The region loosely regarded as Central America today was the birthplace of countless civilizations and peoples who all held significant power in this part of the world at various times in history. While many people will be at least familiar with the likes of the Aztecs and the Maya, the much lesser-known Olmecs are sadly overlooked or outright ignored in most discussions about Mesoamerican empires. Many aspects of Olmec society are still shrouded in history thanks to a lack of surviving written records. What we do know about the Olmecs stems from a collection of archaeological findings as well as what was discovered from other Mesoamerican peoples who rose to prominence centuries after their collapse. Most experts agree that the Olmecs could very well be the 'mother culture" of all the other empires and kingdoms that preceded them in Central America.
The Olmecs: Mesoamerica's First Civilization
While there are, of course, meaningful cultural differences between the Mayans, Aztecs, Zapotec, and Totonac, it is believed that all of these people can trace a common heritage back to the time of the Olmecs. Much of the art and other cultural artifacts that have been uncovered across Central America all share many similarities with the artwork of the Olmecs. Just like most European nations trace their roots back to the time of the Roman Empire, the people of Mesoamerica look back to the Olmecs to uncover their past.
It is thought that the Olmecs probably first began to rise to prominence sometime between 1200 BC and 1000 BC. This is a long period and messy time frame to work with, but it is likely that the emergence of the Olmec was something that did not happen overnight and was rather a slow and gradual process.
Origins And Expansion
The Olmecs were the first Mesoamerican civilization to build large settlements after taking advantage of the fertile grounds along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The Olmecs were expert farmers and could grow crops like corn and maze reliably enough to support a large urban population. Around 1200 BC, large cities started to spring up around what is today San Lorenzo, La Venta, Laguna de los Cerros, and Las Limas. It is thought that San Lorenzo, the earliest of the settlements, reached its peak sometime around 900 BC. It was at these sites that the iconic pyramid-style buildings that would later be adopted by the likes of the Mayans and the Aztecs first started to appear.
The Olmecs quickly became incredibly wealthy thanks to their trade with nearby chiefdoms and kingdoms in things like feathers, rubber, jade, obsidian, and pottery. The name "Olmec" actually comes from the Aztec language, meaning "rubber people." It is still unknown what the Olmecs called themselves.
Artwork And Artifacts
Perhaps the longest-lasting legacy that the Olmecs have left behind is their famous colossal stone head carvings. These gigantic stone heads were carved out of basalt and displayed an impressive level of detail and craftsmanship that is even more impressive considering what kind of tools would have been at their disposal.
Like most things Olmec, there is plenty of mystery surrounding these stone heads. It is not known what these stones were used for. Some hypothesize they were meant to be busts of various rulers or kings. There are other theories that these heads would have likely been used in some kind of religious ceremonies, but nothing concrete has emerged that would support any of these claims definitively. Weighing as much as 3 tons and measuring as tall as 8 meters, it is also unclear how the Olmecs could move such large and cumbersome objects without access to large draft animals like oxen or horses.
Interactions With The Early Maya
The Olmec civilization was one that gained and held on to its power thanks to its extensive trade networks throughout Mesoamerica. The Olmecs were in constant contact with numerous people groups in the surrounding area. It is thought that the early Maya "inherited" their civilization from the Olmecs in a gradual cultural exchange. However, it was likely not so simple. According to the recent findings of Takeshi Inomata in 2013, how we look at Olmec and Mayan cultural exchange is all wrong. Inomata is of the opinion that the Mayan culture and identity probably developed under the influence of the Olmec but also alongside the cultures of the other peoples in the region.
At Seibal, the site of an ancient Mayan city in modern-day Mexico, anthropologists and archaeologists have uncovered incredibly similar structures to those of the Olmecs. The Mayan pyramids and plazas are almost identical to what would have been found in the Olmec city of San Lorenzo. That being said, after carbon dating the structures at Seibal, they discovered that they were much older than previously thought and, therefore, could not have been a direct imitation of Olmec architecture and must have been developed independently or alongside the Olmec and other nearby peoples.
The Olemcs would suddenly and mysteriously decline between 450 BC and 350 BC. Many experts credit this downfall to environmental changes like the silting up of rivers and other natural disasters like floods and earthquakes. Floods would have been detrimental to their food supply, and the choking up of rivers would have spelled disaster to their intricate trade network, much of which relied on river travel to function.
It is likely the early Maya had coexisted with the Olmecs, but a distinct Mayan identity did not begin to take shape till many centuries later. It is clear that the Mayans took much inspiration from the Olmecs but were also more than capable of contributing themselves or even borrowing from other people groups that were close to them. It is also inaccurate to describe the Olmec or Maya as a single unified culture. Both peoples were inspired and influenced in many different ways.
Even though there is still much to learn about the Olmecs, their cultural impact on the great civilizations of Mesoamerica cannot be understated. While the Mayans cannot be called a direct descendant of the Olmecs, it is clear that they, along with dozens of other Mesoamerican people, owe much of their cultural groundwork to the Olmecs. Many historians specializing in this topic have rightfully described the Olmec's spearheading civilization in Mesoamerica much in the same way the Sumerians and Mesopotamians did in the Middle East nearly 6,000 years ago.