Publication Date


Document Type


First Advisor

Kowalski, Jeff Karl, 1951-

Degree Name

M.A. (Master of Arts)

Legacy Department

Department of Art


Olmec art; Art; Chinese; Olmecs--Origin


The question of the origins of man and culture in the Americas has been asked ever since Europeans entered into the New World, and came face to face with the "Indians." In 1590 Father Jorge de Acosta speculated that the Indians had crossed a land bridge into America from Asia at some remote time, and this theory has since been proven to be the most significant way that the New World was populated. More fanciful theories for the diffusion of material culture by means of transpacific journeys from China to the New World have been proposed as well. Audrey McBain, a current exponent of the diffusion of Chinese traits into the Olmec culture of Mesoamerica, around 1200 B.C., argues that the impressive similarities in the "monster-masks" which dominate the two artistic systems point to the likelihood of historical contacts to account for the resemblances. This thesis seeks to determine the plausibility of McBain's hypothesis through a systematic comparison of the Shang tautie and the Olmec "were-jaguar." Following an introduction to mechanisms of culture change (which elucidate how and why traits in distant lands may come to bear resemblances to each other), and a review of the history and current opinions regarding the Diffusion versus Independent Development controversy, the motifs are compared on three interrelated levels: their soci-political environments, their iconographic meanings, and their formal stylistic systems. The comparisons reveal that although there is an overall comparability in cultural complexity, the clear evidence for the independent domestication of food crops in Mesoamerica suggests a parallel response to naturally unfolding processes of growth. The themes shared in common by both cultures are on one hand too generic to support a theory of diffusion, and on the other, they express unique viewpoints relevant to the context of their particular situations. The stylistic anaylses particularily reveal the fundamental difference in the aesthetic systems in which the tautie and "were-jaguar" were conceived. The preponderance of information supports the conclusion that the Olmec "were-jaguar" was an internally generated image within a pristine Mesomarican state which we call the Olmec civilization.


Includes bibliographical references (pages [171]-179)


v, 218 pages




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