The Olmecs

By Tim Lambert

The Olmec Civilization

The Olmecs were the first Central American civilization. They flourished in the southern Gulf Coast of Mexico between 1300 BC and 400 BC. The Olmecs influenced all the other civilizations that came later. So much so that they are sometimes called the mother culture. The Olmecs built the first cities in Mexico. They also invented a form of writing and a calendar. The Olmecs also played a game with a solid rubber ball. A similar game was also played by later cultures.

The Olmecs created a religious center at San Lorenzo when they built temples and stone houses on a plateau. However, San Lorenzo was destroyed in about 900 BC. The Olmecs built a new religious center at La Venta about 800 BC, including a 30-meter high pyramid. However, La Venta was destroyed in about 400 BC. Yet Olmec culture did not die. Through trade, Olmec’s ideas were adopted by other Central American peoples. Their descendants may have also merged with the Maya.

The Olmec’s Achievements

At La Venta, Olmec stonemasons carved giant basalt heads. They may represent Olmec rulers. At any rate, they are shown wearing the helmets players wore during the rubber ball game. These huge heads are 3 meters high and weigh more than 20 tonnes! The Olmecs made cutting tools from hard stone-like chert and from obsidian (volcanic glass, which when cut is extremely sharp). Jade was used to make ceremonial axes and jewelry.

Olmec Farmers

Land farmed by the Olmecs was prone to flooding. So Olmec farmers built their houses on artificial hills. However, the floods did deposit silt and mud, which made the land fertile. So the Olmecs were able to grow two crops a year.

Olmec farmers grew maize, beans, chilies, tomatoes, and squashes. They kept dogs and chickens for meat. As well as that the Olmecs hunted deer and peccaries (wild pigs). The Olmecs also fished and collected shellfish. The Olmecs also hunted turtles and alligators.

Olmec Society

Olmec society was stratified. At the top were ruler priests. Then came craftsmen, merchants, and farmers. Little is known about the religion of the Olmecs but they were certainly polytheists (they worshiped many gods). The Olmecs worshiped a jaguar god and a god of maize (their staple food).

Olmec merchants traded with many other cultures. They lived in jungles, which had abundant plant and animal life.

However, they lacked mineral resources. Obsidian, chert, and jade had to be brought from far away. In return for them, the Olmecs traded jaguar skins and feathers. Olmec’s ideas and practices spread to other parts of Central America through trade.

Last revised 2024