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
Veracruz and Tabasco. It has been speculated that the Olmecs derive
in part from neighboring
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 culture had emerged, centered on the
San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán
San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán site near the coast in southeast
Veracruz. They were the first Mesoamerican civilization, and laid
many of the foundations for the civilizations that followed. Among
other "firsts", the
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". The
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 artworks are considered among
ancient America's most striking.
2.2 La Venta
3.1 Colossal heads
Jade face masks
4 Beyond the heartland
4.1 Central Mexico
4.2 Western Mexico
Mexico and Guatemala
4.4 Nature of interaction
5 Notable innovations
5.1 Bloodletting and sacrifice speculation
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
10 Village life and diet
11 History of archaeological research
12 Alternative origin speculations
14 See also
17 External links
The name 'Olmec' comes from the
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".
Olmec heartland, where the
Olmec reigned from 1400–400 BCE
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 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.
Main article: San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán
The beginnings of
Olmec civilization have traditionally been placed
between 1400 and 1200 BCE. Past finds of
Olmec remains ritually
El Manati shrine (near San Lorenzo) moved this back to
"at least" 1600–1500 BCE. It seems that the
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
What is today called
Olmec first appeared fully within the city of San
Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, where distinctive
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 basin. This
environment may be compared to that of other ancient centers of
civilization: the Nile, Indus, and
Yellow River valleys, and
Mesopotamia. This highly productive environment encouraged a densely
concentrated population, which in turn triggered the rise of an elite
class. The elite class created the demand for the production of
the symbolic and sophisticated luxury artifacts that define Olmec
culture. 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 elites had access to an
extensive trading network in Mesoamerica. The source of the most
valued jade was the
Motagua River valley in eastern Guatemala, and
Olmec obsidian has been traced to sources in the
such as El Chayal and San Martín Jilotepeque, or in Puebla,
distances ranging from 200 to 400 km (120–250 miles) away,
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 than in the Veracruz-
Tabasco area. In particular, the
relevant objects from the Amuco-Abelino site in
Guerrero reveal dates
as early as 1530 BCE. The city of
also relevant in this regard.
Main article: La Venta
Great pyramid in La Venta, Tabasco
Olmec center, San Lorenzo, was all but abandoned around
900 BCE at about the same time that
La Venta rose to
prominence. A wholesale destruction of many San Lorenzo monuments
also occurred circa 950 BCE, which may indicate an internal
uprising or, less likely, an invasion. The latest thinking,
however, is that environmental changes may have been responsible for
this shift in
Olmec centers, with certain important rivers changing
In any case, following the decline of San Lorenzo,
La Venta became the
Olmec center, lasting from 900 BCE until its
abandonment around 400 BCE.
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. 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
Scholars have yet to determine the cause of the eventual extinction of
Olmec culture. Between 400 and 350 BCE, the population in the
eastern half of the
Olmec heartland dropped precipitously, and the
area was sparsely inhabited until the 19th century. 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 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.
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
Olmec to move their settlements.
Whatever the cause, within a few hundred years of the abandonment of
Olmec cities, successor cultures became firmly established.
Tres Zapotes site, on the western edge of the
continued to be occupied well past 400 BCE, but without the
hallmarks of the
Olmec culture. This post-
Olmec culture, often labeled
Epi-Olmec, has features similar to those found at Izapa, some
550 km (330 miles) to the southeast.
Fish Vessel, 12th–9th century BCE.
Height: 6.5 inches (16.5 cm).
Olmec white ware "hollow baby" figurine.
Olmec culture was first defined as an art style, and this
continues to be the hallmark of the culture. Wrought in a large
number of media – jade, clay, basalt, and greenstone among others
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. Common
motifs include downturned mouths and a cleft head, both of which are
seen in representations of were-jaguars.
In addition to making human and human-like subjects,
were adept at animal portrayals; for example, the fish vessel to the
right or the bird vessel in the gallery below.
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 culture. These monuments
can be divided into four classes:
Colossal heads (which can be up to 3 m (10 ft) tall);
Rectangular "altars" (more likely thrones) such as Altar 5 shown
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 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
toward representations of historical events, particularly acts
legitimizing rulers. This trend would culminate in post-Olmec
monuments such as La Mojarra
Stela 1, which combines images of rulers
with script and calendar dates.
