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Olmec

Olmec jadeite mask 1000600 BCE


Olmec Head No. 3 from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan 1200900
BCE

MixeZoque.
The population of the Olmecs ourished during
Mesoamerica's formative period, dating roughly from
as early as 1500 BCE to about 400 BCE. Pre-Olmec
cultures had ourished in the area since about 2500
BCE, but by 16001500 BCE, early Olmec culture had
emerged, centered on the San Lorenzo Tenochtitln
site near the coast in southeast Veracruz.[2] They were
the rst Mesoamerican civilization, and laid many of
the foundations for the civilizations that followed.[3]
Among other rsts, 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".[4]
The Olmec civilization was rst dened 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 Americas
most striking.[5]

"The Wrestler", an Olmec era statuette, 1400400 BCE

1 Etymology

The Olmecs were the rst major civilization in


Guatemala and Mexico following a progressive development in Soconusco and modern southwestern pacic lowlands of Guatemala.[1] They lived in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, in the present-day states
of Veracruz and Tabasco. It has been speculated that
Olmec derive in part from neighboring Mokaya and/or

The name 'Olmec' comes from the Nahuatl word for the
(singular) or lmcah
Olmecs: lmcatl [olmekat]
[olmeka] (plural). This word is composed of the
two words lli [oli], meaning rubber, and mcatl
meaning people, so the word means rub[mekat],
ber people.[6][7]
1

Overview

Tres
Zapotes

Cobata
San Martn
Pajapan

Llano del Jicaro

La Venta

Laguna de los Cerros

25 mi
25 km

San Andrs

Cascajal

San Lorenzo
El Azuzul

Arroyo Sonso
Tenochtitln
Potrero Nuevo
El Manat

Las Limas

The Olmec heartland, where the Olmec reigned from 1400400


BCE

OVERVIEW

dene Olmec culture.[12] 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 Motagua River valley in eastern Guatemala,[13]
and Olmec obsidian has been traced to sources in the
Guatemala highlands, such as El Chayal and San Martn
Jilotepeque, or in Puebla,[14] distances ranging from 200
to 400 km (120250 miles) away, respectively.[15]
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 BC.[16] The city of
Teopantecuanitlan in Guerrero is also relevant in this regard.

The Olmec heartland is the area in the Gulf lowlands where it expanded after early development in Soconusco. This area is characterized by swampy low- 2.2 La Venta
lands punctuated by low hills, ridges, and volcanoes.
The Tuxtlas Mountains rise sharply in the north, along Main article: La Venta
the Gulf of Mexicos Bay of Campeche. Here the The rst Olmec center, San Lorenzo, was all but abanOlmec constructed permanent city-temple complexes at
San Lorenzo Tenochtitln, La Venta, Tres Zapotes, and
Laguna de los Cerros. In this region, the rst Mesoamerican civilization emerged and reigned from c. 1400400
BCE.[8]

2.1

Origins

Main article: San Lorenzo Tenochtitln


The beginnings of Olmec civilization have traditionally
been placed between 1400 and 1200 BCE. Past nds
of Olmec remains ritually deposited at El Manati shrine
(near San Lorenzo) moved this back to at least 1600
1500 BCE.[9] 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 Olmec
civilization.[10]
What is today called Olmec rst appeared fully within
the city of San Lorenzo Tenochtitln, where distinctive
Olmec features occurred around 1400 BCE. The rise of
civilization was assisted by the local ecology of wellwatered 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.[11]
The elite class created the demand for the production
of the symbolic and sophisticated luxury artifacts that

Great pyramid in La Venta, Tabasco

doned around 900 BCE at about the same time that La


Venta rose to prominence.[17] A wholesale destruction of
many San Lorenzo monuments also occurred circa 950
BCE, which may indicate an internal uprising or, less
likely, an invasion.[18] The latest thinking, however, is
that environmental changes may have been responsible
for this shift in Olmec centers, with certain important
rivers changing course.[19]
In any case, following the decline of San Lorenzo, La
Venta became the most prominent Olmec center, lasting from 900 BCE until its abandonment around 400
BCE.[20] La Venta sustained the Olmec cultural traditions, but 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 at landscape.[21]

3
Buried deep within La Venta lay opulent, labor-intensive
oerings 1000 tons of smooth serpentine blocks,
large mosaic pavements, and at least 48 separate deposits
of polished jade celts, pottery, gurines, and hematite
mirrors.[22]

