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The Olmecs were the earliest known major civilization in Mexico following a progressive development in Soconusco. They lived in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, in the present-day states of Veracruz
Veracruz
and Tabasco. It has been speculated that the Olmecs derive in part from neighboring Mokaya
Mokaya
or Mixe–Zoque. The Olmecs flourished during Mesoamerica's formative period, dating roughly from as early as 1500 BCE to about 400 BCE. Pre-Olmec cultures had flourished in the area since about 2500 BCE, but by 1600–1500 BCE, early Olmec
Olmec
culture had emerged, centered on the San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán
San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán
site near the coast in southeast Veracruz.[1] They were the first Mesoamerican civilization, and laid many of the foundations for the civilizations that followed.[2] Among other "firsts", the Olmec
Olmec
appeared to practice ritual bloodletting and played the Mesoamerican ballgame, hallmarks of nearly all subsequent Mesoamerican societies. The aspect of the Olmecs most familiar now is their artwork, particularly the aptly named "colossal heads".[3] The Olmec
Olmec
civilization was first defined through artifacts which collectors purchased on the pre-Columbian art market in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Olmec
Olmec
artworks are considered among ancient America's most striking.[4]

Contents

1 Etymology 2 Overview

2.1 Origins 2.2 La Venta 2.3 Decline

3 Art

3.1 Colossal heads 3.2 Jade
Jade
face masks

4 Beyond the heartland

4.1 Central Mexico 4.2 Western Mexico 4.3 Southern Mexico
Mexico
and Guatemala 4.4 Nature of interaction

5 Notable innovations

5.1 Bloodletting and sacrifice speculation 5.2 Writing 5.3 Mesoamerican Long Count calendar
Mesoamerican Long Count calendar
and invention of the zero concept 5.4 Mesoamerican ballgame

6 Ethnicity and language 7 Religion and mythology 8 Social and political organization 9 Trade 10 Village life and diet 11 History of archaeological research

11.1 Etymology

12 Alternative origin speculations 13 Gallery 14 See also 15 Footnotes 16 References 17 External links

Etymology[edit] The name 'Olmec' comes from the Nahuatl
Nahuatl
word for the Olmecs: Ōlmēcatl [oːlˈmeːkat͡ɬ] (singular) or Ōlmēcah [oːlˈmeːkaʔ] (plural). This word is composed of the two words ōlli [ˈoːlːi], meaning "rubber", and mēcatl [ˈmeːkat͡ɬ], meaning "people", so the word means "rubber people".[5][6] Overview[edit]

The Olmec
Olmec
heartland, where the Olmec
Olmec
reigned from 1400–400 BCE

The Olmec heartland
Olmec heartland
is the area in the Gulf lowlands where it expanded after early development in Soconusco. This area is characterized by swampy lowlands punctuated by low hills, ridges, and volcanoes. The Tuxtlas Mountains rise sharply in the north, along the Gulf of Mexico's Bay of Campeche. Here, the Olmec
Olmec
constructed permanent city-temple complexes at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, La Venta, Tres Zapotes, and Laguna de los Cerros. In this region, the first Mesoamerican civilization emerged and reigned from c. 1400–400 BCE.[7] Origins[edit] Main article: San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán The beginnings of Olmec
Olmec
civilization have traditionally been placed between 1400 and 1200 BCE. Past finds of Olmec
Olmec
remains ritually deposited at El Manati
El Manati
shrine (near San Lorenzo) moved this back to "at least" 1600–1500 BCE.[8] It seems that the Olmec
Olmec
had their roots in early farming cultures of Tabasco, which began between 5100 BCE and 4600 BCE. These shared the same basic food crops and technologies of the later Olmec
Olmec
civilization.[9] What is today called Olmec
Olmec
first appeared fully within the city of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, where distinctive Olmec
Olmec
features occurred around 1400 BCE. The rise of civilization was assisted by the local ecology of well-watered alluvial soil, as well as by the transportation network provided by the Coatzacoalcos River
Coatzacoalcos River
basin. This environment may be compared to that of other ancient centers of civilization: the Nile, Indus, and Yellow River
Yellow River
valleys, and Mesopotamia. This highly productive environment encouraged a densely concentrated population, which in turn triggered the rise of an elite class.[10] The elite class created the demand for the production of the symbolic and sophisticated luxury artifacts that define Olmec culture.[11] Many of these luxury artifacts were made from materials such as jade, obsidian, and magnetite, which came from distant locations and suggest that early Olmec
Olmec
elites had access to an extensive trading network in Mesoamerica. The source of the most valued jade was the Motagua River
Motagua River
valley in eastern Guatemala,[12] and Olmec
Olmec
obsidian has been traced to sources in the Guatemala
Guatemala
highlands, such as El Chayal and San Martín Jilotepeque, or in Puebla,[13] distances ranging from 200 to 400 km (120–250 miles) away, respectively.[14] The state of Guerrero, and in particular its early Mezcala culture, seem to have played an important role in the early history of Olmec culture. Olmec-style artifacts tend to appear earlier in some parts of Guerrero
Guerrero
than in the Veracruz- Tabasco
Tabasco
area. In particular, the relevant objects from the Amuco-Abelino site in Guerrero
Guerrero
reveal dates as early as 1530 BCE.[15] The city of Teopantecuanitlan
Teopantecuanitlan
in Guerrero
Guerrero
is also relevant in this regard. La Venta[edit] Main article: La Venta

