"Earth monster" weighs one ton and measures around six by five feet. (courtesy Consulate General of Mexico in New York)

The United States will return an ancient monstruo de la tierra (“Earth monster”) statue to Mexico. The one-ton artifact dates from 800 to 400 BCE and belongs to the Olmec Civilization, an early Mesoamerican culture that influenced later societies including the Maya.

Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs Marcelo Ebrard confirmed the recovery in a March 31 tweet, naming the sculpture Mexico’s “most sought after” Olmec artifact. The ancient civilization is perhaps best known for its massive stone heads — thought to depict rulers — but also left behind other carved artifacts, ceramics, and structures including burial mounds and pyramids.

The hole in the center of the “Earth monster” is an open mouth that symbolizes passage to the underworld. This figure is repeated throughout Olmec art and could help researchers further study the civilization according to a joint statement from Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).

An Olmec head at the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa (via Wikimedia Commons)

The recently recovered artifact was created in south-central Mexico at Chalcatzingo, the most well-preserved Olmec city. Archaeologist Mario Córdova Tello stated that the four bromeliad flowers stemming from the figure’s gaping mouth are visible throughout Chalcatzingo art, and Mexican officials said the strong link to the ancient city makes the artwork as important as the more famous head sculptures.

Mexican authorities credit the Manhattan District Attorney’s (DA) Antiquities Trafficking Unit office with the recovery. The unit has found hundreds of looted artifacts in the last few years, some from private collections and others from public institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The DA’s office did not respond to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment and has not publicized the recent recovery or repatriation. A spokesperson for the Mexican Consul General in New York told Hyperallergic that the office only knows that “Earth monster” was likely in the United States by the mid-20th century and made an appearance in a 1968 issue of American Antiquity. Exactly when and how “Earth monster” was illegally removed from Mexico is unknown.

Mexico has launched an aggressive initiative to repatriate its cultural heritage and has vocally opposed the sale of its historical objects at auctions abroad. The country says it has received thousands of returned objects in the last several years.

“This monument is a key piece for investigations of Olmec iconography, so we receive it with great joy and enthusiasm,” Tello said.

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.