2.3

Decline

Scholars have yet to determine the cause of the eventual extinction of the 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.[23] 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.[24]
One theory for the considerable population drop during Fish Vessel, 12th9th century BCE.
Height: 6.5 inches (16.5 cm).
the Terminal Formative period is suggested by Santley
and colleagues (Santley et al. 1997) who propose 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 to move their settlements.[25]
Whatever the cause, within a few hundred years of the
abandonment of the last Olmec cities, successor cultures
became rmly established. The Tres Zapotes site, on the
western edge of the Olmec heartland, 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.[26]

Art

The Olmec culture was rst dened as an art style,


and this continues to be the hallmark of the culture.[27]
Wrought in a large number of media jade, clay,
basalt, and greenstone among others much Olmec art,
such as The Wrestler, is surprisingly naturalistic. Other
art expresses fantastic anthropomorphic creatures, often
highly stylized, using an iconography reective of a religious meaning.[28] Common motifs include downturned
mouths and a cleft head, both of which are seen in representations of were-jaguars.[27]

Olmec white ware hollow baby gurine.

throughout the Formative Period, the stone monuments


such as the colossal heads are the most recognizable feature of Olmec culture.[29] These monuments can be divided into four classes:[30]

In addition to making human and human-like subjects,


Olmec artisans were adept at animal portrayals, for example, the sh vessel to the right or the bird vessel in the
gallery below.

Colossal heads; (which can be up to 10 feet tall.)

While Olmec gurines are found abundantly in sites

Free-standing in-the-round sculpture, such as the

Rectangular altars (more likely thrones) such as


Altar 5 shown below;

3 ART
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 gures, such as Monument 19 or La
Venta Stela 1, 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.[31]

3.1

Colossal heads

Main article: Olmec colossal heads


The most recognized aspect of the Olmec civilization
are the enormous helmeted heads.[32] As no known preColumbian 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.[33] Infused with individuality, no two heads Olmec-style face mask in jade
are alike and the helmet-like headdresses are adorned
with distinctive elements, suggesting personal or group
do not rule out internal conicts or, less likely, invasion
symbols.[34]
as a factor.[39]
Seventeen colossal heads have been unearthed to date.[35]
The at-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
The heads range in size from the Rancho La Cobata to the New World.[40] But, the vast majority of archaeolhead, at 3.4 meters high, to the pair at Tres Zapotes, at ogists and other Mesoamerican scholars reject claims of
1.47 m (11 to 4.8 ft). Scholars calculate that the largest pre-Columbian contacts with Africa.[41] Explanations for
heads weigh between 25 and 55 tonnes (28 and 61 short
the facial features of the colossal heads include the postons).[36]
sibility that the heads were carved in this manner due to
The heads were carved from single blocks or boulders of the shallow space allowed on the basalt boulders. Othvolcanic basalt, found in the Tuxtlas Mountains. The Tres ers note that in addition to the broad noses and thick
Zapotes heads, for example, were sculpted from basalt lips, the eyes of the heads often show the epicanthic
found at the summit of Cerro el Viga, at the western end fold, and that all these characteristics can still be found
of the Tuxtlas. The San Lorenzo and La Venta heads, in modern Mesoamerican Indians. For instance, in the
on the other hand, were probably carved from the basalt 1940s the artist/art historian Miguel Covarrubias pubof Cerro Cintepec, on the southeastern side,[37] perhaps lished a series of photos of Olmec artworks and of the
at the nearby Llano del Jicaro workshop, and dragged or faces of modern Mexican Indians with very similar facial
oated to their nal destination dozens of miles away.[38] characteristics.[42] The African origin hypothesis assumes
It has been estimated that moving a colossal head required that Olmec carving was intended to be a representation of
the eorts of 1,500 people for three to four months.[15]
the inhabitants, an assumption that is hard to justify given
[43]
Some of the heads, and many other monuments, have the full corpus of representation in Olmec carving.
been variously mutilated, buried and disinterred, reset in Ivan van Sertima claimed that the seven braids on the
new locations and/or reburied. Some monuments, and Tres Zapotes head was an Ethiopian hair style but he ofat least two heads, were recycled or recarved, but it is fered no evidence that this was an Ethiopian hair style at
not known whether this was simply due to the scarcity of the appropriate time. The Egyptologist Frank Yurco has
not resemble contemporary
stone or whether these actions had ritual or other conno- said that the Olmec braids do
[44]
Egyptian
or
Nubian
braids.
tations. Scholars believe that some mutilation had significance beyond mere destruction, but some scholars still Richard Diehl wrote There can be no doubt that the

