Yesterday, Martin J. Clemens of Mysterious Universe presented an article about the infamous photograph of a carved stone head in Guatemala, first publicized by Oscar Rafael Padilla Lara in 1987, that continues to circulate online as evidence of ancient stone-working, despite the clear evidence that the head is in fact a modern carving by a known individual. Clemens, indeed, speculates that these facts may be safely discarded in favor of a more exciting conclusion: that that Olmecs, c. 1200-400 BCE, were attempting to emulate the colossal stone heads of Easter Island, which were only carved after 1200 CE, on the basis of recent DNA evidence showing trans-Pacific contact between Polynesia and South America. “In light of this, does it not seem reasonable to suppose that Padilla’s colossal head, is in fact an attempt to replicate the look of the moai of Easter Island by an Olmec stone craftsman?” Clemens writes.
Since it has been almost exactly five years since I shared with my readers the real story of the Guatemala stone head, it seems like a good time to present again my 2013 blog post on the fake mystery, which here follows in slightly updated and adapted form.
The stone head of Guatemala is a largely apocryphal artifact, something that doesn’t have a firm existence outside fringe literature. The story begins in 1987 when a lawyer named Oscar Rafael Padilla Lara, a well-known ufologist and conspiracy theorist—he’s the author of the Enciclopedia ufológica de Guatemala (1999)—published in what was then the Ancient Astronaut Society newsletter Ancient Skies an article about the stone head. According to his article, the previous year he had received a photograph of a large stone head taken by a Guatemalan landowner who died before revealing the location of the head.
Of course he dropped dead. Isn’t that always the way?
The photograph was allegedly taken in the 1950s and is reproduced below.
Somehow, even though the story went that the photographer had died before revealing the location of the head, Padilla later began claiming that he knew exactly where it was located, near the town of La Democracia. According to Padilla, he spent fifteen years searching for the statue only to find it sometime around 1990. (His timeline does not quite square with other published accounts.) He did not, however, provide any documentation of the site to professional archaeologists, nor did he provide any additional photographs of the site.
David Hatcher Childress saw the article in Ancient Skies and obtained a copy of the photograph from Padilla, and he flew to Guatemala to meet with Padilla sometime before 1991. Childress pressed Padilla for details about the location of the stone head. Wouldn’t you know it, it conveniently ceased to exist when Childress wanted to see it. As Childress reported in 1991 in World Explorer vol. 1, issue 1 (reprinted a year later in Lost Cities of North and Central America), when he asked Padilla about his discovery, Padilla reported that the statue had been destroyed in 1981 when revolutionaries used the statue for target practice, and they “totally disfigured it.”
Oddly enough, later fringe writers would claim the face still exists.
Padilla, of course, failed to photograph the destruction or report the site to archaeological authorities who could still have excavated beneath and around the monument, in theory, to determine its age and origin—if it existed. When Childress asked to see the site, Padilla pointed to a spot on the map and then refused to accompany him to the site. That location was La Democracia, a small town famous for its Olmec-style stone heads, which, from an angle, bear a decent resemblance to the alleged giant head. They are typically attributed to the Monte Alto culture and are conventionally dated to 1800 BCE.
Obviously, though, these stone heads are much cruder than the giant head. Childress claims that they cannot be related to the giant head because the La Democracia heads are “Negroid” while the giant head is “Caucasian.” (In discussing this he also went off on a tangent about how he became “fascinated” that the Mayan homeland of Tulan sounds like “Thule” which raises the “bizarre” question, he said, of whether Hitler and the Nazis were onto something in speculating about a Caucasian Master Race colonizing the New World.)
Childress viewed some of the various Monte Alto statues: “The varied racial nature of the different statues, everything from Negroid heads, Asiatic types and bearded Mediterraneans seemed to be in evidence here.” The Olmec heads and their imitators in La Democracia depict actual Native people of Mexico, and the features seen on those heads can be seen in the people of the region to this day. Claims that the heads depict “Negroid” people are the remnants of Victorian racial theories, and they derive from nineteenth century claims that a lost white race ruled Mexico and had imported Africans to rule over the savage Natives.
But let’s not tar Childress unfairly. He dutifully reports that American archaeologist Lee A. Parsons solved the mystery of the stone head in question long before Padilla received his mysterious photograph of it. In 1991 Childress didn’t know the source of Parsons’ article, but I do: “A Pseudo Pre-Columbian Colossal Stone Head on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala,” Proceedings of the International Congress of Americanists (41st session, Mexico, 1974) vol. 1, pp. 519-521.
The head had been carved from soft volcanic pumice by a farm administrator near Las Victorias in April of 1936, possibly modeled on the colossal heads of Easter Island or Mount Rushmore. It was meant as a monument to his deceased wife and marked with a plaque bearing the date of construction. (Childress thinks the face too mannish to be a woman.) The Carnegie Institution reconnaissance survey of 1941-1942 visited the statue and found the plaque (visible in survey photos viewed by Parsons), and even met with people who had seen it carved, but when Parsons visited the site in 1970 (as he reported in 1974), the head lacked its plaque and was covered in vines. It had already eroded due to the wet climate and soft, porous nature of the volcanic rick. An intermediate stage is clearly visible in Padilla’s photo, which includes some vines. (Though, for all I know, the Padilla photo is actually one of the 1941 photographs.)
