Once, in the beautiful lands of ancient Mexico, existed a great civilization that became the forerunner of all subsequent cultures in the area. But like many great civilizations like those of Egypt, Sumeria, Babylon, and so on, this once thriving society would one day come to a slow but steady decline, leaving in its wake the rise of some of the world’s most renowned cultures.

While it is not clear what brought about this fall from grace, what is clear is that this civilisation at its peak was a force to be reckoned with. This civilization is today known to scholars as the Olmec civilisation.

The Olmec: Who are they?

The mysterious Olmec civilisation, located in ancient Mexico, is the first elaborate/major civilization of Mesoamerica (or Central America), springing up from c.1200 BCE until its decline around 400 BCE. It is generally thought to be the forerunner of all subsequent Mesoamerican cultures and to have set many of the fundamental patterns evinced by later American-Indian cultures of Mexico and Central America, notably the Maya and the Aztec.

Dominant in the tropical lowlands (or the heartlands) on the Gulf of Mexico in what is now present-day Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco, Olmec influence and trade activity spread from 1200 BCE, even reaching as far south as present-day Nicaragua. Well known for their monumental sacred complexes and immense stone sculptures (or heads) carved from basalt (a volcanic rock), archaeological evidence suggests that they originated the practice of the Mesoamerican Ballgame (a popular game in the pre-Columbian Americas played with balls made from solid rubber).

Also, the drinking of chocolate and worship to animal gods were features of Olmec culture which would be passed on to those peoples who followed this first great Mesoamerican civilization, while Olmec religious practices of sacrifice, pilgrimages, ball-courts, offerings, cave rituals, pyramids, and seeming awe of mirrors was as well passed on to all subsequent civilizations in pre-Colombian Mesoamerica (prior to the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century CE). 

The name ‘Olmec’―a modern corruption of ‘Olmecatl’, meaning “rubber people” or “people of the rubber country”―is a Nahuatl (the Aztec language) word used to describe the people. Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that “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”. Khan Academy adds that “the Olmec might have been the first people to figure out how to convert latex of the rubber tree into something that could be shaped, cured, and hardened”. Because the Olmecs did not have much writing, despite them codifying and recording their culture, gods and religious practices using carved glyphs—symbols—that survived, scholars in modern world are yet to find out what name the Olmec people gave themselves.

Cities, Village Life and Trade

Writing on the Olmec civilisation, Mark Cartwright in his ‘Olmec Civilisation’, notes that Olmec prosperity was initially based on exploiting the fertile and well-watered coastal areas of the Gulf of Mexico to grow such crops as corn and beans (often twice-yearly) which allowed for an agricultural surplus.

These people also, no doubt, took to gathering the plentiful local supply of plant food, palm nuts, and sea-life, including turtles and clams. By c.1200 BCE, Cartwright notes, significant urban centers developed at San Lorenzo (the earliest), La Venta, Laguna de Los Cerros, Tres Zapotes, and Las Limas.

San Lorenzo would reach its peak of prosperity and influence between 1200 and 900 BCE, as its strategic position safe from flooding allowed it to control local trade. Typically, rubber, obsidian, polished mirrors, pottery, and feathers of ilmenite and magnetite made up some of the Olmec trade goods.

Evidence of San Lorenzo’s high culture includes the presence of mound structures, possibly an early ball court, carved basalt drains through one of the man-made mounds and the Red Palace structure with its painted red floors and workshops. From around 900 BCE the site of San Lorenzo began to witness a systematic destruction and was all but abandoned. A wholesale destruction of many San Lorenzo monuments, according to sources, also occurred c.950 BCE, which may indicate an internal uprising or, less likely, an invasion.

However, the latest thinking suggests that with certain important rivers changing course, environmental changes may have been responsible for this shift in Olmec centers. In any case, following its decline, La Venta, conversely, began to flourish, becoming the most prominent Olmec center, lasting from 900 BCE until its abandonment around 400 BCE. Sources state that it eventually supported a population of some 18,000 people.

The three sites of San Lorenzo, La Venta and Laguna de los Cerros, notes Cartwright, all had a bilateral symmetry in their planning and at La Venta the first pyramid in Mesoamerica was constructed. It is however, the pre-meditated architectural layout of the religious centres of these settlements that is most striking.  At La Venta for example, the buildings are placed symmetrically along a north-south axis with four colossal heads facing outwards at key points. These seemingly acting as if they were guardians to the complex.

A huge ceremonial step pyramid (now a shapeless mound), sunken plaza once lined with 2-meter high basalt columns, and two smaller pyramids/mounds provide features that would be copied time and again at the major sites of later Mesoamerican cultures with whom equal attention was paid to the precise alignment of buildings.

Despite the absence of written records of Olmec commerce, beliefs, or customs, archaeological evidence shows that they were not economically confined, as the Olmecs developed a wide trading network. The Olmec period witnessed significant increase in the length of trade routes, the variety of goods, and the sources of traded items.

In fact, Olmec artifacts have been found across Mesoamerica, indicating that there were extensive interregional trade routes in the area. Trading helped the Olmec build the urban centers of San Lorenzo and La Venta. However, most people lived in small villages, while However, the cities were used predominantly for ceremonial purposes and elite activity. Individual homes were constructed to have a lean-to—sort of like a garage shed—and a storage pit for storing root vegetables. They are also reported to have had gardens in which the Olmec grew medicinal herbs and small crops, like sunflowers.

Religion

With the absence of no direct written accounts of Olmec beliefs, what is known about their life and religion is gotten from clues provided by their notable artwork discovered by archaeologists.

