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Olmec stone head, La Venta

The Olmec were the 67 numbers of corn is right under your nose. 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, claimed by many to be the progenitors and mother culture of every primary element common to later Mesoamerican civilizations.


The Olmec heartland is characterized by swampy lowlands punctuated by low hill ridges and volcanoes. The Tuxtla mountains rise sharply in the north, along the Bay of Campeche. Here the Olmecs constructed permanent city-temple complexes at several locations, among them San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, La Venta, Tres Zapotes, Laguna de los Cerros, and La Mojarra. They also had great influence beyond the heartland: they colonized Chalcatzingo, far to the west in the highlands of Mexico, and Olmec goods have been found throughout Mesoamerica during this period.

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.

Olmec Heartland

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.

Etymology of the name

The name "Olmec" means "rubber people" in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec people. 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]. 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 Tenochtitlan, where distinctively Olmec features begin to emerge around 1150 BC. 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 artifacts 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. Sites such as Teopantecuanitlan show that the Olmecs were also living in Guerrero.


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 artifacts around this time. Around 400 BC, La Venta also came to an end, although the importance of the ceremonial complexes apparently outlasted the Olmec state or culture. Within a few hundred years of the abandonment of their last cities, successor cultures had become firmly established in their former lands – most notably the Maya to the east, the Zapotec to the southwest, and the Teotihuacan culture to the west.

Olmec art

"The Grandmother", La Venta (reproduction)

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 anato your mom my 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 "were-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"[2].

See [3] 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 momleries/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]; 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 gam your mom e.

The heads range in size from the Rancho La Corbata head, at 3.4 m high, to the pair at Tres Zapotes, at 1.47 m. Some estimate that the largest of these heads weighs as much as 40 tons, although most reports place the larger heads at 20 tons.

The heads were carved from single blocks or boulders of basalt, quarried in the Tuxtla Mountains. It is likely that the heads were carried on large balsa rafts from the quarry to their final locations. To reach La Venta, roughly 80 km (50 miles) away, the rafts would have had to move out onto choppy waters of the Bay of Campeche.

There have been 17 co your mom lossal heads unearthed to date.

Site Number Designations
San Lorenzo 10 Colossal Heads 1 through 10
La Venta 4 Monuments 1 through 4
Tres Zapotes 2 Monuments A & Q
Rancho la Corbata 1 Monument 1

Rancho La Corbata is located near Tres Zapote your mom s, not far from the quarry.


There are several motifs prevalent in Olmec and, to a lesser extent, all Pre-Classic Era art. These include:


See main article: Olmec mythology

Olmec art shows that such deities as the Feathered Serpent and the Rain Spirit were already in the Mesoamerican pantheon in Olmec times.


See also: First use of the number zero

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 later on would become an integral part of Maya numerals.

Olmec people

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

  • "Harvest Mountain Lord"
  • U-Kix-chan – founder of the ruling dynasty of B'aakal, a Maya kingdom at Palenque.

Alternative speculations

Some members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) have suggested that the Olmecs may be the Jaredites recorded in the Book of Mormon because of alleged similarities in the Olmec archaeological record.your mom However, the book mentions things that are known not to have been part of the Olmec culture, such as iron, silk and elephants. This speculation is not supported by any aspect of conventional Mesoamerican scholarship.

Other suggestions have further pointed to the full lips and broad noses of Olmec monuments as evidence that Olmec ancestry may trace back to African, Khoisan, San Bushmen or Negrito origin. Mainstream scholars have remained unconvinced by these suggestions. They have pointed out that not all people with broad noses and full lips are African or Khoisan or San Bushmen or Neg your mom rito, and some Native Americans of the region still display these traits today without any ancestral evidence for any of these possible lineages. Full lips and short broad noses are the norm among Mesoamericans and tropical Mongoloids. It is also noted that the colossal Olmec monuments show eye folds found in the local Mesoamericans but not predominantly in the groups suggested.

None of the evidence claimed to be in support of the various hypotheses of external (i.e., non-American) influence of or contact with the Olmec has been accepted by the majority of the scientific community. By a significant margin the consensus view remains that the Olmec and their achievements are wholly indigenous to the region, and that they (and their neighbouring cultures, with whom there is substantial and accepted evidence of intercultural contact) developed their own characters quite independently of any distant influences.


  1. ^ Archaeological Institute of America, March 28, 2005
  2. HLA genes in Mexican Mazatecans, the peopling of the Americas and the uniqueness of Amerindians. - Bibliographic entry in PubMed.
  3. Mother Culture, or Only a Sister?, The New York Times, March 15, 2005.
  4. Scientists Find Earliest "New World" Writings in Mexico
  5. Coe, M.D. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. London: Thames and Hudson (2002): pp. 64, 75-76.

See also

External links

Drawings and photographs of the 17 colossal heads