Olmec colossal heads
The most recognized aspect of the
Olmec civilization are the enormous
helmeted heads. 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. 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.
Seventeen colossal heads have been unearthed to date.
Colossal Heads 1 through 10
Monuments 1 through 4
Monuments A & Q
Rancho la Cobata
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).
"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 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, perhaps at the nearby
Llano del Jicaro workshop, and dragged or floated to their final
destination dozens of miles away. It has been estimated that
moving a colossal head required the efforts of 1,500 people for three
to four months.
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.
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. But, the vast majority of
archaeologists and other Mesoamerican scholars reject claims of
pre-Columbian contacts with Africa. 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
Miguel Covarrubias published a series of photos of Olmec
artworks and of the faces of modern Mexican Indians with very similar
facial characteristics. The African origin hypothesis assumes that
Olmec carving was intended to be a representation of the inhabitants,
an assumption that is hard to justify given the full corpus of
Ivan van Sertima claimed that the
seven braids on the
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.
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."
Jade face masks
Another type of artifact is much smaller; hardstone carvings in jade
of a face in a mask form.
Jade is a particularly precious material,
and it was used as a mark of rank by the ruling classes. By 1500
Olmec sculptors mastered the human form. This can be
determined by wooden
Olmec sculptures discovered in the swampy bogs of
El Manati. Before radiocarbon dating could tell the exact age of
Olmec pieces, archaeologist and art historians noticed the unique
“Olmec-style” in a verity of artifacts.
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
Mexico City). The mask would presumably have been about
2,000 years old when the
Aztec buried it, suggesting such masks were
valued and collected as were Roman antiquities in Europe. The
“Olmec-style” refers to the combination of deep-set eyes,
nostrils, and strong, slightly asymmetrical mouth. The
“Olmec-style” also very distinctly combines facial features of
both humans and jaguars.
Olmec arts are strongly tied to the Olmec
religion, which prominently featured Jaguars. The Olmecs believed
that in the distant past a race of “Were-Jaguars” was made between
the union of a jaguar and a woman. One ‘were-jaguar’ quality
that can be found in the sharp cleft in the forehead of many
supernatural beings in
Olmec art. This sharp cleft is associated with
the natural indented head of Jaguars.
Beyond the heartland
Olmec influences on Mesoamerican cultures
The major Formative Period (Pre-Classic Era) sites in present-day
Mexico which show
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 heartland. These sites include:
Tlatilco and Tlapacoya, major centers of the
Tlatilco culture in the
Valley of Mexico, where artifacts include hollow baby-face motif
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
Zazacatla covered about one square mile (2.6 km2)
between 800 and 500 BCE.
Teopantecuanitlan, in Guerrero, which features Olmec-style monumental
art as well as city plans with distinctive
Oxtotitlan cave paintings feature Olmec
designs and motifs.
Mexico and Guatemala
Olmec influence is also seen at several sites in the Southern Maya
In Guatemala, sites showing probable
Olmec influence include San
Takalik Abaj and La Democracia.
Nature of interaction
Many theories have been advanced to account for the occurrence of
Olmec influence far outside the heartland, including long-range trade
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
Olmec military domination or that the
Olmec iconography was
actually developed outside the heartland.
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 Formative Period chieftains
in an effort to bolster their status.
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. Some
researchers, including artist and art historian Miguel Covarrubias,
even postulate that the Olmecs formulated the forerunners of many of
the later Mesoamerican deities.
Bloodletting and sacrifice speculation
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
Although the archaeological record does not include explicit
Olmec bloodletting, researchers have found other
evidence that the
Olmec ritually practiced it. For example, numerous
natural and ceramic stingray spikes and maguey thorns have been found
Olmec sites, and certain artifacts have been identified as
The argument that the
Olmec instituted human sacrifice is
significantly more speculative. No
Olmec or Olmec-influenced
sacrificial artifacts have yet been discovered; no
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).
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. Some authors have associated infant
Olmec ritual art showing limp were-jaguar babies, most
famously in La Venta's Altar 5 (on the right) or Las Limas figure.
Any definitive answer requires further findings.
See also: Cascajal block
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 and 900 BCE respectively,
preceding the oldest Zapotec writing found so far, which dates from
about 500 BCE.
The 2002 find at the San Andrés site shows a bird, speech scrolls,
and glyphs that are similar to the later Mayan hieroglyphs. 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". 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.
