Home      Discussion      Topics      Dictionary      Almanac
Signup       Login
Olmec

Olmec

Discussion
Ask a question about 'Olmec'
Start a new discussion about 'Olmec'
Answer questions from other users
Full Discussion Forum
 
Encyclopedia


The Olmec were the first major Pre-Columbian
Pre-Columbian
The pre-Columbian era incorporates all period subdivisions in the history and prehistory of the Americas before the appearance of significant European influences on the American continents, spanning the time of the original settlement in the Upper Paleolithic period to European colonization during...

 civilization in Mexico
Mexico
The United Mexican States , commonly known as Mexico , is a federal constitutional republic in North America. It is bordered on the north by the United States; on the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; on the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and on the east by the Gulf of...

. They lived in the tropic
Tropic
A tropic can refer to:In geography, either of two circles of latitude:*Tropic of Cancer, at 23° 26' 16" N*Tropic of Capricorn, at 23° 26' 16" S...

al lowlands of south-central Mexico, in the modern-day states of Veracruz
Veracruz
Veracruz, formally Veracruz de Ignacio de la Llave officially Estado Libre y Soberano de Veracruz de Ignacio de la Llave , is one of the 31 states that, along with the Federal District, comprise the 32 federative entities of Mexico. It is divided in 212 municipalities and its capital city is...

 and Tabasco
Tabasco
Tabasco officially Estado Libre y Soberano de Tabasco is one of the 31 states which, with the Federal District, comprise the 32 Federal Entities of Mexico. It is divided in 17 municipalities and its capital city is Villahermosa....

.

The Olmec flourished during Mesoamerica
Mesoamerica
Mesoamerica is a region and culture area in the Americas, extending approximately from central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, within which a number of pre-Columbian societies flourished before the Spanish colonization of the Americas in the 15th and...

's Formative
Mesoamerican chronology
Mesoamerican chronology divides the history of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica into several periods: the Paleo-Indian , the Archaic , the Preclassic , the Classic , and the Postclassic...

 period, dating roughly from as early as 1500 BCE
Common Era
Common Era ,abbreviated as CE, is an alternative designation for the calendar era originally introduced by Dionysius Exiguus in the 6th century, traditionally identified with Anno Domini .Dates before the year 1 CE are indicated by the usage of BCE, short for Before the Common Era Common Era...

 to about 400 BCE. Pre-Olmec cultures had flourished in the area since about 2500 BCE, but by 1600-1500 BCE Early Olmec culture had emerged centered around the San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán
San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán
San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán is the collective name for three related archaeological sites -- San Lorenzo, Tenochtitlán, and Potrero Nuevo -- located in the southeast portion of the Mexican state of Veracruz. From 1200 BCE to 900 BCE, it was the major center of Olmec culture...

 site near the coast in southeast Veracruz. They were the first Mesoamerican civilization and laid many of the foundations for the civilizations that followed. Among other "firsts", the Olmec appeared to practice ritual bloodletting and played the Mesoamerican ballgame
Mesoamerican ballgame
The Mesoamerican ballgame or Tlatchtli in Náhuatl was a sport with ritual associations played since 1,000 B.C. by the pre-Columbian peoples of Ancient Mexico and Central America...

, hallmarks of nearly all subsequent Mesoamerican societies.

The most familiar aspect of the Olmecs is their artwork, particularly the aptly named "colossal heads". The Olmec civilization was first defined through artifacts which collectors purchased on the pre-Columbian art market in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Olmec artworks are considered among ancient America's most striking.

Overview



The "Olmec heartland
Olmec heartland
The Olmec heartland is the southern portion of Mexico's Gulf Coast region between the Tuxtla mountains and the Olmec archaeological site of La Venta, extending roughly 80 km inland from the Gulf of Mexico coastline at its deepest...

" is an archaeological term used to describe an area in the Gulf
Gulf of Mexico
The Gulf of Mexico is a partially landlocked ocean basin largely surrounded by the North American continent and the island of Cuba. It is bounded on the northeast, north and northwest by the Gulf Coast of the United States, on the southwest and south by Mexico, and on the southeast by Cuba. In...

 lowlands that is generally considered the birthplace of the Olmec culture. This area is characterized by swampy lowlands punctuated by low hills, ridges, and volcanoes. The Tuxtlas Mountains
Sierra de los Tuxtlas
The Sierra de Los Tuxtlas are a volcanic belt and mountain range along the southeastern Veracruz Gulf coast in southcentral Mexico....

 rise sharply in the north, along the Gulf of Mexico's Bay of Campeche
Bay of Campeche
The Bay of Campeche is the southern bight of the Gulf of Mexico. It is surrounded on three sides by the Mexican states of Campeche, Tabasco and Veracruz. It was named by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba and Antonio de Alaminos during their expedition in 1517...

. Here the Olmec constructed permanent city-temple complexes at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán
San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán
San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán is the collective name for three related archaeological sites -- San Lorenzo, Tenochtitlán, and Potrero Nuevo -- located in the southeast portion of the Mexican state of Veracruz. From 1200 BCE to 900 BCE, it was the major center of Olmec culture...

, La Venta
La Venta
La Venta is a pre-Columbian archaeological site of the Olmec civilization located in the present-day Mexican state of Tabasco. Some of the artifacts have been moved to the museum "Parque - Museo de La Venta", which is in Villahermosa, the capital of Tabasco....

, Tres Zapotes
Tres Zapotes
Tres Zapotes is a Mesoamerican archaeological site located in the south-central Gulf Lowlands of Mexico in the Papaloapan River plain. Tres Zapotes is sometimes referred to as the third major Olmec capital , although Tres Zapotes' Olmec phase constitutes only a portion of the site’s history, which...

, and Laguna de los Cerros
Laguna de los Cerros
Laguna de los Cerros is a little-excavated Olmec and Classical era archaeological site, located in the vicinity of Corral Nuevo, within the municipality of Acayucan, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, in the southern foothills of the Tuxtla Mountains, some 30 kilometers south of the Catemaco.With...

. In this region, the first Mesoamerican civilization emerged and reigned from c. 1400–400 BCE.

Origins



What is today called Olmec first appeared within the city of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, where distinctive Olmec features occurred around 1400 BCE. The rise of civilization was assisted by the local ecology of well-watered alluvial soil, as well as by the transportation network provided by the Coatzacoalcos River
Coatzacoalcos River
The Coatzacoalcos is a large river that feeds mainly the south part of the state of Veracruz; it originates in the Sierra de Niltepec and crosses the state of Oaxaca in the region of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, flowing for toward the Gulf of Mexico. Tributaries include El Corte, Sarabia,...

 basin. This environment may be compared to that of other ancient centers of civilization: the Nile
Nile
The Nile is a major north-flowing river in North Africa, generally regarded as the longest river in the world. It is long. It runs through the ten countries of Sudan, South Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Egypt.The Nile has two major...

, Indus, and Yellow River
Yellow River
The Yellow River or Huang He, formerly known as the Hwang Ho, is the second-longest river in China and the sixth-longest in the world at the estimated length of . Originating in the Bayan Har Mountains in Qinghai Province in western China, it flows through nine provinces of China and empties into...

 valleys, and Mesopotamia
Mesopotamia
Mesopotamia is a toponym for the area of the Tigris–Euphrates river system, largely corresponding to modern-day Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and southwestern Iran.Widely considered to be the cradle of civilization, Bronze Age Mesopotamia included Sumer and the...