4.2

Western Mexico

heads depict the American Indian physical type still seen Also, in 2007, archaeologists unearthed Zazacatla, an
on the streets of Soteapan, Acayucan, and other towns in Olmec-inuenced city in Morelos. Located about 25
the region.[45]
miles (40 kilometers) south of Mexico City, Zazacatla
covered about one square mile (2.6 square kilometers)
between 800 and 500 B.C.[48]

3.2

Jade face masks

Another type of artifact is much smaller; hardstone carvings in jade of a face in a mask form. 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
(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 Roman
antiquities were in Europe.[46]

4.2 Western Mexico


Teopantecuanitlan, in Guerrero, which features Olmecstyle monumental art as well as city plans with distinctive
Olmec features.
Also, the Juxtlahuaca and Oxtotitlan cave paintings feature Olmec designs and motifs.[49]

4.3 Southern Mexico and Guatemala


Olmec inuence is also seen at several sites in the
Southern Maya area.

Beyond the heartland

In Guatemala, sites showing probable Olmec inuence inMain article: Olmec inuences on Mesoamerican culclude San Bartolo, Takalik Abaj and La Democracia.
tures
Olmec-style artifacts, designs, gurines, monuments
Tlatilco

Formative Period
Tlapacoya
Zazacatla
Tres Zapotes

Chalcatzingo
Teopantecuanitlan
Xochipala

Oxtotitlan

Juxtlahuaca

Etlatongo

Laguna
de los
Cerros

La
Venta
San
Lorenzo

San Jose
Mogote

Miles
Kilometers

100

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

and iconography have been found in the archaeological


records of sites hundreds of kilometres outside the Olmec
heartland. These sites include:[47]

4.1

4.4 Nature of interaction

ca. 600 BC

Central Mexico

Tlatilco and Tlapacoya, major centers of the Tlatilco culture in the Valley of Mexico, where artifacts include hollow baby-face motif gurines and Olmec designs on ceramics.
Chalcatzingo, in Valley of Morelos, central Mexico,
which features Olmec-style monumental art and rock art
with Olmec-style gures.

Many theories have been advanced to account for the occurrence of Olmec inuence far outside the heartland,
including long-range trade by Olmec merchants, 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 military domination or that the Olmec iconography was actually developed outside the heartland.[50]
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 eort to
bolster their status.[51]

5 Notable innovations
In addition to their inuence with contemporaneous Mesoamerican cultures, as the rst civilization in
Mesoamerica, the Olmecs are credited, or speculatively
credited, with many rsts, including the bloodletting
and perhaps human sacrice, writing and epigraphy, and
the invention of popcorn, zero and the Mesoamerican calendar, and the Mesoamerican ballgame, as well as perhaps the compass.[52] Some researchers, including artist
and art historian Miguel Covarrubias, even postulate that
the Olmecs formulated the forerunners of many of the
later Mesoamerican deities.[53]

NOTABLE INNOVATIONS

The 2002 nd at the San Andrs site shows a bird, speech


scrolls, and glyphs that are similar to the later Mayan hieroglyphs.[64] Known as the Cascajal Block, and dated
between 1100 BCE and 900 BCE, the 2006 nd 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
nd as the earliest pre-Columbian writing.[65] Others
are skeptical because of the stones 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.[66]

Altar 5 from La Venta. The inert were-jaguar baby held by the


central gure is seen by some as an indication of child sacrice.
In contrast, its sides show bas-reliefs of humans holding quite
lively were-jaguar babies.

5.1

Bloodletting and sacrice speculation

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.

