Facts About the Ancient Olmec

Mesoamerica's First Great Civilization

The Olmec culture thrived along Mexico’s gulf coast from roughly 1200 to 400 B.C. Best known today for their carved colossal heads, the Olmecs were an important early Mesoamerican civilization which had much influence on later cultures such as the Aztecs and the Maya. What do we know about these mysterious ancient people?

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Olmec head
Manfred Gottschalk / Getty Images

The Olmecs were the first great culture to arise in Mexico and Central America. They established a city on a river island in 1200 B.C. or so: archaeologists, who do not know the original name of the city, call it San Lorenzo. San Lorenzo had no peers or rivals: it was the largest and most magnificent city in Mesoamerica at the time and it exerted great influence in the region. Archaeologists consider the Olmecs to be one of only six “pristine” civilizations: these were cultures that developed on their own without the benefit of migration or influence from some other civilization.

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Olmec stone
A moss covered stone with ancient Olmec markings in Takalika Abaj. Brent Winebrenner / Getty Images

The Olmecs thrived in the present-day Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco some three thousand years ago. Their civilization declined around 400 B.C. and their major cities were reclaimed by the jungle. Because so much time has passed, much information about their culture has been lost. For example, it is not known if the Olmec had books, like the Maya and Aztecs. If there ever were any such books, they disintegrated long ago in the moist climate of Mexico's gulf coast. All that remains of Olmec culture are stone carvings, ruined cities and a handful of wooden artifacts pulled from a bog at the El Manatí site. Nearly everything we know about the Olmec has been discovered and pieced together by archaeologists.

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Olmec ruler sculpture
Olmec Sculpture of a Ruler Emerging From a Cave. Richard A. Cooke / Getty Images

The Olmec were religious and contact with the Gods was an important part of their daily life. Although no structure has been clearly identified as an Olmec temple, there are areas of archaeological sites which are considered to be religious complexes, such as complex A at La Venta and El Manatí. The Olmec may have practiced human sacrifice: some human bones located at suspected sacred sites seem to confirm this. They had a shaman class and an explanation for the cosmos around them.

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Olmec
Olmec Priest With Supernatural Infant. © Richard A. Cooke/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Archaeologist Peter Joralemon has identified eight gods – or at least supernatural beings of some sort – associated with the ancient Olmec culture. They are: the Olmec Dragon, the Bird Monster, the Fish Monster, the Banded-eye God, the Water God, the Maize God, the Were-jaguar and the Feathered Serpent. Some of these gods would remain in Mesoamerican mythology with other cultures: the Maya and the Aztecs both had feathered serpent gods, for example.

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Olmec mask
© Richard A. Cooke/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Most of what we know about the Olmec comes from works they created in stone. The Olmecs were extremely talented artists and sculptors: they produced many statues, masks, figurines, stelae, thrones and more. They are best known for their massive colossal heads, seventeen of which have been found at four different archaeological sites. They also worked with wood: most wooden Olmec sculptures have been lost, but a handful of them survived at the El Manatí site.

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They were Talented Architects and Engineers

Olmec tomb
An Olmec tomb formed of basalt columns. Danny Lehman/Corbis/VCG

The Olmecs built aqueducts, laboriously carving massive pieces of stone into identical blocks with a trough on one end: they then lined these blocks up side by side to create a channel for water to flow. That’s not their only feat of engineering, however. They created a man-made pyramid at La Venta: it is known as Complex C and is located in the Royal Compound in the heart of the city. Complex C is likely meant to represent a mountain and is made of earth. It must have taken countless man-hours to complete.

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Olmec relief sculpture
A relief sculpture of a man carrying a child. Danny Lehman/Corbis/VCG

The Olmec apparently traded with other cultures all over Mesoamerica. Archaeologists know this for several reasons. First of all, objects from other regions, such as jadeite from present-day Guatemala and obsidian from the more mountainous regions of Mexico, have been discovered in Olmec sites. Additionally, Olmec objects, such as figurines, statues and celts, have been found in sites of other cultures contemporary to the Olmec. Other cultures seem to have learned much from the Olmec, as some less developed civilizations adopted Olmec pottery techniques.

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The Olmec were Organized Under Strong Political Power

Olmec head
Danny Lehman / Getty Images

The Olmec cities were ruled by a family of ruler-shamans who wielded enormous power over their subjects. This is seen in their public works: the colossal heads are a good example. Geological records show that the sources of the stone used in the San Lorenzo heads was found some 50 miles away. The Olmec had to get these massive boulders weighing many tons from the quarry to the workshops in the city. They moved these massive boulders many miles, most likely using a combination of sledges, rollers and rafts, before carving them without the benefit of metal tools. The end result? A massive stone head, possibly a portrait of the ruler who ordered the work. The fact that the OImec rulers could command such manpower speaks volumes about their political influence and control.

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They were Extremely Influential

Olmec sculpture
An Olmec altar figure holds a child, possibly dead, in its arms. Danny Lehman/Corbis/VCG

The Olmec are considered by historians to be the "mother" culture of Mesoamerica. All later cultures, such as the Veracruz, Maya, Toltec and Aztecs all borrowed from the Olmec. Certain Olmec gods, such as the Feathered Serpent, Maize God and Water God, would live on in the cosmos of these later civilizations. Although certain aspects of Olmec art, such as the colossal heads and massive thrones, were not adopted by later cultures, the influence of certain Olmec artistic styles on later Maya and Aztec works is obvious to even the untrained eye. The Olmec religion may have even survived: twin statues discovered at the El Azuzul site appear to be characters from the Popol Vuh, the sacred book the Maya used centuries later.

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Olmec sclupture
An Olmec figure known as The Govenor that wears a cape and elaborate headdress. Danny Lehman/Corbis/VCG
This much is sure: after the decline of the major city at La Venta, around 400 B.C., the Olmec civilization was pretty much gone. No one really knows what happened to them. There are some clues, however. At San Lorenzo, sculptors started re-using pieces of stone that had already been carved, whereas the original stones had been brought in from many miles away. This suggests that perhaps it was no longer safe to go and get the blocks: perhaps local tribes had become hostile. Climate change may have also played a part: the Olmec subsisted on a small number of basic crops, and any change that affected the maize, beans and squash that comprised their staple diet would have been disastrous.