Ancient America: The Olmec

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The Aztec were only the last of many great civilizations in Mexico. The mother civilization of all of the Mesoamerican civilizations was the Olmec who flourished more than 3,200 years ago. Olmec civilization was centered off the Gulf of Mexico and includes archaeological sites such as Tres Zapotes, Laguna de los Cerros, San Lorenzo, and La Venta. The Olmec homeland bordering the Gulf of Mexico is hot, humid, and marshy-very different from the Valley of Mexico.

Olmec Map

Olmec Ax

Like the Mesoamerican civilizations which followed them, the Olmec had large cities with monumental architecture. The archaeological site of San Lorenzo is considered to be Mesoamerica’s first urban center. It is estimated that about 5,500 people lived in the city and that another 7,500 lived in the outlying areas. An elite population lived in San Lorenzo and in the nine sites adjacent to it. Common people lived in small villages nestled within the twisting river network. This river network not only provided canoe access between the villages, but it also provided the people with easy access to the aquatic resources of the nearby Gulf of Mexico.

Olmec 4

San Lorenzo is located on a long ridge above a network of rivers. The site contains ten gigantic stone heads and three carved altars.

The mark of Olmec civilizations is huge helmeted heads carved out of basalt. The heads appear to be the portraits of famous ball players or perhaps kings rigged out in the accoutrements of the ballgame. These heads range in size from more than three meters (ten feet) in height to less than two meters (six feet). The heads, which were carved from a single block or boulder of volcanic basalt, can weigh up to 40 tons.

Olmec Head 1

Olmec Head 2

The material from which these giant heads were carved was not found in places in which they were displayed. The basalt for the heads was quarried up to 50 miles from their final location. Like the other civilizations of Mesoamerica, the Olmec did not have draft animals nor did they use wheeled vehicles. Moving these massive pieces of stone over great distances required a great deal of skill. Whenever possible, they were moved by raft down the rivers.

Like the Mesoamerican civilizations which followed them, the Olmec had extensive trade routes. Raw materials and finished goods were traded across hundreds of miles. For example, the Olmec who were located in the present-day states of Veracruz and Tobasco in Mexico imported both jade and obsidian from Guatemala. At San Lorenzo there were decorative cubes of ilmenite (a black iron-titanium mineral) from the Mexican state of Chiapas and polished gray-black mirrors from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Olmec pottery was found from northern Mexico to the highlands of Guatemala.

In Chiapas, some 300 miles away from the Olmec heartland, archaeologists working at the site of Cantón Corralito have found more than 4,000 pieces of Olmec pottery from San Lorenzo, suggesting the possibility of an Olmec colony or a strong trading influence.  In addition to the pottery, Cantón Corralito contains numerous figurines which were imported from San Lorenzo.

One of the common features of most Mesoamerican civilizations was the ballgame. The Olmec were the first people to develop this game. The ballgame was played with a rubber ball and the name “Olmec” is in fact the Nahuatl name for “rubber people.” The Olmec appear to have been using the rubber ball before they developed the more formal ballcourt.

The ballcourt was a long playing field with high walls on two sides. Protruding from these walls would be large stones which had a large hole drilled through the center. The ball players would score points by knocking the rubber ball through the hole in the stone. The ball was played by using only the hip.

Ceramic figures from 3,200 years ago depict women as players, as well as men.

Rubber was also used for making sandals, for waterproofing cloth, and for making drumstick ends. It was also burned as incense and was used for glue.

Another development of the Olmec which spread to other Mesoamerican civilizations was writing. In Mesoamerica, the concept of writing appears to have been first developed by the Olmec. In addition, they used the concept of zero in their mathematics.

About 3,000 years ago the Olmec also discovered that the earth has a magnetic field and they discovered that a compass could be used for directional orientation. Using the compass, they laid out both the dwellings for the living and the internments of the dead.

Olmec Wrestler

1 Comment

  1. I have a friend in Guadalajara, Mex who’s from Coatzacoalcos, the town where the Plumed Serpent returned from the sea, and birthplace of Salma Hayek (connection?).  Cool guy, studying psych and archaeology.  His aunt has an Olmec head on her farm, and his uncle owns half of five Mayan pyramids covered in jungle in Chiapas.  

    When we went on a day trip to see some ruins, we stopped in a nice town by a lake for lunch.  My friend said, “This town looks like my town, except my town is around 4000 years old.”  

    As someone who’s used to measuring long times in decades or centuries, I was pretty much floored by his comment.  Respect the Olmecas.  

    Thanks again for the excellent history.  

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