4. Social and Political Life
There is a general paucity of information about the actual societal and political structure of the Olmec. While there is not much evidence to build a comprehensive picture of the daily and social life of these people, there is enough available data from certain archeological sites to provide some reasonable speculations.
One of the assumptions that is derived from the excavation of sites at San Lorenzo and then at La Venta is that the society was very centralized. This in turn has led to the view that the society was highly structured, with a hierarchical basis of order and class stratification. This also implies the existence of a ruling elite and a system of power and control, which was possibly based on religious beliefs. This view of the structure of the society is summarized as follows: "Olmec society was & #8230;highly centralized, with a strongly hierarchical structure and elite that was able to use their control over materials, such as monumental stone and water, to exert control over the people and legitimize their regime."
There is also clear evidence of a class structure in Olmec society. This is the view for example of Olmec scholars like Ann Cyphers. She states that there is evidence of elaborate houses for the elite or upper classes, while there are simpler housing structures for the middle and lower classes.
As one study notes, "The architecture of the Olmec was complex. Structures in Lorenzo, for example, included public-ceremonial buildings, elite residences, and houses for commoners (a clear separation of the classes).
Cyphers also makes the important point that archeological research indicates that the society was extremely complex in structure and stratification; "All these things show a society of great complexity…"
Scholars are also of the opinion that the society was possibly a complex unity of various chiefdoms. These groups interacted on a religious and cultural level.
Agriculture and farming played as vital part in the culture of these people. Besides the obvious fact of sufficient foods and nutrition it has also been seen by experts and being as tool in the politics of the society. As a study by Amber M. VanDerwarker (2006) indicates, the increase in the size and complexity of the society coincided with the development of village agriculture, which "…has led scholars to theorize that agricultural surpluses gave aspiring Olmec leaders control over vital resources and thus a power base on which to build authority and exact tribute."
Central to the society and social life was religious ceremony and ritual. This is evident in the large and centrally situated ceremonial centers. There are however some views that suggest a slightly different social structure. This refers to the view that as a result of the slash -- and burn agriculture and crop-rotation that was practiced, most of the people would have lived in smaller villages and hamlets. "Although the river banks were used to plant crops between flooding periods, the Olmec also likely practiced swidden (or slash-and-burn) agriculture to clear the forests and shrubs, and to provide new fields once the old fields were exhausted.
The development of an agricultural economy also had a number of social implications. With the increase of an agricultural economy more people were needed to manage and administer the resources -- which led to a division of labor and a class structure in the society.
The one's who controlled the rich farm land would naturally have been the ones who would rise up as the Elite of the community because they controlled the food supply, and as part of the management of resources, a central center had to be established.
A number of theorists are of the opinion that the development of agriculture was the impetus which led to the expansion and development of the Olmec civilization. This would also have led to its influence through trade...
As one study o0n this aspect notes: "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."
There is as general agreement among scholars that the Olmec civilization 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."
There are also certain changes in Olmec art over time that should be noted. One is that before 900 B.C. most of the art tend to be ceramic, while later objects were made form jade and serpentine; which were rare materials that required considerable skill to fashion.
However, what has fascinated people for centuries is the subject matter and the significance of the figures in Olmec art. There are a number of subjects that are often repeated in Aztec art. These include dragons, birds, dwarfs, hunchbacks and, most important, the jaguar -- or more correctly the "were-jaguar" that is part human, part jaguar.
It should also be made clear that art in this culture, as in many other ancient cultures, cannot be separated from the spiritual and religious underlying life of that culture. The art and shamanic and spiritual aspects of the society are inextricably intertwined. Olmec art is essentially an expression of the religious beliefs that permeated the entire society.
A case in point is the image of the jaguar that is so dominant in Olmec art. The jaguar represents a belief system that was deeply involved in the supernatural and the shamanic vision of reality. The jaguar figure in Olmec art is similar to a number of other figures in that it shows a combination of or transition between human and animal. It must be remembered that in many ancient worldviews there is no distinction between the human and natural world. In other words, many ancient belief systems do not adhere to the more modern distinction between man and nature. The jaguar figure in Olmec art is possibly therefore a representation of this belief system where the barriers between humanity and nature and between man and animal is seen as illusionary or has been broken down.
The above refers particularly to the shamanic perception of reality, where transformation of man to animal is seen part of the ability of the shaman. The shaman has the facility to change his or her form in order to achieve certain supernatural ends. Linked with this was the belief that was prevalent among the Olmec that, "… each individual has an animal spirit."
This refers as well to the general shamanic views about 'power animals'.
Shamans believe that everyone has power animals - animal spirits which reside with each individual adding to their power and protecting them from illness, acting similarly to a guardian angel. Each power animal that you have increases your power so that illnesses or negative energy cannot enter your body. The spirit also lends you the wisdom of its kind. A hawk spirit will give you hawk wisdom, and lend you some of the attributes of hawk.
The above quotation provides some insight into the way that the Maya possibly understood the link between man, nature and the supernatural. This shamanic aspect can be seen in the important figure of the jaguar. It is also worth reiterating the fact that Olmec art, like many ancient cultures, cannot be considered in isolation from the religious and spiritual beliefs of the civilization. This is an aspect that will be explored in more detail in the following section on religion.
The jaguar was also very important for Olmec culture in that it was linked to one of their central gods. The jaguar was also referred to as nahual, which is "...an animal that is so closely related to a certain man, that if the animal dies, the man will also die."
From another angle, jaguars were also seen as the alter ego of the shaman. The following provides insight into the reason why the jaguar figure was revered and why it was so prominent in Olmec art "To the ancient Indians the jaguar was a symbol of supernatural forces-not a simple animal, but an ancestor and a god."
In order to understand the significance of the jaguar figure one has to suspend the modern dualistic view of the world and reality that makes rational distinctions between man and nature and between the known and the unknown. The Olmec lived in a world where such distinctions were seen as illusionary and the jaguar was a symbol of this belief and a conduit between this world and the supernatural.
As we explore the literature on Olmec art the references to the jaguar image also become more complex and intertwined when we enter further into the often confusing world of Olmec myth and religion. For example,…
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