Great pyramid in La Venta, Tabasco

The first Olmec
Olmec
center, San Lorenzo, was all but abandoned around 900 BCE at about the same time that La Venta
La Venta
rose to prominence.[16] A wholesale destruction of many San Lorenzo monuments also occurred circa 950 BCE, which may indicate an internal uprising or, less likely, an invasion.[17] The latest thinking, however, is that environmental changes may have been responsible for this shift in Olmec
Olmec
centers, with certain important rivers changing course.[18] In any case, following the decline of San Lorenzo, La Venta
La Venta
became the most prominent Olmec
Olmec
center, lasting from 900 BCE until its abandonment around 400 BCE.[19] La Venta
La Venta
sustained the Olmec cultural traditions with spectacular displays of power and wealth. The Great Pyramid was the largest Mesoamerican structure of its time. Even today, after 2500 years of erosion, it rises 34 m (112 ft) above the naturally flat landscape.[20] Buried deep within La Venta lay opulent, labor-intensive "offerings" – 1000 tons of smooth serpentine blocks, large mosaic pavements, and at least 48 separate deposits of polished jade celts, pottery, figurines, and hematite mirrors.[21] Decline[edit] Scholars have yet to determine the cause of the eventual extinction of the Olmec
Olmec
culture. Between 400 and 350 BCE, the population in the eastern half of the Olmec heartland
Olmec heartland
dropped precipitously, and the area was sparsely inhabited until the 19th century.[22] According to archaeologists, this depopulation was probably the result of "very serious environmental changes that rendered the region unsuited for large groups of farmers", in particular changes to the riverine environment that the Olmec
Olmec
depended upon for agriculture, hunting and gathering, and transportation. These changes may have been triggered by tectonic upheavals or subsidence, or the silting up of rivers due to agricultural practices.[23] One theory for the considerable population drop during the Terminal Formative period is suggested by Santley and colleagues (Santley et al. 1997), who propose the relocation of settlements due to volcanism, instead of extinction. Volcanic eruptions during the Early, Late and Terminal Formative periods would have blanketed the lands and forced the Olmec
Olmec
to move their settlements.[24] Whatever the cause, within a few hundred years of the abandonment of the last Olmec
Olmec
cities, successor cultures became firmly established. The Tres Zapotes
Tres Zapotes
site, on the western edge of the Olmec
Olmec
heartland, continued to be occupied well past 400 BCE, but without the hallmarks of the Olmec
Olmec
culture. This post- Olmec
Olmec
culture, often labeled Epi-Olmec, has features similar to those found at Izapa, some 550 km (330 miles) to the southeast.[25]

Art[edit]

Fish Vessel, 12th–9th century BCE. Height: 6.5 inches (16.5 cm).

Olmec
Olmec
white ware "hollow baby" figurine.

The Olmec
Olmec
culture was first defined as an art style, and this continues to be the hallmark of the culture.[26] Wrought in a large number of media – jade, clay, basalt, and greenstone among others – much Olmec
Olmec
art, such as The Wrestler, is naturalistic. Other art expresses fantastic anthropomorphic creatures, often highly stylized, using an iconography reflective of a religious meaning.[27] Common motifs include downturned mouths and a cleft head, both of which are seen in representations of were-jaguars.[26] In addition to making human and human-like subjects, Olmec
Olmec
artisans were adept at animal portrayals; for example, the fish vessel to the right or the bird vessel in the gallery below. While Olmec
Olmec
figurines are found abundantly in sites throughout the Formative Period, the stone monuments such as the colossal heads are the most recognizable feature of Olmec
Olmec
culture.[28] These monuments can be divided into four classes:[29]

Colossal heads (which can be up to 3 m (10 ft) tall); Rectangular "altars" (more likely thrones) such as Altar 5 shown below; Free-standing in-the-round sculpture, such as the twins from El Azuzul or San Martin Pajapan Monument 1; and Stelae, such as La Venta
La Venta
Monument 19 above. The stelae form was generally introduced later than the colossal heads, altars, or free-standing sculptures. Over time, the stelae changed from simple representation of figures, such as Monument 19 or La Venta
La Venta
Stela
Stela
1, toward representations of historical events, particularly acts legitimizing rulers. This trend would culminate in post-Olmec monuments such as La Mojarra Stela
Stela
1, which combines images of rulers with script and calendar dates.[30]

Colossal heads[edit] Main article: Olmec
Olmec
colossal heads The most recognized aspect of the Olmec
Olmec
civilization are the enormous helmeted heads.[31] As no known pre-Columbian text explains them, these impressive monuments have been the subject of much speculation. Once theorized to be ballplayers, it is now generally accepted that these heads are portraits of rulers, perhaps dressed as ballplayers.[32] Infused with individuality, no two heads are alike and the helmet-like headdresses are adorned with distinctive elements, suggesting personal or group symbols. Some have also speculated that Mesoamerican people believed that the soul, along with all of one's experiences and emotions, was contained inside the head.[33][34] Seventeen colossal heads have been unearthed to date.[35]

Site Count Designations

San Lorenzo 10 Colossal Heads 1 through 10

La Venta 4 Monuments 1 through 4

Tres Zapotes 2 Monuments A & Q

Rancho la Cobata 1 Monument 1

The heads range in size from the Rancho La Cobata head, at 3.4 m (11 ft) high, to the pair at Tres Zapotes, at 1.47 m (4 ft 10 in). Scholars calculate that the largest heads weigh between 25 and 55 tonnes (28 and 61 short tons).[36]