5.3 Mesoamerican Long Count calendar


and invention of the zero concept

Although the archaeological record does not include


explicit representation of Olmec bloodletting,[54] 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
at Olmec sites,[55] and certain artifacts have been identied as bloodletters.[56]
The argument that the Olmec instituted human sacrice
is signicantly more speculative. No Olmec or Olmecinuenced sacricial artifacts have yet been discovered;
no Olmec or Olmec-inuenced artwork unambiguously
shows sacricial victims (as do the danzante gures of
Monte Albn) or scenes of human sacrice (such as can
be seen in the famous ballcourt mural from El Tajin).[57]
At the El Manat site, disarticulated skulls and femurs,
as well as the complete skeletons of newborn or unborn
children, have been discovered amidst the other oerings, leading to speculation concerning infant sacrice.
Scholars have not determined how the infants met their
deaths.[58] Some authors have associated infant sacrice
with Olmec ritual art showing limp were-jaguar babies,
most famously in La Ventas Altar 5 (on the right) or Las
Limas gure.[59] Any denitive answer requires further
ndings.

5.2

Writing

See also: Cascajal block


The Olmec may have been the rst civilization in the
Western Hemisphere to develop a writing system. Symbols found in 2002 and 2006 date from 650 BCE[60] and
900 BCE[61] respectively, preceding the oldest Zapotec
writing, which dates from about 500 BCE.[62][63]

The back of 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 script.[67]

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

7
language into many other Mesoamerican languages.[74]
Campbell and Kaufman proposed that the presence of
these core loanwords indicated that the Olmec generally regarded as the rst highly civilized Mesoamerican
society spoke a language ancestral to MixeZoquean.
The spread of this vocabulary particular to their culture
accompanied the diusion of other Olmec cultural and
artistic traits that appears in the archaeological record of
other Mesoamerican societies.

Olmec tomb at La Venta Park, Villahermosa, Tabasco.

MixeZoque specialist Sren Wichmann rst critiqued


this theory on the basis that most of the MixeZoquean
loans seemed to originate from the Zoquean branch of
the family only. 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 period.[75] However new evidence has
pushed back the proposed date for the split of Mixean and
Zoquean languages to a period within the Olmec era.[76]
Based on this dating, the architectural and archaeological patterns and the particulars of the vocabulary loaned
to other Mesoamerican languages from MixeZoquean,
Wichmann now suggests that the Olmecs of San Lorenzo
spoke proto-Mixe and the Olmecs of La Venta spoke
proto-Zoque.[76]

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 against an 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.[68]
At least the fact that the MixeZoquean languages still
The Long Count calendar required the use of zero as a are, and are historically known to have been, spoken in
place-holder within its vigesimal (base-20) positional nu- an area corresponding roughly to the Olmec heartland,
leads most scholars to assume that the Olmec spoke one
was used as a zero or more MixeZoquean languages.[77]
meral system. A shell glyph
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
history.[69]

5.4

Mesoamerican ballgame

The Olmec are strong candidates for originating the


Mesoamerican ballgame so prevalent among later cultures of the region and used for recreational and religious
purposes.[70] A dozen rubber balls dating to 1600 BCE
or earlier have been found in El Manat, a bog 10 km
(6.2 mi) east of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan.[71] 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.[72]

Ethnicity and language

While the actual ethno-linguistic aliation of the Olmec


remains unknown, various hypotheses have been put forward. For example, in 1968 Michael D. Coe speculated
that the Olmec were Mayan predecessors.[73]
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 MixeZoquean

7 Religion and mythology


Main article: Olmec religion
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 gures,
with their links to the Olmec deities or supernaturals providing legitimacy for their rule.[78] There is also considerable evidence for shamans in the Olmec archaeological
record, particularly in the so-called "transformation gures".[79]
As 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 gure at right), and comparisons with other
Mesoamerican mythologies. Olmec art shows that such
deities as the Feathered Serpent and a rain supernatural
were already in the Mesoamerican pantheon in Olmec
times.[80]

10 VILLAGE LIFE AND DIET

8 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 specic rulers
and provide the dates of their rule.[81]
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, rst 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 and
sculpture.[82]
This evidence of geographic and demographic centralization leads archaeologists to propose that Olmec society itself was hierarchical, concentrated rst 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.[83]
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 youths shoulders and
knees.

Nonetheless, Olmec society is thought to lack many of


the institutions of later civilizations, such as a standing
army or priestly caste.[84] And there is no evidence that
San Lorenzo or La Venta controlled, even during their
heyday, all of the Olmec heartland.[85] There is some
doubt, for example, that La Venta controlled even Arroyo Sonso, only some 35 km (22 mi) away.[86] 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.[87]

9 Trade
The wide diusion 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 signicant
quantities across large distances. While the Olmec were
not the rst in Mesoamerica to organize long-distance exchanges of goods, the Olmec period saw a signicant
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.

