Olmec Civilization Rises in Southern Mexico Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Olmec were one of the earliest advanced civilizations on the North American continent, developing sophisticated architectural and artistic forms.

Summary of Event

Olmec civilization is considered to be one of the oldest civilizations of native North America. Recognition and identification of Olmec culture are based exclusively on archaeological evidence because no direct descendants of Olmec civilization have ever been identified. The Olmec heartland included the present Mexican states of Veracruz, Tabasco, and Chiapas, along the southern and western edge of the Gulf of Mexico, but Olmec influence extended across most of southern Mexico and northern Central America. The term “Olmec” is drawn from the Aztec language Nahuatl and loosely translates as “the rubber people,” in reference to the production of rubber in the Olmec heartland.

Evidence of Olmec culture first appears about 1500 b.c.e. in the state of Tabasco. The area consists of flat, swampy coastal floodplains crossed by rivers draining from highland mountains to the south into the Gulf of Mexico to the north. Seasonal flooding and the lush tropical environment permitted the development of agriculture and the exploitation of domesticated plants, particularly corn, which led to the development of sedentary societies and advanced forms of social and political organization.

At sites such as San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, the Olmec constructed large earthen platforms more than 3,000 feet (910 meters) long, 1,000 feet (300 meters) wide, and 150 feet (45 meters) high, on which were erected ritual and ceremonial structures of stone and more perishable materials such as wood or plaster. These platform complexes served several purposes, including providing residences for elite Olmec families and rulers, gathering places for public ceremonies, and burial sites for Olmec royalty. At the site of La Venta, the Olmec constructed conical pyramids in the center of their platform complexes, perhaps meant to imitate mountains or volcanoes not found in the immediate Olmec area. The earthen platforms consisted of layers of worked colored stone laid out in large plazas and covered with as many as a dozen sequential layers of sand and earth piled one on top of the other. The complexity suggests that the process of construction was as important as the final structure.

Platforms were engineered and constructed to control water flow throughout the structure. Elaborate drainage systems, composed of sections of carved stone, channeled water throughout the platforms, diverting it for waste runoff and public hygiene and creating decorative and sacred ponds and streams of fresh water within the platform complexes. The scale and complexity of the earthen platforms, along with the evidence of extensive farming and agriculture, suggest that several thousand people may have used or occupied the sites at one time. At least ten large-scale Olmec sites have been identified in the Olmec heartland. Advanced systems of political organization must have been in place to enable the assembly and management of the workforce necessary to construct such elaborate complexes. It is also significant that the Olmec created their buildings and monuments without the wheel, domesticated animals, or metal tools, none of which was used by any Mesoamerican peoples.

The Olmecs carved basalt boulders into a variety of shapes, including human heads.

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Most information regarding Olmec culture that does not come from their architecture is drawn from their remaining artworks. Although the Olmec probably created a wide variety of art forms, such as paintings and textiles, most of these forms have not survived in the archaeological record. What has survived in great abundance is Olmec stone sculpture, and the remaining carved stone images convey a great deal of information about Olmec beliefs. The Olmec were extremely adept at working very hard types of stone, particularly volcanic basalt and jade, neither of which occurs naturally near the Olmec heartland sites. Large basalt boulders, some more than 10 feet (3 meters) tall and weighing several tons, were transported as much as 60 miles (100 kilometers) from volcanic mountain ranges such as the Tuxtla mountains; sacred green jade was imported from areas of western Mexico or eastern Guatemala and Belize.

The basalt boulders were carved into a variety of shapes, usually human but occasionally representing animals or mythological deities, probably originally intended to be displayed in the open plazas of the earthen platforms. Many of the large carved boulders were intentionally defaced or broken and buried within the platforms during Olmec times, suggesting that either the Olmec or a foreign people symbolically killed the sculptures before abandoning the sites.

