Ancient Olmec Trade and Economy

The Role of Trade in the Growth of Mesoamerican Civilizations

Olmec colossal stone head at La Venta Park, Mexico

 

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The Olmec culture thrived in the humid lowlands of Mexico's Gulf coast during the Early and Middle Formative periods of Mesoamerica, from about 1200–400 BCE. They were great artists and talented engineers who had a complex religion and worldview. Although much information about the Olmecs has been lost to time, archaeologists have succeeded in learning much about their culture from excavations in and around the Olmec homeland. Among the interesting things they have learned is the fact that the Olmec were diligent traders who had many contacts with contemporary Mesoamerican civilizations.

Mesoamerican Trade Before the Olmec

By 1200 BCE, the people of Mesoamerica—present-day Mexico and Central America—were developing a series of complex societies. Trade with neighboring clans and tribes was common, but these societies did not have long-distance trade routes, a merchant class, or a universally accepted form of currency, so they were limited to a down-the-line sort of trade network. Prized items, such as Guatemalan jadeite or a sharp obsidian knife, might well wind up far from where it was mined or created, but only after it had passed through the hands of several isolated cultures, traded from one to the next.

The Dawn of the Olmec

One of the accomplishments of Olmec culture was the use of trade to enrich their society. Around 1200 BCE, the great Olmec city of San Lorenzo (its original name is unknown) began creating long-distance trade networks with other parts of Mesoamerica. The Olmec were skilled artisans, whose pottery, stone tools, statues, and figurines proved popular for commerce. The Olmecs, in turn, were interested in many things that were not native to their part of the world. Their merchants traded for many things, including raw stone material such as basalt, obsidian, serpentine and jadeite, commodities such as salt, and animal products such as pelts, bright feathers, and seashells. When San Lorenzo declined after 900 BCE, it was replaced in importance by La Venta, whose merchants used many of the same trade routes followed by their forebears.

Olmec Economy

The Olmec needed basic goods, such as food and pottery, and luxury items such as jadeite and feathers for making ornaments for rulers or religious rituals. Most common Olmec “citizens” were involved in food production, tending fields of basic crops such as maize, beans, and squash, or fishing the rivers that flowed through the Olmec homelands. There is no clear evidence that the Olmecs traded for food, as no remains of foodstuffs not native to the region have been found at Olmec sites. The exceptions to this are salt and cacao, which were possibly obtained through trade. There appears to have been a brisk trade in luxury items such as obsidian, serpentine and animal skins, however.

The Gulf Coast Olmec blossomed at a time when there were at least four other "islands" of expanding civilization in Mesoamerica: the Soconusco, the Basin of Mexico, the Copan Valley, and the Valley of Oaxaca. The Olmec trading practices, traced through the movement of goods produced or mined elsewhere, are key to understanding the Early and Middle Formative histories of Mesoamerica. Characteristics of the Olmec trading network include:

  • baby-faced figurines (essentially, portable versions of the Olmec stone heads);
  • distinctive white-rimmed blackware pottery and Calzadas Carved wares;
  • abstract iconography, especially that of the Olmec dragon; and
  • El Chayal obsidian, a translucent to transparent banded black volcanic stone.

Olmec Trading Partners

The Mokaya civilization of the Soconusco region (Pacific coast Chiapas state in present-day Mexico) was nearly as advanced as the Olmec. The Mokaya had developed Mesoamerica's first known chiefdoms and established the first permanent villages. The Mokaya and Olmec cultures were not too far apart geographically and were not separated by any insurmountable obstacles (such as an extremely high mountain range), so they made natural trade partners. The Mokaya adopted Olmec artistic styles in sculpture and pottery. Olmec ornaments were popular in Mokaya towns. By trading with their Mokaya partners, the Olmec had access to cacao, salt, feathers, crocodile skins, jaguar pelts and desirable stones from Guatemala such as jadeite and serpentine.

Olmec commerce extended well into present-day Central America: there is evidence of local societies having contact with the Olmec in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. In Guatemala, the excavated village of El Mezak yielded many Olmec-style pieces, including jadeite axes, pottery with Olmec designs and motifs and figurines with the distinctive ferocious Olmec baby-face. There is even a piece of pottery with an Olmec were-jaguar design. In El Salvador, many Olmec-style knick-knacks have been found and at least one local site erected a man-made pyramid mound similar to Complex C of La Venta. In the Copan valley of Honduras, the first settlers of what would become the great Maya city-state of Copán showed signs of Olmec influence in their pottery.

In the basin of Mexico, the Tlatilco culture began to develop about the same time as the Olmec, in the area occupied by Mexico City today. The Olmec and Tlatilco cultures evidently were in contact with one another, most likely through some sort of trade, and the Tlatilco culture adopted many aspects of Olmec art and culture. This may have even included some of the Olmec gods, as images of the Olmec Dragon and Banded-eye God appear on Tlatilco objects.

The ancient city of Chalcatzingo, in present-day Morelos of central Mexico, had extensive contact with La Venta-era Olmecs. Located in a hilly region in the Amatzinac River valley, Chalcatzingo may have been considered a sacred place by the Olmec. From about 700–500 BCE, Chalcatzingo was a developing, influential culture with connections with other cultures from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The raised mounds and platforms show Olmec influence, but the most important connection is in the 30 or so carvings that are found on the cliffs that surround the city. These show a distinct Olmec influence in style and content.

Importance of Olmec Trade

The Olmec were the most advanced civilization of their time, developing an early writing system, advanced stonework and complicated religious concepts before other contemporary societies. For this reason, the Olmec had a great influence on other developing Mesoamerican cultures with which they came into contact.

One of the reasons the Olmec were so important and influential—some archaeologists, but not all, consider the Olmec the "mother" culture of Mesoamerica—was the fact that they had extensive trade contact with other civilizations from the valley of Mexico well into Central America. The significance of the trade is that the Olmec cities of San Lorenzo and La Venta were the epicenter of the trade: in other words, goods such as Guatemalan and Mexican obsidian came into Olmec centers but were not traded directly to other growing centers.

While the Olmec declined between 900–400 BCE, its former trading partners dropped the Olmec characteristics and grew more powerful on their own. Olmec contact with other groups, even if they did not all embrace the Olmec culture, gave many disparate and widespread civilizations a common cultural reference and a first taste of what complex societies might offer.

Sources

  • Cheetham, David. "Cultural Imperatives in Clay: Early Olmec Carved Pottery from San Lorenzo and Cantón Corralito." Ancient Mesoamerica 21.1 (2010): 165–86. Print.
  • Coe, Michael D, and Rex Koontz. "Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. 6th Edition. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008
  • Diehl, Richard A. The Olmecs: America's First Civilization." London: Thames and Hudson, 2004.
  • Rosenswig, Robert M. "Olmec Globalization: A Mesoamerican Archipelago of Complexity." The Routledge Handbook of Archaeology and Globalization. Ed. Hodos, Tamar: Taylor & Francis, 2016. 177–193. Print.