An Olmec style face adorns the side of the Mask Temple at the Mayan site of Lamanai in Belize

The mysterious civilization of the Olmecs

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Mexico is perhaps most well-known, archaeologically speaking, as the home of the Aztec civilization. Yet, before the arrival of the Aztecs, another sophisticated civilization, the Olmecs, ruled the region for almost 1000 years. Although pre-Olmec cultures had already existed in the region, the Olmecs have been called the cultura madre , meaning the ‘mother culture’, of Central America. In other words, many of the distinctive features of later Central American civilizations can be traced to the Olmecs. So, who were the Olmecs, and what was their culture like?    

The Olmec civilization flourished roughly between 1200 BC and 400 BC, an era commonly known as Central America’s Formative Period. Sites containing traces of the Olmec civilization are found mainly on the southern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, specifically in the states of Veracruz and Tabasco. Although the Olmecs did have a system of writing, only few of their inscriptions are available to archaeologists at present. Moreover, there is not enough continuous Olmec script for archaeologist to decipher the language. As a result, much of what we know about the Olmec civilization is dependent on the archaeological evidence.

The Olmec/Zapotec center, Monte Alban, near the city of Oaxaca, Mexico

The Olmec/Zapotec center, Monte Albán, near the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. Source: BigStockPhoto

For a start, the Olmecs left behind much of their artwork. The most famous of these are arguably the so-called ‘colossal heads’. These representations of human heads are carved from basalt boulders, and at present, at least seventeen of such objects have been found. The colossal heads measure between one and three metres in height, and seem to represent a common subject, i.e. mature men with fleshy cheeks, flat noses, and slightly crossed eyes. Incidentally, such physical features are still common amongst the people of Veracruz and Tabasco, indicating the colossal heads may be representations of the Olmecs themselves. Given the amount of resources needed to produce such objects, it may be speculated that these heads depict the Olmec elites or rulers, and were used as a symbol of power, perhaps like the colossal heads of Jayavarman VII at Angkor Thom in Cambodia.

Colossal stone head of the Olmecs

Colossal stone head of the Olmecs. Source: BigStockPhoto

In addition, the Olmecs also produced miniature versions of these giant heads. One such object is a ‘stone mask’ in the British Museum. In contrast to the colossal heads, this mask, which is made of serpentine, is only 13 cm high. This mask has similar facial features to the colossal heads.

Although such features can be seen in the descendants of the Olmecs, some scholars have speculated that the mask represented an African, Chinese or even a Mediterranean face. The mask also has four holes on its front, speculated to represent the four cardinal points of the compass. As the Olmec ruler was believed to be the most important axis in the world centre, it has been suggested that the mask represented an Olmec ruler. Furthermore, there are numerous circular holes on the face, indicating that face piercings and plugs were used by the Olmecs. Due to the lack of Olmec skeletons (they have been dissolved by the acidic soil of the rainforest), this mask may be the closest we can get to seeing what the Olmecs looked like.     

Olmec crawling baby sculpture (1200-900 BC), Las Bocas, Mexico

Olmec c rawling baby sculpture (1200-900 BC), Las Bocas, Mexico. ( Wikimedia Commons )

By 400 B.C., the Olmecs mysteriously vanished, the cause of which is still unknown. Although the Olmecs were only rediscovered by archaeologists relatively recently, i.e. after the Second World War, they were by no means a forgotten civilization. After all, the word Olmec itself (meaning ‘rubber people’) can be found in the Aztec language. It seems that the ‘Mesoamerican ballgame’, which was observed by the Spanish when they encountered the Aztecs, was invented by the Olmecs. As this game involved the use of a rubber ball, this may be the reason why the Olmecs were named as such by the Aztecs. This ballgame and several other features of Olmec civilization may be found in subsequent Central American civilizations. Thus, the Olmecs had a considerable amount of influence on these later cultures. As so little is known about the Olmecs today, it would require much more work and research to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of their importance to succeeding Central American societies.

Artist’s depiction of a Mesoamerican ball game

Artist’s depiction of a Mesoamerican ball game ( Image source )

Featured image: An Olmec style face adorns the side of the Mask Temple at the Mayan site of Lamanai in Belize. Source: BigStockPhoto

References

Cartwright, M., 2013. Olmec Civilization. [Online]
Available at: http://www.ancient.eu/Olmec_Civilization/

Comments

I'm a big supporter that the ancient Egyptians were black Africans. But I truly think that when afrocentrists start claiming everything on this planet as having been done by them. It sorta hurts the movement. People will say "see them afrocentrists they think Greece is black and Olmecs were black". And then they will think "and that the Egyptians were black" so people will stop taking them seriously on the real issue which is were the Anciemt Egyptians black? Which is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbows anyway. Everything pales in comparison to Egypt. But claiming everything else in fact hurts the movement.

The Olmec Head Discoveries is a the History that the Western World wants to stay suppressed because Europeans has suppressed any information about the is a latter day one that comes after all knowledge of advanced , mathematics.Science,Architecture,Animal husbandry,Government, space travel, and Social society was well in place on the Earth before they came into existence.What angers them the most is having been reveal as the Greatest frauds as caretakers of What has been discovered about past Civilization on Earth and further the Race of people they most despise were far more advanced Scientifically and culturally than they are even today.The Olmec heads have the same dynamics in construction as the finest Example of Ancient Egyptian Sculpture.The best European Design Engineers have stated that the dynamics of symmetry in the identical facial structure representing half of the facial profile of these monoliths could not have been produced by a stone chiseler ,It would take a cutting tool of machine drive 3d imaging Computer technology that has only recently been discovered in the late 20th century

I appreciate the comments dismantling this myth of the outside origin to the Olmecs. This is not just about the Olmecs, but it is relevant to a wide scope of interpretation that pervades archeology, new-age, science, prejudice and ignorance. This is worth talking about.

The same strange ideas repeat themselves to other cultures, when aesthetic aspects of a society provoke our imediate judgement and create the wildest claims from laymen that then proceeds to spread them. The sky-man is an alien, Jesus was Chinese, this image means that, etc. This is not about favouring mainstream ideas, far from it. The point is that when you engage in a more professional analysis of these images, objects and documents, you refrain from judging it a bit and stay a little bit longer in the realm of simple description. You don't say "the heads look African", you say "the heads had this nose and these eyes..." because you're yet to compare and contextualize this image. Perhaps there is something about the iconography of the culture, or their habits and so on that justify and even explain the imagery. Otherwise, you'll compare it anyway, you'll jump to assuming it has to do with that which you already know. "A wide nose like that? African people have it, so that must be it". In this way, we remain clashing hypothesis and assumptions and conclusions. This is quite harmful to a field that requires patience and observation. Sometimes it is as simple as confusing a hairstyle on a sculpture for a hat, or mistaking social roles because one believes it is just the same as for us (the leader, the priest, the teacher...).

These theories can be quite fun to discuss and I really want to stress how this is not about claiming what is contrary to them. Rather, to have in mind when talking about what is different from yourself by giving it a little more time and being humble enough to gather information from other sources. That is, ultimately, to be patient and make less claims. To connect less, not because connecting information is bad (that is how knowledge arise), but because this might harm your way to gather more information, more hints and clues on how those people lived.

Monte Alban is an Olmec/Zapotec ruin? In the 7-8 times I've been there, I have never heard it referred to as such. Only - Zapotec. From where does this information generate?

I have heard some archeologists refer to it as originally being an Olmec site. I have never been there just going off of armchair archeology.

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