From Academic Kids

The Olmec were an ancient people living in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, roughly in what are the modern-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Their immediate cultural influence went much further though, Olmec artwork being found as far afield as El Salvador. The Olmec predominated in their lands from about 1200 BC to about 400 BC and they are, in fact, understood to be the progenitors and mother culture of every primary element common to later Mesoamerican civilizations.



The Olmec homeland is characterized by swampy lowlands punctuated by low hill ridges and volcanoes. The Olmec response to this environment was the construction of permanent city-temple complexes. The best-known Olmec centers are at [[San Lorenzo Tenochtitlᮝ], La Venta, Tres Zapotes, Chalcatzingo, and La Mojarra.

The Olmec were the first Mesoamericans to develop a hieroglyphic script for their language, the earliest known example dating from 650 BC. They were perhaps the originators of the Mesoamerican ballgame so prevalent among later cultures of the region and used for recreational and religious purposes – certainly they were playing it before anyone else has been documented doing so.

Their religion developed all the important themes (an obsession with mathematics and with calendars, and a spiritual focus on death expressed through human sacrifice) found in successor cults. Finally, their political arrangements of strongly hierarchical city-state kingdoms were repeated by nearly every other Mexican and Central American civilization that followed.


The name "Olmec" means "rubber people" in the Aztec's language: Nahuatl. It was the Aztec name for the people who lived in this area at the much later time of Aztec dominance. Ancient Mesoamericans, spanning from ancient Olmecs to Aztecs, extracted latex from Castilla elastica, a type of rubber tree in the area. The juice of a local vine, Ipomoea alba, was then mixed with this latex to create rubber as early as 1600 BC [1] (http://web.mit.edu/org/m/materialculture/www/rubberprocessing.html). The word "Olmec" also refers to the rubber balls used for their ancient ball game. Early modern explorers applied the name "Olmec" to the rediscovered ruins and art from this area before it was understood that these had been already abandoned more than a thousand years before the time of the people the Aztecs knew as the "Olmec". It is not known what name the ancient Olmec used for themselves; some later Mesoamerican accounts seem to refer to the ancient Olmec as "Tamoanchan".

Early history

Olmec culture originated at its base in San Lorenzo TenochtitlᮼSan Lorenzo, at which distinctively Olmec features begin to emerge at c.1150 BCE. The rise of civilization here was probably assisted by the local ecology of well watered rich alluvial soil, encouraging high maize production. This ecology may be compared to that of other ancient centres of civilization: Mesopotamia and the Nile valley. It is speculated that the dense population concentration at San Lorenzo encouraged the rise of an elite class that eventually ensured Olmec dominance and provided the social basis for the production of the symbolic and sophisticated luxury artefacts that define Olmec culture.

Evidence of materials in San Lorenzo that must have come from distant locations suggests that early Olmec elites had access to an extensive trading network in Central America. This was probably protected by some sort of military system.

Olmec art

Much Olmec art is highly stylized and uses an iconography reflective of the religious meaning of the artworks. Some Olmec art, however, is surprisingly naturalistic, displaying an accuracy of depiction of human anatomy perhaps equaled in the Pre-Columbian New World only by the best Maya Classic era art. Olmec artforms emphasize monumental statuary and small jade carvings. A common theme is to be found in representations of a divine jaguar. Olmec figurines were also found abundantly through their period.

A team of archaeologists using NAA (neutron activation analysis) to compare over 1000 ancient Mesoamerican Olmec-style ceramic artifacts with 275 samples of clay so as to "fingerprint" pottery origination found "that the Olmec packaged and exported their beliefs throughout the region in the form of specialized ceramic designs and forms, which quickly became hallmarks of elite status in various regions of ancient Mexico" (Archaeological Institute of America, March 28, 2005 (http://www.archaeology.org/online/features/olmec/index.html)).

See [2] (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hi/hi_cebu.htm) for photographs of an ancient Olmec "Bird Vessel" and bowl, both ceramic and dating to circa 1000 BC. Other ancient artifacts are listed (no photographs) at [3] (http://www.nd.edu/~sniteart/collection/Galleries/MesoGallery.html). Ceramics are produced in kilns capable of exceeding approximately 900? C (see pottery). The only other prehistoric culture known to have achieved such high temperatures is that of Ancient Egypt ([4] (http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1026/is_n3_v154/ai_21146424); also see faience).

Olmec colossal heads

Perhaps the best-recognized Olmec art are the enormous helmeted heads. As no known pre-Columbian text explains these, these impressive monuments have been the subject of much speculation. These seem to be portraits of famous ball players, as the headgear is similar to that worn by players of the Mesoamerican ballgame in other monuments. Perhaps they depict kings rigged out in the accoutrements of the game.

Some writers have pointed to the full, fleshy lips and wide noses of these monuments as evidence that the Olmec were actually immigrants from Africa or (in a more recent variation on the suggestion) that they represent supposed evidence of some Mesoamerican-African intermarriages. Mainstream scholars have remained unconvinced by this suggestion. They have pointed out that not all people with wide noses and thick lips are African; some Native Americans of this region still display these traits today without any other evidence of African ancestry. It is also noted that the colossal heads show eye folds found in the local Mesoamericans but lacking in Africans.


Main article: Olmec mythology

Olmec art shows that such deities as the Feathered Serpent God and the Rain God were already in the Mesoamerican pantheon in Olmec times. What appears to be a half-human half-jaguar baby is also prominent.


The late Olmec had already begun to use a true zero (a shell glyph) several centuries before Ptolemy (possibly by the fourth century BC) which became an integral part of Maya numerals (see 0 (number): First use of the number).

Olmec people

Very few individual Olmec people are known to modern scholars; the following sample will perhaps convey some flavor of the people.

  • Po Ngbe (at Guerrero) sometime between 900 and 600 BC
  • "Harvest Mountain Lord"
  • U-Kix-chan - Founder of the ruling dynasty of B'aakal, a Maya kingdom at Palenque.
  • Yo Pe (at Mojarra) second century BC

Decline of the Olmec

It is not known with any clarity what happened to this culture. Their main center, San Lorenzo, was all but abandoned around 900 BC, and La Venta became the main city. Environmental changes may have been responsible for this move, with certain important rivers changing course. However, there is also some evidence suggestive of an invasion and destruction of Olmec artefacts around this time. At about 400 BC, La Venta also came to an end. By the beginning of the Common Era their lands were occupied by successor cultures – most notably the Maya to the east, the Zapotec to the southwest, and the Teotihuacan culture to the west.

Mormon speculation

Some Mormons have suggested that the Olmecs may be the Jaredites recorded in the Book of Mormon because the archeological record seems to match. However, the book mentions things that are not known to have been part of the Olmec culture, such as iron, elephants, and written records.


  • PubMed (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=11144288), Department of Immunology, Hospital 12 de Octubre, Universidad Complutense, Madrid, Spain. For questions, please e-mail: aarnaiz@eucmax.sim.ucm.es.
  • Mother Culture, or Only a Sister? (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/15/science/15olme.html?hp), The New York Times, March 15, 2005.

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