"Olmec-style" face mask in jade

The heads were carved from single blocks or boulders of volcanic basalt, found in the Tuxtlas Mountains. The Tres Zapotes
Tres Zapotes
heads, for example, were sculpted from basalt found at the summit of Cerro el Vigía, at the western end of the Tuxtlas. The San Lorenzo and La Venta heads, on the other hand, were probably carved from the basalt of Cerro Cintepec, on the southeastern side,[37] perhaps at the nearby Llano del Jicaro workshop, and dragged or floated to their final destination dozens of miles away.[38] It has been estimated that moving a colossal head required the efforts of 1,500 people for three to four months.[14] Some of the heads, and many other monuments, have been variously mutilated, buried and disinterred, reset in new locations and/or reburied. Some monuments, and at least two heads, were recycled or recarved, but it is not known whether this was simply due to the scarcity of stone or whether these actions had ritual or other connotations. Scholars believe that some mutilation had significance beyond mere destruction, but some scholars still do not rule out internal conflicts or, less likely, invasion as a factor.[39] The flat-faced, thick-lipped heads have caused some debate due to their resemblance to some African facial characteristics. Based on this comparison, some writers have said that the Olmecs were Africans who had emigrated to the New World.[40] But, the vast majority of archaeologists and other Mesoamerican scholars reject claims of pre-Columbian contacts with Africa.[41] Explanations for the facial features of the colossal heads include the possibility that the heads were carved in this manner due to the shallow space allowed on the basalt boulders. Others note that in addition to the broad noses and thick lips, the eyes of the heads often show the epicanthic fold, and that all these characteristics can still be found in modern Mesoamerican Indians. For instance, in the 1940s, the artist/art historian Miguel Covarrubias
Miguel Covarrubias
published a series of photos of Olmec artworks and of the faces of modern Mexican Indians with very similar facial characteristics.[42] The African origin hypothesis assumes that Olmec
Olmec
carving was intended to be a representation of the inhabitants, an assumption that is hard to justify given the full corpus of representation in Olmec
Olmec
carving.[43] Ivan van Sertima claimed that the seven braids on the Tres Zapotes
Tres Zapotes
head was an Ethiopian hair style but he offered no evidence that this was an Ethiopian hair style at the appropriate time. The Egyptologist Frank Yurco has said that the Olmec braids do not resemble contemporary Egyptian or Nubian braids.[44] Richard Diehl wrote "There can be no doubt that the heads depict the American Indian physical type still seen on the streets of Soteapan, Acayucan, and other towns in the region."[45] Jade
Jade
face masks[edit] Another type of artifact is much smaller; hardstone carvings in jade of a face in a mask form. Jade
Jade
is a particularly precious material, and it was used as a mark of rank by the ruling classes.[46] By 1500 BC early Olmec
Olmec
sculptors mastered the human form.[33] This can be determined by wooden Olmec
Olmec
sculptures discovered in the swampy bogs of El Manati.[33] Before radiocarbon dating could tell the exact age of Olmec
Olmec
pieces, archaeologist and art historians noticed the unique “Olmec-style” in a verity of artifacts.[33] Curators and scholars refer to "Olmec-style" face masks but, to date, no example has been recovered in an archaeologically controlled Olmec context. They have been recovered from sites of other cultures, including one deliberately deposited in the ceremonial precinct of Tenochtitlan
Tenochtitlan
( Mexico
Mexico
City). The mask would presumably have been about 2,000 years old when the Aztec
Aztec
buried it, suggesting such masks were valued and collected as were Roman antiquities in Europe.[47] The “Olmec-style” refers to the combination of deep-set eyes, nostrils, and strong, slightly asymmetrical mouth.[33] The “Olmec-style” also very distinctly combines facial features of both humans and jaguars.[48] Olmec
Olmec
arts are strongly tied to the Olmec religion, which prominently featured Jaguars.[48] The Olmecs believed that in the distant past a race of “Were-Jaguars” was made between the union of a jaguar and a woman.[48] One ‘were-jaguar’ quality that can be found in the sharp cleft in the forehead of many supernatural beings in Olmec
Olmec
art. This sharp cleft is associated with the natural indented head of Jaguars.[48] Beyond the heartland[edit] Main article: Olmec
Olmec
influences on Mesoamerican cultures

The major Formative Period (Pre-Classic Era) sites in present-day Mexico
Mexico
which show Olmec
Olmec
influences in the archaeological record.

Olmec-style artifacts, designs, figurines, monuments and iconography have been found in the archaeological records of sites hundreds of kilometres outside the Olmec
Olmec
heartland. These sites include:[49] Central Mexico[edit] Tlatilco
Tlatilco
and Tlapacoya, major centers of the Tlatilco
Tlatilco
culture in the Valley of Mexico, where artifacts include hollow baby-face motif figurines and Olmec
Olmec
designs on ceramics. Chalcatzingo, in Valley of Morelos, central Mexico, which features Olmec-style monumental art and rock art with Olmec-style figures. Also, in 2007, archaeologists unearthed Zazacatla, an Olmec-influenced city in Morelos. Located about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Mexico
Mexico
City, Zazacatla
Zazacatla
covered about one square mile (2.6 km2) between 800 and 500 BCE.[50] Western Mexico[edit] Teopantecuanitlan, in Guerrero, which features Olmec-style monumental art as well as city plans with distinctive Olmec
Olmec
features. Also, the Juxtlahuaca
Juxtlahuaca
and Oxtotitlan
Oxtotitlan
cave paintings feature Olmec designs and motifs.[51] Southern Mexico
Mexico
and Guatemala[edit] Olmec
Olmec
influence is also seen at several sites in the Southern Maya area. In Guatemala, sites showing probable Olmec
Olmec
influence include San Bartolo, Takalik Abaj
Takalik Abaj
and La Democracia. Nature of interaction[edit] Many theories have been advanced to account for the occurrence of Olmec
Olmec
influence far outside the heartland, including long-range trade by Olmec
Olmec
merchants, Olmec
Olmec
colonization of other regions, Olmec artisans travelling to other cities, conscious imitation of Olmec artistic styles by developing towns – some even suggest the prospect of Olmec
Olmec
military domination or that the Olmec
Olmec
iconography was actually developed outside the heartland.[52] The generally accepted, but by no means unanimous, interpretation is that the Olmec-style artifacts, in all sizes, became associated with elite status and were adopted by non- Olmec
Olmec
Formative Period chieftains in an effort to bolster their status.[53] Notable innovations[edit] In addition to their influence with contemporaneous Mesoamerican cultures, as the first civilization in Mesoamerica, the Olmecs are credited, or speculatively credited, with many "firsts", including the bloodletting and perhaps human sacrifice, writing and epigraphy, and the invention of popcorn, zero and the Mesoamerican calendar, and the Mesoamerican ballgame, as well as perhaps the compass.[54] Some researchers, including artist and art historian Miguel Covarrubias, even postulate that the Olmecs formulated the forerunners of many of the later Mesoamerican deities.[55] Bloodletting and sacrifice speculation[edit]

Altar 5 from La Venta. The inert were-jaguar baby held by the central figure is seen by some as an indication of child sacrifice. In contrast, its sides show bas-reliefs of humans holding quite lively were-jaguar babies.

