Long before the Maya, Aztec or Toltec flourished in Central America, there lived the Olmecs, a civilization that has come to continue to intrigue and amaze the world. They were the most prevalent group in Mesoamerica and a highly developed and well organized society with a complex calendar and hieroglyphic writing system. The Olmecs were the mother civilization in Mesoamerica.
The Olmec lived around the areas of La Venta in Tabasco, San Lorenza Tenochtitlan, and Laguna de los Cerros in Veracruz during the pre-classic period. They built their cities around a central raised mound. These mounds, used for religious ceremonies, were replaced with pyramid-shaped structures around 900 B.C. The Olmecs used basalt, found in the Tuxtla Mountains, to construct plazas and religious pyramid structures. Houses were made of wooden walls with clay and palm roof tops, and a hierarchical society separated the elite from the common groups in the residential houses. Crop production was made possible by the Olmecs from an irrigation system that they built throughout the cities. The Olmecs supplemented crops by hunting and accessing the any waterways for fishing and trading among different surrounding cultures.
Because the Olmecs used animals as strong symbols of religion, it is accepted that they practiced shamanism, believing that each person had an animal spirit. Moreover, it is believed that hallucinogenic drugs from the marine frog were used for trances by the shamans. The elite and nobles were buried ceremoniously with jewels in plazas which were constructed with jade walls.
The Olmecs are known for their unique artistic creations, most notably their colossal head art, the majority of which were either decapitated or destroyed in some way by the Olmecs themselves after a ruler died as a sacrifice to the gods or animal spirits. Most of the heads are deformed, a ritual done at birth for noble children, much as the Mayan culture did. Other art motifs of Olmec art includes jaguars, serpents and monkeys.
Because of its repetition amid the art forms, the jaguar is obviously seen as a supernatural creature and the "intertwining between human and animal figures reflects the religious belief of the connection between the two." Jade was used as the material, as it was for the plaza walls, for most of the art sculptures, however, jade was not a natural stone found in the Olmec area.
Beginning around 1200 B.C., the Olmec's influence spread as far as what is now modern Guatemala, Honduras, Belieze, Costa Rica and El Salvador.
After creating a culture that would later be adapted by all of the Mesoamerican civilizations that followed, the Olmecs disappeared around 300 B.C. Because even their bones have long since rotted in the humid rain forest, everything scholars know about them is based on the remains of cities and on comparisons to later civilizations. Therefore, there are numerous theories concerning the Olmec's origins, social structure and religion. What is generally accepted among scholars is that the Olmecs' ancestors, "like those of all Native Americans, were Asian hunter-gathers who crossed into the Americas at least 12,000 years ago, at the end of the most recent ice age." From bits of ancient garbage and remnants of mud buildings, it is concluded that somewhere around 2000 B.C., descendants from these original groups had settled in small fishing villages along the rivers of what is now the "Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco."
An Olmec expert at the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa, Richard Diehl, says that "By then, we know that they had adapted to the environment" supplementing "their diet with cultivated plants...maize and beans...they became more and more dependent on agriculture, perhaps because the population was increasing." However, archaeologists do not know what caused a society of farmers to transform and evolve into a class-based social structure, with "leaders and commoners, bosses and laborers, artisans and priests." Diehl believes that it was population pressure, as the pre-Olmec villages grew, they stratified... "A new elite class probably asserted its leadership through charisma, control of trade networks and control of people, all of which led to the evolution of a complex society and, eventually, the art style we call Olmec." Whether this theory is true or not is debatable, nevertheless, by 1200 B.C., Olmec society was flourishing on a fertile plain overlooking the Chiquito River at San Lorenzo.
By comparison, the Olmec sites, such as the one at San Lorenzo, is far less impressive than the Mayan cities of the Yucatan peninsula to the east due in part to the fact that the Olmec site supported only a few thousand people compared to the Mayan sites of 100,000 or more citizens. Moreover, the sites were built on a modest scale, for example the Great Pyramid at La Venta which was built around 800 B.C. is only about 100 feet high, which is roughly half the size of the tallest Mayan pyramid at Chichen Itza. Yet, the Olmecs laid out each site "according to a preconceived plan, a fact that reflects both the people's religious beliefs and a fairly sophisticated knowledge of engineering," such as the mounds at La Venta which are oriented exactly eight degrees west of north.
Moreover, according to Ann Cyphers, an Olmec scholar at Mexico's National Autonomous University, the San Lorezo site shows evidence of a class structure, "with more elaborate housing for the upper classes and simpler accommodations for the middle class and the poor...workshops for producing artifacts, and irrigation and drainage systems...all these things show a society of great complexity."
However, that complexity did not extend to Olmec politics. Diehl explains that instead of a single, unified state, the Olmec were a collection of chiefdoms. According to Diehl, "There were probably a number of different populations, forming groups that rose and fell over time and shifted alliances. I don't think there was any political integration." Furthermore, no one knows if the major cities, such as San Lorenzo, La Venta, and Tres Zapotes traded with each other or even co-existed.
What is known and what is unanimously agreed upon by art historians and archaeologists alike, is that the Olmec produced the "earliest sophisticated art in Mesoamerica and that their distinctive style provided a model for the Maya, Aztec and other later civilizations in the region." Peter David Joralemon of Pre-Columbian Art Research Associates in New York City, explains that prior to 900 B.C., the small Olmec objects tend to be ceramic, whereas later pieces were commonly made from jade and serpentine which are rare material that required skilled artists to carve.
Most of the Olmec artifacts are "sculptures and figurines, decorated stone stelae, votive axes, altars and the like, some of which were polished to a mirror-like shine." From the earliest period, human figures wear simple costumes, while the later figures are more elaborate, moreover, the ceramics were simple sculptures, while the jade pieces tend to be made for rulers to wear. As Joralemon explains, "They were clearly a display of personal weath, an indication of status and prestige," evidence that the Olmec society may have been growing increasingly stratified. Some of the recurring images in their art are birds, dwarfs, hunchbacks, dragons, and "most important, the 'were-jaguar' - part human, part jaguar" indicating a strong belief in the supernatural world and shamanism. Although, archaeologists have found a variety of household objects, most of them are broken, thus, says Joralemon, "we know relatively little about he common Olmec."
The most famous of all the Olmec artifacts are seventeen colossal stone heads, probably representations of rulers, thought to have been carved sometime between 1200 and 900 B.C. from blocks of volcanic basalt, the heads of which range from five feet to eleven feet in height and weigh up to twenty tons. Scholars and archaeologists do not know how the Olmec transported the basalt from the quarries some eighty miles away to the top of a plateau roughly 150 feet high, says Joralemon, "It must have been an incredible engineering effort...these people didn't have beasts of burden, and they didn't have wheels...We don't know if they floated the blocks on rafts or traveled over land."
Still there is hope that scholars will be able to solve many of the unanswered questions that linger concerning the Olmec since most of the sites have barely been studied due to the annual floods that coat the land with thick layers of silt which dried into impenetrable clay. Furthermore, according to Diehl, about eighty percent of the entire Olmec territory in southern Mexico has been converted to jungle to cow pasture and sugar-cane fields during the last twenty years... "There's so much vegetation on the surface that you can't just pick up pottery. Generally, you can't even see the ground," and the hot, humid climate makes the work very unpleasant. Nevertheless, during the last decade, researchers have uncovered a number of key sites, including the "monument-strewn ruins of Teopantecuanitlan in Guerrero, and the sacred shrine at El Manati, whose murky springs yielded the first examples of wooden Olmec statuary and the earliest known evidence…