A History of Olmec Art and Sculpture

The Olmec culture was the first great Mesoamerican civilization

Olmec stone head , Jalapa , Mexico

Getty Images/Manfred Gottschalk

The Olmec culture was the first great Mesoamerican civilization, developing along Mexico's Gulf coast from about 1200-400 B.C. before going into a mysterious decline. The Olmec were very talented artists and sculptors who are today best remembered for their monumental stonework and cave paintings. Although relatively few pieces of Olmec art survive today, they are quite striking and show that artistically speaking, the Olmec were far ahead of their time. The massive colossal heads found at four Olmec sites are a good example. Most surviving Olmec art seems to have had a religious or political significance, i.e. the pieces show gods or rulers.

The Olmec Civilization

The Olmec were the first great Mesoamerican civilization. The city of San Lorenzo (its original name has been lost to time) flourished around 1200-900 B.C. and was the first major city in ancient Mexico. The Olmecs were great traders, warriors, and artists, and they developed writing systems and calendars which were perfected by later cultures. Other Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Aztecs and Maya, borrowed heavily from the Olmecs. Because the Olmec society went into decline two thousand years before the first Europeans arrived in the region, much of their culture has been lost. Nevertheless, diligent anthropologists and archaeologists continue to make great strides in understanding this lost culture. The surviving artwork is one of the best tools they have for doing so.

Olmec Art

The Olmec were gifted artists who produced stone carvings, woodcarvings and cave paintings. They made carvings of all sizes, from tiny celts and figurines to massive stone heads. The stonework is made of many different types of stone, including basalt and jadeite. Only a handful of Olmec woodcarvings remain, busts excavated from a bog at the El Manatí archaeological site. The cave paintings are found mostly in mountains in the present-day Mexican state of Guerrero.

The Olmec Colossal Heads

The most striking pieces of surviving Olmec art are without a doubt the colossal heads. These heads, carved from basalt boulders mined many miles away from where they were eventually carved, depict enormous male heads wearing a sort of helmet or headdress. The largest head was found at the La Cobata archaeological site and is nearly ten feet tall and weighs about 40 tons. Even the smallest of the colossal heads is still over four feet high. In all, seventeen Olmec colossal heads have been discovered at four different archaeological sites: 10 of them are at San Lorenzo. They are thought to depict individual kings or rulers.

Olmec Thrones

Olmec sculptors also made many enormous thrones, great squarish blocks of basalt with detailed carvings on the sides thought to have been used as platforms or thrones by the nobility or priests. One of the thrones depicts two pudgy dwarves holding up a flat tabletop while others show scenes of humans carrying were-jaguar infants. The purpose of the thrones was discovered when a cave painting of an Olmec ruler seated on one was discovered.

Statues and Stelae

Olmec artists sometimes made statues or stelae. One famous set of statues was discovered at the El Azuzul site near San Lorenzo. It consists of three pieces: two identical "twins" facing a jaguar. This scene is often interpreted as depicting a Mesoamerican myth of some sort: heroic twins play an important role in the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Maya. The Olmecs created several statues: another significant one found near the summit of the San Martín Pajapan Volcano. The Olmecs created relatively few stelae — tall standing stones with inscribed or carved surfaces — but some significant examples have been found at the La Venta and Tres Zapotes sites.

Celts, Figurines and Masks

All in all, some 250 examples of monumental Olmec art such as colossal heads and statues are known. There are countless smaller pieces, however, including figurines, small statues, celts (small pieces with designs roughly shaped like an ax head), masks and ornaments. One famous smaller statue is "the wrestler," a lifelike depiction of a cross-legged man with his arms in the air. Another smaller statue of great importance is Las Limas Monument 1, which depicts a seated youth holding a were-jaguar baby. Symbols of four Olmec gods are inscribed on his legs and shoulders, making it a very valuable artifact indeed. The Olmec were avid mask makers, producing life-sized masks, possibly worn during ceremonies, and smaller masks used as adornments.

Olmec Cave Painting

To the west of the traditional Olmec lands, in the mountains of the present-day Mexican State of Guerrero, two caves containing several paintings attributed to the Olmec have been discovered. The Olmec associated caves with the Earth Dragon, one of their gods, and it is likely that the caves were sacred places. Juxtlahuaca Cave contains a depiction of a feathered serpent and a pouncing jaguar, but the best painting is a colorful Olmec ruler standing next to a smaller, kneeling figure. The ruler holds a wavy-shaped object in one hand (a serpent?) and a three-pronged device in the other, possibly a weapon. The ruler is clearly bearded, a rarity in Olmec art. The paintings in Oxtotitlán Cave feature a man with a detailed headdress styled after an owl, a crocodile monster and an Olmec man standing behind a jaguar. Although Olmec-style cave paintings have been discovered in other caves in the region, the ones at Oxtotitlán and Juxtlahuaca are the most important.

Importance of Olmec Art

As artists, the Olmec were centuries ahead of their time. Many modern Mexican artists find inspiration in their Olmec heritage. Olmec art has many modern fans: replica colossal heads can be found around the world (one is at the University of Texas, Austin). You can even buy a small replica colossal head for your home, or a quality printed photograph of some of the more famous statues.

As the first great Mesoamerican civilization, the Olmec were extremely influential. Late-era Olmec reliefs look like Mayan art to the untrained eye, and other cultures such as the Toltecs borrowed stylistically from them.


  • 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.
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Minster, Christopher. "A History of Olmec Art and Sculpture." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/olmec-art-and-sculpture-2136298. Minster, Christopher. (2020, August 29). A History of Olmec Art and Sculpture. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/olmec-art-and-sculpture-2136298 Minster, Christopher. "A History of Olmec Art and Sculpture." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/olmec-art-and-sculpture-2136298 (accessed May 27, 2023).