A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE OLMECS
By Tim Lambert
The Olmec Civilization
The Olmecs were the first Central American civilization. They flourished in the southern Gulf Coast of Mexico between 1300 BC and 400 BC. The Olmecs influenced all the other civilizations that came later. So much so that they are sometimes called the mother culture. The Olmecs built the first cities in Mexico. They also invented a form of writing and a calendar. The Olmecs also played a game with a solid rubber ball. A similar game was also played by later cultures.
The Olmecs created a religious center at San Lorenzo when they built temples and stone houses on a plateau. However San Lorenzo was destroyed about 900 BC. The Olmecs built a new religious center at La Venta about 800 BC, including a 30 meter high pyramid. However La Venta was destroyed about 400 BC. Yet Olmec culture did not die. Through trade Olmec ideas were adopted by other Central American peoples. Their descendants may have also merged with the Maya.
The Olmec's Achievements
At La Venta Olmec stonemasons carved giant basalt heads. They may represent Olmec rulers. At any rate they are shown wearing the helmets players wore during the rubber ball game. These huge heads are 3 meters high and weigh more than 20 tonnes! The Olmecs made cutting tools from hard stone like chert and from obsidian (volcanic glass, which when cut is extremely sharp). Jade was used to make ceremonial axes and jewelry.
Land farmed by the Olmecs were prone to flooding. So Olmec farmers built their houses on artificial hills. However the floods did deposit silt and mud, which made the land fertile. So the Olmecs were able to grow two crops a year. Olmec farmers grew maize, beans, chilies, tomatoes and squashes. They kept dogs and chickens for meat. As well at that the Olmecs hunted deer and peccaries (wild pigs). The Olmecs also fished and they collected shellfish. The Olmecs also hunted turtles and alligators.
Olmec society was stratified. At the top were ruler-priests. Then came craftsmen, merchants and farmers. Little is known about the religion of the Olmecs but they were certainly polytheists (they worshiped many gods). The Olmecs worshiped a jaguar god and a god of maize (their staple food).
Olmec merchants traded with many other cultures. They lived in jungles, which had abundant plant and animal life. However they lacked mineral resources. Obsidian, chert and jade had to be brought from far away. In return for them the Olmecs traded jaguar skins and feathers. Olmec ideas and practices spread to other parts of Central America through trade.
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Last revised 2020