Olmec Timeline and Definition

The Olmec are known for the immense stone heads they carved from volcanic basalt rock, which influenced many later Mesoamerican civilizations, like the Maya

IKvyatkovskaya / Getty Images

The Olmec civilization is the name given to a sophisticated central American culture, with its heyday between 1200 and 400 BCE. The Olmec heartland lies in the Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco, at the narrow part of Mexico west of the Yucatan peninsula and east of Oaxaca. An introductory guide to the Olmec civilization includes its place in Central American prehistory and important facts about the people and how they lived.

Olmec Timeline

  • Initial Formative: 1775 to 1500 BCE
  • Early Formative: 1450 to 1005 BCE
  • Middle Formative: 1005 to 400 BCE
  • Late Formative: 400 BCE

While the very earliest sites of the Olmec show relatively simple egalitarian societies based on hunting and fishing, the Olmecs eventually established a highly complex level of political government, including public building projects such as pyramids and large platform mounds; agriculture; a writing system; and a characteristic sculptural artistry including enormous stone heads with heavy features reminiscent of angry babies.

Olmec Capitals

There are four main regions or zones that have been associated with Olmec by the use of iconography, architecture and settlement plan, including San Lorenzo de TenochtitlanLa Venta, Tres Zapotes, and Laguna de los Cerros. Within each of these zones, there were three or four different levels of hamlets of different sizes. At the center of the zone was a fairly dense center with plazas and pyramids and kingly residences. Outside of the center were a somewhat sparser collection of hamlets and farmsteads, each at least economically and culturally tied to the center.

Olmec Kings and Rituals

Although we don't know any of the Olmec king names, we do know that the rituals associated with rulers included an emphasis on the sun and references to solar equinoxes were carved and built into platform and plaza configurations. Sun glyph iconography is seen on many locations and there is an undeniable importance of sunflower in dietary and ritual contexts.

The ballgame played an important role in Olmec culture, as it does in many central American societies, and, like those other societies, it may have included human sacrifice. The colossal heads are often sculpted with headgear, thought to represent ball player wear; animal effigies exist of jaguars dressed as ballplayers. It is possible that women also played in the games, as there are figurines from La Venta which are females wearing helmets.

Olmec Landscape

The Olmec farms and hamlets and centers were situated on and next to a diverse set of landforms, including floodplain lowlands, coastal plains, plateau uplands, and volcanic highlands. But the large Olmec capitals were based on high places in the floodplains of big rivers such as Coatzacoalcos and Tabasco.

The Olmec coped with recurring floods by building their residences and storage structures on artificially raised earth platforms, or by rebuilding on old sites, creating "tell formations." Many of the earliest Olmec sites are likely buried deep within the floodplains.

The Olmec were clearly interested in color and color schemes of the environment. For example, the plaza at La Venta has a striking appearance of brown soil embedded with tiny bits of shattered greenstone. And there are several blue-green serpentine mosaic pavements tiled with clays and sands in a rainbow of different colors. A common sacrificial object was a jadeite offering covered with red cinnabar.

Olmec Diet and Subsistence

By 5000 BCE, the Olmec relied on domestic maizesunflower, and manioc, later domesticating beans. They also gathered corozo palm nuts, squash, and chili. There is some possibility that the Olmec were the first to use chocolate.

The main source of animal protein was domesticated dog but that was supplemented with white-tailed deer, migratory birds, fish, turtles, and coastal shellfish. White tailed-deer, in particular, was specifically associated with ritual feasting.

Sacred places: Caves (Juxtlahuaca and Oxtotitlán), springs, and mountains. Sites: El Manati, Takalik Abaj, Pijijiapan.

Human Sacrifice: Children and infants at El Manati; human remains under monuments at San LorenzoLa Venta has an altar showing an eagle-clad king holding a captive.

Bloodletting, ritual cutting of part of the body to allow bleeding for sacrifice, was probably also practiced.

Colossal Heads: Appear to be portraits of male (and possibly female) Olmec rulers. Sometimes wear helmets indicating that they are ballplayers, figurines, and sculpture from La Venta show that women wore helmet headgear, and some of the heads may represent women. A relief at the Pijijiapan as well as La Venta Stela 5 and La Venta Offering 4 show women standing next to men rulers, perhaps as partners.

Olmec Trade, Exchange, and Communications

Exchange: Exotic materials were brought in or traded from far places to the Olmec zones, including literally tons of volcanic basalt to San Lorenzo from the Tuxtla mountains, 60 km away, which was carved into royal sculptures and manos and metates, natural basalt columns from Roca Partida.

Greenstone (jadeite, serpentine, schist, gneiss, green quartz), played a clearly important role in elite contexts at Olmec sites. Some sources for these materials are the gulf coastal region in Motagua Valley, Guatemala, 1000 km away from the Olmec heartland. These materials were carved into beads and animal effigies.

Obsidian was brought in from Puebla, 300 km from San Lorenzo. And also, Pachuca green obsidian from central Mexico

Writing: The earliest Olmec writing began with glyphs representing calendrical events, and eventually evolved into logographs, line drawings for single ideas. The earliest proto-glyph so far is an Early Formative greenstone carving of a footprint from El Manati. The same sign shows up on a Middle Formative monument 13 at La Venta next to a striding figure. The Cascajal block shows many early glyph forms.

The Olmec designed a printing press of sorts, a roller stamp or cylinder seal, which could be inked and rolled onto human skin, as well as paper and cloth.

Calendar: 260 days, 13 numbers and 20 named days.

Olmec Sites

La VentaTres ZapotesSan Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, Tenango del Valle, San Lorenzo, Laguna de los Cerros, Puerto Escondido, San Andres, Tlatilco, El Manati, Juxtlahuaca Cave, Oxtotitlán Cave, Takalik Abaj, Pijijiapan, Tenochtitlan, Potrero Nuevo, Loma del Zapote, El Remolino and Paso los Ortices, El Manatí, Teopantecuanitlán, Río Pesquero

Olmec Civilization Issues

  • The Olmec Civilization is at the center of the mother-sister controversy, which is a debate concerning the relative strength of the Olmec society compared to other early Mesoamerican cultures.
  • The Cascajal Block, a large block found in a quarry that is among the earliest written records in central America.
  • The search for bitumen sources, which was an important resource to many archaeological societies in Central America.
  • Was chocolate first used and domesticated by the Olmec?

Selected Sources

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Olmec Timeline and Definition." ThoughtCo, Oct. 18, 2021, thoughtco.com/olmec-timeline-and-definition-171976. Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, October 18). Olmec Timeline and Definition. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/olmec-timeline-and-definition-171976 Hirst, K. Kris. "Olmec Timeline and Definition." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/olmec-timeline-and-definition-171976 (accessed June 7, 2023).