The History of the Native Peoples of the Americas/Mesoamerican Cultures/Olmecs
The most ancient of the Mesoamerican civilizations is known by the name Olmec. They laid many of the foundations for the civilizations that followed. Among other "firsts", there is evidence that the Olmec practiced ritual bloodletting and played the Mesoamerican ballgame, hallmarks of nearly all subsequent Mesoamerican societies.
The Olmec have long attracted interest because of their fascinating and diverse artworks using semi-precious stones and their sophisticated monumental figurative sculpture. The Olmec were a sedentary group, and they produced large architectural complexes and a great deal of material culture.
The most familiar aspect of the Olmecs is their artwork, particularly the aptly-named colossal heads. In fact, the Olmec civilization was first defined through artifacts purchased on the pre-Columbian art market in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Olmec artworks are considered among ancient America's most striking and beautiful, and among the world's masterpieces.
- 1 History
- 2 Art
- 3 Beyond the heartland
- 4 Notable innovations
- 5 Daily Life
Researchers have been studying Olmec culture since the early 20th century, but there is still a great deal about the Olmec that remains unknown to contemporary scholars. It is not known exactly where the Olmec people first came from, or how they came to settle in the lowlands of Mexico's southern Gulf Coast, or what language the Olmec spoke, or even what they called themselves. The name Olmec, in fact, comes from a Nahuatl word meaning "rubber land," a reference to one of the natural resources available in the Olmec heartland.
The Olmec heartland was an area about 125 miles long by about 50 miles wide located in the lowlands of the southern Gulf Coast of Mexico in what is now the modern states of Veracruz and Tabasco. It was tremendously humid, with significant rainfall throughout the year, making it possible to cultivate crops year-round. The major cities arose along a network of rivers that facilitated the transportation of goods and materials in the region. During the height of the Olmec civilization, the area was characterized by tropical forest cover and Savannah. There are also volcanic mountains in this region, and it is from these that the Olmec acquired basalt for creating their monumental sculpture and architecture. Here in this region, the Olmecs constructed permanent city-temple complexes at San Lorenzo, La Venta, and Tres Zapotes.
The earliest Olmec site is believed to be San Lorenzo, where distinctive Olmec features appear around 1400 BCE. The rise of civilization here was assisted by the local ecology of well-watered alluvial soil, as well as by the transportation network that the Coatzacoalcos River basin provided. This environment may be compared to that of other ancient centers of civilization: the Nile, Indus, and Yellow River valleys, and Mesopotamia. This highly productive environment encouraged a densely concentrated population which in turn triggered the rise of an elite class. It was this elite class that provided the social basis for the production of the symbolic and sophisticated luxury artifacts that define Olmec culture. Many of these luxury artifacts, such as jade, obsidian and magnetite, 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, for example, is found in the Motagua River valley in eastern Guatemala, and Olmec obsidian has been traced to sources in the Guatemala highlands, such as El Chayal and San Martín Jilotepeque, or in Puebla, distances ranging from 200 to 400 km away (120 - 250 miles away) respectively.
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 c. 950 BCE, which may point to 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 of La Venta was the largest Mesoamerican structure of its time. Even today, after 2500 years of erosion, it rises 34 meters 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, pottery, figurines, and hematite mirrors
It is not known with any clarity what caused the eventual extinction of the Olmec culture. It is known that between 400 and 350 BCE, population in the eastern half of the Olmec heartland dropped precipitously, and the area would remain 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 environment that the Olmec depended upon for agriculture, for hunting and gathering, and for transportation. Archaeologists propose that these changes were triggered by tectonic upheavals or subsidence, or the silting up of rivers due to agricultural practices.
One theory for the considerable population drop during the end of the Formative period proposes that shifts in settlement location due to volcanism instead of extinction. Volcanic eruptions during the Early, Late and Terminal Formative periods would have blanketed the lands and forced the Olmecs to move their settlements
Whatever the cause, within a few hundred years of the abandonment of the last Olmec cities, successor cultures had become 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, has features similar to those found at Izapa, some 330 miles (550 km) to the southeast.
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 is surprisingly naturalistic. Other art, however, reveals fantastic anthropomorphic creatures, often highly stylized, using an iconography reflective of a religious meaning. Common motifs include down-turned mouths and a cleft head, both of which are seen in representations of Olmec were-jaguars. In addition to human and human-like subjects, Olmec artisans were adept at animal portrayals.
While Olmec figurines are found abundantly in sites throughout the Formative Period, it is the stone monuments such as the colossal heads that are the most recognizable feature of Olmec culture. These monuments can be divided into four classes:
- Colossal heads
- Rectangular "altars" or "thrones"
- Free-standing in-the-round sculpture
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, 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 to some personal or group symbols.
There have been 17 colossal heads unearthed to date. 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. It has been calculated that the largest heads weigh between 25 and 55 tons.
The heads were carved from single blocks or boulders of volcanic basalt, found in the Tuxtlas Mountains. 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. It is known that some monuments, and at least two heads, were recycled or re-carved, but it is not known whether this was simply due to the scarcity of stone or whether these actions had ritual or other connotations. It is also suspected 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.
