The Olmec civilization was the earliest Mesoamerican civilization that arose near the Gulf of Mexico.
It existed for nearly a thousand years and cast a massive influence on all subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations, such as the Mayans, Toltecs and the Aztecs.
Many recurring traits of later Mesoamerican civilizations, such as association of gods with animals, ballgames and monumental structures made of stone were first a part of the Olmec civilization.
Even ritual bloodletting was first practiced by the Olmecs and later became a part of all Mesoamerican cultures.
It is for this reason that Olmec civilization is considered the ancestor to all major Mesoamerican civilizations.
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The Olmec civilization arose during 1400 B.C. in the city of San Lorenzo.
It was a result of agricultural settlements of the previously pastoral tribes who found the soil of the region fit enough to grow different crops.
This highly productive soil rapidly increased the population of the area adjoining this city which in turn lead to a social hierarchy.
The Olmec elites eventually created a demand for artifacts made out of jade, obsidian and other precious materials.
These artifacts bore the distinctive mark of the Olmec civilization and many of them survive to this day.
Like most subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations, religion was overlooked by the rulers and priests in the Olmec civilization.
The ruler were also associated with the religious deities which helped them establish their divine right to rule.
Shamans were a major character in the Olmec religious hierarchy. In the Olmec art, several transformation figures, which combined features of humans and animals, have been cited as depictions of the Olmec shamans.
Natural places which symbolically led to different planes, such as caves and mountaintops, were considered sacred by the Olmecs. Animals such as eagles, jaguars and snakes were identified with the Olmec deities.
Olmecs created art on an extensive range of mediums. Notable among these are Olmec figures and figurines through which Olmecs depicted humans in different situations, animals as well as a mixture of human and animal features, as in transformation figures.
Most of these figures are very natural and life-like, which has led the experts to deem Olmec art as remarkably naturalistic.
Olmec colossal heads are another iconic feature of the civilizations art.
Most of these heads are extant today and are as much as 11 feet high. They are carved out of single rocks of volcanic basalt and are said to depict Olmec rulers, although this theory is disputed.
Little historical information is available regarding the form of government that existed in Olmec civilization.
Still, researchers and archaeologists have found sufficient evidence to support the theory that a distinctive elite class existed among the Olmec.
The Olmec region was centered on San Lorenzo, so it has been surmised that political hierarchy existed as well.
One of the extant reliefs from La Venta, another major Olmec site, shows a figure as the Olmec Chief, possibly the depiction of an Olmec king.
Other evidence from Olmec sites affirm the presence of rulers in the major Olmec centers.
Sufficient archaeological evidence has been recovered from the site of Olmec civilization to let researchers conclude the Olmecs indulged in bloodletting and sacrifices. However, evidence for human sacrifices is scarce.
Most probably, Olmecs offered animal sacrifices to the deities which they associated with these animals.
At one particular Olmec site, the discovery of infant skulls has led to the speculation that Olmec practiced infant sacrifice. But insufficient evidence supports this speculation.
What we know for sure is that the bloodletting and sacrificial rituals practiced by the Olmec exerted their influence in subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations such as Mayans and Aztecs where human sacrifices became a part of the practice.
Most of the extant archaeological evidence regarding the Olmec civilization has been recovered from two key sites. These are San Lorenzo and La Venta.
Having settled in San Lorenzo in 15th century B.C., the city continued to be the center of Olmec civilization until the 10th century B.C.
In about 10th century B.C., La Venta rose as another major Olmec center while San Lorenzo underwent destruction and abandonment during this century.
From 900 B.C. until its final decline in 400 B.C., La Venta remained the key city of the Olmec civilization.
Olmec civilization is considered among the earliest civilizations in the Western Hemisphere to have developed a hieroglyphic writing system of its own.
Evidence dated back to 650 B.C. reveals Olmec hieroglyphs written on a speech scroll and other medium.
Another piece of evidence, dated between 1100 B.C. and 900 B.C. contains numerous Olmec symbols and is considered the oldest evidence of the Olmec language.
However, some researchers have disputed the claim that this later evidence is related to the Olmec civilization.
Between 400 B.C. and 350 B.C., the population in the eastern half of the Olmec civilization suddenly plummeted.
Although researchers have been unable to assign a definite cause to this sudden decline, several theories have been proposed to explain it.
One of the most convincing explanations cites environmental changes as the key culprit in the depopulation of the region.
Olmecs relied on water from riverine formations for agriculture and any changes to this environment could have drastically impacted the agrarian society.
Some researchers have also claimed the volcanic eruptions may have forced the populations to move away from the region.
Olmec civilization is the oldest civilization that arose in Mesoamerica in 12th century B.C. It was based near the Gulf of Mexico and became the precursor to all subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations.
Olmecs were an agrarian society which soon led to a social hierarchy with an elite class. This elite class commissioned artifacts of various forms, many of which are extant.
The Olmec art has been classified as exceptionally naturalistic, as depicted in many extant Olmec figurines.
The civilization underwent decline in 4th century B.C. but an overwhelmingly large number of its cultural traits continued to exist in later Mesoamerican civilizations.