Although the archaeological record does not include explicit representation of Olmec
Olmec
bloodletting,[56] researchers have found other evidence that the Olmec
Olmec
ritually practiced it. For example, numerous natural and ceramic stingray spikes and maguey thorns have been found at Olmec
Olmec
sites,[57] and certain artifacts have been identified as bloodletters.[58] The argument that the Olmec
Olmec
instituted human sacrifice is significantly more speculative. No Olmec
Olmec
or Olmec-influenced sacrificial artifacts have yet been discovered; no Olmec
Olmec
or Olmec-influenced artwork unambiguously shows sacrificial victims (as do the danzante figures of Monte Albán) or scenes of human sacrifice (such as can be seen in the famous ballcourt mural from El Tajin).[59] At the El Manatí
El Manatí
site, disarticulated skulls and femurs, as well as the complete skeletons of newborn or unborn children, have been discovered amidst the other offerings, leading to speculation concerning infant sacrifice. Scholars have not determined how the infants met their deaths.[60] Some authors have associated infant sacrifice with Olmec
Olmec
ritual art showing limp were-jaguar babies, most famously in La Venta's Altar 5 (on the right) or Las Limas figure.[61] Any definitive answer requires further findings. Writing[edit] See also: Cascajal block The Olmec
Olmec
may have been the first civilization in the Western Hemisphere to develop a writing system. Symbols found in 2002 and 2006 date from 650 BCE[62] and 900 BCE[63] respectively, preceding the oldest Zapotec writing found so far, which dates from about 500 BCE.[64][65] The 2002 find at the San Andrés site shows a bird, speech scrolls, and glyphs that are similar to the later Mayan hieroglyphs.[66] Known as the Cascajal Block, and dated between 1100 BCE and 900 BCE, the 2006 find from a site near San Lorenzo shows a set of 62 symbols, 28 of which are unique, carved on a serpentine block. A large number of prominent archaeologists have hailed this find as the "earliest pre-Columbian writing".[67] Others are skeptical because of the stone's singularity, the fact that it had been removed from any archaeological context, and because it bears no apparent resemblance to any other Mesoamerican writing system.[68] There are also well-documented later hieroglyphs known as "Epi-Olmec", and while there are some who believe that Epi- Olmec
Olmec
may represent a transitional script between an earlier Olmec
Olmec
writing system and Mayan writing, the matter remains unsettled. Mesoamerican Long Count calendar
Mesoamerican Long Count calendar
and invention of the zero concept[edit]

The back of Stela
Stela
C from Tres Zapotes This is the second oldest Long Count date yet discovered. The numerals 7.16.6.16.18 translate to September 3, 32 BCE (Julian). The glyphs surrounding the date are one of the few surviving examples of Epi- Olmec
Olmec
script.[69]

Olmec
Olmec
tomb at La Venta
La Venta
Park, Villahermosa, Tabasco.

See also: History of zero The Long Count calendar used by many subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations, as well as the concept of zero, may have been devised by the Olmecs. Because the six artifacts with the earliest Long Count calendar dates were all discovered outside the immediate Maya homeland, it is likely that this calendar predated the Maya and was possibly the invention of the Olmecs. Indeed, three of these six artifacts were found within the Olmec
Olmec
heartland. But an argument against an Olmec
Olmec
origin is the fact that the Olmec
Olmec
civilization had ended by the 4th century BCE, several centuries before the earliest known Long Count date artifact.[70] The Long Count calendar required the use of zero as a place-holder within its vigesimal (base-20) positional numeral system. A shell glyph – – was used as a zero symbol for these Long Count dates, the second oldest of which, on Stela
Stela
C at Tres Zapotes, has a date of 32 BCE. This is one of the earliest uses of the zero concept in history.[71] Mesoamerican ballgame[edit] The Olmec
Olmec
are strong candidates for originating the Mesoamerican ballgame so prevalent among later cultures of the region and used for recreational and religious purposes.[72] A dozen rubber balls dating to 1600 BCE or earlier have been found in El Manatí, a bog 10 km (6.2 mi) east of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan.[73] These balls predate the earliest ballcourt yet discovered at Paso de la Amada, circa 1400 BCE, although there is no certainty that they were used in the ballgame.[74] Ethnicity and language[edit] While the actual ethno-linguistic affiliation of the Olmec
Olmec
remains unknown, various hypotheses have been put forward. For example, in 1968 Michael D. Coe speculated that the Olmec
Olmec
were Mayan predecessors.[75] In 1976, linguists Lyle Campbell and Terrence Kaufman published a paper in which they argued a core number of loanwords had apparently spread from a Mixe–Zoquean language into many other Mesoamerican languages.[76] Campbell and Kaufman proposed that the presence of these core loanwords indicated that the Olmec
Olmec
– generally regarded as the first "highly civilized" Mesoamerican society – spoke a language ancestral to Mixe–Zoquean. The spread of this vocabulary particular to their culture accompanied the diffusion of other Olmec cultural and artistic traits that appears in the archaeological record of other Mesoamerican societies. Mixe–Zoque specialist Søren Wichmann first critiqued this theory on the basis that most of the Mixe–Zoquean loans seemed to originate only from the Zoquean branch of the family. This implied the loanword transmission occurred in the period after the two branches of the language family split, placing the time of the borrowings outside of the Olmec
Olmec
period.[77] However, new evidence has pushed back the proposed date for the split of Mixean and Zoquean languages to a period within the Olmec
Olmec
era.[78] Based on this dating, the architectural and archaeological patterns and the particulars of the vocabulary loaned to other Mesoamerican languages
Mesoamerican languages
from Mixe–Zoquean, Wichmann now suggests that the Olmecs of San Lorenzo spoke proto-Mixe and the Olmecs of La Venta
La Venta
spoke proto-Zoque.[78] At least the fact that the Mixe–Zoquean languages are still spoken in an area corresponding roughly to the Olmec
Olmec
heartland, and are historically known to have been spoken there, leads most scholars to assume that the Olmec
Olmec
spoke one or more Mixe–Zoquean languages.[79] Religion and mythology[edit] Main article: Olmec
Olmec
religion

Las Limas Monument 1, considered an important realisation of Olmec mythology. The youth holds a were-jaguar infant, while four iconic supernaturals are incised on the youth's shoulders and knees.

Olmec
Olmec
Chief or King. Relief from La Venta
La Venta
Archaeological Site in Tabasco.