. This highly productive environment encouraged a densely concentrated population, which in turn triggered the rise of an elite
Elite
Elite refers to an exceptional or privileged group that wields considerable power within its sphere of influence...

 class. The elite class created the demand for the production of the symbolic and sophisticated luxury artifacts that define Olmec culture. Many of these luxury artifacts were made from materials such as jade
Jade use in Mesoamerica
Jade use in Mesoamerica was largely influenced by the conceptualization of the material as a rare and valued commodity among pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Olmec, the Maya, and the various groups in the Valley of Mexico. The only source from which the indigenous cultures could...

, obsidian
Obsidian use in Mesoamerica
Obsidian is a naturally formed volcanic glass that was an important part of the material culture of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Obsidian was a highly integrated part of daily and ritual life, and its widespread and varied use may be a significant contributor to Mesoamerica's lack of metallurgy...

 and magnetite
Magnetite
Magnetite is a ferrimagnetic mineral with chemical formula Fe3O4, one of several iron oxides and a member of the spinel group. The chemical IUPAC name is iron oxide and the common chemical name is ferrous-ferric oxide. The formula for magnetite may also be written as FeO·Fe2O3, which is one part...

, which came from distant locations and suggest that early Olmec elites had access to an extensive trading network in Mesoamerica. The source of the most valued jade
Jade use in Mesoamerica
Jade use in Mesoamerica was largely influenced by the conceptualization of the material as a rare and valued commodity among pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Olmec, the Maya, and the various groups in the Valley of Mexico. The only source from which the indigenous cultures could...

, for example, is found in the Motagua River
Motagua River
The Motagua River is a long river in Guatemala. It rises in the western highlands of Guatemala where it is also called Río Grande, and runs in an easterly direction to the Gulf of Honduras. The final few kilometres of the river form part of the Guatemala/Honduras border...

 valley in eastern Guatemala
Guatemala
Guatemala is a country in Central America bordered by Mexico to the north and west, the Pacific Ocean to the southwest, Belize to the northeast, the Caribbean to the east, and Honduras and El Salvador to the southeast...

, and Olmec obsidian has been traced to sources in the Guatemala highlands, such as El Chayal and San Martín Jilotepeque
San Martín Jilotepeque
San Martín Jilotepeque is a municipality in the Chimaltenango department of Guatemala.-See also:Chajoma...

, or in Puebla, distances ranging from 200 to 400 km away (120–250 miles away), respectively.

La Venta


The first Olmec center, San Lorenzo, was all but abandoned around 900 BCE at about the same time that La Venta rose to prominence. A wholesale destruction of many San Lorenzo monuments also occurred circa
Circa
Circa , usually abbreviated c. or ca. , means "approximately" in the English language, usually referring to a date...

 950 BCE, which may indicate an internal uprising or, less likely, an invasion. The latest thinking, however, is that environmental changes may have been responsible for this shift in Olmec centers, with certain important rivers changing course.

In any case, following the decline of San Lorenzo, La Venta became the most prominent Olmec center, lasting from 900 BCE until its abandonment around 400 BCE. La Venta sustained the Olmec cultural traditions, but with spectacular displays of power and wealth. The Great Pyramid was the largest Mesoamerican structure of its time. Even today, after 2500 years of erosion, it rises 34 metres (111.5 ft) above the naturally flat landscape. Buried deep within La Venta, lay opulent, labor-intensive "offerings" – 1000 tons of smooth serpentine blocks, large mosaic pavements, and at least 48 separate deposits of polished jade celts
Celt (tool)
Celt is an archaeological term used to describe long thin prehistoric stone or bronze adzes, other axe-like tools, and hoes.-Etymology:The term "celt" came about from what was very probably a copyist's error in many medieval manuscript copies of Job 19:24 in the Latin Vulgate Bible, which became...

, pottery, figurines, and hematite
Hematite
Hematite, also spelled as haematite, is the mineral form of iron oxide , one of several iron oxides. Hematite crystallizes in the rhombohedral system, and it has the same crystal structure as ilmenite and corundum...

 mirrors.

Decline


Scholars have not determined the cause of the eventual extinction of the Olmec culture. Between 400 and 350 BCE, the population in the eastern half of the Olmec heartland dropped precipitously, and the area was sparsely inhabited until the 19th century. This depopulation was likely the result of "very serious environmental changes that rendered the region unsuited for large groups of farmers", in particular changes to the river
River
A river is a natural watercourse, usually freshwater, flowing towards an ocean, a lake, a sea, or another river. In a few cases, a river simply flows into the ground or dries up completely before reaching another body of water. Small rivers may also be called by several other names, including...

ine environment that the Olmec depended upon for agriculture, hunting and gathering, and transportation. Archaeologists propose that these changes were triggered by tectonic upheavals or subsidence, or the silt
Silt
Silt is granular material of a size somewhere between sand and clay whose mineral origin is quartz and feldspar. Silt may occur as a soil or as suspended sediment in a surface water body...

ing up of rivers due to agricultural practices.

One theory for the considerable population drop during the Terminal Formative period is suggested by Santley and colleagues (Santley et al. 1997) who propose shifts in settlement location [relocation] due to volcanism
Volcanism
Volcanism is the phenomenon connected with volcanoes and volcanic activity. It includes all phenomena resulting from and causing magma within the crust or mantle of a planet to rise through the crust and form volcanic rocks on the surface....

 instead of extinction. Volcanic eruptions during the Early, Late and Terminal Formative periods would have blanketed the lands and forced the Olmec to move their settlements.

Whatever the cause, within a few hundred years of the abandonment of the last Olmec cities, successor cultures became firmly established. The Tres Zapotes site, on the western edge of the Olmec heartland, continued to be occupied well past 400 BCE, but without the hallmarks of the Olmec culture. This post-Olmec culture, often labeled Epi-Olmec
Epi-Olmec culture
The Epi-Olmec culture was a cultural area in the central region of the present-day Mexican state of Veracruz, concentrated in the Papaloapan River basin, a culture that existed during the Late Formative period, from roughly 300 BCE to roughly 250 CE. Epi-Olmec was a successor culture to the Olmec,...

, has features similar to those found at Izapa
Izapa
Izapa is a very large pre-Columbian archaeological site located in the Mexican state of Chiapas; it was occupied during the Late Formative period. The site is situated on the Izapa River, a tributary of the Suchiate River, near the base of the Tacaná volcano), the fourth largest mountain in...

, some 330 miles (550 km) to the southeast.

Art


The Olmec culture was first defined as an art style, and this continues to be the hallmark of the culture. Wrought in a large number of media – jade, clay, basalt, and greenstone among others – much Olmec art, such as The Wrestler
The Wrestler (sculpture)
The Wrestler is an ancient basalt statuette that is one of the most important sculptures of the Olmec culture. The near life-size figure has been praised not only for its realism and sense of energy, but also for its aesthetic qualities...

, is surprisingly naturalistic. Other art expresses fantastic anthropomorphic creatures, often highly stylized, using an iconography reflective of a religious meaning. Common motifs
Motif (art)
In art, a motif is an element of a pattern, an image or part of one, or a theme. A motif may be repeated in a design or composition, often many times, or may just occur once in a work. A motif may be an element in the iconography of a particular subject or type of subject that is seen in other...

 include downturned mouths and a cleft head, both of which are seen in representations of were-jaguars
Olmec were-jaguar
The were-jaguar was both an Olmec motif and a supernatural entity, perhaps a deity.The were-jaguar motif is characterized by almond-shaped eyes, a downturned open mouth, and a cleft head. It appears widely in the Olmec archaeological record, and in many cases, under the principle of pars pro toto,...