Jade face masks
Another type of artifact is much smaller: hardstone carvings in jade of a face in a mask form. To date no example has been recovered in an archaeologically controlled Olmec context, but Curators and scholars refer to these as being Olmec in style. However they have been recovered from sites of other cultures, including one deliberately deposited in the ceremonial precinct of Tenochtitlan, which would presumably have been about 2,000 years old when the Aztecs buried it, suggesting these 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 and Tlapacoya, major centers of the Tlatilco culture in the Valley of Mexico, where artifacts include hollow baby-face motif figurines and Olmec designs on ceramics.
- Chalcatzingo, in Valley of Morelos, which features Olmec-style monumental art and rock art with Olmec-style figures.
- Teopantecuanitlan, in Guerrero, which features Olmec-style monumental art as well as city plans with distinctive Olmec features.
Other sites showing probable Olmec influence include San Bartolo, Takalik Abaj and La Democracia in Guatemala and Zazacatla in Morelos. The Juxtlahuaca and Oxtotitlan 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 traveling 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.
In addition to their influence with contemporaneous Mesoamerican cultures, as the first civilization in Mesoamerica, the Olmecs are often speculatively credited, with many "firsts", including the bloodletting and perhaps human sacrifice practices found in Mesoamerica, writing and epigraphy, and the invention of zero and the Mesoamerican calendar, and the Mesoamerican ballgame, as well as perhaps the compass. Some researchers even postulate that the Olmecs formulated the forerunners of many of the later Mesoamerican deities.
Bloodletting and sacrifice speculations
Although there is no explicit representation of Olmec bloodletting in the archaeological record, there is nonetheless a strong case that the Olmecs ritually practiced it. Numerous natural and ceramic stingray spikes and maguey thorns, for example, have been found at Olmec sites, and certain artifacts have been identified as bloodletters.
The argument that the Olmecs instituted human sacrifice is significantly more speculative. No Olmec or Olmec-influenced sacrificial artifacts have yet been discovered and there is no Olmec or Olmec-influenced artwork that unambiguously shows sacrificial victims or scenes of human sacrifice.
However, at the El Manatí site, dis-articulated skulls and femurs as well as complete skeletons of newborn or unborn children have been discovered amidst the other offerings, leading to speculation concerning infant sacrifice. It is not yet known, though, how the infants met their deaths. Some authors have also associated infant sacrifice with Olmec ritual art showing limp were-jaguar babies, most famously in La Venta's Altar 5 or Las Limas figure. Any definitive answer will need to await further findings.
The Olmec may have been the first civilization in the Western Hemisphere to develop a writing system. Symbols found in 2002 and 2006 date to 650 BCE and 900 BCE respectively, preceding the oldest Zapotec writing dated to about 500 BCE.
The 2002 find at the San Andrés 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, the matter remains unsettled.
Mesoamerican Long Count calendar and invention of the zero concept
The Mesoamerican 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 (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, has a date of 32 BCE. This is one of the earliest uses of the zero concept in history.
The Olmec, whose name means "rubber people" in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, are strong candidates for originating the Mesoamerican ballgame 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, an Olmec sacrificial bog 10 kilometers east of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan. These balls predate the earliest ballcourt yet discovered at Paso de la Amada, c.1400 BCE, although there is no certainty that they were used in the ballgame.
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".
Olmec mythology has left no documents comparable to the Popul Vuh from Maya mythology, and therefore any exposition of Olmec mythology must rely on interpretations of surviving monumental and portable art, and comparisons with other Mesoamerican mythologies. Olmec art shows that such deities as the Feathered Serpent and a rain supernatural were already in the Mesoamerican pantheon in Olmec times.
The were-jaguar was both an Olmec motif and a supernatural entity, perhaps a deity.
The were-jaguar motif is charactertised by almond-shaped eyes, a downturned open mouth, and a cleft head. It appears widely in the Olmec archaeological record, and in many cases, the were-jaguar motif represents the were-jaguar supernatural. The were-jaguar supernatural incorporates the were-jaguar motif as well as other features, although various academics define the were-jaguar supernatural differently. The were-jaguar supernatural was once considered to be the primary deity of the Olmec culture but is now thought to be only one of many.
Originally, many scholars believed that the were-jaguar was tied to a myth concerning a copulation between a jaguar and a woman. Although this hypothesis is still recognized as viable by many researchers, other explanations for the were-jaguar motif have since been put forward, several questioning whether the motif actually represents a jaguar at all.
The term is derived from Old English were, meaning "man", and jaguar, a large member of the cat family in the Olmec heartland, on analogy with werewolf.
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 stelae 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 km away. Studies of the Tuxtla Mountain settlements, some 60 km away, indicate that this area was composed of more or less egalitarian communities outside the control of lowland centers.
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 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. A nearby garden was used for medicinal and cooking herbs and for smaller crops such as the domesticated sunflower. Fruit trees, such as avocado 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, beans, squash, manioc, sweet potato, as well as cotton. 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, opossum, raccoon, rabbit, and in particular deer. Despite the wide range of hunting and fishing available, midden surveys in San Lorenzo have found that the domesticated dog was the single most plentiful source of animal protein.