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Study On The Olmec Culture

Info: 5471 words (22 pages) Essay
Published: 11th May 2017 in History

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The Olmec culture has been the focus of intense discussion and archeological exploration in recent years. It is considered to be one of the most interesting and also one of the mysterious ancient civilizations. The Olmec civilization is considered to be the first known ordered civilization to arise in Mesoamerica. It was also the first civilization in the region to build huge monumental temple mounds and building.

In the Pre1classic Period, the period when this civilization flourished, the following

Gulf Coast sites were occupied in overlapping succession; Firstly, San Lorenzo

Tenochtitlan, which was occupied between 1450 and 400 BC., then at La Venta from 2250- 500 BC And Zapotes from 1000-50 BC.

One of the most remarkable relics that we have of this culture is seventeen enormous stone heads. The stone used to carve the statues was transported from a great distance – which implies the reach and extent of this civilization, as well as its spread and influence. These and other aspects of the culture will be discussed in more detail below.

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The Olmec culture and society has been described as extremely well organized with “…complex calendar and hieroglyphic writing system” as well as unique art objects of a very high standard. However, scholars also admit that there is a great paucity of archeological and other evidence and knowledge about this mysterious and complex civilization.”We know far less about the Olmecs than we do about, for example, the Aztecs and Mayans. There are very few written records to tell us about the culture.”

The Olmec culture and civilization is estimated have begun in about 1200 B.C. and ended around 600 A.D. During this period the Olmec were the main group or culture in Mesoamerica.

What is certain about this culture is the importance and centrality of religion, shamanism and religious ritual in their daily lives. There is as general consensus that religion and belief in the supernatural influenced every aspect of their lives. Olmec sites are characterized the prominent position of the ceremonial mounds and later by elaborate pyramids that were erected for worship and possibly for sacrifice. As one study on this aspect notes; “As the clock tower often defines the center of Western town squares, a central raised mound signaled the center of Olmec cities. These mounds were used for religious ceremonies and around 900 BC, they were replaced with pyramids”.

The following discussion will refer to the various aspects of the culture, as well as their art and religion in an attempt to provide a comprehensive overview of what is known about the mysterious and influential Olmec.


The term Olmec means ‘rubber people’ in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec. It was the name that the Aztecs used to refer to those people and the culture that had existed in the area of the Olmec Heartland during the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Simply stated the name means “…those who live in the rubber land”, which refers to the “…practice of extracting latex from Castilla elastica, a rubber tree in the area”.

There is a general paucity of solid data and information about the origins and the life-world of the Olmec culture. Our understanding of the civilization is made even more obscure by the fact that they did not appear to have a system of writing that would have provided records of their culture. As one commentator states;

If the Olmec ever had a written language, all traces of it have disappeared. Even their bones are gone, rotted long ago in the humid rain forest. Virtually everything that scholars know about them is based on the remains of cities and on comparisons between their artifacts and imagery and those of later civilizations. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that while the experts have plenty of theories about the Olmec’s origins, social structure and religion, few of these ideas are universally accepted.

Therefore, it is difficult to make incontrovertible and conclusive statements about the Olmec. In terms of what Historians and archaeologists know about the Mesoamerican Pre-Classic period, which extended from 1200 BCE-400 BCE, the Olmec civilization was the most dominant and influential during this time. The centre of this civilization at its peak was situated in La Venta in Tabasco, and San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan and Laguna de los Cerros in Veracruz.

There are many theories and views about the origins of the Olmec. One theory that is often referred to is they were part of the immigration of Asiatic hunter-gatherers to the region after the ice-age. Another view that has achieved some credibility is that they were of African origin.

The view that the Olmec civilization was of African origin seems to be partly substantiated by the large carved heads that possibly depict various rulers and which have African features. “Some writers claim the Olmec were related to peoples of Africa based primarily on their interpretation of facial features of Olmec statues”.