.

In addition to making human and human-like subjects, Olmec artisans were adept at animal portrayals, for example, the fish vessel to the right or the bird vessel in the gallery below.

While Olmec figurine
Olmec figurine
This article on the Olmec figurine describes a number of archetypical figurines produced by the Formative Period inhabitants of Mesoamerica. While many of these figurines may or may not have been produced directly by the people of the Olmec heartland, they bear the hallmarks and motifs of Olmec...

s are found abundantly in sites throughout the Formative Period, the stone monuments such as the colossal heads are the most recognizable feature of Olmec culture. These monuments can be divided into four classes:
  • Colossal heads;
  • Rectangular "altars" (more likely thrones) such as Altar 5 shown below;
  • Free-standing in-the-round sculpture, such as the twins from El Azuzul
    El Azuzul
    El Azuzul is an Olmec archaeological site in Veracruz, Mexico, a few kilometers south of the San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán complex and generally considered contemporary with it . Named for the ranch on which it is located, El Azuzul is part of the Loma del Zapote complex...

     or San Martin Pajapan Monument 1
    San Martín Pajapan Monument 1
    San Martín Pajapan Monument 1 is a large Olmec basalt sculpture found on top of the San Martin Pajapan volcano, in the Tuxtla Mountains of the Mexican state of Veracruz. It is notable for its original location and its Olmec iconography.-Description:...

    ; and
  • Stelae, such as La Venta Monument 19 above. The stelae form was generally introduced later than the colossal heads, altars, or free-standing sculptures. Over time, the stelae changed from simple representation of figures, such as Monument 19 or La Venta Stela 1, toward representations of historical events, particularly acts legitimizing rulers. This trend would culminate in post-Olmec monuments such as La Mojarra Stela 1
    La Mojarra Stela 1
    La Mojarra Stela 1 is a Mesoamerican carved monument dating from the 2nd century CE. It was discovered in 1986, pulled from the Acula River near La Mojarra, Veracruz, Mexico, not far from the Tres Zapotes archaeological site. The by , four-ton limestone slab contains about 535 glyphs of the...

    , which combines images of rulers with script
    Mesoamerican writing systems
    Mesoamerica, like India, Mesopotamia, China, and Egypt, is one of the few places in the world where writing has developed independently. Mesoamerican scripts deciphered to date are logosyllabic, combining the use of logograms with a syllabary, and they are often called hieroglyphic scripts...

     and calendar dates
    Mesoamerican Long Count calendar
    The Mesoamerican Long Count calendar is a non-repeating, vigesimal and base-18 calendar used by several Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, most notably the Maya. For this reason, it is sometimes known as the Maya Long Count calendar...

    .

Colossal heads


The most recognized aspect of the Olmec civilization are the enormous helmeted heads. As no known pre-Columbian text explains them, these impressive monuments have been the subject of much speculation. Once theorized to be ballplayers
Mesoamerican ballgame
The Mesoamerican ballgame or Tlatchtli in Náhuatl was a sport with ritual associations played since 1,000 B.C. by the pre-Columbian peoples of Ancient Mexico and Central America...

, it is now generally accepted that these heads are portraits of rulers, perhaps dressed as ballplayers. Infused with individuality, no two heads are alike and the helmet-like headdresses are adorned with distinctive elements, suggesting personal or group symbols.

Seventeen colossal heads have been unearthed to date.
Site Count Designations
San Lorenzo
San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán
San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán is the collective name for three related archaeological sites -- San Lorenzo, Tenochtitlán, and Potrero Nuevo -- located in the southeast portion of the Mexican state of Veracruz. From 1200 BCE to 900 BCE, it was the major center of Olmec culture...

10 Colossal Heads 1 through 10
La Venta
La Venta
La Venta is a pre-Columbian archaeological site of the Olmec civilization located in the present-day Mexican state of Tabasco. Some of the artifacts have been moved to the museum "Parque - Museo de La Venta", which is in Villahermosa, the capital of Tabasco....

4 Monuments 1 through 4
Tres Zapotes
Tres Zapotes
Tres Zapotes is a Mesoamerican archaeological site located in the south-central Gulf Lowlands of Mexico in the Papaloapan River plain. Tres Zapotes is sometimes referred to as the third major Olmec capital , although Tres Zapotes' Olmec phase constitutes only a portion of the site’s history, which...

2 Monuments A & Q
Rancho la Cobata 1 Monument 1


The heads range in size from the Rancho La Cobata head, at 3.4 m high, to the pair at Tres Zapotes, at 1.47 m. Scholars calculate that the largest heads weigh between 25 and 55 short tons (49.1 LT).

The heads were carved from single blocks or boulders of volcanic basalt
Basalt
Basalt is a common extrusive volcanic rock. It is usually grey to black and fine-grained due to rapid cooling of lava at the surface of a planet. It may be porphyritic containing larger crystals in a fine matrix, or vesicular, or frothy scoria. Unweathered basalt is black or grey...

, found in the Tuxtlas Mountains
Sierra de los Tuxtlas
The Sierra de Los Tuxtlas are a volcanic belt and mountain range along the southeastern Veracruz Gulf coast in southcentral Mexico....

. The Tres Zapotes heads, for example, were sculpted from basalt found at the summit of Cerro el Vigía, at the western end of the Tuxtlas. The San Lorenzo and La Venta heads, on the other hand, were likely carved from the basalt of Cerro Cintepec, on the southeastern side, perhaps at the nearby Llano del Jicaro workshop, and dragged or floated to their final destination dozens of miles away. It has been estimated that moving a colossal head required the efforts of 1,500 people for three to four months.
Some of the heads, and many other monuments, have been variously mutilated, buried and disinterred, reset in new locations and/or reburied. Some monuments, and at least two heads, were recycled or recarved, but it is not known whether this was simply due to the scarcity of stone or whether these actions had ritual or other connotations. Scholars believe that some mutilation had significance beyond mere destruction, but some scholars still do not rule out internal conflicts or, less likely, invasion as a factor.

The flat-faced, thick-lipped characteristics of the heads have caused some debate due to their resemblance to some Africa
Africa
Africa is the world's second largest and second most populous continent, after Asia. At about 30.2 million km² including adjacent islands, it covers 6% of the Earth's total surface area and 20.4% of the total land area...

n facial characteristics. Based on this comparison, some writers have said that the Olmecs were Africans who had emigrated to the New World. But, the vast majority of archeologists and other Mesoamerican scholars reject claims of pre-Columbian contacts with Africa. Explanations for the facial features of the colossal heads include the possibility that the heads were carved in this manner due to the shallow space allowed on the basalt boulders. Others note that in addition to the broad noses and thick lips, the eyes of the heads have the Asian epicanthic fold, and that all these characteristics can still be found in modern Mesoamerican Indians. For instance, in the 1940s the artist/art historian Miguel Covarrubias
Miguel Covarrubias
José Miguel Covarrubias Duclaud was a Mexican painter and caricaturist, ethnologist and art historian among other interests. In 1924 at the age of 19 he moved to New York City armed with a grant from the Mexican government, tremendous talent, but very little English speaking skill. Luckily,...

 published a series of photos of Olmec artworks and of the faces of modern Mexican Indians
Indigenous peoples of Mexico
Mexico, in the second article of its Constitution, is defined as a "pluricultural" nation in recognition of the diverse ethnic groups that constitute it, and in which the indigenous peoples are the original foundation...

 with very similar facial characteristics. The African origin hypothesis assumes that Olmec carving was intended to be realistic, an assumption that is hard to justify given the full corpus of representation in Olmec carving.
Ivan van Sertima
Ivan van Sertima
Ivan Gladstone Van Sertima was an associate professor of Africana Studies at Rutgers University in the United States....

 claimed that the seven braids on the Tres Zapotes head was an Ethiopian hair style but he offered no evidence that this was an Ethiopian hair style at the appropriate time. The Egyptologist Frank Yurco has said that the Olmec braids do not resemble contemporary Egyptian or Nubian braids.