Olmec
Olmec
religious activities were performed by a combination of rulers, full-time priests, and shamans. The rulers seem to have been the most important religious figures, with their links to the Olmec
Olmec
deities or supernaturals providing legitimacy for their rule.[80] There is also considerable evidence for shamans in the Olmec
Olmec
archaeological record, particularly in the so-called "transformation figures".[81] As Olmec
Olmec
mythology has left no documents comparable to the Popul Vuh from Maya mythology, any exposition of Olmec
Olmec
mythology must be based on interpretations of surviving monumental and portable art (such as the Las Limas figure at right), and comparisons with other Mesoamerican mythologies. Olmec
Olmec
art shows that such deities as the Feathered Serpent and a rain supernatural were already in the Mesoamerican pantheon in Olmec
Olmec
times.[82] Social and political organization[edit] Little is directly known about the societal or political structure of Olmec
Olmec
society. Although it is assumed by most researchers that the colossal heads and several other sculptures represent rulers, nothing has been found like the Maya stelae (see drawing) which name specific rulers and provide the dates of their rule.[83] Instead, archaeologists relied on the data that they had, such as large- and small-scale site surveys. These provided evidence of considerable centralization within the Olmec
Olmec
region, first at San Lorenzo and then at La Venta
La Venta
– no other Olmec
Olmec
sites come close to these in terms of area or in the quantity and quality of architecture and sculpture.[84] This evidence of geographic and demographic centralization leads archaeologists to propose that Olmec
Olmec
society itself was hierarchical, concentrated first at San Lorenzo and then at La Venta, with an elite that was able to use their control over materials such as water and monumental stone to exert command and legitimize their regime.[85] Nonetheless, Olmec
Olmec
society is thought to lack many of the institutions of later civilizations, such as a standing army or priestly caste.[86] And there is no evidence that San Lorenzo or La Venta
La Venta
controlled, even during their heyday, all of the Olmec
Olmec
heartland.[87] There is some doubt, for example, that La Venta
La Venta
controlled even Arroyo Sonso, only some 35 km (22 mi) away.[88] Studies of the Tuxtla Mountain settlements, some 60 km (37 mi) away, indicate that this area was composed of more or less egalitarian communities outside the control of lowland centers.[89] Trade[edit] The wide diffusion of Olmec
Olmec
artifacts and "Olmecoid" iconography throughout much of Mesoamerica
Mesoamerica
indicates the existence of extensive long-distance trade networks. Exotic, prestigious and high-value materials such as greenstone and marine shell were moved in significant quantities across large distances. Some of the reasons for trade revolve around the lack of obsidian in the heartland. The Olmec used obsidian in many tools because worked edges were very sharp and durable. Most of the obsidian found has been traced back to Guatemala showing the extensive trade.[90] While the Olmec
Olmec
were not the first in Mesoamerica
Mesoamerica
to organize long-distance exchanges of goods, the Olmec period saw a significant expansion in interregional trade routes, more variety in material goods exchanged and a greater diversity in the sources from which the base materials were obtained. Village life and diet[edit] Despite their size and deliberate urban design, which was copied by other centers,[91] San Lorenzo and La Venta
La Venta
were largely ceremonial centers, and the majority of the Olmec
Olmec
lived in villages similar to present-day villages and hamlets in Tabasco
Tabasco
and Veracruz.[92] These villages were located on higher ground and consisted of several scattered houses. A modest temple may have been associated with the larger villages. The individual dwellings would consist of a house, an associated lean-to, and one or more storage pits (similar in function to a root cellar). A nearby garden was used for medicinal and cooking herbs and for smaller crops, such as the domesticated sunflower. Fruit trees, such as avocado or cacao, were probably available nearby. Although the river banks were used to plant crops between flooding periods, the Olmecs probably also practiced swidden (or slash-and-burn) agriculture to clear the forests and shrubs, and to provide new fields once the old fields were exhausted.[93] Fields were located outside the village, and were used for maize, beans, squash, manioc, and sweet potato. Based on archaeological studies of two villages in the Tuxtlas Mountains, it is known that maize cultivation became increasingly important to the Olmec
Olmec
over time, although the diet remained fairly diverse.[94] The fruits and vegetables were supplemented with fish, turtle, snake, and mollusks from the nearby rivers, and crabs and shellfish in the coastal areas. Birds were available as food sources, as were game including peccary, opossum, raccoon, rabbit, and in particular, deer.[95] Despite the wide range of hunting and fishing available, midden surveys in San Lorenzo have found that the domesticated dog was the single most plentiful source of animal protein.[96] History of archaeological research[edit]

The jade Kunz Axe, first described by George Kunz in 1890. Although shaped like an axe head, with an edge along the bottom, it is unlikely that this artifact was used except in ritual settings. At a height of 28 cm (11 in), it is one of the largest jade objects ever found in Mesoamerica.[97]

