What Makes the Olmec Culture So Unique and Alluring?
The Olmecs were the first true Mesoamerican civilization. There were small villages and groups of people in the area in which the Olmec developed but these societies are referred to as Pre-Olmec. The Olmecs were a full-fledged civilization because they were more organized and socially advanced than their predecessors.
The Olmec Civilization’s Rise and Fall
There are differing opinions regarding the Olmec timeline. Some say the start was around 1500 BC, but the more popular timeline puts the beginning of the Olmec at roughly 1200 BC and the decline of the culture sometime near 400 BC. There are many theories about the downfall of the Olmec civilization such as catastrophic climate change, illness, volcanism, and overpopulation.
Simple Olmec timeline. (Author provided)
The most recognizable artifacts created by the Olmecs are 17 colossal basalt heads that have been discovered across four different sites. The Olmec gathered basalt from boulders located in the Sierra de los Tuxtlas. These stones were very large and it is unknown how they moved them to their final resting places.
The heads were shaped with percussion, hammerstones, and abrasives. The first archaeological investigations of the Olmecs didn’t begin until more than 75 years after the initial discovery of a colossal head. One of the first (and most famous) researchers to study the Olmec was Matthew Stirling.
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Olmec area of inhabitation. (Author provided)
The Olmec Culture was Unique
The Olmecs are unique for many reasons. It appears the Olmec culture developed alone. Most cultures develop with outside influences by engaging in activities such as trade and immigration. Developing independently is rare and when it happens the culture is known as ‘pristine’.
The Olmec had several firsts in the Americas. They developed the first monumental architecture and first signs of city planning. They were the first known people to use a writing system in the Americas. Another first was the use of chocolate, which was their preferred drink.
The name Olmec means “rubber people”. It’s how the Aztec tribes described the Olmecs and makes sense as they are the best candidates for inventing the first ball games.
Mesoamerican Ball Game and Equipment (Author provided)
Evidence is not solely based upon Olmec influence at the oldest known ball courts, but also from several rubber balls discovered at a sacrificial bog called El Manati.
Omlec Yugitos. Although archaeologists know that these Yugitos were involved in the Mesoamerican ball games, it is uncertain how they were used. (Author provided)
The Olmecs are the earliest known civilization in the Americas to have used mathematics and had the concept of zero. The first calendar in long count format was discovered in the Olmec region of Tres Zapotes on the lower half of Stela C.
Olmec, Maya, and Aztec writing and calendar systems. (Author provided)
The Olmecs inhabited the area around the Gulf Coast of Mexico, now the modern states of Tabasco and Veracruz. They took advantage of the fertile land. Several large cities have been attributed to them, including San Lorenzo, La Venta, Tres Zapotes, Las Limas, and Laguna de los Cerros.
The first major city of the Olmec civilization was San Lorenzo, with a population of at least 15,000. It had a very elaborate drainage system that may have helped its success. The Olmecs achieved this feat by using carved stone pipes with lids. San Lorenzo had vast influence and political power in Mesoamerica. Ten amazing colossal heads were discovered there.
The colossal heads represented rulers or elites. They differ from one another in facial characteristics and size. Each was also carefully carved with a distinctive headdress. The largest head at the San Lorenzo is 9.3 ft. (2.8 meters) high, 6.9 ft. (2.1 meters) wide, and weighs about 25.3 tons. The San Lorenzo colossal heads were at the center of the site and formed two lines oriented north-south.
10 Colossal Heads from San Lorenzo. (Author provided)
La Venta came into prominence around 900 BC. It had thousands of inhabitants and was about 200 hectares; though the power and influence of the city spread much further. Many people there had jobs such in farming, fishing, and moving stone blocks from distant quarries. Traders also ventured into the distant valleys of Mexico and beyond, bringing back cacao, bright feathers, obsidian, and jadeite. Others were members of the priesthood and the elite or ruling class.
La Venta was built on top of a ridge along the Palma river. The royal compound existed at the very top. Four colossal heads were found at La Venta and three of the four were oriented in a line east-west. The placement of these monuments at both La Venta and San Lorenzo is very intriguing.