Olmec Civilization

The Olmec Civilization was the first major civilization in the Central American region and took birth in the present day Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco.

They considerably expanded their trade and activity in the region and also made impressive advancements in arts and architecture.

Some of the important features of their culture and civilization include monumental sacred complexes, massive stone sculpture, ball games, and polytheistic religion.

All these aspects, along with others, went on to influence the later Mesoamerican civilizations.

Olmec Civilization History

The Olmec Civilization is said to have begun sometime between 1400BC and 1200BC.

It has also been suggested that the Olmecs had their roots in the early farming cultures of Tabasco, which can be dated back to almost 5000BC. But distinct features of the Olmec civilization can be traced back to only 1400BC.

Their influence and trade activity increased after 1200BC while different cultural aspects were also solidified. Due to the limited archaeological evidence, not much is known about the location and extent of their settlements.

The culture abruptly declined and collapsed between 350BC and 400BC, exact reasons of which are debated among the scholars.

Olmec Civilization: Art and Sculpture

Art was a special aspect of the Olmec culture and they made impressive contributions to Mesoamerican art.

A lot of their art is quite naturalistic, making use of a variety of media such as jade, clay, basalt, and greenstone.

Olmecs made various sorts of human and animal portraits in their art and sculptures.

One of the most distinguishing features of the art of Olmec Civilization is the colossal heads in their sculptures.

Different theories exist to explain these heads, with the most accepted one being that these are the portraits of the rulers dressed as ball-players.

Olmec Civilization: Rituals and Writing System

People of the Olmec Civilization became pioneers to a lot of aspects of Mesoamerican culture that were later followed by other civilizations and cultures.

For instance, evidence has been found about the fact that the Olmecs indulged in the practice of bloodletting.

On the other hand, whether they offered human sacrifice or not is contested amongst scholars.

It is thought that the Olmec Civilization was the first one in the Western Hemisphere to develop a writing system.

Mayan Symbols that have been discovered date back to 900BC.

It is also thought that it was the Olmecs who had invented the use of zero that was used in the Mayan number system.

All these aspects of the Olmec Civilization were later emulated and adopted by later civilizations such as the Mayans and the Aztecs.

Olmec Civilization: Long Count Calendar and Ball-Games

Two other important aspects of Olmec Civilization and culture are the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar and the Mesoamerican ball-game.

According to the archaeological evidence, artifacts show that the Long Count calendar were possibly made originally by the Olmecs.

Another important invention of the Olmecs was the Mesoamerican ball-game which remained the most important game through all the subsequent Mesoamerican cultures.

The Rubber-ball used in ball-game has been found in El Manati, dating to around 1600BC. However, divergent opinions about the Olmec origins of these cultural aspects exist.

Olmec Civilization: Religion

Just like the Olmec Civilization, Olmec religion was the first major religion in the region and the religious practices followed by the Olmecs were later emulated by other civilizations and cultures.

Like the latter cultures, they had a polytheistic religion and a religious mythology that explained the relation between gods and humans.

Religious activities were generally headed by rulers, priests, or shamans.

The surviving monuments and the portable art of the Olmec Civilization provide some important insight into their religious mythology.

Some of the important gods in Olmec religion included Olmec Dragon, Maize deity, Bird Monster, Rain-Spirit and Were-Jaguar, Feathered Serpent, Shark Monster, and Banded-eye God.

Olmec Civilization: Social and Political Organization

The social and political organization of the Olmec Civilization was not as sophisticated as the latter civilizations.

This is understandable because the Olmecs were the pioneers and a lot of aspects of their culture were inherited by the subsequent cultures.

There is evidence of a centralized government at the major Olmec sites of San Lorenzo and La Venta. However, this organization was rather loose and they seem to have lacked a priestly caste or a standing army.

It is also thought that the Olmecs indulged in extensive trade because Olmec artifacts bearing “Olmecoid” iconography have been found throughout much of the Mesoamerican region.

Olmec Civilization: Settlements and Diet

Most of the settlements of the Olmecs were in the form of villages instead of large urban centers. These villages were generally located on higher ground and consisted of several scattered houses.

In the large villages, temples could be found. There were smaller gardens where various medicinal herbs and smaller crops were grown.

Trees of avocado and cacao were also grown abundantly. Olmecs planted crops on the riverbed between flooding periods.

They also practiced slash-and-burn agriculture for new land after the previous had been exhausted.

Other than fruits and vegetables, the Olmec diet also included fish, turtle, snake, and crabs etc. in addition to various other birds and animals.

Olmec Civilization: Influence on Succeeding Cultures

Olmec Civilization went on to exert huge influence on the succeeding Mesoamerican civilizations.

This included the Mayans, the Aztecs, the Toltecs, and others. The religious practices, along with the belief system, that originated in the Olmec Civilization were adopted by all the cultures that came later.

Various gods worshiped by the Olmecs were also included in the Pantheon of subsequent cultures, sometimes with changed names.

Similarly, various other aspects of the Olmec Civilization that influenced the later cultures included the ball-game, the written language, religious sacrifice, the number system, and others.

Olmec Summary

Olmecs Civilization was the first major civilization in the Mesoamerican region and went on to become the precursor of the Mesoamerican civilizations to follow.

The exact origins of these people are not known although they are thought to have been originated in the present day Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco.

The Olmec Civilization reached its peak during the period 1400BC-1200BC and indulged in extensive trade and cultural activity.

They also developed the religious concepts which would influence the later cultures.

Finally, the Olmecs developed an independent language and possibly also had a number system. The civilization collapsed around 400BC-350BC, exact reasons of which remain unknown.