Jade face masks


Another type of artifact is much smaller; hardstone carving
Hardstone carving
Hardstone carving is a general term in art history and archaeology for the carving for artistic purposes of semi-precious stones, also known as gemstones, such as jade, rock crystal , agate, onyx, jasper, serpentine or carnelian, and for an object made in this way. Normally the objects are small,...

s in jade
Jade
Jade is an ornamental stone.The term jade is applied to two different metamorphic rocks that are made up of different silicate minerals:...

 of a face in a mask form. Curators and scholars refer to "Olmec-style" face masks but, to date, no example has been recovered in an archaeologically controlled Olmec context. They have been recovered from sites of other cultures, including one deliberately deposited in the ceremonial precinct of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City
Mexico City
Mexico City is the Federal District , capital of Mexico and seat of the federal powers of the Mexican Union. It is a federal entity within Mexico which is not part of any one of the 31 Mexican states but belongs to the federation as a whole...

). The mask would presumably have been about 2,000 years old when the Aztec
Aztec
The Aztec people were certain ethnic groups of central Mexico, particularly those groups who spoke the Nahuatl language and who dominated large parts of Mesoamerica in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, a period referred to as the late post-classic period in Mesoamerican chronology.Aztec is the...

 buried it, suggesting such masks were valued and collected as Roman antiquities were in Europe.

Beyond the heartland



Olmec-style artifacts, designs, figurines, monuments and iconography have been found in the archaeological records of sites hundreds of kilometres outside the Olmec heartland. These sites include:
  • Tlatilco
    Tlatilco
    Tlatilco was a large pre-Columbian village in the Valley of Mexico situated near the modern-day town of the same name in the Mexican Federal District. It was one of the first chiefdom centers to arise in the Valley, flourishing on the western shore of Lake Texcoco during the Middle Pre-Classic...

     and Tlapacoya
    Tlapacoya (Mesoamerican site)
    Tlapacoya is an important archaeological site in Mexico, located at the foot of the Tlapacoya volcano, southeast of Mexico City, on the former shore of Lake Chalco. Tlapacoya was a major site for the Tlatilco culture....

    , major centers of the Tlatilco culture
    Tlatilco culture
    Tlatilco culture is a culture that flourished in the Valley of Mexico between the years 1250 BCE and 800 BCE, during the Mesoamerican Early Formative period...

     in the Valley of Mexico
    Valley of Mexico
    The Valley of Mexico is a highlands plateau in central Mexico roughly coterminous with the present-day Distrito Federal and the eastern half of the State of Mexico. Surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, the Valley of Mexico was a centre for several pre-Columbian civilizations, including...

    , where artifacts include hollow baby-face motif figurines and Olmec designs on ceramics.
  • Chalcatzingo
    Chalcatzingo
    Chalcatzingo is a Mesoamerican archaeological site in the Valley of Morelos dating from the Formative Period of Mesoamerican chronology. The site is well-known for its extensive array of Olmec-style monumental art and iconography. Located in the southern portion of the Central Highlands of Mexico,...

    , in Valley of Morelos
    Morelos
    Morelos officially Estado Libre y Soberano de Morelos is one of the 31 states which, with the Federal District, comprise the 32 Federal Entities of Mexico. It is divided in 33 municipalities and its capital city is Cuernavaca....

    , which features Olmec-style monumental art and rock art with Olmec-style figures.
  • Teopantecuanitlan
    Teopantecuanitlan
    Teopantecuanitlan is an archaeological site in the Mexican state of Guerrero that represents an unexpectedly early development of complex society for the region. The site dates to the Early to Middle Formative Periods, and archaeological evidence clearly indicates some kind of connection existed...

    , in Guerrero
    Guerrero
    Guerrero officially Estado Libre y Soberano de Guerrero is one of the 31 states which, with the Federal District, comprise the 32 Federal Entities of Mexico. It is divided in 81 municipalities and its capital city is Chilpancingo....

    , which features Olmec-style monumental art as well as city plans with distinctive Olmec features.


Other sites showing probable Olmec influence include San Bartolo
San Bartolo (Maya site)
San Bartolo is a small pre-Columbian Maya archaeological site located in the Department of Petén in northern Guatemala, northeast of Tikal and roughly fifty miles from the nearest settlement...

, Takalik Abaj
Takalik Abaj
Tak'alik Ab'aj is a pre-Columbian archaeological site in Guatemala; it was formerly known as Abaj Takalik; its ancient name may have been Kooja. It is one of several Mesoamerican sites with both Olmec and Maya features...

 and La Democracia
La Democracia, Escuintla
La Democracia is a municipality in the Escuintla department of Guatemala. It is most notable for the crude Olmec-influenced carved stone heads from the Monte Alto culture now on display around the town square. The town possesses a small archaeological museum, the Museo Regional de Arqueología de la...

 in Guatemala and Zazacatla
Zazacatla
Zazacatla is a pre-Columbian archaeological site of Mesoamerica's central Mexican plateau region, dating to the mid-Formative period of Mesoamerican chronology. The site was first excavated in 2006 underneath a modern commercial and housing development site, some 13 km south of Cuernavaca,...

 in Morelos. The Juxtlahuaca
Juxtlahuaca
Juxtlahuaca is a cave and archaeological site in the Mexican state of Guerrero containing murals linked to the Olmec motifs and iconography. Along with the nearby Oxtotitlán cave, Juxtlahuaca walls contain the earliest sophisticated painted art known in Mesoamerica, and only known example of...

 and Oxtotitlan
Oxtotitlán
Oxtotitlán is the name of a natural rock shelter and archaeological site in Chilapa de Álvarez, Mexican state of Guerrero that contains murals linked to the Olmec motifs and iconography. Along with the nearby Juxtlahuaca cave, the Oxtotitlán rock paintings represent the "earliest sophisticated...

 cave paintings feature Olmec designs and motifs.

Many theories have been advanced to account for the occurrence of Olmec influence far outside the heartland, including long-range trade by Olmec merchants, Olmec colonization of other regions, Olmec artisans travelling to other cities, conscious imitation of Olmec artistic styles by developing towns – some even suggest the prospect of Olmec military domination or that the Olmec iconography was actually developed outside the heartland.

The generally accepted, but by no means unanimous, interpretation is that the Olmec-style artifacts, in all sizes, became associated with elite status and were adopted by non-Olmec Formative Period chieftains in an effort to bolster their status.

Notable innovations


In addition to their influence with contemporaneous Mesoamerican cultures, as the first civilization in Mesoamerica, the Olmecs are credited, or speculatively credited, with many "firsts", including the bloodletting and perhaps human sacrifice, writing
Writing
Writing is the representation of language in a textual medium through the use of a set of signs or symbols . It is distinguished from illustration, such as cave drawing and painting, and non-symbolic preservation of language via non-textual media, such as magnetic tape audio.Writing most likely...

 and epigraphy
Epigraphy
Epigraphy Epigraphy Epigraphy (from the , literally "on-writing", is the study of inscriptions or epigraphs as writing; that is, the science of identifying the graphemes and of classifying their use as to cultural context and date, elucidating their meaning and assessing what conclusions can be...