Parsons’ description of the statue is an exact match for Padilla’s photograph, and most later writers admit they are one and the same. In fact, Parsons, in writing up the head, specifically warned about the potential for confusing the monument for an ancient site:
Whatever the inspiration, its very existence could confound future archaeologists and lead to unwarranted explanations of transpacific contact or even mysterious Pre-Columbian megalithic complexes. Anticipating such interpretations, I have titled this paper a ‘pseudo’ Pre-Columbian colossal stone head, actually there was no intention whatsoever to defraud, but through the years the sculpture has become increasingly difficult to identify. Therefore, it is here recorded that the Las Victorias stone head is recent, having been carved in 1936. Further it has no meaningful relationship to any American Indian, living or dead. I regret that I am unable to supply the name of the Guatemalan for whom the monument is a true modern memorial.
Does it surprise anyone that none of Childress’s successors read this far in his discussion?
Childress himself doubted Parsons’ conclusions and speculated that Parsons (labeled as one of the “so-called ‘experts’”) was part of a “big cover-up.” He speculated that the Guatemalan farm administrator merely claimed a monument of a lost white culture for his own and added a plaque to a preexisting sculpture. He failed to note that the geology of pumice made it impossible for the statue to be fabulously old; it was already eroding into a shapeless blob by 1970, and had fallen completely to pieces by 1990 (probably more likely than the target practice story, which even Padilla likened to the story of Napoleon and the Sphinx on which it may have been modeled). Instead, Childress called it incredible that Guatemalans of 1941 could not remember who had carved the head five years earlier. But here he purposely misreads Parsons’ article: Parsons said that one of the Americans who visited in 1941, A. Ledyard Smith, could not remember in 1970 the name of the farm administrator or his wife, not that no one ever knew it. And why should he remember thirty years later? Being new, the head was irrelevant to the 1941-1942 survey, a mere roadside attraction; it would be like asking a road crew to recall who operated the World’s Largest Ball of Twine roadside attraction three decades ago. That the local people of 1990 did not remember is hardly surprising; five decades and a major revolutionary civil war had intervened.
Nevertheless, Childress suggests a cover-up and a lost white civilization without ever actually visiting the site (something many later summarizers fail to realize thanks to his circuitous style of writing) and without ever stating anything definitive. He concludes his account by telling readers how he spent a chaste night with a revolver and a Guatemalan woman as “wild and unpredictable” as Guatemala itself.
So ends Childress’s involvement.
The story would have stopped there, but the late Philip Coppens decided to write an article about the site, and he simply cherry-picked Childress’s unusually honest reporting, leaving out any archaeological doubt about the site’s antiquity. Instead, he provided a false choice: “The next question is therefore whether the Padilla head is an anomaly of the Olmec period, or whether it is part of another – unknown – culture that predated or post-dated the Olmecs, and whose only artefact identified so far is the Padilla head.” That it is neither did not cross his mind, and in his typically circuitous way of saying nothing while seeming to say everything, he hinted that the head could reveal a lost civilization buried underground, and he claimed to have fairly summarized Childress’s account, all while leaving out key pieces of evidence.
This wasn’t enough, of course. In 2011, the son of the late actor Raul Julia, Raul Julia-Levy, used the old picture of the Las Victorias head as “proof” of aliens in the run up to the 2012 Maya Apocalypse. Now, however, the same photograph first described in the 1987 Ancient Skies was no longer claimed to be from the 1950s but from the 1930s, and Julia-Levy said he had an endorsement from an archaeologist that the head—which you will recall was carved from pumice in 1936—dated to between 3500 and 5000 BCE. According to a letter said to have been written by the archaeologist, the carving was so advanced that only a super-civilization (“una civilización extraordinaria y superior”) could have carved it. The letter has the archaeologist say (as I translate it):
I certify that this monument presents no feature of Maya, Nahuatl, Olmec or any pre-Hispanic civilization. The building style is not consistent with the civilizations that inhabited the southern coast of Guatemala prior to the arrival of the Spaniards.
As if the idea of an archaeologist certifying a site as non-native were not weird enough, ridiculously, the letter makes the archaeologist say he determined all of this solely from Oscar Rafael Padilla Lana’s photograph. Nevertheless, media sources reproduced the claims, often uncritically, throughout late 2011 and early 2012.
This “revelation” was to be included as part of Julia-Levy’s film Revelations of the Mayans: 2012 and Beyond, which claimed to have archaeological proof from the Mexican government of extraterrestrial contact with the Mayans—what Julia-Levy called “every archaeologist’s nightmare.” The project fell apart over a contract dispute, with the arbitrator called in to adjudicate the dispute revealing that there was no government evidence or cooperation and that the film’s evidence had been falsified.
The archaeologist said to have supported Julia-Levy’s claims, Hector E. Mejía of Guatemala, posted on Facebook that the typed, photocopied letter circulated by Julia-Levy claiming a date for the head, which he had never examined in person, had been altered. He instead thought the photo a fake. This matches the arbitrator’s revelation that the archaeological evidence in the film had been faked.
Note carefully: The actual facts of the story were known in 1942 and confirmed in 1974 by the only witnesses (Parsons and Smith) to have actually visited the site before writing about it. The “mystery” was invented out of whole cloth in 1987 by a ufologist looking for ancient astronauts and by Philip Coppens, who purposely ignored facts even David Childress was honest enough to include. But because Childress wrote books (with multiple pages—the discussion of Parsons comes most of a chapter after the “mystery” is introduced) locked away in the real world and Coppens posted online where Google could quickly return his text pretending to fairly summarize Childress, only one version became canonical fringe history.
And now, even five years after all these facts were made easily available, we still find new claims for the pumice carving, now seen as an Easter Island-style head a thousand years ahead of its time. There is some irony that the original 1936 artist might have used Easter Island as a model for his carving only to see his work mistaken for the ancient style he emulated. But it does The Daily Grail no credit to ignore the very clear evidence that the statue was never an ancient wonder.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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