The Olmec, considered as the ‘Mother of Culture’ flourished in the southern region of Mesoamerica. Olmec Civilization was one of the first Mesoamerican civilizations centred in the Gulf of Mexico which is present day states of Veracruz and Tabasco. The Olmec are considered important in the development of the Mesoamerican culture as it used and developed multiple things related to culture and religion which were later used by the Mayans and the Aztecs.
Olmec, also known as the rubber people though with an unknown origin grew to influence the Gulf region and southern Mexico. However, they are believed to have come from Africa or Mongolia, though there is no archaeological finds to establish the same.
The urban centres of Olmec
Olmec first prospered due by exploiting the fertile coastal areas of the Gulf of Mexico where they grew crops such as corn and beans leading to an agriculture surplus. They also exploited the locally available raw material and food. Around 1200BCE, places like San Lorenzo, La Venta, Laguna de los Cerros, Tres Zapotes and Las Limas developed into significant urban centres mostly owing to trading.
San Lorenzo was the earliest urban centres that reach the peak of its development due to its strategic position. This location advantage kept them safe from floods which in turn allowed them to control local trade. Some of the goods that were traded included jade, serpentine, mica, rubber, pottery and polished mirrors. San Lorenzo was also probably the ritual and political capital, housing thousands of population with an elaborate water and drainage system. The evidence of it being the cultural capital can be linked to the presence of mound structures and the Red Palace with painted red floors and workshops. La Venta then rose as the new capital supporting a population of around 18,000.
San Lorenzo, La Venta and Laguna de los Cerros had symmetrical planning and it was La Venta where the first pyramid in Mesoamerica was constructed. There is evidence of systematic destruction of La Venta like San Lorenzo seen sometime between 400 and 300 BCE.
Religion and rituals
Olmecs are considered to be the first adopters of a complex religious system that later influenced both the Mayans and the Aztecs. The Olmecs worshipped many gods. Olmecs like many ancient civilization respected the natural places such as the mound which was nearest to the sky. They also particularly respected important connections of the sky, earth and the underground. Some of the key Olmec sites include the El Manati, Chalcatzingo and Oxtotitlan. The priest or a shaman class acted as the intermediary between the Olmecs and the Gods.
Animals particularly the ones at the top of the food chain such as the jaguars, sharks, eagles etc. were given high regards identifying them with Gods. The Olmecs were also known to create certain mythical creatures by mixing animals such as mixing a human and a jaguar. They also worshipped a sky dragon and strongly believed that four dwarves were holding up the sky.
Art and Architecture
The architectural layouts of religious centres were pre-planned. Buildings at La Venta were placed along the north-south axis with four colossal heads at key points, acting like guards of the settlement. Equal attention was to the precise alignment of a huge ceremonial step pyramid, a sunken plaza and two smaller mounds similar to pyramids where certain features were adopted in later periods of Mesoamerican civilization.
One of the most famous art pieces of this period was the massive stone heads carved in basalt and every head had a unique facial expression. These heads were about 3m high and weigh about 8 tons. The stones for these heads were transported from places nearly 80kms away. Most historians believed that the carving of only the heads is due to their belief system of the sole existing in the head alone.
Another form of art of the Olmecs was the rock carving and paintings. These art forms were mostly found at the entrances of caves where the leaders were mostly depicted seating. In terms of sculptures, jade and ceramic were popular materials used but sometimes woods were also used. One of the commonly found sculptures was the God commonly known as the Rain Baby which is a toothless baby with an open-mouth, cleft head and headband. Olmecs were known to often bury their sculptures including large ones as a ritual act of memory.
The Olmecs’ gift to future civilizations
The Olmecs influenced civilizations across Mesoamerica, particularly in sculpture. Also many Olmec gods reappear in the later civilization in a similar manner such as the sky-dragon and the feathered-snake God. Precisely aligned ceremonial precincts, pyramids or mounds, sacrificial rituals and ball courts were some of the greatest gifts to all subsequent civilizations. Layout of Olmec cities were copied by many future societies. The calendar followed for centuries in Mexico is believed to have originated during this period. Astronomy was another notable feature that was carried forward by future cultures.
- Gregory S. Aldrete, History of the Ancient World: A Global Perspective, The Great Courses, 2011
- Edited by Marsha E. Ackermann, Michael J. Schroeder, Janice J. Terry, Jiu-Hwa Lo Upshur, Mark F. Whitters, Encyclopedia of World History, Facts on File Inc., 2008