The Olmecs

La Venta Monument 1

Mesoamerican cultures have a common origin; they all came into the American continent through the Bering Sea, approximately 40,000 years ago. These first migrants came from Asia and Africa. They travelled in small groups, spending a little time in one place and mostly moving south going after animals to hunt, better weather or life conditions. Earthquakes, floods and more powerful groups were also a major cause to keep them searching for better lands.

Some of them stayed north and some kept going south until they reached the area we know today as Central and South America. They learned to set traps to hunt, and to take advantage of the terrain, finally settling down in areas where they felt they had control over the environment. Isolated as they were from other groups, it took them thousands of years to advance in their evolution.

As soon as they discovered that plants could be grown, and how to improve agriculture, they stopped living in caves and started building houses. They stopped being nomads and settled in one place. Many important cultures developed from these groups, and although differing in tongues and customs, they all shared certain styles of life. For instance, they all shared the chief crop of corn (maize), bean, squash and chile. They worked with mud and stone, making pottery and sculptures and they practiced commerce. They also believed in the same gods, although they called them by different names according to their own tongues.

Arrival of Spanish Conquistadores

by the time of the arrival of the first Spanish conquistadores to the region, Mesoamerican cultures had already developed a culture far more advanced than what the foreigners expected to find. Despite of a limited technology they had built pyramids and ceremonial centers, monuments, head sculptures of colossal sizes, and developed impressive art; heads and figures sculpted with jade, rural paintings on the walls, pottery, and a solar calendar based on astronomic observations, the base of all calendars. It would have been comparable to entering another world.

These isolated cultures had a society with hierarchies well defined from commoners and slaves to warriors, priests and kings. Their spiritual awakening was powerful and intense, explaining the mysteries of the universe and life through a complicated polytheist religion with rituals that included human sacrifice. One of these cultures was the Olmec.

The Olmec Civilization

Their name, meaning The People from the Land of Rubber, was given by modern archeologists. The Olmec was the first great Mesoamerican culture. Their center was in San Lorenzo during their early formative period, from 1200-900/800 BC; and La Venta during the second or middle formative period, 900/800-500/400 BC., in the area of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico (known in the present time as the states of Tabasco and Veracruz.) At the same time, other complex societies were developing in the Valley of Oaxaca, Morelos, the Basin of Mexico, West Mexico, and Guerrero.

They developed numbers, which some archeologists believe where invented by them and some think more likely they were the disseminators of an ancient numbering system; one dot for one unit and a bar for five units. They also developed writing and a calendar, the one that later on was used by the Mayans. When the Olmec reached their highest development point, they started building huge ceremonial centers oriented with the movements of celestial bodies. Their leaders were high priests who had a deep knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. They believed the stars decided man’s destiny, therefore, they had to be observed carefully and continuously to be able to understand and know beforehand what was in store for them both as individuals and as a culture.

Religious Significance of their Work

Its themes were mostly expressed in sculpture; colossal head sculptures masterly worked with mud and stone and sculpted in rocks brought from far away.

More precious than gold were the green and turquoise (blue green) gems called jade, not the mineralogical jade, nephrite, but other green to blue hard stones were used and valued for lapidary work. Other important gems and stones used in their masks, sculptures, figurines and pottery were; jadeite – a sodium aluminum silicate, serpentine, albite, quartz and hornblende. This hard stone was extremely difficult to work with, yet the Olmec artisans mastered the techniques of shaping it with tools made of other hard stones.

Jade gave form under the hands of the Olmec artisans to deities, animals, plants, children, persons in sitting or acrobat positions, abstract forms and shamanic transformations including postures of transformation, like human forms in a feline like posture facing a jaguar, or even a fusion between human and jaguars.

Their art projects ranged in scale from miniatures to carvings of single large pieces such as the high, full round head of the Maya sun god which measures 6 inches. The green represented water and vegetation, the life force. Blue green jade was also a metaphor for water. Raindrop shapes can be found in many of their sculptures, and a blue green circle or disk for water. Jade was used for royalty and sacred persons and jade beads were also put in the mouths of the dead.

All Mesoamerican cultures left in their art the accounts of their path, but without any doubt, the Olmec colossal head sculptures are, along with the pyramids, the most impressive art form from that time, it was the first great art from the Mesoamerican period and is still held in high regard today.


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  4. The Legacy of Mesoamerica, Prentice Hall Series in Anthropology, Robert M. Carmack, Janine Gasco, Gary H. Gossen, 1996