There are also well-documented later hieroglyphs known as "Epi-Olmec",
and while there are some who believe that Epi-
Olmec may represent a
transitional script between an earlier
Olmec writing system and Mayan
writing, the matter remains unsettled.
Mesoamerican Long Count calendar
Mesoamerican Long Count calendar and invention of the zero
The back of
Stela C from Tres Zapotes
This is the second oldest Long Count date yet discovered. The numerals
188.8.131.52.18 translate to September 3, 32 BCE (Julian). The
glyphs surrounding the date are one of the few surviving examples of
Olmec tomb at
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 heartland. But an argument
Olmec origin is the fact that the
Olmec civilization had
ended by the 4th century BCE, several centuries before the
earliest known Long Count date artifact.
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 C at Tres Zapotes, has a date of
32 BCE. This is one of the earliest uses of the zero concept in
Olmec are strong candidates for originating the Mesoamerican
ballgame so prevalent among later cultures of the region and used for
recreational and religious purposes. 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. 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.
Ethnicity and language
While the actual ethno-linguistic affiliation of the
unknown, various hypotheses have been put forward. For example, in
Michael D. Coe speculated that the
Olmec were Mayan
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. Campbell and Kaufman proposed that the presence of
these core loanwords indicated that the
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.
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
Olmec period. However, new evidence has pushed back the
proposed date for the split of Mixean and Zoquean languages to a
period within the
Olmec era. Based on this dating, the
architectural and archaeological patterns and the particulars of the
vocabulary loaned to other
Mesoamerican languages from Mixe–Zoquean,
Wichmann now suggests that the Olmecs of San Lorenzo spoke proto-Mixe
and the Olmecs of
La Venta spoke proto-Zoque.
At least the fact that the Mixe–Zoquean languages are still spoken
in an area corresponding roughly to the
Olmec heartland, and are
historically known to have been spoken there, leads most scholars to
assume that the
Olmec spoke one or more Mixe–Zoquean languages.
Religion and mythology
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 Chief or King. Relief from
La Venta Archaeological Site in
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 deities or
supernaturals providing legitimacy for their rule. There is also
considerable evidence for shamans in the
Olmec archaeological record,
particularly in the so-called "transformation figures".
Olmec mythology has left no documents comparable to the Popul Vuh
from Maya mythology, any exposition of
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
Olmec art shows that such deities as the
Feathered Serpent and a rain supernatural were already in the
Mesoamerican pantheon in
Social and political organization
Little is directly known about the societal or political structure of
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.
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 region, first at San
Lorenzo and then at
La Venta – no other
Olmec sites come close to
these in terms of area or in the quantity and quality of architecture
This evidence of geographic and demographic centralization leads
archaeologists to propose that
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.
Olmec society is thought to lack many of the institutions
of later civilizations, such as a standing army or priestly caste.
And there is no evidence that San Lorenzo or
La Venta controlled, even
during their heyday, all of the
Olmec heartland. There is some
doubt, for example, that
La Venta controlled even Arroyo Sonso, only
some 35 km (22 mi) away. 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.
The wide diffusion of
Olmec artifacts and "Olmecoid" iconography
throughout much of
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. While the
Olmec were not the first in
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
Despite their size and deliberate urban design, which was copied by
other centers, San Lorenzo and
La Venta were largely ceremonial
centers, and the majority of the
Olmec lived in villages similar to
present-day villages and hamlets in
Tabasco and Veracruz.
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. 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 over time, although the
diet remained fairly diverse.
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. 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.
History of archaeological research
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.
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 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
In the latter half of the 19th century,
Olmec artifacts such as the
Kunz Axe (right) came to light and were subsequently recognized as
belonging to a unique artistic tradition.
Frans Blom and
Oliver La Farge made the first detailed descriptions of
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 were contemporaneous with the Maya – even Blom and La
Farge were, in their own words, "inclined to ascribe them to the Maya
Matthew Stirling of the
Smithsonian Institution conducted the first
detailed scientific excavations of
Olmec sites in the 1930s and 1940s.
