The Decline of the Olmec Civilization

The Fall of the First Mesoamerican Culture

Olmec Head at the Xalapa Anthropology Museum
Olmec Head at the Xalapa Anthropology Museum. Photo by Christopher Minster

The Olmec culture was Mesoamerica's first great civilization. It thrived along Mexico's Gulf coast from approximately 1200 - 400 B.C. and is considered the "mother culture" of societies that came later, such as the Maya and Aztec. Many of the intellectual accomplishments of the Olmec, such as a writing system and calendar, were eventually adapted and improved by these other cultures. Around 400 B.C.

the great Olmec city of La Venta went into decline, taking the Olmec Classic era with it. Because this civilization declined two thousand years before the arrival of the first Europeans into the region, no one is absolutely certain which factors led to its downfall.

What Is Known About the Ancient Olmec

The Olmec civilization was named after the Aztec word for their descendants, who inhabited Olman, or the "land of rubber." It is primarily known through the study of their architecture and stone carvings. Although the Olmec had a writing system of sorts, no Olmec books have survived to modern day.

Archaeologists have discovered two great Olmec cities: San Lorenzo and La Venta, in the present-day Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco respectively. The Olmec were talented stonemasons, who built structures and aqueducts. They were also gifted sculptors, carving stunning colossal heads without the use of metal tools.

They had their own religion, with a priest class and at least eight identifiable gods. They were great traders and had connections with contemporary cultures all over Mesoamerica.

The End of the Olmec Civilization

Two great Olmec cities are known: San Lorenzo and La Venta. These are not the original names the Olmec knew them by: those names have been lost to time.

San Lorenzo flourished on a large island in a river from about 1200 to 900 B.C., at which time it went into decline and was replaced in influence by La Venta.

Around 400 B.C. La Venta went into decline and was eventually abandoned altogether. With the fall of La Venta came the end of classic Olmec culture. Although the descendants of the Olmecs still lived in the region, the culture itself vanished. The extensive trade networks the Olmecs had used fell apart. Jades, sculptures, and pottery in the Olmec style and with distinctly Olmec motifs were no longer created.

What Happened to the Ancient Olmec?

Archaeologists are still collecting clues that will unravel the mystery of what caused this mighty civilization to go into decline. It likely was a combination of natural ecological changes and human actions. The Olmecs relied on a handful of crops for their basic sustenance, including maize, squash, and sweet potatoes. Although they had a healthy diet with this limited number of foods, the fact that they relied so heavily on them made them vulnerable to climate changes. For example, a volcanic eruption could coat a region in ash or change the course of a river: such a calamity would have been disastrous to the Olmec people.

Less dramatic climate changes, such as a drought, could severely affect their favored crops.

Human actions likely played a role as well: warfare between the La Venta Olmecs and any one of a number of local tribes could have contributed to the society's downfall. Internal strife is also a possibility. Other human actions, such as over farming or destroying forests for agriculture could well have played a role as well.

Epi-Olmec Culture

When the Olmec culture went into decline, it didn't disappear entirely. Rather, it evolved into what historians refer to as Epi-Olmec culture. The Epi-Olmec culture is a link of sorts between the classic Olmec and the Veracruz Culture, which would begin to thrive to the north of the Olmec lands about 500 years later.

The most important Epi-Olmec city was Tres Zapotes, Veracruz.

Although Tres Zapotes never reached the grandeur of San Lorenzo or La Venta, it nevertheless was the most important city of its time. The people of Tres Zaptoes did not make monumental art on the scale of the colossal heads or the great Olmec thrones, but they nevertheless were great sculptors who left behind many important works of art. They also made great strides forward in writing, astronomy, and calendrics.

Sources:

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.