, and the invention of zero
0 (number)
0 is both a numberand the numerical digit used to represent that number in numerals.It fulfills a central role in mathematics as the additive identity of the integers, real numbers, and many other algebraic structures. As a digit, 0 is used as a placeholder in place value systems...

 and the Mesoamerican calendar
Mesoamerican calendars
Mesoamerican calendars are the calendrical systems devised and used by the pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica. In addition to the basic function of a calendar—defining and organizing periods of time in a way that allows events to be fixed, ordered and noted relative to each other and some...

, and the Mesoamerican ballgame
Mesoamerican ballgame
The Mesoamerican ballgame or Tlatchtli in Náhuatl was a sport with ritual associations played since 1,000 B.C. by the pre-Columbian peoples of Ancient Mexico and Central America...

, as well as perhaps the compass
Compass
A compass is a navigational instrument that shows directions in a frame of reference that is stationary relative to the surface of the earth. The frame of reference defines the four cardinal directions – north, south, east, and west. Intermediate directions are also defined...

. Some researchers, including artist
Artist
An artist is a person engaged in one or more of any of a broad spectrum of activities related to creating art, practicing the arts and/or demonstrating an art. The common usage in both everyday speech and academic discourse is a practitioner in the visual arts only...

 and art historian Miguel Covarrubias
Miguel Covarrubias
José Miguel Covarrubias Duclaud was a Mexican painter and caricaturist, ethnologist and art historian among other interests. In 1924 at the age of 19 he moved to New York City armed with a grant from the Mexican government, tremendous talent, but very little English speaking skill. Luckily,...

, even postulate that the Olmecs formulated the forerunners of many of the later Mesoamerican deities.

Bloodletting and sacrifice speculations


Although the archeological record does not include explicit representation of Olmec bloodletting, researchers have found other evidence that the Olmec ritually practiced it. For example, numerous natural and ceramic stingray
Stingray
The stingrays are a group of rays, which are cartilaginous fishes related to sharks. They are classified in the suborder Myliobatoidei of the order Myliobatiformes, and consist of eight families: Hexatrygonidae , Plesiobatidae , Urolophidae , Urotrygonidae , Dasyatidae , Potamotrygonidae The...

 spikes and maguey thorns have been found at Olmec sites, and certain artifacts have been identified as bloodletters (see this Commons photo).

The argument that the Olmec instituted human sacrifice is significantly more speculative. No Olmec or Olmec-influenced sacrificial artifacts have yet been discovered; no Olmec or Olmec-influenced artwork unambiguously shows sacrificial victims (as do the danzante figures of Monte Albán
Monte Albán
Monte Albán is a large pre-Columbian archaeological site in the Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán Municipality in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca...

) or scenes of human sacrifice (such as can be seen in the famous ballcourt mural from El Tajin
El Tajín
El Tajín is a pre-Columbian archeological site and was the site of one of the largest and most important cities of the Classic era of Mesoamerica. The city flourished from 600 to 1200 C.E. and during this time numerous temples, palaces, Mesoamerican ballcourts and pyramids were built...

).

At the El Manatí
El Manatí
El Manatí is an archaeological site located approximately 60 km south of Coatzacoalcos, in the municipality of Hidalgotitlán 27 kilometers southeast of Minatitlan in the Mexican state of Veracruz...

 site, disarticulated skulls and femurs, as well as the complete skeletons of newborn or unborn children, have been discovered amidst the other offerings, leading to speculation concerning infant sacrifice. Scholars have not determined how the infants met their deaths. Some authors have associated infant sacrifice with Olmec ritual art showing limp were-jaguar
Olmec were-jaguar
The were-jaguar was both an Olmec motif and a supernatural entity, perhaps a deity.The were-jaguar motif is characterized by almond-shaped eyes, a downturned open mouth, and a cleft head. It appears widely in the Olmec archaeological record, and in many cases, under the principle of pars pro toto,...

 babies, most famously in La Venta's Altar 5 (on the right) or Las Limas figure
Las Limas Monument 1
Las Limas Monument 1 is a greenstone figure of a youth holding a limp were-jaguar baby. Found in the Mexican state of Veracruz in the Olmec heartland, the statue is famous for its incised representations of Olmec supernaturals and is considered by some a "Rosetta stone" of Olmec religion...

. Any definitive answer requires further findings.

Writing



The Olmec may have been the first civilization in the Western Hemisphere
Western Hemisphere
The Western Hemisphere or western hemisphere is mainly used as a geographical term for the half of the Earth that lies west of the Prime Meridian and east of the Antimeridian , the other half being called the Eastern Hemisphere.In this sense, the western hemisphere consists of the western portions...

 to develop a writing system. Symbols found in 2002 and 2006 date to 650 BCE and 900 BCE respectively, preceding the oldest Zapotec
Zapotec civilization
The Zapotec civilization was an indigenous pre-Columbian civilization that flourished in the Valley of Oaxaca of southern Mesoamerica. Archaeological evidence shows their culture goes back at least 2500 years...

 writing dated to about 500 BCE.

The 2002 find at the San Andrés
San Andrés (Mesoamerican site)
San Andrés is an Olmec archaeological site in the present-day Mexican state of Tabasco. Located 5 km northeast of the Olmec ceremonial center of La Venta, San Andrés is considered one of its elite satellite communities, with evidence of elite residences and other elite activities...

 site shows a bird, speech scrolls, and glyphs that are similar to the later Mayan hieroglyphs. Known as the Cascajal Block, the 2006 find from a site near San Lorenzo, shows a set of 62 symbols, 28 of which are unique, carved on a serpentine block. A large number of prominent archaeologists have hailed this find as the "earliest pre-Columbian writing". Others are skeptical because of the stone's singularity, the fact that it had been removed from any archaeological context, and because it bears no apparent resemblance to any other Mesoamerican writing system.

There are also well-documented later hieroglyphs known as "Epi-Olmec", and while there are some who believe that Epi-Olmec may represent a transitional script between an earlier Olmec writing system and Mayan writing
Maya script
The Maya script, also known as Maya glyphs or Maya hieroglyphs, is the writing system of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization of Mesoamerica, presently the only Mesoamerican writing system that has been substantially deciphered...

, the matter remains unsettled.

Mesoamerican Long Count calendar and invention of the zero concept




The Long Count calendar
Mesoamerican Long Count calendar
The Mesoamerican Long Count calendar is a non-repeating, vigesimal and base-18 calendar used by several Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, most notably the Maya. For this reason, it is sometimes known as the Maya Long Count calendar...

 used by many subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations, as well as the concept of zero, may have been devised by the Olmecs. Because the six artifacts with the earliest Long Count calendar dates were all discovered outside the immediate Maya homeland, it is likely that this calendar predated the Maya and was possibly the invention of the Olmecs. Indeed, three of these six artifacts were found within the Olmec heartland. But an argument against an Olmec origin is the fact that the Olmec civilization had ended by the 4th century BCE, several centuries before the earliest known Long Count date artifact.

The Long Count calendar required the use of zero as a place-holder within its vigesimal
Vigesimal
The vigesimal or base 20 numeral system is based on twenty .- Places :...

