The mysterious Olmec Indians prospered in Pre-Classical Mesoamerica from circa 1200 BCE to 400 BCE and are generally considered the forerunner of all subsequent Mesoamerican cultures such as the Maya and Aztecs.
Centered in the Gulf of Mexico (now the states of Veracruz and Tabasco in Mexico) influence and trade activity of the Olmec Civilization spread as far south as present-day Nicaragua.
Monumental sacred complexes, massive stone sculpture, ball games, chocolate drinking and animal gods were features of Olmec culture which would be passed on to all those who followed this first great Mesoamerican civilization.
Origin of the Olmec Civilization
"Olmecatl" was the Nahuatl (Aztec) name for these people, or Olmec in the modern corruption, meaning “rubber people” or “people of the rubber country.”
That term was chosen because the Olmecs extracted latex from Panama rubber trees (Castilla elastica) growing in the region and mixed it with the juice of a local vine (Ipomoea alba, moonflower) to create rubber.
Their name for themselves was Xi or Xia. It was first thought that the Olmec were west Africans, who had came across in boats.
But now there is mounting evidence that the Olmec were remnants from the Xia dynasty of China, who probably had come across the Bering straits into the Americas and traveled South along the Pacific Coast.
What may be evidence of their trek south can be seen in the masks of the Tsimshian Indians of the western coast of Canada, and in written accounts of the California Indians in the United States.
There is also the similarity between Xia Human sacrifice in China, and Olmec human sacrifice in the Americas, as well as their fondness for jade work. The last and most recent evidence: comparison of Shang writing in China, and Olmec writing in America, show the two to be very similar.
Many Central American civilizations can be traced to the Olmecs
The Olmecs have been called the cultura madre , meaning the ‘mother culture’ of Central America. In other words, many of the distinctive features of later Central American civilizations can be traced to the Olmecs.
Although the Olmecs did have a system of writing, only a few of their inscriptions are available to archaeologists at present, and there is not enough continuous Olmec script for archaeologist to decipher the language.
As a result, much of what we know about the Olmec civilization is dependent on the archaeological evidence.
The Olmecs did leave behind much of their artwork. The most famous of these are the ‘colossal heads.’ These representations of human heads are carved from basalt boulders, and at present, at least seventeen have been found.
The colossal heads measure between 3 and 9 feet (one to three metres) in height, and seem to represent mature men with fleshy cheeks, flat noses, and slightly crossed eyes.
Such physical features are still common amongst the people of Veracruz and Tabasco, indicating the colossal heads may be representations of the Olmecs themselves.
Given the amount of resources needed to produce such objects, it may be speculated that these heads depict the Olmec elites or rulers, and were used as a symbol of power, perhaps like the colossal heads of Jayavarman VII at Angkor Thom in Cambodia.
The Olmecs also produced miniature versions of these giant heads. One such object is a ‘stone mask’ in the British Museum. In contrast to the colossal heads, this mask, which is made of serpentine, is only 13 cm high. This mask has similar facial features to the colossal heads.
Although such features can be seen in the descendants of the Olmecs, some scholars have speculated that the mask represented an African, Chinese or even a Mediterranean face.
The mask also has four holes on its front, speculated to represent the four cardinal points of the compass.
As the Olmec ruler was believed to be the most important axis in the world centre, it has been suggested that the mask represented an Olmec ruler.
There are also numerous circular holes on the face, indicating that face piercings and plugs were used by the Olmecs. Due to the lack of Olmec skeletons (they have been dissolved by the acidic soil of the rainforest), this mask may be the closest we can get to seeing what the Olmecs looked like.
It seems that the ‘Mesoamerican ballgame’, which was observed by the Spanish when they encountered the Aztecs, was invented by the Olmecs.
As this game involved the use of a rubber ball, this may be the reason why the Olmecs were named as such by the Aztecs. This ballgame and several other features of Olmec civilization may be found in subsequent Central American civilizations.
Rise of Olmec civilization
The Olmec civilization flourished roughly between 1200 BC and 400 BC, an era commonly known as Central America’s Formative Period. Sites containing traces of the Olmec civilization are found mainly on the southern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, specifically in the states of Veracruz and Tabasco.
The major Olmec urban area in early times was San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, at the time the largest city in Mesoamerica.
This was probably a ritual and political place, housing thousands and using an elaborate water and drainage system.
The city and in fact the ancient Olmec civilization is often remembered because of the gigantic stone heads that have been found here.
The chief Olmec sites are San Lorenzo, La Venta, Laguna de los Cerros, and Tres Zapotes in what is now southern Mexico. Much of what is known about the Olmecs was inferred from archaeological excavations at those sites, which have uncovered large earthen pyramids and platforms and monumental stone carvings.
The Olmecs are especially identified with 17 huge stone heads—ranging in height from 1.47 to 3.4 metres (4.82 to 11.15 feet)—with flat faces and full lips, wearing helmetlike headgear.
It is generally thought that these are portraits of Olmec rulers. Other Olmec artifacts include so-called baby-faced figures and figurines.
These display a rounded facial form, thick features, heavy-lidded eyes, and down-turned mouths, and they are sometimes referred to as were-jaguars.
The first evidence of their remarkable art style appears about 1200 bce in San Lorenzo, their oldest known building site. This site is remarkable for its many stone monuments, including some of the colossal carved heads mentioned above.
In the late 20th century a stone slab engraved with symbols that appear to have been the Olmec writing system (sometimes called epi-Olmec, or Isthmian) was discovered in the village of Cascajal, near San Lorenzo.
The Cascajal stone dates to approximately 900 bce and may be the oldest example of writing from the Americas.
Other objects containing glyphs include the Tuxtla Statuette, the Chiapa de Corzo shard, the O’Boyle mask, and the La Mojarra stela (discovered 1986). The last object, which displays 465 glyphs, greatly facilitated the interpretation of the epi-Olmec language, though many questions remain.
There are a couple of reasons why the Olmecs are so important. First, they used and perhaps developed many things culturally and religiously that were later used by the Mayans and Aztecs and many other cultures.
Second, they had a wide influence in their day, which gives us reason to believe that they may be responsible for spreading some of these ideas.
The Olmecs developed a wide trading network, and between 1100 and 800 bce their cultural influence spread northwestward to the Valley of Mexico and southeastward to parts of Central America.
The constructions and monuments of the Olmecs, as well as the sophistication and power of their art, make it clear that their society was complex and nonegalitarian.
Olmec stylistic influence disappeared after about 400 BCE. Not all of the Olmec sites were abandoned, but Olmec culture gradually changed and ceased to dominate Mesoamerica.