This viewpoint is also allegedly supported by genetic and osteological evidence. This was a theory that was first put forward by José Melgar, who discovered the first colossal head at Hueyapan. Some researchers such as Winters link the early origins of the Olmec with the Mandé people of West Africa. However, this theory is very contentious and the proposed evidence has not lived up to modern scrutiny; for example, research during the past two decades has “…failed to yield evidence of pre-Columbian African contributions to the indigenous populations of the Americas”.

Another factor that goes against the view of an African origin to the Olmec is that the people of the region were very susceptible to diseases brought by the Europeans. This means that the Mesoamericans of the region has been isolated for a considerable time, which in turn goes against a theory of origins that would include contact with the African continent.

There are numerous other theories, including the contention that the Olmec were of Chinese origin. This view states that the original Olmec were Chinese refugees who came to the region during the Shang dynasty. However, this view is not supported by the majorly of researchers. Most researchers are of the view that “…the Olmec and their achievements arose from influences and traditions that were wholly indigenous to the region, or at least the New World, and there is no reliable material evidence to suggest otherwise”. This view suggests that the Olmec and the subsequent cultures that developed in the region had their own specific and indigenous character and heritage and that they were independent of any outside influences.

The study of the origins and development of the Olmec culture is steeped in mystery and doubt. Another issue that is debated is the transformation of the possible hunter-gatherer origins of the Olmec into a highly successful agricultural society. As one pundit comments; “…archaeologists don’t know what transformed a society of farmers into the class-based social structure of the Olmec, with their leaders and commoners, bosses and laborers, artisans and priests”.

Spread and Influence

The mysterious Olmec civilization is estimated to have reached its peak a thousand years before the great Mayan civilization of Central America and twenty-five centuries before there Aztecs. This ancient civilization was extremely influential and affected many other cultures and tribes in the region, as one article states;

Starting in 1200 B.C. in the steamy jungles of Mexico’s southern Gulf Coast, the Olmec’s influence spread as far as modern Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, Costa Rica and El Salvador. They built large settlements, established elaborate trade routes and developed religious iconography and rituals, including ceremonial ball games, blood-letting and human sacrifice, that were adapted by all the Mesoamerican civilizations to follow.

Therefore, the Olmec were influential on a number of interconnected levels, from trade and economics to religion and cultural practices. David M. Jones ( 2007) states that the art and the architectural styles of the Olmec were influential in the region. “The Olmec art style and architectural organization of ceremonial spaces were exported in the early stages of long-distance trading networks and, possibly, empire-building.” What is clear from research into the spread and influence of this culture is that it influenced Gulf Coast as well as spreading inland to the Basin of Mexico and to the states of Morelos, Guerrero and Oaxaca.

The Importance of Olmec Culture

The importance of the Olmec culture lay in their inventiveness and their discoveries which influenced later civilizations that arose in the area. They “…developed many things culturally and religiously that were later used by the Mayans and Aztecs and many other cultures”. Many of their ideas spread throughout the region.

In terms of farming and agriculture, for example, there there is strong evidence that the Olmec were responsible for the invention of a method of irrigation that was to influence the agricultural techniques of the Maya and Aztecs. This also applies to the water system that archeologist have found at the sites of Olmec cities. This refer to the finding that the “…most important features of an Olmec town center was a “buried network of stone drain lines – long U-shaped rectangular blocks of basalt laid end to end and covered with capstones.”

Social and Political Life

There is a general paucity of information about the actual societal and political structure of the Olmec. While there is not much evidence to build a comprehensive picture of the daily and social life of these people, there is enough available data from certain archeological sites to provide some reasonable speculations.

One of the assumptions that is derived from the excavation of sites at San Lorenzo and then at La Venta is that the society was very centralized. This in turn has led to the view that the society was highly structured, with a hierarchical basis of order and class stratification. This also implies the existence of a ruling elite and a system of power and control, which was possibly based on religious beliefs. This view of the structure of the society is summarized as follows: “Olmec society was …highly centralized, with a strongly hierarchical structure and elite that was able to use their control over materials, such as monumental stone and water, to exert control over the people and legitimize their regime”.

