One of the earliest known civilizations in Mesoamerica is that of the Olmec. The mysterious collapse of the Olmec civilization has left historians puzzled for years.
Mesoamerica is well-known for being one of the regions where the domestication of agriculture occurred independently.
In the aftermath of the development of agriculture, polities and kingdoms gradually arose throughout the region. Eventually, a uniform culture appeared around 1500-1400 BCE, now known as the Olmec civilization.
There are virtually no records of the Olmecs so what is known about them is only through archaeological evidence. Historians are not even sure what the Olmecs called themselves.
“Olmec” is the Nahuatl (Aztec language) word for “rubber people.” They were named for their remarkable ability to produce rubber thousands of years before the process of vulcanization was developed.
The Olmec civilization revolved around three main sites: San Lorenzo, La Venta, and Tres Zapotes, though most people lived in small villages.
Perhaps the most well-known aspect of the Olmec was their stunning artwork. Intricate and complex statues made from jade and stone littered their main cultural centers as well as surrounding sites. The colossal Olmec heads made from basalt are a lasting legacy of the intricate detail with which Olmec sculptures worked.
Historians do not know much about the collapse of the Olmec civilization. What is known is that it likely occurred in waves as sites were gradually abandoned. Climate change may have been a factor, as well as internal strife.
Many theories abound, but the region would be sparsely populated for many centuries following the Olmec decline. Regardless, the Olmec culture would go on to influence many aspects of future Mesoamerican civilization.
Where was the Olmec Civilization Located?
The Olmec civilization was located in southeastern Mexico along the coast near the Gulf of Mexico. The territory it comprised is located in the modern-day Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco.
At first glance the region does not appear to be an ideal candidate for a thriving civilization. Swamps and a thick jungle canopy with hot and humid temperatures covered the area. Nearly 100 inches of rainfall occurred annually and thus rivers often flooded in periods of excess rainfall.
However, where there are floods, there are floodplains. These floodplains served as extremely fertile land for farming practices.
The region also held quality clay used for pottery, as well as stone deposits that the Olmec crafted into tools and monuments.
Archaeological evidence suggest the civilization appeared around 1500-1400 BCE. It was not until 1200-1100 BCE that the first major city and cultural center likely appeared at the site known as San Lorenzo.
More cities would gradually emerge, with La Venta and Tres Zapotes the most significant among them. Archaeologists are unsure whether these cities were merely cultural centers with few permanent residents or if they housed a significant number of people.
Regardless, historians believe that the majority of Olmec people lived in small villages so as to be closer to agricultural production. Most villagers lived in houses approximately 10×16 ft and made of some combination of clay, stone, and wood.1
More elaborate houses measured up to 30×39 ft and likely housed more elite members of society.
While the Olmec subsisted on a diverse diet full of tree nuts, wild animals, and other crops, it’s clear they became increasingly dependent on the cultivation of maize by ~900 BCE.
What is the Olmec Civilization Known for?
The Olmec are best known as the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica. As they were the first major culture in the region, many of their developments and discoveries were used as inspiration and modified in later civilizations and cultures.
One of the most well-known aspects of the Olmec is their distinctive artwork. The Olmec created intricate sculptures made from the volcanic stone basalt, jade, and ceramics. Their distinctive style was characterized by incredible attention to detail as well as symmetry and balance.
In addition to their artwork, historians believe the Olmec created the first pyramid in the Americas. Standing at nearly 112 ft tall, it was the largest Mesoamerican structure at the time.
Though it paled in comparison to the tallest buildings in the ancient world, it was still a significant feat, especially without utilizing draft animals or technology such as the wheel.
Aside from their prolific artwork and constructions, the Olmec developed extensive trade networks. Olmec art, pottery, and other artifacts have been found at sites far away from the traditional Olmec region.
The trade networks provided the Olmec with the wealth, labor, and resources necessary to develop a stratified society where a surplus of agricultural production supported artists and laborers.