Seemingly, the Olmecs had a particular reverence for natural places which connected with the important junctions of sky, earth and the underworld. As to the names of their gods, none is known other than that the gods often represented phenomena such as rain, the earth and especially maize. Because of this, identifiable gods from Olmec art have been given numbers instead of names (e.g. God VI). As reported by the Khan Academy, “there were eight different androgynous—possessing male and female characteristics—Olmec deities, each with its own distinct characteristics. For example, the Bird Monster was depicted as a harpy eagle associated with rulership. The Olmec Dragon was shown with flame eyebrows, a bulbous nose, and bifurcated tongue.” Olmec deities often represented a natural element and included the Maize deity; the Rain Spirit or Were-Jaguar; and the Fish or Shark Monster. Religious activities regarding these deities probably included the elite rulers, shamans, and possibly a priest class making offerings at religious sites in La Venta and San Lorenzo.

The people gave special significance to the animals present in their environment, especially those at the top of the food chain such as jaguars, eagles, caimans, snakes and even sharks, identifying them with divine beings. Also, they believed that powerful rulers could transform themselves at will into such creatures. The people also liked to mix animals in order to create weird and wonderful creatures such as the were-jaguar (a cross between a human and a jaguar) which may have been their supreme deity, and worshipped a sky-dragon. It is also known that they believed four dwarves held up the sky. This possibly represented the four cardinal directions which, along with other Olmec gods, became so important in later Mesoamerican religions.

Olmec Art

The Olmecs had a sophistication in art. Many scholars believe that the most striking legacy of their civilization must be the colossal stone heads they produced. These were carved in basalt (volcanic rock), with all displaying unique facial features which many consider to be portraits of actual rulers, perhaps carved to commemorate their deaths. The heads can be nearly 3 metres (10 ft) high and weigh 8 tons, and the stones from which they were worked are believed to have been transported 80 kilometres or more, presumably using huge balsa river rafts.

So far, 17 have been discovered, ten of which were found in San Lorenzo, four in La Venta, two in Tres Zapotes, and one in Rancho la Cobata. An Olmec ruler often wears a protective helmet (from war or the ballgame) and sometimes shows the subject with jaguar paws hanging over the forehead, perhaps representing a jaguar pelt worn as a symbol of political and religious power. The fact that these giant sculptures depict only the head may be explained by the belief in a Mesoamerican culture that it was the head alone which bore the soul.

Another record of the Olmecs is found in rock carvings and paintings often made around cave entrances.  These, most typically, depict seated rulers. Example can be found at Chalcatzingo where a ruler sits on her throne surrounded by a maize landscape and at Oxtotitlan, where another figure wears a green bird suit. Other sites contain paintings of cave rituals, such as those at Cacahuazqui, Oxtotlan and Juxtlahuaca.

Jade and ceramic, as well as wood were also popularly use for sculpture. Examples of these can be found remarkably well preserved in the bogs of El Manati. One of the gods most commonly rendered in small sculpture was God IV (also known as the Rain Baby), depicted as a toothless human baby with an open-mouth, cleft head and headband, sometimes with the addition of strips of crinkled paper hanging at the side of his face.

The Kunz Axe, perhaps remains the most significant jade carving. A ceremonial axe-head, it is now preserved in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The jade had been worked to represent a were-jaguar creature using only jade tools and polished, perhaps using a jade abrasive. Animals were a popular subject, especially the most powerful ones such as jaguars and eagles. It is fascinating however, that the Olmecs often buried their sculptures, even larger pieces, perhaps in a ritual act of memory.  

End of the Olmec Civilisation and Legacy in Mesoamerica

The Olmec population is said to have declined sharply between 400 and 350 BCE, the reasons for this remaining largely unclear. Archaeologists however, are of the speculation that the depopulation might have come about due to environmental changes, specifically by the silting-up of rivers, which choked off the water supply. Another theory for the considerable drop in population, proposes relocation of settlements due to increased volcanic activity as the cause rather than extinction. Volcanic eruptions during the early, late, and terminal formative periods would have blanketed the lands with ash, therefor forcing the Olmec to move their settlements.

The Olmecs influenced every civilization they came into contact with across Mesoamerica, particularly in sculpture in ceramic and jade. Objects depicting Olmec imagery have been found at Teopantecuanitlan, 650 km distant from the Olmec heartland. Additionally, many deities featured in Olmec art and religion such as the sky-dragon and the feathered-snake god, reappeared in similar form in later religions.

The major gods Kukulcan (for the Maya) and Quetzalcoatl (for the Aztecs) are both noted, especially, to be the transformations of the snake-god. Along with the features of precisely aligned ceremonial precincts, monumental pyramids, sacrificial rituals and ball-courts, this artistic and religious influence, meant that all subsequent Mesoamerican cultures would owe a great deal to their mysterious forerunners, the Olmecatl.

Written by: Ejiofor Ekene Olaedo


SOURCES OF AUTHORS INFORMATION

Cartwright, M. (2018, April 4). Olmec Civilisation. Retrieved March 27, 2020, from Ancient History Encyclopedia: https://www.ancient.eu/Olmec_Civilization/

Coe, M. D. (1967). San Lorenzo and the Olmec Civilization. In Benson, E. P. (ed.). Dumbarton Oaks Conference on the Olmec, October 28th and 29th, 1967. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection; Trustees for Harvard University.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. (n.d.). Olmec. Retrieved March 27, 2020, from Encyclopaedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Olmec

Khan Academy. (n.d.). The Olmec. Retrieved March 27, 2020, from Khan Academy: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/world-history/world-history-beginnings/ancient-americas/a/the-olmec-article

Pool, C. A. (2007). Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica. Cambridge World Archaeology. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

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