Hey guys 🙂 Happy Sunday!
Are you ready for a history lesson? I hope so, because today’s post is about Mexico’s earliest ancient civilization. It may seem to be a dry topic for some but let me assure you that it is very interesting 🙂
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Happy Reading 🙂
The Olmec Civilization
The Olmec Civilization was the earliest Mesoamerican civilization flourishing between 1400 BC to 400 BC along the southern coast of the Gulf of Mexico in the present-day states of Tabasco and Veracruz. Although the official version places the origins of the Olmec culture to 1400 BC, many scholars claim that the earliest origins of this civilization date back to somewhere around 19000 BC.
This culture is considered as the ‘mother culture’ of Mesoamerica as it had a major influence on all the subsequent civilizations including that of the Maya, Teotihuacán, Toltec and Aztec. The Olmec are credited, or speculatively credited, with many ‘firsts’ in Mesoamerican civilization, including the Mesoamerican ballgame, bloodletting, human sacrifice, writing, the invention of zero and the Mesoamerican calendar. They were the first to make use of cocoa. They also built the first cities, with palaces and pyramids. Their political arrangements of strongly hierarchical city-state kingdoms were repeated by nearly every other Mesoamerican civilization that followed. Their major centres were San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, La Venta, and Laguna de los Cerros.
The most impressive features of the Olmec culture are the around nine-foot high colossal stone heads of male figures. These magnificent stone heads, along with the massive altars, and sophisticated statues found at Olmec sites, especially at La Venta, are the oldest known monuments in Pre-Hispanic Mexico. These enormous heads were carved from single blocks or boulders of volcanic basalt, quarried in the Tuxtla Mountains and then transported to the Olmec centres along the southern Gulf of Mexico coast on large balsa rafts. Almost all the visages are flat-faced, with a flat nose; thick, wide lips and staring eyes. Each has a headgear resembling a football helmet. Possibly, these ‘helmets’ were protective coverings worn while playing the ball-game. The heads may be portraits of famous ball players, or perhaps kings. Many megalithic heads with African facial features were also discovered.
The oldest known Olmec centre was San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, which was most noted for its extraordinary stone monuments. Many of these, perhaps most, were deliberately smashed or otherwise mutilated about 900 BC and buried in long lines within the ridges and elsewhere at the site. The monuments carved from basalt, weighed as much as 44 tons. It is speculated that the dense population concentration at San Lorenzo encouraged the rise of an elite class that eventually ensured Olmec dominance and provided the social basis for the production of the symbolic and sophisticated luxury artefacts that define Olmec culture. Due to unknown reasons, San Lorenzo was abandoned around 900 BC and La Venta became the main Olmec centre.
La Venta was located on an almost inaccessible island, surrounded at that time by the Tonalá River, the river which now divides the states of Veracruz and Tabasco. Built around 1200 BC, La Venta reached its height after San Lorenzo had gone into decline and around 800 BC to 400 BC became the most important site in Mesoamerica. La Venta, like later Mesoamerican sites, was planned with a north-south orientation so that building doors open east to west, corresponding to the daily passage of the sun. A 30-metre high mounded-earth pyramid, among the earliest in Mesoamerica, was constructed as the focal point of an axial arrangement of platform temples and plazas. This urban arrangement would become a common plan for later Mesoamerican ceremonial centres. La Venta suffered the same fate as San Lorenzo – it was destroyed violently around 400 BC.
In the northern area of the Olmec domain there was some cultural continuity long after 500 BC. Tres Zapotes became an important post-Olmec centre, and Laguna de Los Cerros continued as a major centre into the Classic period.
The Olmec exported their beliefs throughout the region in the form of specialized ceramic designs and forms, which quickly became hallmarks of elite status in various regions of ancient Mexico. Olmec artisans were adept at human and animal portrayals.
An increasing number of monuments were carved in relief, and some of these were steles with elaborate scenes based upon historical or contemporary events. Their art forms emphasized monumental statues as well as small jade carvings and jewellery. Common motifs included down turned mouths and slit-like slanting eyes, both of which can be seen in most of their representations of were-jaguars or jaguar gods. They fashioned statues out of striking blue-green jade which was brought from distant regions in Guatemala. Among the most beautiful objects crafted by the Olmec were the concave mirrors of iron ore, which were pierced to be worn around the neck. These could throw pictures on a flat surface and could probably start fires on hot tinder. Olmec leaders, whether they were kings or priests, undoubtedly used them to impress the populace with their seemingly supernatural powers.
It was initially thought that the Olmec worshiped only one god, a rain deity depicted as a were-jaguar but their art has proved that there were at least ten distinct gods. These also included several important deities of the later, established Mesoamerican pantheon, such as the fire god, rain god, corn/maize god, and the feathered serpent.
After about 500 BC, the Olmec civilization influenced separate regional styles and kingdoms leading to the rise of subsequent civilizations, most notably, the Maya to the east, the Zapotec to the south-west, and the Teotihuacán culture to the west.
I hope you enjoyed reading this post. You can read everything about Mexico and my adventures across this beautiful ancient land, right here on my blog. Check out my three e-books on Mexico:
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Hasta pronto, take care 🙂