattened clay before the object was fired.  All this leaves one to wonder just what the ancient ceramist was attempting to show.  Was it made to be a conch shell clad shamanistic warrior image?   Or was it simply an inhabitant of a particular village who just happened to like wearing a pointed hat on his head?  Or is not an image of shell or a hat but rather a tall hair coiffure?  Or did the ancient designer simply smoke a little too much “wacky weed” before making this weird object?  And should Dan Akyrod and Jane Curtain of the “Coneheads” movie decide if their ancestral characters were not actually French but maybe West Mexican?  Considering it was probably made at least 1500 years ago, we will most likely never be able to answer these questions but that should not stop modern appreciators of ancient art from enjoying this ceramic effigy of a rare and early cone-head man.

 

REFERENCES:

 

Bell, Betty                                                                   1971

     “Archaeology of Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima”, ARCHAEOLOGY OF NORTHERN MESOAMERICA

Coe, Michael E & Rex Koontz                                     1994

     MEXICO: FROM THE OLMECS TO THEH AZTECS

Furst, Jill L. & Peter T. Fust                                         1979

     PRE-COLUMBIAN ART OF MEXICO

Gallagher, Jacki                                                          1983

     COMPANIONS OF THE DEAD: CERAMIC TOMB SCULPTURE FROM ANCIENT WEST MEXICO

Kelly, Isabel                                                                 1978

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Reynolds, Richard D.                                                   1993

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Townsend, Richard R.,  Editor                                                1998

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Von Winning, Hasso                                                    1974

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Weigand, Phil C.                                                         1996

     ANCIENT MESOAMERICA