 (base-20) positional numeral system. A shell glyph – – was used as a zero symbol for these Long Count dates, the second oldest of which, on Stela C at Tres Zapotes
Tres Zapotes
Tres Zapotes is a Mesoamerican archaeological site located in the south-central Gulf Lowlands of Mexico in the Papaloapan River plain. Tres Zapotes is sometimes referred to as the third major Olmec capital , although Tres Zapotes' Olmec phase constitutes only a portion of the site’s history, which...

, has a date of 32 BCE
Common Era
Common Era ,abbreviated as CE, is an alternative designation for the calendar era originally introduced by Dionysius Exiguus in the 6th century, traditionally identified with Anno Domini .Dates before the year 1 CE are indicated by the usage of BCE, short for Before the Common Era Common Era...

. This is one of the earliest uses of the zero concept in history.

Mesoamerican ballgame


The Olmec, whose name means "rubber people" in the Nahuatl
Nahuatl
Nahuatl is thought to mean "a good, clear sound" This language name has several spellings, among them náhuatl , Naoatl, Nauatl, Nahuatl, Nawatl. In a back formation from the name of the language, the ethnic group of Nahuatl speakers are called Nahua...

 language of the Aztec
Aztec
The Aztec people were certain ethnic groups of central Mexico, particularly those groups who spoke the Nahuatl language and who dominated large parts of Mesoamerica in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, a period referred to as the late post-classic period in Mesoamerican chronology.Aztec is the...

s, are strong candidates for originating the Mesoamerican ballgame
Mesoamerican ballgame
The Mesoamerican ballgame or Tlatchtli in Náhuatl was a sport with ritual associations played since 1,000 B.C. by the pre-Columbian peoples of Ancient Mexico and Central America...

 so prevalent among later cultures of the region and used for recreational and religious purposes. A dozen rubber balls dating to 1600 BCE or earlier have been found in El Manatí
El Manatí
El Manatí is an archaeological site located approximately 60 km south of Coatzacoalcos, in the municipality of Hidalgotitlán 27 kilometers southeast of Minatitlan in the Mexican state of Veracruz...

, an Olmec sacrificial bog
Bog
A bog, quagmire or mire is a wetland that accumulates acidic peat, a deposit of dead plant material—often mosses or, in Arctic climates, lichens....

 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) east of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan. These balls predate the earliest ballcourt yet discovered at Paso de la Amada
Paso de la Amada
Paso de la Amada is an archaeological site in the Mexican state of Chiapas on the Gulf of Tehuantepec, in the Soconusco region of Mesoamerica. This site was occupied during the Early Formative era, from about 1800 BCE to 1000 BCE, and covered approximately 50 hectares of land.Paso de la Amada is...

, circa
Circa
Circa , usually abbreviated c. or ca. , means "approximately" in the English language, usually referring to a date...

 1400 BCE, although there is no certainty that they were used in the ballgame.

Ethnicity and language


While the actual ethno-linguistic affiliation of the Olmec remains unknown, various hypotheses have been put forward. For example, in 1968 Michael D. Coe
Michael D. Coe
Michael D. Coe is an American archaeologist, anthropologist, epigrapher and author. Primarily known for his research in the field of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican studies , Coe has also made extensive investigations across a variety...

 speculated that the Olmec were Mayan predecessors.

In 1976, linguists Lyle Campbell
Lyle Campbell
Lyle Richard Campbell is a linguist and leading expert on indigenous American languages—especially those of Mesoamerica—and on historical linguistics in general. He also has expertise in Uralic languages. He is presently Professor of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.-Life and...

 and Terrence Kaufman
Terrence Kaufman
Terrence Kaufman is an American linguist specializing in documentation of unwritten languages, Mesoamerican historical linguistics and language contact phenomena. He is currently a professor at the department of anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh....

 published a paper in which they argued a core number of loanwords had apparently spread from a Mixe–Zoquean language into many other Mesoamerican languages
Mesoamerican languages
Mesoamerican languages are the languages indigenous to the Mesoamerican cultural area, which covers southern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. The area is characterized by extensive linguistic diversity containing several hundred different languages and...

. Campbell and Kaufman proposed that the presence of these core loanwords indicated that the Olmec – generally regarded as the first "highly civilized" Mesoamerican society – spoke a language ancestral to Mixe–Zoquean. The spread of this vocabulary particular to their culture accompanied the diffusion of other Olmec cultural and artistic traits that appears in the archaeological record of other Mesoamerican societies.

Mixe–Zoque specialist Søren Wichmann
Søren Wichmann
Søren Wichmann , is a Danish linguist specializing in Mesoamerican languages and epigraphy. He has written extensively about Mayan, Oto-Manguean and Mixe–Zoquean languages. He has done fieldwork on Mixe, Texistepec Popoluca and Tlapanec...

 first critiqued this theory on the basis that most of the Mixe–Zoquean loans seemed to originate from the Zoquean branch of the family only. This implied the loanword transmission occurred in the period after the two branches of the language family split, placing the time of the borrowings outside of the Olmec period. However new evidence has pushed back the proposed date for the split of Mixean and Zoquean languages to a period within the Olmec era. Based on this dating, the architectural and archaeological patterns and the particulars of the vocabulary loaned to other Mesoamerican languages from Mixe–Zoquean, Wichmann now suggests that the Olmecs of San Lorenzo spoke proto-Mixe and the Olmecs of La Venta spoke proto-Zoque.

At least the fact that the Mixe–Zoquean languages still are, and are historically known to have been, spoken in an area corresponding roughly to the Olmec heartland
Olmec heartland
The Olmec heartland is the southern portion of Mexico's Gulf Coast region between the Tuxtla mountains and the Olmec archaeological site of La Venta, extending roughly 80 km inland from the Gulf of Mexico coastline at its deepest...

, leads most scholars to assume that the Olmec spoke one or more Mixe–Zoquean languages.

Religion and mythology


Olmec religious activities were performed by a combination of rulers, full-time priests, and shamans. The rulers seem to have been the most important religious figures, with their links to the Olmec deities or supernaturals providing legitimacy for their rule. There is also considerable evidence for shamans in the Olmec archaeological record, particularly in the so-called "transformation figures".

As Olmec mythology has left no documents comparable to the Popul Vuh from Maya mythology
Maya mythology
Mayan mythology is part of Mesoamerican mythology and comprises all of the Mayan tales in which personified forces of nature, deities, and the heroes interacting with these play the main roles...

, any exposition of Olmec mythology must be based on interpretations of surviving monumental and portable art (such as the Las Limas figure at right), and comparisons with other Mesoamerican mythologies. Olmec art shows that such deities as the Feathered Serpent
Feathered Serpent (deity)
The Feathered Serpent was a prominent supernatural entity or deity, found in many Mesoamerican religions. It was called Quetzalcoatl among the Aztecs, Kukulkan among the Yucatec Maya, and Q'uq'umatz and Tohil among the K'iche' Maya...

 and a rain supernatural were already in the Mesoamerican pantheon in Olmec times.

Social and political organization


Little is directly known about the societal or political structure of Olmec society. Although it is assumed by most researchers that the colossal heads and several other sculptures represent rulers, nothing has been found like the Maya
Maya civilization
The Maya is a Mesoamerican civilization, noted for the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas, as well as for its art, architecture, and mathematical and astronomical systems. Initially established during the Pre-Classic period The Maya is a Mesoamerican...

 stelae (see drawing) which name specific rulers and provide the dates of their rule.