10 Village life and diet


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

Despite their size and deliberate urban design, which was


copied by other centers,[88] San Lorenzo and La Venta
were largely ceremonial centers, and the majority of the

9
Olmec lived in villages similar to present-day villages and
hamlets in Tabasco and Veracruz.[89]
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 sunower. Fruit trees, such as avocado or
cacao, were probably available nearby.
Although the river banks were used to plant crops between ooding periods, the Olmecs probably also practiced swidden (or slash-and-burn) agriculture to clear the
forests and shrubs, and to provide new elds once the old
elds were exhausted.[90] 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.[91]
The fruits and vegetables were supplemented with sh,
turtle, snake, and mollusks from the nearby rivers, and
crabs and shellsh in the coastal areas. Birds were available as food sources, as were game including peccary,
opossum, raccoon, rabbit, and in particular, deer.[92] Despite the wide range of hunting and shing available,
midden surveys in San Lorenzo have found that the domesticated dog was the single most plentiful source of The jade Kunz Axe, rst described by George Kunz in 1890. Although shaped like an axe head, with an edge along the bottom,
animal protein.[93]

11

History of archaeological research

Olmec culture was unknown to historians until the mid19th century. In 1869 the Mexican antiquarian traveller
Jos Melgar y Serrano published a description of the rst
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 nd while travelling
through the region, Melgar y Serrano rst visited the site
in 1862 to see for himself and complete the partially exposed sculptures 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 culture.[95]

it is unlikely that this artifact was used except in ritual settings.


At a height of 11 in (28 cm), it is one of the largest jade objects
ever found in Mesoamerica.[94]

ument 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 culture.[96]
Matthew Stirling of the Smithsonian Institution conducted the rst detailed scientic 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
civilizations.[97]

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
In the latter half of the 19th century, Olmec artifacts such to a head at a 1942 Tuxtla Gutierrez conference, where
as the Kunz Axe (right) came to light and were subse- Alfonso Caso declared that the Olmecs were the mother
quently recognized as belonging to a unique artistic tra- culture ("cultura madre") of Mesoamerica.[98]
dition.
Shortly after the conference, radiocarbon dating proved
Frans Blom and Oliver La Farge made the rst detailed the antiquity of the Olmec civilization, although the
descriptions of La Venta and San Martin Pajapan Mon- mother culture question generates much debate even 60

10

15 FOOTNOTES

years later.[99]

Three celts, Olmec ritual objects


Olmec were-jaguar

11.1

Etymology

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.[100]
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 people
the Aztecs knew as the Olmec, but rather a culture that
was 2000 years older. Despite the mistaken identity, the
name has stuck.[101]
It is not known what name the ancient Olmec used for
themselves; some later Mesoamerican accounts seem to
refer to the ancient Olmec as "Tamoanchan".[102] A contemporary term sometimes used for the Olmec culture is
tenocelome, meaning mouth of the jaguar".[103]

12

Alternative origin speculations

Main article: Olmec alternative origin speculations


See also: Pre-Columbian Africa-Americas contact
theories
In part because the Olmecs developed the rst
Mesoamerican civilization and in part because little
is known of the Olmecs (relative, 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.[104]

13

Gallery

Olmec Head No.1, 1200900 BCE


Olmec human gure, 12001000 BCE
One of the twins from El Azuzul, 1200900 BCE
Bird Vessel, 12th9th century BCE

Olmec style bottle, reputedly from Las Bocas, 1100800 BCE


Olmec jade mask.
Olmec-style painting from the Juxtlahuaca cave
Olmec Baby Figure 1200900 BCE
Colossal Head
Olmec-style bas relief El Rey from Chalcatzingo

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

15 Footnotes
[1] Malmstrm, Vincent H. The Maya Inheritance (PDF).
Retrieved 16 September 2014.
[2] Diehl, Richard A. (2004). The Olmecs : Americas First
Civilization. London: Thames and Hudson. pp. 925.
ISBN 0-500-28503-9.
[3] 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 culture. See "Olmec inuences
on Mesoamerican cultures" for a deeper treatment of this
question.
[4] See, as one example, Diehl, p. 11.
[5] See Diehl, p. 108 for the ancient America superlatives.
The artist and archaeologist Miguel Covarrubias (1957) p.
50 says that Olmec pieces are among the worlds masterpieces.
[6] Olmecas (n.d.). Think Quest. Retrieved September 20,
2012, from link
[7] Coe (1968) p. 42
[8] 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 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 to be learned
concerning early Gulf lowland settlements.

