Olmec Civilization | History, Culture, Economy & Characteristics

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Olmec Civilization: History of Olmecs

Olmec: Mesoamerican civilization that developed on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

Date 1500 – 500 BC
Location Gulf of Mexico
Religion Polytheistic
Economy Agriculture and Commerce

Who were the Olmecs?

The Olmecs were a Mesoamerican civilization that developed on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, approximately between 1500 and 500 BC. It is considered the first urban culture of Mesoamerica.

The Olmecs was a pre-Hispanic people with an advanced evolution, both material and symbolic, which lasted over time and formed the basis of the other Mesoamerican civilizations, to the point that its influence can be traced in most of the cultures of the area.

Archaeological investigations of the Olmec settlements have not made it possible to determine which ethnic group they belonged to, nor the language they spoke. The term Olmec, with which this town is denominated, is of Aztec origin and arose long after its disappearance.

Location of the Olmecs

The Olmecs inhabited the region located between the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and the mountains of Southern Mexico, especially the current states of Veracruz and Tabasco.

The most important Olmec settlements known to date are Tres ZapotesLaguna de los CerrosSan Lorenzo and Las Ventas.

Although the current landscape is different, at the time of the Olmec heyday this was a jungle environment and in some areas swampy, crossed by several rivers of gentle current.

There are different theories about the emergence of the Olmec settlements. While some researchers maintain that, from that nuclear area, the Olmecs spread to the current States of Mexico, Morelos, Puebla, Guerrero and Oaxaca and even to Chiapas, Guatemala and Honduras; Others, on the other hand, affirm that the different Olmec centers arose at the same time in that vast territory.

Map of the Olmecs

Map of the location of the Olmec civilization.

Characteristics of the Olmecs

The main characteristics of the Olmec culture are the following:

  • They constitute the first Mesoamerican civilization, which was able to develop a complex society with hierarchical relationships among its members and settled in cities.
  • They modified the environment where they settled to adapt it to their worldview. For that, they artificially changed the reliefs that surrounded their settlements.
  • They built artificial plateaus on which they located the main buildings, such as palaces and temples. These are considered antecedents of the pyramids of the other Mesoamerican cultures.
  • The Olmec cities were formed by a ceremonial and hierarchical center, where the political and religious leaders lived. Around this center were small satellite villages inhabited by peasants, merchants and members of the lower hierarchies of society.
  • They used, for ceremonial and ritual purposes, products from distant regions, such as obsidian, jade and serpentine.
  • They developed a writing system that varied throughout the evolution of their culture. They also had extensive knowledge of astronomy that allowed them to establish a calendar.
  • Their diet was based on agricultural production and was supplemented with seafood, such as turtles, fish and shellfish. Also with the hunting of different animals and with the breeding of dogs.

Religion of the Olmec Culture

The Olmec religion was polytheistic. They worshiped some elements and natural phenomena, such as mountains or lightning, and various animals, especially the feline (jaguar) and the snake.

They also worshiped the ancestors and it is assumed that there was a belief of a direct link between the divinities and the rulers.

As part of religious ceremonies, human sacrifices were practiced.

The Economy of the Olmec Culture

The Olmec economy was based on agriculture, carried out especially with the slash and burn system, also known as slash and slash. With this method they grew different vegetables, mainly corn, beans (beans), squash and cocoa. Agricultural products were used for subsistence and trade with other regions.

They established extensive commercial networks through which they obtained precious products and minerals, such as obsidian and jade, through exchange.

Political and Social Organization of the Olmec Culture

Political Organization of the Olmec

Not much is known about Olmec society or its political organization. They are supposed to have a theocratic government in which the priests exercised power.

Social Organization of the Olmec

There is not much information on the structure of Olmec society either. It is considered that it was very hierarchical. There would be a ruling caste made up of priestly lineages and a great mass of population made up of a small nobility, merchants, artisans and peasants.

Olmec Art | Artistic of the Olmecs

The Olmecs had a great mastery of sculptural techniques, which allowed them to make pieces in various materials such as stone, wood and clay.

Its monumental sculptures of stone heads, thrones or altars, stelae covered with reliefs and large sculptures, made with basalt blocks, which were transported from distant regions, stand out.

Other sculptural manifestations that demonstrate the mastery achieved by this culture are the small jade statues and the masks of the same material.

Their style was naturalistic, that is, they sought to represent faithfully what they saw. The faces of the characters have features characteristic of the “Olmec style“. This consists of slanted eyes, flat noses, a thick upper lip, and turned-down corners. In some cases, certain traits give characters a feline appearance. Its ceramics of characters with “baby faces” are also characteristic.

The Olmecs also produced highly skilled wall paintings.

Photograph of an Olmec sculpture

Olmec head found in San Lorenzo, Tenochtitlan.

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