Instead, archaeologists relied on the data that they had, such as large- and small-scale site surveys. These provided evidence of considerable centralization within the Olmec region, first at San Lorenzo and then at La Venta – no other Olmec sites come close to these in terms of area or in the quantity and quality of architecture and sculpture.

This evidence of geographic and demographic centralization leads archaeologists to propose that Olmec society itself was hierarchical, concentrated first at San Lorenzo and then at La Venta, with an elite that was able to use their control over materials such as water and monumental stone to exert command and legitimize their regime.

Nonetheless, Olmec society is thought to lack many of the institutions of later civilizations, such as a standing army or priestly caste. And there is no evidence that San Lorenzo or La Venta controlled, even during their heyday, all of the Olmec heartland. There is some doubt, for example, that La Venta controlled even Arroyo Sonso, only some 35 kilometres (21.7 mi) away. Studies of the Tuxtla Mountain settlements, some 60 kilometres (37.3 mi) away, indicate that this area was composed of more or less egalitarian communities outside the control of lowland centers.

Trade


The wide diffusion of Olmec artifacts and "Olmecoid" iconography throughout much of Mesoamerica indicates the existence of extensive long-distance trade networks. Exotic, prestigious and high-value materials such as greenstone
Greenstone (archaeology)
Greenstone is a common generic term for valuable, green-hued minerals and metamorphosed igneous rocks and stones, that were used in the fashioning of hardstone carvings such as jewelry, statuettes, ritual tools, and various other artefacts in early cultures...

 and marine shell were moved in significant quantities across large distances. While the Olmec were not the first in Mesoamerica to organise long-distance exchanges of goods, the Olmec period saw a significant expansion in interregional trade routes, more variety in material goods exchanged and a greater diversity in the sources from which the base materials were obtained.

Village life and diet


Despite their size, San Lorenzo and La Venta were largely ceremonial centers, and the majority of the Olmec lived in villages similar to present-day villages and hamlets in Tabasco and Veracruz.

These villages were located on higher ground and consisted of several scattered houses. A modest temple may have been associated with the larger villages. The individual dwellings would consist of a house, an associated lean-to, and one or more storage pits (similar in function to a root cellar
Root cellar
A root cellar is a structure built underground or partially underground and used to store vegetables, fruits, and nuts or other foods.-Construction:Common construction methods are:...

). A nearby garden was used for medicinal and cooking herbs and for smaller crops such as the domesticated sunflower
Sunflower
Sunflower is an annual plant native to the Americas. It possesses a large inflorescence . The sunflower got its name from its huge, fiery blooms, whose shape and image is often used to depict the sun. The sunflower has a rough, hairy stem, broad, coarsely toothed, rough leaves and circular heads...

. Fruit trees, such as avocado
Avocado
The avocado is a tree native to Central Mexico, classified in the flowering plant family Lauraceae along with cinnamon, camphor and bay laurel...

 or cacao, were likely available nearby.

Although the river banks were used to plant crops between flooding periods, the Olmecs also likely practiced swidden (or slash-and-burn) agriculture to clear the forests and shrubs, and to provide new fields once the old fields were exhausted. Fields were located outside the village, and were used for maize
Maize
Maize known in many English-speaking countries as corn or mielie/mealie, is a grain domesticated by indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica in prehistoric times. The leafy stalk produces ears which contain seeds called kernels. Though technically a grain, maize kernels are used in cooking as a vegetable...

, beans, squash
Cucurbitaceae
The plant family Cucurbitaceae consists of various squashes, melons, and gourds, including crops such as cucumber, pumpkins, luffas, and watermelons...

, manioc, sweet potato, as well as cotton
Cotton
Cotton is a soft, fluffy staple fiber that grows in a boll, or protective capsule, around the seeds of cotton plants of the genus Gossypium. The fiber is almost pure cellulose. The botanical purpose of cotton fiber is to aid in seed dispersal....

. Based on archaeological studies of two villages in the Tuxtlas Mountains, it is known that maize cultivation became increasingly important to the Olmec over time, although the diet remained fairly diverse.

The fruits and vegetables were supplemented with fish, turtle, snake, and mollusks from the nearby rivers, and crabs and shellfish in the coastal areas. Birds were available as food sources, as were game including peccary
Peccary
A peccary is a medium-sized mammal of the family Tayassuidae, or New World Pigs. Peccaries are members of the artiodactyl suborder Suina, as are the pig family and possibly the hippopotamus family...

, opossum, raccoon
Raccoon
Procyon is a genus of nocturnal mammals, comprising three species commonly known as raccoons, in the family Procyonidae. The most familiar species, the common raccoon , is often known simply as "the" raccoon, as the two other raccoon species in the genus are native only to the tropics and are...

, rabbit
Rabbit
Rabbits are small mammals in the family Leporidae of the order Lagomorpha, found in several parts of the world...

, and in particular, deer
Deer
Deer are the ruminant mammals forming the family Cervidae. Species in the Cervidae family include white-tailed deer, elk, moose, red deer, reindeer, fallow deer, roe deer and chital. Male deer of all species and female reindeer grow and shed new antlers each year...

. Despite the wide range of hunting and fishing available, midden
Midden
A midden, is an old dump for domestic waste which may consist of animal bone, human excrement, botanical material, vermin, shells, sherds, lithics , and other artifacts and ecofacts associated with past human occupation...

 surveys in San Lorenzo have found that the domesticated dog was the single most plentiful source of animal protein.

History of archaeological research



Olmec culture was unknown to historians until the mid-19th century. In 1869 the Mexican antiquarian traveller José Melgar y Serrano published a description of the first Olmec monument to have been found in situ
In situ
In situ is a Latin phrase which translated literally as 'In position'. It is used in many different contexts.-Aerospace:In the aerospace industry, equipment on board aircraft must be tested in situ, or in place, to confirm everything functions properly as a system. Individually, each piece may...

. This monument – the colossal head now labelled Tres Zapotes Monument A – had been discovered in the late 1850s by a farm worker clearing forested land on a hacienda
Hacienda
Hacienda is a Spanish word for an estate. Some haciendas were plantations, mines, or even business factories. Many haciendas combined these productive activities...

in Veracruz. Hearing about the curious find while travelling through the region, Melgar y Serrano first visited the site in 1862 to see for himself and complete partially exposed sculpture's excavation. His description of the object, published several years later after further visits to the site, represents the earliest documented report of an artifact of what is now known as the Olmec culture.

In the latter half of the 19th century, Olmec artifacts such as the Kunz Axe (right) came to light and were subsequently recognized as belonging to a unique artistic tradition.

Frans Blom
Frans Blom
Frans Blom was a Danish explorer and archaeologist....

 and Oliver La Farge
Oliver La Farge
Oliver Hazard Perry La Farge was an American writer and anthropologist, best known for his 1930 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Laughing Boy....

 made the first detailed descriptions of La Venta
La Venta
La Venta is a pre-Columbian archaeological site of the Olmec civilization located in the present-day Mexican state of Tabasco. Some of the artifacts have been moved to the museum "Parque - Museo de La Venta", which is in Villahermosa, the capital of Tabasco....

 and San Martin Pajapan Monument 1
San Martín Pajapan Monument 1
San Martín Pajapan Monument 1 is a large Olmec basalt sculpture found on top of the San Martin Pajapan volcano, in the Tuxtla Mountains of the Mexican state of Veracruz. It is notable for its original location and its Olmec iconography.-Description:...

 during their 1925 expedition. However, at this time most archaeologists assumed the Olmec were contemporaneous with the Maya – even Blom and La Farge were, in their own words, "inclined to ascribe them to the Maya culture".

