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Between Myth and Reality: Little know civilizations: The Olmecs

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The Olmecs are an ancient precolombian people of MesoAmerica which flourished from about 2500 BC to 500 BC. They were located on the Gulf of Mexico, in the Basin of Mexico and along the Pacific coast (State of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas). It is the oldest known MesoAmerican culture and as such if often referred to as the “mother of MesoAmerica cultures”. For example, the first Olmec city of San Lorenzo appeared and is dated around 1200 BC just at the time when Carthage was founded by the Phoenicians. The first Olmec pyramid built in LaVenta and dated to 1000 BC coincides with the foundation of the Israelite Kingdom in Palestine and 2000 years after the construction of the Cheop pyramid in Egypt. The Olmec civilization declined and disappeared around the V1th century BC while Athens was becoming a city-state.

MesoAmerica was defined in 1943 by Paul Kirchnoff as a cultural area which extended itself from the central plateau of the North of Mexico to the actual Costa Rica. This area presented common characteristics such as: the use of cacao as a drink, the culture of agave, pyramids construction, a writing system and a sophisticated and precise calendar (solar and ritual) etc. MesoAmerica is often associated to the Aztecs and the Mayas. But there also existed within that area a multitude of other people who gave birth to other original civilizations. These people such as the Toltecs of Tula, the Mixtecs or Zapotecs of Oaxaca, the Tarascs of Michoacan etc. cohabitated and influenced each other mutually. It is only at the end of the 1920’s that a German archeologist named Hermann Beyer gave the mane ” olmeca ” to the different vestiges found so far. This name means in the nahuatl language ” the people from the land of rubber “.èques

The Olmecs are mostly known for their colossal head statues. When I say colossal I mean huge as they measured almost 3 meters (almost 10 feet) in height, some 4.5 meters (almost 15 feet) in circumference and weigh in as an excess of 8 tons (7250 kilograms). There have been, so far, 17 such heads found (with 10 from San Lorenzo and 4 from LaVenta). As you might see from the statue above, the facial features seem almost african. But there is no evidence of any Africans either in North or Central or South America prior to the birth of Jesus-Christ. So it is just assumed that the Olmecs had a different asthetic sense of style but it is also noted that the features of these heads is still seen today in the facial feature of the residents of modern day Tabasca and Very Cruz. All the heads display certain emotions and are carved from a single basal boulder. Most of these heads have a helmet that was used by Olmecs during battle or during the usual Mesoamerican ballgame. Most archeologists and historians agree to say that the heads were some type of markers of rulership and distributed as such to establish political dominance. The four heads of LaVenta seem to be arranged so that they guard the sacred inner precinct of the city. The last head excavated dates from 1994 (while the first one dates from 1862) and to be noted, no two heads are alike. They each have their distinctive different helmets and each one display different facial expression and slightly different facial features. It is not known who those heads represent but there is a fairly general consensus that they could and probably are different rulers.


Other art forms from the Olmecs included is also representative of the religion of the Olmecs. They did not have as many gods as the Aztecs or Mayas and their religion was both simplistic and complex. The jaguar is omnipresent in most of of the sculptures and even continued through to the Aztecs.

The Olmecs shamans are also often depicted as beings being transformed into jaguars.

The Olmecs had approximately 10 gods that we know about and even to this day there is debate on them. So here I will just present to you the most and foremost Gods of the Olmec religious pantheon. God 1(aka Earth Monster or Creator) was the god of earth, sun, water and fertility and was often represented as a dragon as seen below.

God 11 was the maize or corn God and was often depicted with a maize corn cob sprouting out of his head.

God 111 was associated with the sun and the sky and was represented in a bird form combined with reptilian forms.

God 1V was the god of rain and was often depicted as a jaguar. God V is the Serpent God and might be the predecessor of the Mayans Kikulkan and the Aztecs Quetzalcoatl gods.

God V1 was the Olmec Fish God or Fish Monster and was of course associated with all bodies of water.

The Olmecs were also the first to build pyramids in MesoAmerica. Unfortunately they were not as monumental or well defined as the pyramids of the Maya and Aztecs. But they were still impressive nonetheless. The following pyramid, called “The Great Pyramid “, located in Complex C in LaVenta was made out of about 100,000 cubic meters (3,500 cubic feet) of land fill material and is over 110 feet (34 meters) high. The current shape is probably due to erosion over the years. A survey, done in 1967 does show something underneath that mound but, as of yet, it is only surmised that it might be a tomb, a treasure trove or anything else you can imagine.

There are also in LaVenta a few altars with figures carved into them.

There was also found in LaVenta three beautiful floor mosaic one of which is pictured below. These rectangular pavements were each made with between 480-500 blocks of serpentine representing some stylized jaguar mask.

What do you think?

18 points

Written by HistoryGal

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  1. Almost African is part of the writing that makes me curious. Overall this is very interesting because as a mother of Mesoamerica cultures”, this civilization is far from popular as its children.
    Wow! This post, as well as your such post, always gives me additional insight and knowledge. Thank you.

    • Yes I agree especially considering the fact that they worked with only axes and reeds and water to make the grooves of the facial features of those enormous heads. Thank you very much for your visit, your reading, your very nice comment and your up vote.

    • I am very happy that you enjoyed my little presentation. There is in fact very little known about the Olmecs. I summarized most of what has been dug out. Thank you so much for dropping in, reading, your amazing comment and your up vote…

  2. I love learning a lot about ancient civilizations. They help to make sense of our past and why things are like the way they are.

    I have never heard about this ancient civilization but I did learn about Mayas from the Internet.

    There’s still debate about the head statues. The distinct feature, the lips are common in African continent. Some archaeologists and historians say Africans used to trade with natives from America. Well, maybe more digging will tell us which is which.

    I enjoyed reading about Olmec.

    • I am very happy you enjoyed my post. What I meant to say is that there is no documentation that Africans were in Central America before Jesus Christ. As for trade I do not know. Thank you for dropping in and reading and posting such an exciting comment and of course upvoting.

    • I must say I do not remember studying the Olmecs in school; the Aztecs and Incas and Mayas yes but not the Olmecs. I think that visiting Mexico is out of the question for me because of the simple fact that it is too hot and I would just faint from it. But at least I can summarize some of the finds of the web to my heart’s content. I am happy you enjoyed my post, thank you very much for your lovely and engaging comment and up vote.

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