There is also clear evidence of a class structure in Olmec society. This is the view for example of Olmec scholars like Ann Cyphers. She states that there is evidence of elaborate houses for the elite or upper classes, while there are simpler housing structures for the middle and lower classes. As one study notes, “The architecture of the Olmec was complex. Structures in Lorenzo, for example, included public-ceremonial buildings, elite residences, and houses for commoners (a clear separation of the classes).

Cyphers also makes the important point that archeological research indicates that the society was extremely complex in structure and stratification; “All these things show a society of great complexity…” Scholars are also of the opinion that the society was possibly a complex unity of various chiefdoms. These groups interacted on a religious and cultural level.

Agriculture and farming played as vital part in the culture of these people. Besides the obvious fact of sufficient foods and nutrition it has also been seen by experts and being as tool in the politics of the society. As a study by Amber M. VanDerwarker (2006) indicates, the increase in the size and complexity of the society coincided with the development of village agriculture, which “…has led scholars to theorize that agricultural surpluses gave aspiring Olmec leaders control over vital resources and thus a power base on which to build authority and exact tribute”.

Central to the society and social life was religious ceremony and ritual. This is evident in the large and centrally situated ceremonial centers. There are however some views that suggest a slightly different social structure. This refers to the view that as a result of the slash-and burn agriculture and crop-rotation that was practiced, most of the people would have lived in smaller villages and hamlets. “Although the river banks were used to plant crops between flooding periods, the Olmec also likely practiced swidden (or slash-and-burn) agriculture to clear the forests and shrubs, and to provide new fields once the old fields were exhausted.

The development of an agricultural economy also had a number of social implications. With the increase of an agricultural economy more people were needed to manage and administer the resources – which led to a division of labor and a class structure in the society.

The one’s who controlled the rich farm land would naturally have been the

ones who would rise up as the Elite of the community because they controlled the food supply, and as part of the management of resources, a central center had to be established.

A number of theorists are of the opinion that the development of agriculture was the impetus which led to the expansion and development of the Olmec civilization. This would also have led to its influence through trade on the surrounding regions. As one study o0n this aspect notes: “A new elite class probably asserted its leadership through charisma, control of trade networks and control of people, all of which led to the evolution of a complex society and, eventually, the art style we call Olmec”.

5. Art

There is as general agreement among scholars that the Olmec civilization produced”…the earliest sophisticated art in Mesoamerica and that their distinctive style provided a model for the Maya, Aztec and other later civilizations in the region”. There are also certain changes in Olmec art over time that should be noted. One is that before 900 B.C. most of the art tend to be ceramic, while later objects were made form jade and serpentine; which were rare materials that required considerable skill to fashion.

However, what has fascinated people for centuries is the subject matter and the significance of the figures in Olmec art. There are a number of subjects that are often repeated in Aztec art. These include dragons, birds, dwarfs, hunchbacks and, most important, the jaguar – or more correctly the “were-jaguar” that is part human, part jaguar.

It should also be made clear that art in this culture, as in many other ancient cultures, cannot be separated from the spiritual and religious underlying life of that culture. The art and shamanic and spiritual aspects of the society are inextricably intertwined. Olmec art is essentially an expression of the religious beliefs that permeated the entire society.

A case in point is the image of the jaguar that is so dominant in Olmec art. The jaguar represents a belief system that was deeply involved in the supernatural and the shamanic vision of reality. The jaguar figure in Olmec art is similar to a number of other figures in that it shows a combination of or transition between human and animal. It must be remembered that in many ancient worldviews there is no distinction between the human and natural world. In other words, many ancient belief systems do not adhere to the more modern distinction between man and nature. The jaguar figure in Olmec art is possibly therefore a representation of this belief system where the barriers between humanity and nature and between man and animal is seen as illusionary or has been broken down.

The above refers particularly to the shamanic perception of reality, where transformation of man to animal is seen part of the ability of the shaman. The shaman has the facility to change his or her form in order to achieve certain supernatural ends. Linked with this was the belief that was prevalent among the Olmec that, “… each individual has an animal spirit.” This refers as well to the general shamanic views about ‘power animals’.

