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Olmecs, Ancient American Civilization with African Characteristics


When we speak about ancient Mexico, the first civilizations that come to mind are the Maya and the Aztecs. It wasn’t until the 1930s when a mysterious civilization was discovered that preceded any other advanced civilization in the Americas. Now known as the Olmecs, they occupied the land of Olman and Tenochtitlan was the capitol. They were the first major pre-Columbian civilization in central-south Mexico, and continue to puzzle archaeologists and historians all over the world.

Olmecs are believed to have lived between about 1500 to 1700 BCE. They are considered to be the first people in the western hemisphere to use a written language, to cultivate the cacao tree, and to invent the ball game! They are also the originators of the long count calendar which was later used by the Mayans—who, by the way, also used the Olmec writing system. They developed a highly sophisticated political & social system, as well as agriculture, pyramids, astronomy and arts. They even built raised platforms to cope with floods.

The most interesting aspect of the Olmecs is that they are depicted with European and African characteristics. This has led to speculations that they immigrated to Olman via some kind of transportation - probably by boat, which has been a major point of conflict between archaeologists since no one in this era was capable of travelling such distances by ocean. Mainstream archaeology, therefore, believes that the Olmec civilization arose from the people in that area.

Unfortunately, there are no writings like the ‘Popol Vuh’ to tell us more about the Olmecs and their religion, although findings show that emphasis was probably placed on the sun. What happened to the Olmecs is still a mystery, as they disappeared much the same way that they appeared.

By April Holloway

Related Links

The Olmecs

Guide to Olmec Civilization

The Ancient Olmec Civilization



"As someone who has worked many decades with the Preclassic or Formative cultures of Mesoamerica and spent three field seasons excavating the great Olmec center of San Lorenzo, I would like to state unequivocally that there is nothing in these Olmec sites that looks African, Chinese, European, or Near Eastern. The Olmec culture was created and maintained by American Indian peoples with a completely Mesoamerican way of life centered on the cultivation of maize and other New World cutigens... The creation of Mesoamerica's first civilization, the Olmecs, was a mighty achievement, and to attempt to take this away from the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica on the flimsiest basis is an unworthy exercise."

- Michael D. Coe, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University.

"A stone's throw from the 21st century, it is a sad reflection on our societies that we need to conduct this kind of discussion."

- Rebecca B. Gonzalez Lauck, Centro INAH Tabasco.

"...certainly the colossal heads do not represent individuals of the Negro or Ethiopian race... We have to agree that in them are recorded, on a heroic scale, the ethnic characteristics of the ancient inhabitants of Mesoamerica, characteristics that are still preserved in some contemporaneous natives..."

- Beatriz de la Fuente, Mexican Olmec scholar.

"...these works see the world easily in yes-or-no terms and rely heavily on establishing evidence by mere repeated assertion... The assumption of a wide range of pseudoscholars, as well as others, seems to be one of 'mentally handicapped First Americans'. Prehistoric New World peoples seem to be consistently seen not as having the intellectual capacity to invent or develop technology on their own, but as waiting with open arms for some poor lost African, or Asian, or European to make a transoceanic voyage to bring them one or another cultural idea. This kind of thinking is repugnant to me and is the reason that many of us disregard the publications of Van Sertima and others of similar approaches... while the faults of Van Sertima are self-evident to most readers of this journal, they will not be equally so to the audience he has targeted."

- David L. Browman, Department of Anthropology, Washington University.

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April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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