Olmec
Olmec
culture was unknown to historians until the mid-19th century. In 1869, the Mexican antiquarian traveller José Melgar y Serrano published a description of the first Olmec
Olmec
monument to have been found in situ. This monument – the colossal head now labelled Tres Zapotes Monument A – had been discovered in the late 1850s by a farm worker clearing forested land on a hacienda in Veracruz. Hearing about the curious find while travelling through the region, Melgar y Serrano first visited the site in 1862 to see for himself and complete the partially exposed sculpture's excavation. His description of the object, published several years later after further visits to the site, represents the earliest documented report of an artifact of what is now known as the Olmec
Olmec
culture.[98] In the latter half of the 19th century, Olmec
Olmec
artifacts such as the Kunz Axe (right) came to light and were subsequently recognized as belonging to a unique artistic tradition. Frans Blom
Frans Blom
and Oliver La Farge made the first detailed descriptions of La Venta
La Venta
and San Martin Pajapan Monument 1
San Martin Pajapan Monument 1
during their 1925 expedition. However, at this time, most archaeologists assumed the Olmec
Olmec
were contemporaneous with the Maya – even Blom and La Farge were, in their own words, "inclined to ascribe them to the Maya culture".[99] Matthew Stirling
Matthew Stirling
of the Smithsonian Institution
Smithsonian Institution
conducted the first detailed scientific excavations of Olmec
Olmec
sites in the 1930s and 1940s. Stirling, along with art historian Miguel Covarrubias, became convinced that the Olmec
Olmec
predated most other known Mesoamerican civilizations.[100] In counterpoint to Stirling, Covarrubias, and Alfonso Caso, however, Mayanists J. Eric Thompson and Sylvanus Morley argued for Classic-era dates for the Olmec
Olmec
artifacts. The question of Olmec
Olmec
chronology came to a head at a 1942 Tuxtla Gutierrez
Tuxtla Gutierrez
conference, where Alfonso Caso declared that the Olmecs were the "mother culture" ("cultura madre") of Mesoamerica.[101] Shortly after the conference, radiocarbon dating proved the antiquity of the Olmec
Olmec
civilization, although the "mother culture" question generated considerable debate even 60 years later.[102] Etymology[edit] The name "Olmec" means "rubber people" in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec, and was the Aztec
Aztec
name for the people who lived in the Gulf Lowlands in the 15th and 16th centuries, some 2000 years after the Olmec
Olmec
culture died out. The term "rubber people" refers to the ancient practice, spanning from ancient Olmecs to Aztecs, of extracting latex from Castilla elastica, a 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 BCE.[103] Early modern explorers and archaeologists, however, mistakenly applied the name "Olmec" to the rediscovered ruins and artifacts in the heartland decades before it was understood that these were not created by the people the Aztecs knew as the "Olmec", but rather a culture that was 2000 years older. Despite the mistaken identity, the name has stuck.[104] It is not known what name the ancient Olmec
Olmec
used for themselves; some later Mesoamerican accounts seem to refer to the ancient Olmec
Olmec
as "Tamoanchan".[105] A contemporary term sometimes used for the Olmec culture is tenocelome, meaning "mouth of the jaguar".[106] Alternative origin speculations[edit] Main article: Olmec
Olmec
alternative origin speculations See also: Pre-Columbian Africa-Americas contact theories Partly because the Olmecs developed the first Mesoamerican civilization, and partly because little is known of them (compared with, for example, to the Maya or Aztec), a number of Olmec alternative origin speculations have been put forth. Although several of these speculations, particularly the theory that the Olmecs were of African origin popularized by Ivan van Sertima's book They Came Before Columbus, have become well-known within popular culture. They are not considered credible by the vast majority of Mesoamerican researchers and scientists, who discard it as pop-culture pseudo-science.[107] Gallery[edit]

Olmec
Olmec
Head No.1, 1200–900 BCE

Olmec
Olmec
human figure, 1200–1000 BCE

One of the "twins" from El Azuzul, 1200–900 BCE

Bird Vessel, 12th–9th century BCE

Three celts, Olmec
Olmec
ritual objects

Olmec
Olmec
were-jaguar

Olmec
Olmec
style bottle, reputedly from Las Bocas, 1100–800 BCE

Olmec
Olmec
jade mask.

Olmec-style painting from the Juxtlahuaca
Juxtlahuaca
cave

Olmec
Olmec
Baby Figure 1200–900 BCE

Colossal Head

Olmec-style bas relief "El Rey" from Chalcatzingo

See also[edit]

El Azuzul – a small archaeological site in the Olmec
Olmec
heartland Cerro de las Mesas – a post- Olmec
Olmec
archaeological site List of megalithic sites List of Mesoamerican pyramids

Footnotes[edit]

^ Diehl, Richard A. (2004). The Olmecs : America's First Civilization. London: Thames and Hudson. pp. 9–25. ISBN 0-500-28503-9.  ^ See Pool (2007) p. 2. Although there is wide agreement that the Olmec
Olmec
culture helped lay the foundations for the civilizations that followed, there is disagreement over the extent of the Olmec contributions, and even a proper definition of the Olmec
Olmec
"culture". See " Olmec
Olmec
influences on Mesoamerican cultures" for a deeper treatment of this question. ^ See, as one example, Diehl, p. 11. ^ See Diehl, p. 108 for the "ancient America" superlatives. The artist and archaeologist Miguel Covarrubias
Miguel Covarrubias
(1957) p. 50 says that Olmec pieces are among the world's masterpieces. ^ Olmecas (n.d.). Think Quest. Retrieved September 20, 2012, from link Archived 2012-10-24 at the Wayback Machine. ^ Coe (1968) p. 42 ^ Dates from Pool, p. 1. Diehl gives a slightly earlier date of 1500 BCE (p. 9), but the same end-date. Any dates for the start of the Olmec
Olmec
civilization or culture are problematic as its rise was a gradual process. Most Olmec
Olmec
dates are based on radiocarbon dating (see e.g. Diehl, p. 10), which is only accurate within a given range (e.g. ±90 years in the case of early El Manati
El Manati
layers), and much is still to be learned concerning early Gulf lowland settlements. ^ Richard A Diehl, 2004, The Olmecs – America's First Civilization London: Thames & Hudson, pp. 25, 27. ^ Diehl, 2004: pp. 23–24. ^ Beck, Roger B.; Linda Black; Larry S. Krieger; Phillip C. Naylor; Dahia Ibo Shabaka (1999). World History: Patterns of Interaction. Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell. ISBN 0-395-87274-X.  ^ Pool, pp. 26–27, provides a great overview of this theory, and says: "The generation of food surpluses is necessary for the development of social and political hierarchies and there is no doubt that high agricultural productivity, combined with the natural abundance of aquatic foods in the Gulf lowlands supported their growth." ^ Pool, p. 151. ^ Diehl, p. 132, or Pool, p. 150. ^ a b Pool, p. 103. ^ Susan Toby Evans, David L. Webster, eds, Archaeology of Ancient Mexico
Mexico
and Central America: An Encyclopedia. Routledge, 2013 ISBN 1136801855 p. 315 ^ Diehl, p. 9. ^ Coe (1967), p. 72. Alternatively, the mutilation of these monuments may be unrelated to the decline and abandonment of San Lorenzo. Some researchers believe that the mutilation had ritualistic aspects, particularly since most mutilated monuments were reburied in a row. ^ Pool, p. 135. Diehl, pp. 58–59, 82. ^ Diehl, p. 9. Pool gives dates 1000 BCE – 400 BCE for La Venta. ^ Pool, p. 157. ^ Pool, p. 161–162. ^ Diehl, p. 82. Nagy, p. 270, however, is more circumspect, stating that in the Grijalva river
Grijalva river
delta, on the eastern edge of the heartland, "the local population had significantly declined in apparent population density ... A low-density Late Preclassic and Early Classic occupation . . . may have existed; however, it remains invisible." ^ Quote and analysis from Diehl, p. 82, echoed in other works such as Pool. ^ Vanderwarker (2006) pp. 50–51 ^ Coe (2002), p. 88. ^ a b Coe (2002), p. 62. ^ Coe (2002), p. 88 and others. ^ Pool, p. 105. ^ Pool, p. 106. Diehl, pp. 109–115. ^ Pool, pp. 106–108, 176. ^ Diehl, p. 111. ^ Pool, p. 118; Diehl, p. 112. Coe (2002), p. 69: "They wear headgear rather like American football helmets which probably served as protection in both war and in the ceremonial game played…throughout Mesoamerica." ^ a b c d e Miller, Mary Ellen. "The Art of Mesoamerica
Mesoamerica
From Olmec
Olmec
to Aztec." Thames & Hudson; 4th edition (October 20, 2006). ^ Grove, p. 55. ^ Pool, p. 107. ^ In particular, Williams and Heizer (p. 29) calculated the weight of San Lorenzo Colossal Head 1 at 25.3 short tons, or 23 tonnes. See Scarre. pp. 271–274 for the "55 tonnes" weight. ^ See Williams and Heizer for more detail. ^ Scarre. Pool, p. 129. ^ Diehl, p. 119. ^ Wiercinski, A. (1972). "Inter-and Intrapopulational Racial Differentiation of Tlatilco, Cerro de Las Mesas, Teothuacan, Monte Alban and Yucatan Maya," XXXIX Congreso Intern. de Americanistas, Lima 1970, 1, 231–252. ^ Karl Taube, for one, says "There simply is no material evidence of any Pre-Hispanic contact between the Old World and Mesoamerica
Mesoamerica
before the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century.", p. 17.

