The Olmec

The Olmec were the first major civilization in Mexico. They lived in the tropical lowlands on the Gulf of Mexico. The name Olmec comes from an Aztec word meaning “the rubber people.” They may have been the first people to convert latex from the rubber tree into material that could be shaped, cured, and hardened.

Appearing around 1600 BCE, the Olmec were among the first Mesoamerican complex societies. Their culture influenced many later civilizations, like the Maya. Archaeological evidence suggests that they originated a Mesoamerican game played with balls made from solid rubber. They may also have practiced ritual bloodletting.

Olmec jade and obsidian artifacts have been found across Mesoamerica, indicating that there was a vast network of trade routes.

Trading helped the Olmec build their urban centers, which were used for ceremonial purposes and elite activity. Most people lived in small villages. Individual homes had a shack and a storage pit for root vegetables. The Olmec cleared fields using slash-and-burn techniques to grow maize, beans, squash, sweet potatoes, and cotton.

There are no direct written accounts of Olmec beliefs, but their artwork provides clues about their life and religion. There were eight different Olmec deities, each with its own distinct characteristics. For example, the Bird Monster was depicted as an eagle associated with rulership. Deities often represented a natural element and included the Maize deity and the Rain Spirit. The elite rulers, shamans, and possibly a priest class made offerings to these deities at religious sites in the cities.

The Olmec culture was defined by a naturalistic art style. Other art expresses fantastic anthropomorphic creatures, often highly stylized, using a religious iconography. Common motifs include downturned mouths and cleft heads.

The most striking art remaining from the Olmec are seventeen stone sculptures of human heads, carved from large basalt boulders. They all portray mature men with fleshy cheeks, flat noses, and slightly crossed eyes. None of the heads are alike and each wears a unique headdress, which suggests that they represent specific individuals. A great deal of human effort and resources were used to transport the extremely large slabs of stone over large distances.

The Olmec population declined sharply between 400 and 350 BCE. Archaeologists speculate that the drop was caused by environmental changes, such as the silting up of rivers, which choked off the water supply. Another theory is that an increase in volcanic eruptions blanketed the land with ash, forcing the Olmec to move their settlements.

Source: The Olmec
© 2021 Khan Academy

Back to top