Stirling, along with art historian Miguel Covarrubias, became
convinced that the
Olmec predated most other known Mesoamerican
In counterpoint to Stirling, Covarrubias, and Alfonso Caso, however,
Mayanists J. Eric Thompson and
Sylvanus Morley argued for Classic-era
dates for the
Olmec artifacts. The question of
Olmec chronology came
to a head at a 1942
Tuxtla Gutierrez conference, where Alfonso Caso
declared that the Olmecs were the "mother culture" ("cultura madre")
Shortly after the conference, radiocarbon dating proved the antiquity
Olmec civilization, although the "mother culture" question
generated considerable debate even 60 years later.
The name "Olmec" means "rubber people" in Nahuatl, the language of the
Aztec, and was the
Aztec name for the people who lived in the Gulf
Lowlands in the 15th and 16th centuries, some 2000 years after the
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.
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
It is not known what name the ancient
Olmec used for themselves; some
later Mesoamerican accounts seem to refer to the ancient
"Tamoanchan". A contemporary term sometimes used for the Olmec
culture is tenocelome, meaning "mouth of the jaguar".
Alternative origin speculations
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.
Olmec Head No.1, 1200–900 BCE
Olmec human figure, 1200–1000 BCE
One of the "twins" from El Azuzul, 1200–900 BCE
Bird Vessel, 12th–9th century BCE
Olmec ritual objects
Olmec style bottle, reputedly from Las Bocas, 1100–800 BCE
Olmec jade mask.
Olmec-style painting from the
Olmec Baby Figure 1200–900 BCE
Olmec-style bas relief "El Rey" from Chalcatzingo
El Azuzul – a small archaeological site in the
Cerro de las Mesas – a post-
Olmec archaeological site
List of megalithic sites
List of Mesoamerican pyramids
^ Diehl, Richard A. (2004). The Olmecs : America's First
Civilization. London: Thames and Hudson. pp. 9–25.
^ See Pool (2007) p. 2. Although there is wide agreement that the
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 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
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
Olmec civilization or culture are problematic as its rise was a
gradual process. Most
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 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
^ 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 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 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
^ Quote and analysis from Diehl, p. 82, echoed in other works such as
^ 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
^ a b c d e Miller, Mary Ellen. "The Art of
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
the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century.", p. 17.
Davis, N. Voyagers to the New World, University of New
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 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.
^ 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 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 Stone Mask." Smarthistory.com.
^ See Pool, pp. 179–242; Diehl, pp. 126–151.
^ Stefan Lovgren, Ancient City Found in Mexico; Shows
National Geographic News, January 26, 2007
^ For example, Diehl, p. 170 or Pool, p. 54.
^ Flannery et al. (2005) hint that
Olmec iconography was first
developed in the
^ See for example Reilly; Stevens (2007); Rose (2007). For a full
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 Bloodletting: An
^ 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 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 developed a writing system
as early as 900 BC, new evidence suggests.
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 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 civilization of
^ 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
^ 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
^ 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
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 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
^ Pool, p. 20.
^ Pool, p. 164.
^ Pool, p. 175.
^ Hirth, Kenneth (June 2013). "Early
Olmec obsidian trade and economic
organization at San Lorenz". Journey of Archeological Science.
^ "Chiapa de Corzo Archaeological Project". Brigham Young University.
^ Except where otherwise (foot)noted, this Village life and diet
section is referenced to Diehl (2004), Davies, and Pope et al.
^ VanDerwarker, p. 195, and Lawler, Archaeology (2007), p. 23, quoting
^ 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 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".
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.
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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 in the New World,
Science, Vol 313, September 15, 2006, pp. 1610–1614.
BBC audio file. Discussion of
Olmec culture (15 mins) A History of the
World in 100 Objects
Pre-Columbian civilizations and cultures
Archaeology of the Americas
Indigenous peoples of the Americas
North American pre-Columbian cultures
Mesoamerican pre-Columbian chronology
Shaft tomb tradition
South American Indigenous people
Cultural periods of Peru
Hydraulic culture of mounds (Bolivia)
La Tolita (Tumaco)
Architecture (road system)
K'inich Janaab' Pakal
Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil
Jasaw Chan K'awiil I
Manco Inca Yupanqui
Spanish conquest of Yucatán
(Francisco de Montejo)
Spanish conquest of Guatemala
(Pedro de Alvarado)
(Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada)
(Hernán Pérez de Quesada)
(List of conquistadors)
Portal:Indigenous peoples of North America
Mesoamerican writing systems
Native American cuisine
Native American pottery
Population history of indigenous peoples of the Americas
Painting in the Americas before European colonization