The jury is still out on whether the Olmec have the oldest dated writing system in Mesoamerica. The recently-discovered Cascajal Block features a total of 62 glyphs and dates back to between 1200-900 BCE; although it is unsure whether this is the earliest form of writing or rather a special arrangement of symbols.2
Regardless, one other significant feat is that the Olmec were able to create rubber thousands of years before the development of vulcanization. The rubber had multiple purposes including for a game called the “Mesoamerican ballgame” that later civilizations in the region adopted.
The Olmec Colossal Heads
One other major discovery the Olmec are known for is their massive colossal heads. Archaeologists have found seventeen different colossal heads found across four significant Olmec sites so far, with a possible eighteenth at a separate site.
The colossal heads range in size from 6-11 feet tall and in weight from six to 40-50 tons at the heaviest. Olmec builders transported these heavy stone sculptures from great distances, some from as far away as 93 miles.
This is known as the heads were carved from a volcanic stone called basalt only found in very specific sites within the region.
Archaeologists found ten slabs at the original cultural center of San Lorenzo. At the next cultural site of La Venta, they identified four others. Two more were found at the last significant site of Tres Zapotes, while the final colossal head, and coincidentally the largest, was found at the site of La Cobata.
La Cobata was not a cultural center and its location near the source of the basalt used for the heads has led archaeologists to believe that this colossal head was unfinished and abandoned before transport to its intended destination.
The colossal heads are well-known for their intricate details and realistic human facial features. Historians do not know for certain who the heads represent, but current theories peg them as representing specific rulers of Olmec cities.
The Collapse of the Olmec Civilization
From its origins around 1500-1400 BCE, the Olmec civilization eventually collapsed around 400 BCE when other civilizations finally superseded it.
The chief region of the Olmec faced severe depopulation around this time as the people either died off or left the region to other nearby emerging civilizations such as the Maya and Zapotec.
While prior theories suggested a rapid decline all at once, recent historians believe that it was more of a gradual decline. There is plenty of evidence that the cultural centers existed in phases.3
For instance, the Olmec largely abandoned the San Lorenzo site by ~900 BCE. Afterwards, La Venta became the chief cultural center until its abandonment around 400 BCE.
There are many other speculative reasons as to why the Olmec civilization collapsed. Some believe that a change in climate and weather patterns caused the general abandonment of the region.
Increased volcanic activity may have covered the area with ash and made the area temporarily uninhabitable. In addition, crucial rivers may have faced siltation due to the Olmec agricultural practices, including slash and burn tactics that exposed the area to increased soil erosion.
Still other theories posit that the emergence of other civilizations such as the Zapotec and Maya caused the extensive Olmec trade networks to divert away from them. With less goods and wealth coming to the Olmec, the civilization faced internal strife as rulers struggled to maintain control of their subjects.
However the Olmec civilization collapsed, its contributions to the future of Mesoamerica cannot be understated. Succeeding cultures such as the Zapotec, Maya, and Aztec all utilized the Olmec’s numerous discoveries and cultural contributions in a variety of ways.
The Olmec were a fascinating culture, one from which we still have much to learn.
1) Pool, Christopher A. “ASKING MORE AND BETTER QUESTIONS: OLMEC ARCHAEOLOGY FOR THE NEXT ‘KATUN.’” Ancient Mesoamerica, vol. 20, no. 2, 2009, pp. 241–52. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26309240.
2) Ojus, Doshi. “Olmec Writing: The Oldest in the Western Hemisphere.” Journal of Young Investigators, Journal of Young Investigators, 11 Feb. 2007, https://www.jyi.org/2007-february/2007/2/11/olmec-writing-the-oldest-in-the-western-hemisphere
3) Pool, Christopher A. “ASKING MORE AND BETTER QUESTIONS: OLMEC ARCHAEOLOGY FOR THE NEXT ‘KATUN.’” Ancient Mesoamerica, vol. 20, no. 2, 2009, pp. 241–52. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26309240.