The Olmec A Latin American Mother Culture History Essay
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The Olmec civilization is regarded as one of the first Mexican civilizations. Its prominence is due to the fact that is considered by some archaeologists as a mother culture to many civilizations that came after it, including the Maya, Zapotec, Zoque, and Totanaca. Its cultural influence could be found in various areas outside its established reigns.
The Olmec civilization lies in what now is present-day Veracruz and Tabasco. Bernardino de Sahagún, who was a Spanish missionary, along with Aztec informants, labeled the Olmecs as "the 'mysterious rubber people'" (Coe 61). It is unknown where Olmec people originated from or where they arose from, however old poems written in Nahuatl mention "a legendary land called Tamoanchan, on the eastern sea, settled long before the founding of Teotihuacan" (61).
In regards to language, there is indication that the Olmec spoke Maya and a form of Mixe-Zoquean. It is believed the Olmec spoke Maya because "there was an unbroken band of Mayan speech extending along the Gulf Coast all the way from the Maya area proper to the Huaxteca, and that the region in which the Olmec civilization was established could have been in those distant times Mayan-speaking" (62). However, there are also proposed theories by linguists Lyle Campbell and Terence Kaufman, who believe the Olmecs spoke a form of Mixe-Zoquean. In summary Campbell and Kaufman suggest that some form of Mixe-Zoquean was spoken because "there are a large number of loan words in other Mesoamerican languages, including Mayan" (62). They also noted that "Popoloca, a member of the Mixe-Zoquean family, is still spoken along the eastern slopes of the Tuxtla Mountains, in the very region from which the Olmecs obtained basalt for their monuments" (62).
Like previously stated, the Olmec civilization is regarded as one of the first civilizations; however there is some who doubt this theory, including anthropologist Sir Eric Thompson (62). Nevertheless, Matthew Sterling, who discovered the Olmec civilization, had strong backing from prominent Mexican scholars Alfonso Caso and Miguel Covarrubias who "held largely on the grounds that Olmec traits had appeared in sites of that period in the Valley of Mexico and in the state of Morelos" (62). In fact, there is more support for the Olmec civilization being one of the first civilizations in Mexico, than support against the theory, so much "that there is little doubt that all later civilizations in Mesoamerica, whether Mexican or Maya, ultimately rest on an Olmec base" (62).
The Olmec civilization includes three important sites that define it, including La Venta, San Lorenzo, and Tres Zapotes. Each site includes various artifacts and characteristics that defined the Olmec civilization. Radiocarbon dating at La Venta place Olmec origins at 1200 BC (62). The civilization flourished best in a region known as the "Olmec heartland", a region including southern Veracruz and Tabasco (66). During the summer, the land was victim to heavy rainfalls and to dry spells during the winter. The land was also near a collection of rivers that stretched into the Gulf of Mexico and "before the advent of white man, [there was] a very high, tropical forest cover, interspersed with savannahs" (66).
San Lorenzo, which was discovered during the 1930s and 40s, was most likely established at about 1700 BC and by 1500 BC overrun completely by Olmec influence. For a period of about three-hundred years, San Lorenzo would remain the most prominent site in all of Mesoamerica, so much that "there was nothing in fact quite like it before or during its apogee" (68). The well-known Colossal Heads, discovered in 1945, were also conceived and kept in San Lorenzo. The Heads are thought to be "portraits of might Olmec rulers, with thick-lipped features" (68). The discovery of these heads brings out many important facts. First and foremost, it shows how powerful, masterful, and organized the Olmec people were. It was no easy task crafting the Colossal Heads, nor was it an easy task obtaining the giant boulders fifty miles away at the Tuxtla Mountains. It is theorized that "the stones were dragged down to navigable streams and loaded on great balsa rafts, then floated first down to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, then up the Coatzacoalcos River, whence they would have had to be dragged, probably with rollers, up to the San Lorenzo plateau" (68). Secondly, the Colossal Heads shed light on Olmec people. The Heads shed light on how the Olmec people, specifically the rules, may have looked like. Also, the helmets worn on the Colossal Heads "probably served as protection in both war and the ceremonial game played with a rubber ball throughout Mesoamerica" (68). This ball game is just one of the many examples of Olmec influence throughout the land.
Throughout San Lorenzo there was also more discoveries. Aqueducts and several artifacts were unburied from underneath the ground. In 1967 a system an aqueduct system was discovered, which included "560-ft of laboriously pecked-out stone troughs fitted with basalt covers" (68). Such systems were found at several other Olmec sites. In terms of artifacts, there were various amounts, "including pottery bowls and dishes carved with Olmec designs, beautiful Olmec figurines and fragments, of white-ware jaguar 'babies', and small mirrors, some of them convex, polished from iron-ore nodes, which had been traded in from distant areas like Oaxaca" (69). This collection of artifacts shed light on arts like pottery, but also on the fact that the Olmec were trading abroad in search of materials. Obviously, this could not have been done without first establishing a trade network.
San Lorenzo was a very established society in regards to order. Although it may not have been equal, San Lorenzo was "dominated by a hereditary elite class with judicial, military, and religious power" (70).
Around 1200 BC San Lorenzo lost its prominence as a great city for reasons unknown. It is unclear if there was "an uprising from below or outside, although the evidence for this is not as abundant as once thought" (70).
La Venta in Tabasco, which originated at approximately 1600 BC, and came to power after the fall of San Lorenzo, was very similar to San Lorenzo, obviously because it was part of the Olmec culture as well. It was estimated by Robert Heizer that La Venta had a population of about eighteen-thousand people (74). What set La Venta apart from other establishments is that it included and immense clay pyramid. Research at the pyramid by Rebecca Gonzaléz-Lauck "has shown that it was in fact a rectangular pyramid, with stepped sides and inset corners" (72). This not only shows, again, the power of leaders, and strength of organization in constructing such pyramids, but also the peoples' praise of gods.
La Venta too lost in stance in power at around 400 through 300 BC, but it was believed that it was destroyed on purpose, as "twenty-four out of forty sculptured monuments were intentionally mutilated" (75).
The third major Olmec site includes Tres Zapotes, apex lasting from 500 BC to 100 AD, which is a hundred miles northwest of La Venta, and is in "a setting of low hills above the swampy basin formed by the Papaloapan and San Juan Rivers" (76). Rather than being known for immense pyramids, or Colossal Heads, although having two of them, Tres Zapotes is known for Stela C, "a fragmentary basalt monument which had been re-used in later times" (76). With the discovery of this piece it can be said that "it is not unlikely that the Olmec literati invented the Long Count [calendar] and perhaps also developed certain astronomical observations with which the Maya are usually credited" (78).
The Olmec civilization was very advanced for its time, and there is no doubt that each establishment played a role that together would make the Olmec a basis for other civilizations to come. Through diffusion of culture and trade, Olmec influences spread throughout Mexico. It is important to not overlook the Olmec because they played a crucial rule in early pre-classic times.
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