Davis, N. Voyagers to the New World, University of New Mexico
Mexico
Press, 1979 ISBN 0-8263-0880-5 Williams, S. Fantastic Archaeology, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991 ISBN 0-8122-1312-2 Feder, K.L. Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries. Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology 3rd ed., Trade Mayfield ISBN 0-7674-0459-9

^ Mexico
Mexico
South, Covarrubias, 1946 ^ Ortiz de Montellano, et al. 1997, p. 217 ^ Haslip-Viera, Gabriel: Bernard Ortiz de Montellano; Warren Barbour Source "Robbing Native American Cultures: Van Sertima's Afrocentricity and the Olmecs," Current Anthropology, 38 (3), (Tun., 1997), pp. 419–441 ^ Diehl, Richard A. (2004). The Olmecs: America's First Civilization. London: Thames and Hudson. p. 112. ISBN 0-500-28503-9.  ^ Milliken, William M. "Pre-Columbian Jade
Jade
and Hard Stone." The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 36, no. 4 (April 1949): 53-55. Accessed March 17, 2018. ^ "University of East Anglia collections", Artworld ^ a b c d The British Museum. " Olmec
Olmec
Stone Mask." Smarthistory.com. ^ See Pool, pp. 179–242; Diehl, pp. 126–151. ^ Stefan Lovgren, Ancient City Found in Mexico; Shows Olmec
Olmec
Influence. National Geographic News, January 26, 2007 ^ For example, Diehl, p. 170 or Pool, p. 54. ^ Flannery et al. (2005) hint that Olmec
Olmec
iconography was first developed in the Tlatilco
Tlatilco
culture. ^ See for example Reilly; Stevens (2007); Rose (2007). For a full discussion, see Olmec
Olmec
influences on Mesoamerican cultures. ^ See Carlson for details of the compass. ^ Covarrubias, p. 27. ^ Taube (2004), p. 122. ^ As one example, see Joyce et al., " Olmec
Olmec
Bloodletting: An Iconographic Study". ^ See Taube (2004), p. 122. ^ Pool, p. 139. ^ Ortiz et al., p. 249. ^ Pool, p. 116. Joralemon (1996), p. 218. ^ See Pohl et al. (2002). ^ " Writing
Writing
May Be Oldest in Western Hemisphere". New York Times. 2006-09-15. Retrieved 2008-03-30. A stone slab bearing 3,000-year-old writing previously unknown to scholars has been found in the Mexican state of Veracruz, and archaeologists say it is an example of the oldest script ever discovered in the Americas.  ^ "'Oldest' New World writing found". BBC. 2006-09-14. Retrieved 2008-03-30. Ancient civilisations in Mexico
Mexico
developed a writing system as early as 900 BC, new evidence suggests.  ^ "Oldest Writing
Writing
in the New World". Science. Retrieved 2008-03-30. A block with a hitherto unknown system of writing has been found in the Olmec heartland
Olmec heartland
of Veracruz, Mexico. Stylistic and other dating of the block places it in the early first millennium before the common era, the oldest writing in the New World, with features that firmly assign this pivotal development to the Olmec
Olmec
civilization of Mesoamerica.  ^ Pohl et al. (2002). ^ Skidmore. These prominent proponents include Michael D. Coe, Richard A. Diehl, Karl Taube, and Stephen D. Houston. ^ Bruhns, et al. ^ Diehl, p. 184. ^ " Mesoamerican Long Count calendar
Mesoamerican Long Count calendar
& invention of the zero concept" section cited to Diehl, p. 186. ^ Haughton, p. 153. The earliest recovered Long Count dated is from Monument 1 in the Maya site El Baúl, Guatemala, bearing a date of 37 BCE. ^ Miller and Taube (1993) p. 42. Pool, p. 295. ^ Ortiz C. ^ See Filloy Nadal, p. 27, who says "If they [the balls] were used in the ballgame, we would be looking at the earliest evidence of this practice". ^ Coe (1968) p. 121. ^ Campbell & Kaufman (1976), pp. 80–89. For example, the words for "incense", "cacao", "corn", many names of various fruits, "nagual/shaman", "tobacco", "adobe", "ladder", "rubber", "corn granary", "squash/gourd", and "paper" in many Mesoamerican languages seem to have been borrowed from an ancient Mixe–Zoquean language. ^ Wichmann (1995). ^ a b Wichmann, Beliaev & Davletshin, (in press Sep 2008). ^ See Pool, p. 6, or Diehl, p. 85. ^ Diehl, p. 106. See also J. E. Clark, p. 343, who says "much of the art of La Venta
La Venta
appears to have been dedicated to rulers who dressed as gods, or to the gods themselves". ^ Diehl, p. 106. ^ Diehl, pp. 103–104. ^ See, for example, Cyphers (1996), p. 156. ^ See Santley, et al., p.4, for a discussion of Mesoamerican centralization and decentralization. See Cyphers (1999) for a discussion of the meaning of monument placement. ^ See Cyphers (1999) for a more detailed discussion. ^ Serra Puche et al., p. 36, who argue that "While Olmec
Olmec
art sometimes represents leaders, priests, and possibly soldiers, it is difficult to imagine that such institutions as the army, priest caste, or administrative-political groups were already fully developed by Olmec times." They go on to downplay the possibility of a strong central government. ^ Pool, p. 20. ^ Pool, p. 164. ^ Pool, p. 175. ^ Hirth, Kenneth (June 2013). "Early Olmec
Olmec
obsidian trade and economic organization at San Lorenz". Journey of Archeological Science.  ^ "Chiapa de Corzo Archaeological Project". Brigham Young University. Retrieved 2012-03-18.  ^ Except where otherwise (foot)noted, this Village life and diet section is referenced to Diehl (2004), Davies, and Pope et al. ^ Pohl. ^ VanDerwarker, p. 195, and Lawler, Archaeology (2007), p. 23, quoting VanDerwarker. ^ VanDerwarker, pp. 141–144. ^ Davies, p. 39. ^ Benson (1996) p. 263. ^ See translated excerpt from Melgar y Serrano's original 1869 report, reprinted in Adams (1991), p. 56. See also Pool (2007), pp. 1, 35 and Stirling (1968), p. 8. ^ Quoted in Coe (1968), p. 40. ^ Coe (1968), pp. 42–50. ^ "Esta gran cultura, que encontramos en niveles antiguos, es sin duda madre de otras culturas, como la maya, la teotihuacana, la zapoteca, la de El Tajín, y otras” ("This great culture, which we encounter in ancient levels, is without a doubt mother of other cultures, like the Maya, the Teotihuacana, the Zapotec, that of El Tajin, and others".) Caso (1942), p. 46. ^ Coe (1968), p. 50. ^ Rubber Processing, MIT. ^ Diehl, p. 14. ^ Coe (2002) refers to an old Nahuatl
Nahuatl
poem cited by Miguel Leon-Portilla, which itself refers to a land called "Tamoanchan":