Matthew Stirling
Matthew Stirling
Matthew Williams Stirling was an American ethnologist, archaeologist and later an administrator at several scientific institutions in the field...

 of the Smithsonian Institution
Smithsonian Institution
The Smithsonian Institution is an educational and research institute and associated museum complex, administered and funded by the government of the United States and by funds from its endowment, contributions, and profits from its retail operations, concessions, licensing activities, and magazines...

 conducted the first detailed scientific excavations of Olmec sites in the 1930s and 1940s. Stirling, along with art historian Miguel Covarrubias
Miguel Covarrubias
José Miguel Covarrubias Duclaud was a Mexican painter and caricaturist, ethnologist and art historian among other interests. In 1924 at the age of 19 he moved to New York City armed with a grant from the Mexican government, tremendous talent, but very little English speaking skill. Luckily,...

, became convinced that the Olmec predated most other known Mesoamerican civilizations.

In counterpoint to Stirling, Covarrubias
Miguel Covarrubias
José Miguel Covarrubias Duclaud was a Mexican painter and caricaturist, ethnologist and art historian among other interests. In 1924 at the age of 19 he moved to New York City armed with a grant from the Mexican government, tremendous talent, but very little English speaking skill. Luckily,...

, and Alfonso Caso
Alfonso Caso
Alfonso Caso y Andrade was an archaeologist who made important contributions to pre-Columbian studies in his native Mexico. Caso believed that the systematic study of ancient Mexican civilizations was an important way to understand Mexican cultural roots...

, however, Mayanists Eric Thompson
Eric Thompson
Eric Norman Thompson was an English actor, producer and television presenter.Thompson was born in Sleaford, Lincolnshire, the son of George Henry and Anne Thompson, and grew up Rudgwick, Sussex, attending Collyer's School, Horsham...

 and Sylvanus Morley
Sylvanus Morley
Sylvanus Griswold Morley was an American archaeologist, epigrapher, and Mayanist scholar who made significant contributions toward the study of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization in the early twentieth century....

 argued for Classic-era dates for the Olmec artifacts. The question of Olmec chronology came to a head at a 1942 Tuxtla Gutierrez
Tuxtla Gutiérrez
Tuxtla Gutiérrez is the capital and largest city of the Mexican state of Chiapas. It is considered to be the state’s most modern city, with most of its public buildings dating from the 20th century. One exception to this is the San Marcos Cathedral which began as a Dominican parish church built in...

 conference, where Alfonso Caso declared that the Olmecs were the "mother culture" ("cultura madre") of Mesoamerica.

Shortly after the conference, radiocarbon dating
Radiocarbon dating
Radiocarbon dating is a radiometric dating method that uses the naturally occurring radioisotope carbon-14 to estimate the age of carbon-bearing materials up to about 58,000 to 62,000 years. Raw, i.e. uncalibrated, radiocarbon ages are usually reported in radiocarbon years "Before Present" ,...

 proved the antiquity of the Olmec civilization, although the "mother culture" question generates much debate even 60 years later.

Etymology


The name "Olmec" means "rubber people" in Nahuatl
Nahuatl
Nahuatl is thought to mean "a good, clear sound" This language name has several spellings, among them náhuatl , Naoatl, Nauatl, Nahuatl, Nawatl. In a back formation from the name of the language, the ethnic group of Nahuatl speakers are called Nahua...

, the language of the Aztec
Aztec
The Aztec people were certain ethnic groups of central Mexico, particularly those groups who spoke the Nahuatl language and who dominated large parts of Mesoamerica in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, a period referred to as the late post-classic period in Mesoamerican chronology.Aztec is the...

, and was the Aztec name for the people who lived in the Gulf Lowlands in the 15th and 16th centuries, some 2000 years after the Olmec culture died out. The term "rubber people" refers to the ancient practice, spanning from ancient Olmecs to Aztecs, of extracting latex
Latex
Latex is the stable dispersion of polymer microparticles in an aqueous medium. Latexes may be natural or synthetic.Latex as found in nature is a milky fluid found in 10% of all flowering plants . It is a complex emulsion consisting of proteins, alkaloids, starches, sugars, oils, tannins, resins,...

 from Castilla elastica
Castilla elastica
Castilla elastica, the Panama Rubber Tree, is a tree native to the tropical areas of Mexico, Central America, and northern South America. It was the principal source of latex among the Mesoamerican peoples in pre-Columbian times...

, a rubber tree in the area. The juice of a local vine, Ipomoea alba
Ipomoea alba
Ipomoea alba, sometimes called the moonflower or moon vine, is a species of night-blooming morning-glory, native to tropical and subtropical regions of the New World, from northern Argentina north to Mexico and Florida...

,
was then mixed with this latex to create rubber as early as 1600 BCE.

Early modern explorers and archaeologists, however, mistakenly applied the name "Olmec" to the rediscovered ruins and artifacts in the heartland decades before it was understood that these were not created by people the Aztecs knew as the "Olmec", but rather a culture that was 2000 years older. Despite the mistaken identity, the name has stuck.

It is not known what name the ancient Olmec used for themselves; some later Mesoamerican accounts seem to refer to the ancient Olmec as "Tamoanchan". A contemporary term sometimes used to describe the Olmec culture is tenocelome, meaning "mouth of the jaguar
Jaguar
The jaguar is a big cat, a feline in the Panthera genus, and is the only Panthera species found in the Americas. The jaguar is the third-largest feline after the tiger and the lion, and the largest in the Western Hemisphere. The jaguar's present range extends from Southern United States and Mexico...

".

Alternative origin speculations


In part because the Olmecs developed the first Mesoamerican civilization and in part because little is known of the Olmecs (relative, for example, to the Maya
Maya civilization
The Maya is a Mesoamerican civilization, noted for the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas, as well as for its art, architecture, and mathematical and astronomical systems. Initially established during the Pre-Classic period The Maya is a Mesoamerican...

 or Aztec
Aztec
The Aztec people were certain ethnic groups of central Mexico, particularly those groups who spoke the Nahuatl language and who dominated large parts of Mesoamerica in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, a period referred to as the late post-classic period in Mesoamerican chronology.Aztec is the...

), a number of Olmec alternative origin speculations have been put forth. Although several of these speculations, particularly the theory that the Olmecs were of African origin popularized by Ivan van Sertima's book They Came Before Columbus, have become well-known within popular culture
Popular culture
Popular culture is the totality of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, memes, images and other phenomena that are deemed preferred per an informal consensus within the mainstream of a given culture, especially Western culture of the early to mid 20th century and the emerging global mainstream of the...

, they are not considered credible by the vast majority of Mesoamerican researchers.

See also

  • El Azuzul
    El Azuzul
    El Azuzul is an Olmec archaeological site in Veracruz, Mexico, a few kilometers south of the San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán complex and generally considered contemporary with it . Named for the ranch on which it is located, El Azuzul is part of the Loma del Zapote complex...

     – a small archaeological site in the Olmec heartland
  • Cerro de las Mesas
    Cerro de las Mesas
    Cerro de las Mesas, meaning "hill of the altars" in Spanish, is an archaeological site in the Mexican state of Veracruz, in the Mixtequilla area of the Papaloapan River basin...

     – a post-Olmec archaeological site
  • List of megalithic sites
  • List of Mesoamerican pyramids

External links