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First published: October 2000. Revised January 2004.

The Olmecs

by Michael Sones

Olmec sculpture from Copyright Free Photo LibraryThe Olmec Indians had a civilization along the Gulf coast in what is now southern Mexico from about 1200-300 BC. This culture was highly influential in the cultures such as the Mayan and Aztec which later developed in MesoAmerica. The name 'Olmec' comes from the Aztecs and means "people of the lands of rubber" due to the rubber trees of the area.This is a tropical region, which is low-lying and humid. The soil is very fertile and there is abundant bird, animal, and fish life.

Three major centres of Olmec civilisation were Laguna de los Cerros in Veracruz, San Lorenzo in Veracruz and La Venta in Tabasco. In particular La Venta, an island surrounded by mangrove swamps, was a temple-city with large ceremonial plazas, courts, carved stone altars and bas-relief stelae (tall stone slabs). The development of La Venta began about 1000 BC. The Olmecs developed an early form of writing, had a knowledge of mathematics and astronomy that helped them to devise a calendar, and had a highly developed artistic style particularly in their sculpture.

They farmed corn, beans, and squash. There was a highly developed system of aqueducts to Olmec Headcarry drinking water in at least one of their cities. Some of their cultural and religious influence can be detected in the Mayan and Aztec civilizations that later flourished in the region. Olmec culture has been referred to as the "mother culture." It is possible that some of the mound builders of the American mid-west were also influenced by the Olmecs.

As well as using clay in their pottery they were great sculptors using jade for small carvings. However, they are particularly renowned for carving great heads that are thought to have been representations of their rulers and probably set up at the accession to rule or at a funeral. These were carved from basalt and weighed many tons. There are seventeen known to exist and range from six and a half to ten feet tall and weighing more than ten tons. One of the impressive things about them is their naturalism and the way in which they suggest a real person rather than a stylized representation. All of the statues, which are complete in themselves, have the characteristic Olmec facial features of broad nostrils, thick lips and full Olmec statuecheeks. They all have the typical headdress or helmet. They were transported by sledge and raft from where they were quarried many miles to where they were erected.The size of the statues alone suggests a cultural preoccupation with great power. These were almost certainly "big men" within the Olmec culture. In many cultures "big men" have dominant roles which gives them greater access to and control over women.

Other Olmec carvings depict quite a different physical form with pear-shaped heads which suggests a deliberate deformation brought about by head-binding in infancy. In contrast to the realism of the great heads another motif in Olmec art was the depiction of the jaguar or more precisely the 'were-jaguar.' The jaguar, the largest mammal in central America and a fearsome predator, was an animal that was central to their religious and mythical life and to representations of political power. Many Olmec sculptures depict a combination of human and jaguar form or features. A central concept of the thoughstatue of an Olmec babyt of pre-Columbian Indians was that of the nahual which was a kind of animal alter ego of a person. This combination of animal and human is taken by some anthropologists to indicate that the religion of the Olmecs was shamanistic.

The Olmecs also probably played the ball-game which was popular throughout much of MesoAmerica for centuries. In this game opposing teams tried to hit a small rubber ball through hoops in a courtyard using hips and shoulders. Losers were sometimes ritually sacrificed.

The Olmecs also created many ceramic statues of human babies the significance of which is not clear. This representation of human infants is quite unique among ancient civilizations. The adjacent photo is of a baby carved in jade. As can be seen their skill in carving in jade is really quite astonishing. The stone was cut, drilled and polished. Jade was considered a very valuable stone by pre-Columbian Indians perhaps because of an association of its green colour with vegetation.

Apparently the Olmecs also used mirrors of magnetite, haematite, and iron pyrite presumably to look at themselves.

Photos on this page copyright Edgar Martin del Campo and used with his kind permission.

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