11

[9] Richard A Diehl, 2004, The Olmecs - Americas First Civilization London: Thames & Hudson, pp.25,27.
[10] Diehl, 2004: 23-24.
[11] 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.

[33] 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 playedthroughout Mesoamerica.
[34] Grove, p. 55.
[35] Pool, p. 107.

[12] Pool, pp. 2627, 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.

[36] 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. p. 271-274 for the 55 tonnes
weight.

[13] Pool, p. 151.

[38] Scarre. Pool, p. 129.

[14] Diehl, p. 132, or Pool, p. 150.

[39] Diehl, p. 119.

[15] Pool, p. 103.

[40] Wiercinski, A. (1972). Inter-and Intrapopulational


Racial Dierentiation of Tlatilco, Cerro de Las Mesas,
Teothuacan, Monte Alban and Yucatan Maya, XXXlX
Congreso Intern. de Americanistas, Lima 1970, Vol. 1,
231-252.

[16] Susan Toby Evans, David L. Webster, eds, Archaeology


of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia.
Routledge, 2013 ISBN 1136801855 p315
[17] Diehl, p. 9.
[18] 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.
[19] Pool, p. 135. Diehl, pp. 58-59 and p. 82.
[20] Diehl, p. 9. Pool gives dates 1000 BCE 400 BCE for
La Venta.

[37] See Williams and Heizer for more detail.

[41] Karl Taube, for one, says There simply is no material


evidence of any Pre-Hispanic contact between the Old
World and Mesoamerica before the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century., p. 17. Davis, N. Voyagers
to the New World, University of New Mexico Press, 1979
ISBN 0-8263-0880-5 Williams, S. Fantastic Archaeology,
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991 ISBN 0-81221312-2 Feder, K.L. Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries. Science
and Pseudoscience in Archaeology 3rd ed., Trade Mayeld
ISBN 0-7674-0459-9
[42] Mexico South, Covarrubias, 1946

[21] Pool, p. 157.

[43] Ortiz de Montellano, et al. 1997, pp. 217

[22] Pool, p. 161-162.

[44] Haslip-Viera, Gabriel: Bernard Ortiz de Montellano;


Warren Barbour Source Robbing Native American Cultures: Van Sertimas Afrocentricity and the Olmecs, Current Anthropology, Vol. 38, No. 3, (Tun., 1997), pp. 419441

[23] 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 signicantly declined in apparent population density ... A
low-density Late Preclassic and Early Classic occupation
. . . may have existed; however, it remains invisible.
[24] Quote and analysis from Diehl, p. 82, echoed in other
works such as Pool.

[45] Diehl, Richard A. (2004). The Olmecs: Americas First


Civilization. London: Thames and Hudson. p. 112. ISBN
0-500-28503-9.
[46] University of East Anglia collections, Artworld

[25] Vanderwarker (2006) p. 5051

[47] See Pool, p. 179-242; Diehl, p. 126-151.

[26] Coe (2002), p. 88.

[48] Stefan Lovgren, Ancient City Found in Mexico; Shows


Olmec Inuence. National Geographic News, January 26,
2007

[27] Coe (2002), p. 62.


[28] Coe (2002), p. 88 and others.
[29] Pool, p. 105.
[30] Pool, p. 106. Diehl, p. 109-115.
[31] Pool, p. 106-108 & 176.
[32] Diehl, p. 111.

[49] For example, Diehl, p. 170 or Pool, p. 54.


[50] Flannery et al. (2005) hint that Olmec iconography was
rst developed in the Tlatilco culture.
[51] See for example Reilly; Stevens (2007); Rose (2007). For
a full discussion, see Olmec inuences on Mesoamerican
cultures.

12

[52] See Carlson for details of the compass.


[53] Covarrubias, p. 27.
[54] Taube (2004), p. 122.
[55] As one example, see Joyce et al., Olmec Bloodletting:
An Iconographic Study.

15 FOOTNOTES

[74] Campbell & Kaufman (1976), pp. 8089. 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 MixeZoquean language.
[75] Wichmann (1995).

[56] See Taube (2004), p. 122.