Shamans believe that everyone has power animals – animal spirits which reside with each individual adding to their power and protecting them from illness, acting similarly to a guardian angel. Each power animal that you have increases your power so that illnesses or negative energy cannot enter your body. The spirit also lends you the wisdom of its kind. A hawk spirit will give you hawk wisdom, and lend you some of the attributes of hawk.

The above quotation provides some insight into the way that the Maya possibly understood the link between man, nature and the supernatural. This shamanic aspect can be seen in the important figure of the jaguar. It is also worth reiterating the fact that Olmec art, like many ancient cultures, cannot be considered in isolation from the religious and spiritual beliefs of the civilization. This is an aspect that will be explored in more detail in the following section on religion.

The jaguar was also very important for Olmec culture in that it was linked to one of their central gods. The jaguar was also referred to as nahual, which is “…an animal that is so closely related to a certain man, that if the animal dies, the man will also die”. From another angle, jaguars were also seen as the alter ego of the shaman. The following provides insight into the reason why the jaguar figure was revered and why it was so prominent in Olmec art “To the ancient Indians the jaguar was a symbol of supernatural forces-not a simple animal, but an ancestor and a god”.

In order to understand the significance of the jaguar figure one has to suspend the modern dualistic view of the world and reality that makes rational distinctions between man and nature and between the known and the unknown. The Olmec lived in a world where such distinctions were seen as illusionary and the jaguar was a symbol of this belief and a conduit between this world and the supernatural.

As we explore the literature on Olmec art the references to the jaguar image also become more complex and intertwined when we enter further into the often confusing world of Olmec myth and religion. For example, in Olmec imagery we also encounter a ‘werejaguar’ baby. This refers to the offspring of a jaguar mother and a human father. This mating

…resulted in a race of infants combining the features of the jaguar and man in varying degrees. These are usually shown as somewhat infantile throughout life, with the puffy features of small fat babies, snarling mouths, fangs, and perhaps even claws. These werejaguars were deities of thunder, lightening, and rain. “

This in turn can be linked to depictions of an Olmec God who was half jaguar, half serpent.

5.1. Olmec Heads

( Source: http://www.theancientweb.com/explore/content.aspx?content_id=19)

Another predominant characteristic of Olmec art are their distinct human heads and faces. As one commentator notes, “Olmec-style human figures typically have squarish facial features with full lips, a flat nose, pronounced jowls and slanting eyes

reminiscent (at least to early travelers in the region) of African or Chinese peoples”. . There are seventeen of these massive heads and they are presumed to have been sculpted between 1200 B.C. and 900 B.C. The stone used is volcanic basalt and the height ranges from 5 ft. to 11 ft. and they weigh as much as 20 tons. The heads have been located at the following places; ten heads at San Lorenzo, four heads at La Venta , two at Tres Zapotes and one at Rancho La Cobata.

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One of the fascinating and intriguing aspects of the heads is that experts do not know how these large stones were transported over such long distances. “Archaeologists still have not determined how the Olmec transported the basalt from quarries to various settlements as far as 80 miles away–and, in San Lorenzo, hoisted it to the top of a plateau some 150 ft. high”. However it is the meaning of the heads that has made them such a source of interest and mystery.

Experts conjecture that the heads were possibly representations of well- known and revered citizens or leaders. This however does not explain the facts that many of the heads have been intentionally defaced. There are two possible explanations for this. The one is that they were damaged when the leader or prominent figure depicted in the statue fell out of favor. However, taking into account the shamanic and religious nature of the culture, the second explanation is more likely. This refers to the sacrifice of the gods in order to replenishment and renewal of the earth and the relationship between man and the universe. “…the Olmecs did this themselves after a ruler died as a sacrifice to the gods or animal spirits”. This form of sacrifice is also encountered in other ancient cultures and might explain the damage to the statues.


The Olmec are credited with a number of major innovations in Mesoamerican history. However, there is still a great deal of speculation and debate about these innovations. They include the origins of the Mesoamerican ballgame, as well as aspects such as bloodletting and sacrifice, as well as writing and the invention of Zero.

