The Olmec were an ancient people living in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, roughly what would now be the Veracruz and Tabasco regions of the Mexican isthmus. Their immediate cultural influence went much further though, Olmec artwork being found as far afield as El Salvador. The Olmec predominated in their lands from about 1200 BC to about 800 BC; the best-known Olmec centers are at La Venta, San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, Tres Zapotes, Chalcatzingo, and La Mojarra.
Their homeland is characterized by swampy lowlands punctuated by low hill ridges and volcanoes. The Olmec response to this environment was the construction of permanent cities, and they are, in fact, understood to be the progenitors of every primary element common to later Mesoamerican civilizations. They were the first to build permanent city-temple complexes. They were the first to develop a hieroglyphic script for their language, the earliest known example dating from 650 BC. They were perhaps the originators of the Mesoamerican ballgame so prevalent among later cultures of the region and used for recreational and religious purposes - certainly they were playing it before anyone else has been documented doing so. Their religion developed all the important themes (an obsession with mathematics and with calendars, and a spiritual focus on death expressed through human sacrifice) found in successor cults. Finally, their political arrangements of strongly hierarchical city-state kingdoms were repeated by nearly every other Mexican and Central American civilization that came after.
Much Olmec art is highly stylized and uses an iconography reflective of the religious meaning of the artworks. Some Olmec art, however, is surprisingly naturalistic, displaying an accuracy of depiction of human anatomy perhaps equaled in the Pre-Columbian New World only by the best Maya Classic era art.
Olmec artforms emphasize monumental statuary and small jade carvings. A common theme is to be found in representations of a divine jaguar. Olmec figurines were also found abundantly through their period.
Olmec colossal heads
Perhaps the best-recognized Olmec art are the enormous helmeted heads. As no known pre-Columbian text explain these, these impressive monuments have been the subject of much speculation. These seem to be portraits of famous ball players, as the headgear is similar to that worn by players of the Mesoamerican ballgame in other monuments. Perhaps they depict kings rigged out in the accoutrements of the game.
Persistent fringe writers have for decades pointed to the full, fleshy lips and wide noses of these monuments as supposed evidence that the Olmec were not Mesoamerican at all, but actually African.
Mainstream scholars have remained unconvinced by this suggestion. They have pointed out that not all people with wide noses and thick lips are African; some Native Americans of this region still display these traits today without any other evidence of African ancestry. It is also noted that the collosal heads show eye folds found in the local Mesoamericans but lacking in Africans.
Very few individual Olmec people are known to modern scholars; the following sample will perhaps convey some flavor of the people.
- Po Ngbe (at Guerrero) sometime between 900 and 600 BC
- "Harvest Mountain Lord"
- U-Kix-chan - Founder of the ruling dynasty of B'aakal, a Maya kingdom at Palenque.
- Yo Pe (at Mojarra) second century BC
Decline of the Olmec
It is not known with any clarity what happened to this culture. All that can be said with assurance is that after 800 BC their influence wanes or vanishes, and by the beginning of the Common Era their lands were occupied by successor cultures - most notably the Maya to the east, the Zapotec to the southwest, and the Teotihuacan culture to the west.