The Olmec

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

The Olmec were the first great Mesoamerican civilization. They thrived along Mexico’s Gulf coast, mainly in the present-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco, from about 1200 to 400 B.C., although there were pre-Olmec societies before that and post-Olmec (or Epi-Olmec) societies afterward. The Olmec were great artists and traders who culturally dominated early Mesoamerica from their mighty cities of San Lorenzo and La Venta. Olmec culture was greatly influential on later societies, such as the Maya and the Aztec.

Before the Olmec

The Olmec civilization is considered by historians to be “pristine:” this means that it developed on its own, without the benefit of immigration or cultural exchange with some other established society. Generally, only six pristine cultures are thought to exist: those of ancient India, Egypt, China, Sumeria, and the Chavin Culture of Peru in addition to the Olmec. That’s not to say that the Olmec appeared out of thin air. As early as 1500 B.C. pre-Olmec relics were being created at San Lorenzo, where the Ojochí, Bajío, and Chichárras cultures would eventually develop into the Olmec.

San Lorenzo and La Venta

Two major Olmec cities are known to researchers: San Lorenzo and La Venta. These are not the names the Olmec knew them by: their original names have been lost to time. San Lorenzo thrived from approximately 1200-900 B.C. and it was the greatest city in Mesoamerica at the time. Many important works of art have been found in and around San Lorenzo, including the sculptures of the hero twins and ten colossal heads. The El Manatí site, a bog which contained many priceless Olmec artifacts, is associated with San Lorenzo.

After about 900 B.C., San Lorenzo was eclipsed in influence by La Venta. La Venta was also a mighty city, with thousands of citizens and far-reaching influence in the Mesoamerican world. Many thrones, colossal heads, and other major pieces of Olmec art have been found at La Venta. Complex A, a religious complex located in the royal compound at La Venta, is one of the most important ancient Olmec sites.

Olmec Culture

The ancient Olmec had a rich culture. Most of the common Olmec citizens labored in the fields producing crops or spent their days fishing in the rivers. Sometimes, massive amounts of manpower would be required to move immense boulders many miles to the workshops where sculptors would turn them into great stone thrones or colossal heads.

The Olmec had religion and a mythology, and the people would gather near the ceremonial centers to watch their priests and rulers perform ceremonies. There was a priest class and a ruling class who lived privileged lives in the higher parts of the cities. On a more ghastly note, evidence suggests that the Olmec practiced both human sacrifice and cannibalism.

Olmec Religion and Gods

The Olmec had a well-developed religion, complete with an interpretation of the cosmos and several gods. To the Olmec, there were three parts of the known universe. First was the earth, where they lived, and it was represented by the Olmec Dragon. The watery underworld was the realm of the Fish Monster, and the Skies were the home of the Bird Monster.

In addition to these three gods, researchers have identified five more: the Maize God, the Water God, the Feathered Serpent, the Banded-eye God and the were-jaguar. Some of these gods, such as the Feathered Serpent, would live on in the religions of later cultures such as the Aztecs and Maya.

Olmec Art

The Olmec were very talented artists whose skill and aesthetics are still admired today. They are best known for their colossal heads. These massive stone heads, thought to represent rulers, stand several feet high and weigh many tons. The Olmecs also made massive stone thrones: squarish blocks, carved on the sides, which were evidently used for rulers to sit or stand upon.

The Olmecs made large and small sculptures, some of which are very significant. La Venta Monument 19 features the first image of a feathered serpent in Mesoamerican art. The El Azuzul twins seem to prove a link between the ancient Olmec and the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Maya. The Olmecs also made countless smaller pieces, including celts, figurines, and masks.

Olmec Trade and Commerce:

The Olmec were great traders who had contacts with other cultures from Central America to the Valley of Mexico. They traded away their finely made and polished celts, masks, figurines and small statues. In return, they obtained materials such as jadeite and serpentine, goods such as crocodile skins, seashells, shark teeth, stingray spines and basic necessities like salt. They also traded for cacao and brightly colored feathers. Their skill as traders helped disseminate their culture to different contemporary civilizations, which helped establish them as the parent culture for several later civilizations.

Decline of the Olmec and the Epi-Olmec Civilization:

La Venta went into decline around 400 B.C. and the Olmec civilization vanished along with it. The great Olmec cities were swallowed up by the jungles, not to be seen again for thousands of years. Why the Olmec declined is a bit of a mystery. It may have been climate change as the Olmec were dependent on a few basic crops and climate change could have affected their harvests. Human actions, such as warfare, overfarming or deforestation may have played a role in their decline as well. After the fall of La Venta, the center of what is known as epi-Olmec civilization became Tres Zapotes, a city which prospered for a while after La Venta. The epi-Olmec people of Tres Zapotes were also talented artists who developed concepts such as writing systems and a calendar.

Importance of the Ancient Olmec Culture:

The Olmec civilization is very important to researchers. As the "parent" civilization of much of Mesoamerica, they had influence out of proportion with their military might or architectural works. Olmec culture and religion survived them and became the foundation of other societies such as the Aztecs and Maya.


Coe, Michael D and Rex Koontz. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. 6th Edition. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008

Cyphers, Ann. "Surgimiento y decadencia de San Lorenzo, Veracruz." Arqueología Mexicana Vol XV - Num. 87 (Sept-Oct 2007). P. 30-35.

Diehl, Richard. "The Olmecs: America's First Civilization." Hardcover, Thames and Hudson, December 31, 2004.

Gonzalez Tauck, Rebecca B. "El Complejo A: La Venta, Tabasco" Arqueología Mexicana Vol XV - Num. 87 (Sept-Oct 2007). p. 49-54.

Grove, David C. "Cerros Sagradas Olmecas." Trans. Elisa Ramirez. Arqueología Mexicana Vol XV - Num. 87 (Sept-Oct 2007). P. 30-35.

Miller, Mary and Karl Taube. An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1993.

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Minster, Christopher. "The Olmec." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Minster, Christopher. (2020, August 27). The Olmec. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "The Olmec." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).