There is little doubt that the Olmec civilization had a far-reaching effect on the region – one needs only refer to the complex political and social structure that was developed. “Their political arrangements of strongly hierarchical city-state kingdoms were repeated by nearly every other Mexican and Central American civilization that followed”. They are also credited with providing the basis for religious mythologies that were imitated in other civilizations. “…the Olmec formulated the forerunners of many of the later Mesoamerican deities”.

There is considerable debate among scholars as to whether the Olmec invented a writing system and whether they were first civilization in the Western hemisphere to do so. Many are of the opinion that there is no evidence to suggest that there was a writing system among the Olmec. However there are more recent indications that a writing system was developed by the Olmec. These include,

Symbols found in 2002 and 2006 date to 650 B.C.E. and 900 B.C.E. respectively, preceding the oldest Zapotec writing dated to about 500 B.C.E. The 2002 find at the San Andrés site shows a bird, speech scrolls, and glyphs that are similar to the later Mayan hieroglyphs…

The discovery of the Cascajal block near San Lorenzo in 2006 seems to suggest that the Olmec were one of the first cultures in this part of the word to develop a writing system. The Cascajal block “…showed a set of 62 symbols, 28 of which are unique, carved on a serpentine block. This find has been hailed as the “earliest pre-Colombian writing”. However, this is by no means considered to be conclusive proof and many archeologists remain unconvinced that this block is representative of the Olmec culture. One of the reasons for this skepticism is that the Cascajal block”… bears no apparent resemblance to any other Mesoamerican writing system”.

However the debate also includes a view the Olmec may have developed a system of signs that was to lead to the writing systems of the Maya. This refers to well-known “Epi-Olmec,” hieroglyphs. There is a view that the Epi-Olmec may represent a “…transitional script between an earlier Olmec writing system and Maya writing”. In this regard it is also important to note that,

….Even less is known about the spoken language of the Olmec. Since the Mixe-Zoquean languages still are, and historically are known to have been, spoken in an area corresponding roughly to the Olmec heartland, it has generally been regarded as probable that the Olmec spoke a Mixe-Zoquean language.

Many of the innovations ascribed to the Olmec are much less controversial; for example the view that the compass could have an Olmec origin. Various archeological discoveries have led to view that, “…the Olmec may have discovered and used the geomagnetic lodestone compass earlier than 1000 B.C.E”.

The Olmec are also considered to have discovered the concept of zero. This refers to the Long Count calendar that was developed by cultures after the Olmec but which probably had its origins in the Olmec civilization. “The Long Count calendar required the use of zero as a place-holder within its vigesimal (base-20) positional numeral system”. Many archeologists are convinced that because of various objects found in the Maya homeland, the Long Count Calendar most probably had its origins in the Olmec civilization. However, as with most of our knowledge about the Olmec, this view is also mired in doubt and controversy because of a lack of substantiated evidence

Religion and mythology

Figure 2. Olmec holds a half human-half jaguar baby.

( Source: http://www.crystalinks.com/olmec.html)

The Olmec civilization was immersed in religious and spiritual significance. It is often stated that the supernatural and religion was the formative factor in this culture. It is also conjectured that the Olmec were essentially shamanistic in their religious activities and outlook.

One of the central myths and beliefs of the Olmec people was the view that there were different but interlinked planes and dimensions to reality and not just the world of ordinary sense experience. They also believed that the human body, and especially the body of ruler or king, was divided into to correspond with the main cosmic levels in their mythology. These were the celestial or heavenly, the terrestrial, the earth’s surface and the watery underworld. This cosmology therefore had the following implications.

The head represented the celestial realm and hence the colossal heads found in Veracruz and Tabasco were probably ancestral portraits depicting the seat of the mind and the most exalted part of the most important rulers. The bodies, standing, sitting or kneeling, represent our environment in different aspects. And the lower parts, like the limbs and feet, as the roots of a tree, penetrate into the underworld and contact its forces.

The priest or the shaman enters into these different regions and levels of reality at will in order to achieve balance between the different realms of existence and to bring about healing and other effects. Furthermore, as noted in the above discussion on art, “The ruler or the shaman could do this through ritual transformation into his nagual, his animal spirit companion”.