[76] Wichmann, Beliaev & Davletshin, in press (Sept 2008).

[57] Pool, p. 139.

[77] See Pool, p. 6, or Diehl, p. 85.

[58] Ortiz et al., p. 249.

[78] Diehl, p. 106. See also J. E. Clark, , p. 343, who says


much of the art of La Venta appears to have been dedicated to rulers who dressed as gods, or to the gods themselves.

[59] Pool, p. 116. Joralemon (1996), p. 218.


[60] See Pohl et al. (2002).

[79] Diehl, p. 106.


[61] 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.
[62] "'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.
[63] Oldest 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 rst millennium before the common
era, the oldest writing in the New World, with features
that rmly assign this pivotal development to the Olmec
civilization of Mesoamerica.

[80] Diehl, p. 103-104.


[81] See, for example, Cyphers (1996), p. 156.
[82] 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.
[83] See Cyphers (1999) for a more detailed discussion.
[84] Serra Puche et al., p. 36, who argue that While Olmec
art sometimes represents leaders, priests, and possibly soldiers, it is dicult 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.
[85] Pool, p. 20.
[86] Pool, p. 164.

[64] Pohl et al. (2002).

[87] Pool, p. 175.

[65] Skidmore. These prominent proponents include Michael


D. Coe, Richard A. Diehl, Karl Taube, and Stephen D.
Houston.

[88] Chiapa de Corzo Archaeological Project.


Young University. Retrieved 2012-03-18.

[66] Bruhns, et al.


[67] Diehl, p. 184.
[68] Mesoamerican Long Count calendar & invention of the
zero concept section cited to Diehl, p. 186.
[69] Haughton, p. 153. The earliest recovered Long Count
dated is from Monument 1 in the Maya site El Bal,
Guatemala, bearing a date of 37 BCE.

Brigham

[89] Except where otherwise (foot)noted, this Village life and


diet section is referenced to Diehl (2004), Davies, and
Pope et al.
[90] Pohl.
[91] VanDerwarker, p. 195, and Lawler, Archaeology (2007),
p. 23, quoting VanDerwarker.
[92] VanDerwarker, p. 141-144.
[93] Davies, p. 39.

[70] Miller and Taube (1993) p. 42. Pool, p. 295.

[94] Benson (1996) p. 263.

[71] Ortiz C.

[95] See translated excerpt from Melgar y Serranos original


1869 report, reprinted in Adams (1991), p.56. See also
Pool (2007), pp.1,35 and Stirling (1968), p.8.

[72] 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.
[73] Coe (1968) p. 121.

[96] Quoted in Coe (1968), p. 40.


[97] Coe (1968), p. 42-50.

13

[98] 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 Tajn, 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.
[99] Coe (1968), p. 50.
[100] Rubber Processing, MIT.
[101] Diehl, p. 14.
[102] 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.
Coe interprets Tamoanchan as a Mayan language word
meaning 'Land of Rain or Mist' (p. 61).
[103] The term tenocelome is used as early as 1967 by George
Kubler in American Anthropologist, v.69, p.404.
[104] See Grove (1976) or Ortiz de Montellano (1997)./.

16

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Petrographic evidence shows
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VanDerwarker, Amber (2006)
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von Nagy, Christopher (1997).
The Geoarchaeology of Settlement in the Grijalva Delta. In Bar-

EXTERNAL LINKS

bara L. Stark; Philip J. Arnold III.


Olmec to Aztec: Settlement Patterns
in the Ancient Gulf Lowlands. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
pp. 253277. ISBN 0-8165-16898. OCLC 36364149.
Wichmann, Sren (1995). The
Relationship Among the Mixe
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Posibles correlaciones lingsticas y arqueolgicas
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17 External links
Drawings and photographs of the 17 colossal heads
Stone Etchings Represent Earliest New World
Writing. Scientic American; Ma. del Carmen Rodrguez Martnez, Ponciano Ortz Ceballos, Michael
D. Coe, Richard A. Diehl, Stephen D. Houston, Karl
A. Taube, Alfredo Delgado Caldern, Oldest Writing in the New World, Science, Vol 313, September
15, 2006, pp. 16101614.
BBC audio le. Discussion of Olmec culture (15
mins) A History of the World in 100 Objects

17

18
18.1

Text and image sources, contributors, and licenses


Text

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18

18

18.2

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