in a certain era which no one can reckon which no one can remember [where] there was a government for a long time".

Coe interprets Tamoanchan as a Mayan language word meaning 'Land of Rain or Mist' (p. 61). ^ The term "tenocelome" is used as early as 1967 by George Kubler in American Anthropologist, v. 69, p. 404. ^ See Grove (1976) or Ortiz de Montellano (1997).

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External links[edit]

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Olmec.

Drawings and photographs of the 17 colossal heads "Stone Etchings Represent Earliest New World Writing". Scientific American; Ma. del Carmen Rodríguez Martínez, Ponciano Ortíz Ceballos, Michael D. Coe, Richard A. Diehl, Stephen D. Houston, Karl A. Taube, Alfredo Delgado Calderón, Oldest Writing
Writing
in the New World, Science, Vol 313, September 15, 2006, pp. 1610–1614. BBC
BBC
audio file. Discussion of Olmec
Olmec
culture (15 mins) A History of the World in 100 Objects Smithsonian Olmec
Olmec
Legacy

v t e

Pre-Columbian civilizations and cultures

Americas

Paleo-Indians Genetic history Archaeology of the Americas Indigenous peoples of the Americas

North America

North American pre-Columbian cultures Caddoan Mississippian Chichimeca Hopewell tradition Coles Creek Fremont Marksville Mississippian Mogollon Plaquemine Plum Bayou Poverty Point Troyville Weeden Island

Mesoamerica

Mesoamerican pre-Columbian chronology Capacha Chalcatzingo Cholula Coclé Epi-Olmec Huastec Izapa Mezcala Mixtec Olmec Pipil Quelepa Shaft tomb tradition Teuchitlan Purépecha Teotihuacan Tlatilco Tlaxcaltec Toltec Totonac Veracruz Xochipala Zapotec

South America

Andean civilizations South American Indigenous people El Abra Cañaris Chachapoya Chancay Chavín Chimú Chinchorro Cultural periods of Peru Hydraulic culture of mounds (Bolivia) Las Vegas Lima La Tolita
La Tolita
(Tumaco) Manteño-Guancavilca Mapuche Moche Mollo Nariño Nazca Norte Chico Quimbaya San Agustín Shuar Sican Taíno Tairona Tiwanaku Tierradentro Valdivia Wankarani Wari Zenú

Aztec Maya Muisca Inca

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Writing Script Script Numerals Quipu

Religion Religion Religion Religion Religion

Mythology Mythology Mythology Mythology Mythology

Calendar Calendar Calendar Calendar

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Infrastructure Chinampas Architecture Architecture Agriculture Architecture (road system) Agriculture

History History History History Inca history Neo-Inca State

People Moctezuma I Moctezuma II Cuitláhuac Cuauhtémoc K'inich Janaab' Pakal Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil Jasaw Chan K'awiil I Nemequene Quemuenchatocha Tisquesusa Tundama Zoratama Manco Cápac Pachacuti Atahualpa Manco Inca Yupanqui Túpac Amaru

Conquest Spanish conquest (Hernán Cortés) Spanish conquest Spanish conquest of Yucatán (Francisco de Montejo) Spanish conquest of Guatemala (Pedro de Alvarado) Spanish conquest (Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada) (Hernán Pérez de Quesada) (List of conquistadors) Spanish conquest (Francisco Pizarro)

See also

Portal:Indigenous peoples of North America Portal:Mesoamerica Columbian Exchange Mesoamerican writing systems Native American cuisine Native American pottery Population history of indigenous peoples of the Americas Pre‑Columbian art Painting in the Americas before European colonization

Authority control

LCCN: sh85094635 GND: 4043496-5 BNF:

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