There are many different types and categories of Olmec gods. They also have different attributes and powers and different relationships to the human world; while some of the gods have healing powers, others represent dark forces. However, as there are no written records no names can be given to the gods and they are usually designated by a number. Another interesting fact is that “…No Olmec deities can be categorically defined as male or female. ” What is clear is that they influenced later Mesoamerican cultures and civilizations. The Olmec deities and Gods were a “…source of many aspects of pan-Mesoamerican mythology and religion, and as prototypes of later gods and goddess”.

There are at least ten gods in the Olmec pantheon. The following is a brief overview of some of the central gods and deities and their major characteristic and influence on humanity.

God 1: Olmec Dragon

This is also referred to as Earth Monster. it has …flame eyebrows, a bulbous nose, and bifurcated tongue”. This is one of the most commonly depicted gods or deities.

God 2: Maize God

This God has plants growing from as cleft in his head.

God 3: The Bird Monster

This God has both Mamalis and reptilian features and is linked to ruling and kingship.

God 4: Rain Spirit and Were-jaguar

It is not clear if this god is one or two separate entities.

Other gods include, God 7, The Feathered Serpent and Fish or Shark Monster (God 8). There is as great deal of confusion about the exact nature of these gods and many are combined by some experts. In order to make list of Olmec gods more comprehensible, the following is a selection of the best known of these gods and the ones that have had the most influence on subsequent civilizations.

The Jaguar God

The Jaguar God was a principle deity in the Olmec mythology. It was seen as an Earth god as his power was limited to the terrestrial plane. This god represented the forces of life and was linked or the water and earth.

The Feathered Serpent

The plumed serpent or the feathered serpent is a mythological figure that is found in many cultures in Mesoamerica and it is believe that this figure originated with the Olmec culture. This god is linked to time and calendars and is seen as the provider of maize to humanity. It is also very strongly associated with the concepts of death and resurrection, which were primary factors in the Olmec religion, as is evident in their emphasis on ritual sacrifice.

Man of Crops.

This is an important fertility figure. The Man of Crops “… was a human man or boy who chose to give his life so that his people might grow food. The heroic Man of Crops is sometimes mentored or assisted by a god figure from the other world”.

The Rain Spirit.

This god plays an important role in Olmec mythology and was also carried into the civilizations that came after the Olmec. This god often had many helpers.

As has already been referred to, the idea of sacrifice and making an offering to the gods in order to maintain harmony and peace was central to the Olmec culture. This involved a continuous succession of rituals and ceremonies where, it is suggested by some, that there were human sacrifices.

In these rituals the priest or shaman would “…cut himself to produce blood, which would be presented to the gods. Certain animals, such as turkeys, dogs, squirrels, quail, and iguana, were also considered as acceptable sacrifices.” Some claim that there is strong evidence that the Olmec indulged in human sacrifice. However, others state that this is pure speculation. “No Olmec or Olmec-influenced sacrificial artifacts have yet been discovered and there is no Olmec or Olmec-influenced artwork that unambiguously shows sacrificial victims (like, for example, the danzante figures of Monte Albán) or scenes of human sacrifice …”

Conclusion: Decline of the Olmec

In about 300 B.C. the Olmec civilization suddenly seemed to disappear. What is known is that “… between 400 and 350 BCE, population in the eastern half of the Olmec heartland dropped precipitously, and the area would remain sparsely inhabited until the 19th century”. It is not clear why this occurred. One possible reason is that some natural catastrophe occurred. The depopulation could also have been the result of radical environmental changes in the area. Archeologists also suggest that “… these changes were triggered by tectonic upheavals or subsidence, or the silting up of rivers due to agricultural practices”.

While the Olmec civilization still remains shrouded in mystery and conjecture, what is very clear from the literature is that this culture had an enormous impact on the region and on the modern word. The Olmec left behind some examples of the most enigmatic and thought-provoking art that the world has seen. The Olmec also very possibly provided agricultural as well as economic models that were influential in the region and which led to the advanced Aztec civilization. What is also clear from the lite


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