The Olmecs: Mesoamerican Mother Culture of Colossal Heads and Giant Mysteries
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?
Where and When Did the Olmecs Live?
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.
Pre-Hispanic Olmec stone altar in the La Venta archaeological park in Villahermosa, Mexico. ( Barna Tanko /Adobe Stock)
A few of the key Olmec sites are San Lorenzo, La Venta, and Tres Zapotes. San Lorenzo, located in the Veracruz state, was possibly the first true Mesoamerican city and the major center for Olmec politics, religion, and commerce from 1200-400 BC. The most important sector of this site is known as the ridge and is where the nobility and priests probably lived. Several sculptures have been found in this part of the site.
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La Venta is located in Huimanguillo, Tabasco and was the major Olmec center following San Lorenzo. It was occupied from roughly 900-400 BC and contains many elements demonstrating Olmec wealth and power, such as four colossal heads, the Great Pyramid, and smooth serpentine blocks as a mosaic or possibly offerings. Altars, stelae, and stone monuments have also been identified at this rich archaeological site.
Olmec stone mosaic in the La Venta archeological park in Villahermosa, Mexico. ( Barna Tanko /Adobe Stock)
After La Venta, the Olmecs focused their center on the site now known as Tres Zapotes, in Veracruz. They were there in the Late Formative or Late Preclassic period (after 400 BC) and this is one of the sites which saw the decline of the Olmec culture, though it continued to be used for centuries after they were gone. Two colossal heads and an important stela are the most important archaeological finds at this site.
Mysteries of Olmec Writing
Although the Olmecs did have a system of writing , only a few of their inscriptions are available to archaeologists at present. One of the best known examples of probable Olmec writing is the Cascajal Block, which was first discovered at a gravel quarry in 1999 in the village of Lomas de Tacamichapa, in Veracruz, Mexico. This is a stone tablet dating to 900 BC, making it the oldest known writing found in the Western Hemisphere.
The nature of the writing on the Cascajal Block is described in another Ancient Origins article as:
“It is blank except for one side, which has been ground smooth and inscribed with 62 symbols of a hieroglyphic script. The symbols are arranged in rows, which are repeated, similar to other written languages. The tablet shows other signs of writing including syntax patterns, word order, and repetition. The signs appear to be representational of insects, plants, animals, pineapple, an ear of corn and various objects. Many of the symbols appear as abstract boxes or blobs. Another interesting observation reveals that the block may have been cleared or erased several times.”
A drawing of the hieroglyphs on the Cascajal block. (Michael Everson/ CC BY 3.0 )
The Famous Colossal Heads (And a Very Special Mask) Left by the Olmecs
However, there is not enough continuous Olmec script for archaeologists to decipher the language. As a result, much of what we know about the Olmec civilization is dependent on the archaeological evidence.
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 17 of such objects have been found.
The colossal heads measure between one and three meters (3-11 ft.) 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 among 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. Source: BigStockPhoto
In addition, the Olmecs also produced miniature versions of these giant heads. One example of this 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 (5.12 inches) high. This mask has similar facial features to the colossal heads.
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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 center, 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. ( CC0)
An Olmec Legacy – The Mesoamerican Ball Game
By 400 BC, 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 ball game’ , 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 ball game and several other features of Olmec civilization may be found in subsequent Central American civilizations.
Ball player disc from Chinkultic, Chiapas. ( LRafael /Adobe Stock)
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.
Top Image: Olmec sculpture carved from stone. Big stone head statue in a jungle . Source: marmoset /Adobe Stock
MacGregor, N., 2012. A History of the World in 100 Objects. London: Penguin Books.
www.aztec-history.com, 2013. The Ancient Olmec Civilization. [Online]
Available at: http://www.aztec-history.com/olmec-civilization.html