Lodestone Compass: Chinese or Olmec Primacy?

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Science  05 Sep 1975:
Vol. 189, Issue 4205, pp. 753-760
DOI: 10.1126/science.189.4205.753


Considering the unique morphology (purposefully shaped polished bar with a groove) and composition (magnetic mineral with magnetic moment vector in the floating plane) of M-160, and acknowledging that the Olmec were a sophisticated people who possessed advanced knowledge and skill in working iron ore minerals, I would suggest for consideration that the Early Formative artifact M-160 was probably manufactured and used as what I have called a zeroth-order compass, if not a first-order compass. The data I have presented in this article support this hypothesis, although they are not sufficient to prove it. That M-160 could be used today as a geomagnetically directed pointer is undeniable. The original whole bar may indeed have pointed close to magnetic north-south. The groove functions well as a sighting mark, and the slight angle it makes with the axis of the bar appears to be the result of calibration rather than accident. A negative supporting argument is that M-160 looks utilitarian rather than decorative, and no function for the object other than that of a compass pointer has been suggested by anyone who has examined it critically. Whether such a pointer would have been used to point to something astronomical (zeroth-order compass) or to geomagnetic north-south (first-order compass) is entirely open to speculation.

The observation of the family of Olmec site alignments 8° west of north is a curiosity in its own right, and the possibility that these alignments have an astronomical or geomagnetic origin should be explored.

I also believe that it is constructive to compare the first millennium Chinese, who used the lodestone compass for geomancy, with the Gulf Coast Olmec since both were agrarian-terrestrial societies. The Olmec's apparent concern with orientation and skillful use of magnetic minerals also stimulates one to draw cross-cultural parallels.

The evidence and analysis offered in this article provide a basis for hypotheses of parallel cultural developments in China and the Olmec New World. If the Olmec did discover the geomagnetic orienting properties of lodestone, as did the Han Chinese, it is most reasonable to speculate that they would have used their compass for comparable geomantic purposes. It should, however, be recognized that the Olmec claim, if documented, predates the Chinese discovery of the geomagnetic lodestone compass by more than a millennium.

At present, M-160 is a unique artifact and San Lorenzo a unique site: "The first civilized center of Mesoamerica and probably of the New World" (19, p. 89). Further documentation of the Olmec claim must await the discovery of similar artifacts in museums, private collections, or as yet undiscovered Olmec sites.

I would welcome communications from anyone possessing information relating to such artifacts. Regardless of shape, purposefully grooved and highly polished specimens of magnetic minerals are of particular interest. It would also be useful for the archeologist excavating Olmec burials and offerings to carefully note their alignments and consider them in a geomantic context.

In addition to the discovery of supporting artifacts, establishment of Olmec primacy of the lodestone compass depends on the acquisition of the archeomagnetic data for the Early Formative period. I appeal to archeologists who find good archeomagnetic samples (burned hearths and post-holes) from the Formative periods to convey this information to R. DuBois of the University of Oklahoma. In a few years, the archeomagnetic data should be available for the last three millennia and the possibilities are very exciting.

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