One of the most common types of boulder sculptures is a series of human heads carved in a lifelike, naturalistic style. Although the specific identity of the subjects is not clear, evidence suggests that the heads portray either former Olmec rulers or defeated enemies. Facial features vary noticeably from one head to the next, suggesting individualized depictions, and each wears a distinctively different type of skullcap or helmet. The caps may represent royal headdress or a type of headgear worn by participants in a ball game similar to modern-day soccer. The losers of this game, which was played on stone, I-shaped courts throughout ancient Mesoamerica, were ritually sacrificed, usually by decapitation. Portions of the ball game may have developed in the Olmec heartland, as that is the source of the rubber used for the ball itself. Regardless of the specific identity of the stone heads, the size and degree of naturalism attest to the Olmec sculptors’ ability to manipulate large, hard stones for artistic purposes. Smaller stone objects, such as jewelry, ritual implements, and burial offerings were carved from other hard stones, including jade. The color green was probably considered sacred, and jade was much valued by all pre-Columbian societies. Humans and animals were common subjects, and implements such as ax heads were frequently formed in the shape of humans, suggesting a spiritual tie between the function of the object and its symbolic imagery.

Olmec art reveals much about Olmec political and religious beliefs. Olmec sites were probably governed by elite royal families and kings. Warriors and human prisoners are frequently depicted in Olmec sculpture, suggesting that the Olmec practiced formalized warfare and related forms of human sacrifice. They worshiped a pantheon of natural spirits, chief among which were powerful animals such as the cayman or alligator, the eagle, the shark, and, perhaps most important, the jaguar. The Olmec were similar to most Native American cultures in that the most important religious figures in Olmec society were the shamans, or curers, who were believed to be able to change into animal forms at will and communicate directly with the supernatural world. Olmec sculpture frequently depicts shamans in the act of such transformations.

Between 1000 and 300 b.c.e., Olmec influence stretched far beyond the Olmec heartland. Carved jade and ceramics in Olmec style have been found in central and far west Mexico, and Olmec-style rock carvings, paintings, and earthen platforms occur in areas south of Mexico City. Large Olmec-style carved boulders and upright stones occur along the southern Pacific coast of Guatemala and El Salvador during this period, and Olmec ceramics are found as far east as eastern Guatemala and Belize. The evidence suggests that the Olmec were interacting with a large number of non-Olmec cultures throughout the area at this time. After 500 b.c.e., early examples of hieroglyphic writing, similar to the later hieroglyphic writing of the Maya, appear in a few isolated examples of Olmec art, but these cases are rare, and Olmec civilization appears to have declined before the writing system was fully exploited.

After 300 b.c.e., Olmec culture disappears from the archaeological record. Several later Mesoamerican cultures, particularly the Maya of Guatemala and the Yucatán Peninsula, inherited and continued many aspects of Olmec style and culture, and the Maya, in fact, seem to have considered the Olmec as their divine ancestors.

Significance

The lack of literary material and of cultural descendants makes the Olmec an enigmatic people. However, their influence on the later Maya shows their seminal position in the evolution of Mesoamerican society. Their architecture and their art reveal much about their religious beliefs, which also appear to have influenced those of later cultures.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coe, Michael D. America’s First Civilization. New York: American Heritage, 1968. One of the earliest comprehensive treatments of Olmec art and culture. Coe was the first scholar to interpret Olmec culture as the precursor to later, more widely known Mesoamerican cultures such as the Maya.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coe, Michael D., and Richard A. Diehl. In the Land of the Olmec. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980. Extensive report of archaeological investigations at the Olmec site of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán between 1966 and 1968. Includes numerous detailed maps and line drawings and illustrations of stone monuments from the site.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coe, Michael D., and Rex Koontz. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. 5th ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002. Perceptively presents and interprets the complexities of ancient Mexican history, including the Olmec. Well illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Mary Ellen. The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec. 3d ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001. An abundantly illustrated introduction by a well-respected Mesoamerican scholar. One chapter is devoted to Olmec art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pina Chan, Roman. The Olmec: Mother Culture of Mesoamerica. Translated by Warren McManus. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1989. Well-illustrated volume of Olmec art. A thorough summary of Olmec art, archaeology, and culture by a noted Mexican and pre-Columbian scholar.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sharer, Robert J., and David C. Grove, eds. Regional Perspectives on the Olmec. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Discusses Olmec culture in the broader context of greater Mesoamerica. Scholarly treatment of Olmec cultural interaction with other pre-Columbian cultures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stuart, George S. “New Light on the Olmec.” National Geographic 184, no. 5 (November, 1993): 88-115. Discusses revised and up-to-date interpretations of Olmec culture and art, including previously undocumented monuments and controversial translations of Olmec hieroglyphic writing. Includes artists’ reproductions of Olmec lifeways.

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