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“Olmec” is the name used to designate an archaeological culture centered on the lowlands of the states of Veracruz and Tabasco on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Olmec culture, which flourished from 1200 to 400 BCE, was the first complex culture with monumental art and architecture in ancient Mesoamerica (Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize). Later Mesoamerican cultures such as the Aztec, Maya, and Toltec built on the achievements of the earlier Olmec, especially in the areas of social organization, monumental artistic expression, and religious thought.
The hot, humid lowlands of Veracruz and Tabasco had been little explored in the 1930s when archaeologists began to uncover signs of a complex archaeological culture in the area. The initial trait that set Olmec culture apart was the presence of stone monuments that proved to be the earliest examples of monumental art in Mesoamerica. Shortly after these discoveries, archaeologists found examples of monumental architecture in the form of the Mesoamerican truncated pyramid. An early example, from the site of La Venta, rose to a height of 98 feet and was one of the largest buildings in Mesoamerica at the time. Work from the 1960s through the 1990s at the site of San Lorenzo revealed monumental sculpture together with early evidence of a residential palace, complete with a stone drainage system and massive stone columns at the entryway. Major stone monuments also survive at Laguna de los Cerros, a little explored Olmec center. Access to stone in a region with few stone resources must have been a sign of prestige, and the presence of an elaborate palace structure demonstrates that Olmec society was clearly stratified.
Later Olmec also treated access to jade as a principal elite marker. The Olmec traded for the material across a major portion of Mesoamerica, as most Olmec jade is thought to originate in the highlands of Guatemala. While the physiognomy of the colossal heads is sometimes cited as proof of transatlantic contacts, there is no clear archaeological evidence that the Olmec traded with or were contacted by Africans or any other peoples outside of Mesoamerica and Central America.
The iconography of Olmec monumental stone sculpture is varied but may be characterized by its interest in portraying rulership. Colossal stone portrait heads of the rulers were set up in the center of Olmec cities, while the earliest stelae bear the image of humans performing rites clearly associated with rulership in later Mesoamerican cultures. Massive stone thrones also point to the close relationship between monuments and rulership. A particular interest in the depiction of infants is evidenced in both small-scale ceramic and monumental stone sculpture. Other motifs and a set of supernatural beings were shared with peoples all over Mesoamerica from the earliest Olmec times. The Olmec developed hieroglyphic writing before other literate Mesoamerican cultures such as those of Monte Albán or the Maya.
Olmec centers, the largest of which held perhaps 3,000 inhabitants, were based on the highly productive agriculture possible around the waterways of Veracruz and Tabasco. Control of this land may have lead to early stratification, and the presence of extensive waterways eased travel and trade in an area that had no beasts of burden. San Lorenzo, the earliest Olmec center (flourished 1200–900 BCE), as well as its successor, La Venta (flourished 900–400 BCE), fit this pattern.
- Benson, Elizabeth P., and Beatriz de la F 1996. Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art.
- Diehl, Richard 2004. The Olmecs: America’s First Civilization. London: Thames and Hudson.
- Pool, Christopher. Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
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