The term “Olmec” derives from Olmeca-Xicalanca, the Aztec name for conquest-era Gulf Coast traders. This designation, however, is not without problems given the ethnic and historical links it implies.
Indeed, “Olmec” refers to two things: (1) an art style and symbolic system widely dispersed throughout Mesoamerica; and (2) a pre-Columbian culture that flourished from 1200 to 600 B.C. along the Gulf Coast of Mexico, specifically in southern Veracruz and western Tabasco. Both of these definitions acknowledge the culture’s impact on the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican world; however, debate persists concerning the nature and development of this impact.
Occupation of the Gulf Coast’s lowlands, which comprised the Olmec heartland, occurred as early as 2200 B.C. After 1200 B.C., identifiable characteristics of Olmec culture crystallized. Members of the culture may have collectively spoken an early version of the Mixe-Zoque language. Egalitarian farming communities developed into a multi-tiered hierarchical system of settlement, which integrated towns, smaller villages, tiny hamlets, craft workshops, and isolated sacred spaces. Within this system, the archaeological sites of San Lorenzo, Laguna de Los Cerros, La Venta, and Tres Zapotes were four important centers, which were located in distinct eco-zones. Recent archaeological projects involving survey and excavation have documented considerable and long-term occupation within these centers’ cores, as well as in their adjacent hinterlands. This finding has effectively debunked the long-held belief that these sites functioned as vacant ceremonial centers.
San Lorenzo, the earliest of the known Olmec centers, was established around 1200 B.C. The center is located atop a low hill looking out over the Rio Chiquito, an arm of the Rio Coatzalcoalcos. Most likely, this location facilitated movement of ideas, goods, and people. Between 1150 and 900 B.C., the center’s inhabitants leveled San Lorenzo’s hilltop and erected earthen terraces, an endeavor requiring considerable human labor. By 900 B.C., San Lorenzo’s population had declined, and for reasons not yet understood, the center was eventually abandoned. Following San Lorenzo’s decline, the sites of La Venta and Laguna de Los Cerros rose in prominence. Ongoing research at Laguna de Los Cerros has shed light upon the site’s history and recognized its prime geographic location. While investigations at Laguna de Los Cerros have been recently initiated, La Venta has long been a focus of researchers’ interests and is the most intensively investigated of the Olmec sites. Frans Blom and Oliver La Farge first documented the site in 1926, incorrectly identifying it as Maya. Subsequent research at La Venta drew attention to the Olmecs’ substantial population levels, complex sociopolitical organization, and far-reaching trade networks. The site is located atop a salt dome and surrounded by marshes. In keeping with placement of lowland sites near rivers, La Venta overlooked the Rio Palma, which has since run dry. The center’s most distinguishing architectural feature is the Great Pyramid, an artificial “mountain” approximately 100 feet high. Despite heat, humidity, and periodic flooding, the center’s apogee extended for three centuries. By 400 B.C., the site was abandoned. Tres Zapotes emerged as an important center following La Venta’s demise. Despite being distinguished as the first archaeologically investigated Olmec center, Tres Zapotes is less remarkable in size and sociopolitical stature. In 1939, Matthew and Marion Stirling commenced the long history of research conducted at the site. In more recent work, David Grove has highlighted the upland environment in which Tres Zapotes is situated, arguing that its proximity to specific, local resources like basalt would have facilitated commercial relationships with lowland centers to the east. The same hypothesis can be extended to Laguna de Los Cerros, which was also located on the western edge of the Olmec heartland. Recent work has found that occupation of Tres Zapotes extended into the Classic period (ca. 300 B.C.-A.D. 300), debunking the idea of an Olmec “collapse.” In this period, the inhabitants of Tres Zapotes retained elements of Olmec culture but also incorporated influences from elsewhere in Mesoamerica.
In common, all of these Olmec centers possessed architectural features requiring considerable construction effort, such as monumental earthen platforms and ridges, ball courts, artificial reservoirs, and drainage systems carved from stone. These centers were also characterized by conspicuous consumption, as excavators have uncovered rich offerings of luxury goods intentionally cached beneath buildings. At La Venta, for instance, four large mosaic masks of serpentine blocks situated in colored sands were uncovered beneath the site’s Complex A. Furthermore, it is argued that the arrangement of buildings at sites conveys cosmological beliefs, while buildings’ forms replicated landscape features regarded as sacred.
In addition to major centers, Olmec sites included isolated sacred spaces used expressly for repeated and long-term ritual purposes; these sites have no evidence of domestic occupation. Proximity to bodies of water, mountains, and caves—natural features deemed cosmologically important—perhaps provided the impetus for their characterization as sacred. El Manati represents one of these sacred sites. Located 20 km from San Lorenzo, the site, which served as a place for ritual offerings from 1600 to 1000 B.C., is associated with a natural spring and hill. Fortunately for archaeologists, the inorganic bog soil into which offerings were deposited preserved them for millennia. Offerings included remarkably well-preserved wood busts of adult males and females, jade axes, rubber balls, copal, dismembered human remains of children, and faunal remains. Idiosyncratic and realistic features, suggesting individual portraiture, characterize wood busts.
The nature of political organization and social integration of Olmec centers remains a point of scholarly contention. General consensus advocates the notion of a theocratic chiefdom. Such a sociopolitical system involves governance of each center by a single, elite individual, or chief, who exercises authority over all things religious and monetary. With respect to the former, artistic representations’ iconographic symbols and motifs suggest that the Olmecs practiced a religion distinguished by shamanism. Shamans, or shamanic chiefs, mediated between the natural, earthly realm and the supernatural realm of the ancestors and deities. As first pointed out by Peter Furst in 1968, Olmec sculpture also depicts shamans’ supernatural power and ability to transform from human to animal spirits. Use of psychotropic drugs may have facilitated shamanic transformations. Aside from religious activities, the chief’s monetary responsibilities were related to food production and collection of tribute. An elite minority, presumably related to the chief, would have also exercised economic control over food tribute and trade networks. Trade with Mesoamerican groups distant from the Olmec is evidenced by materials such as blue-green jade from the Motagua Valley in Guatemala, fine white kaolin clay from Chalcatzingo, magnetite from the Valley of Oaxaca, and obsidian from central Mexico and the Maya highlands. Interactions via trade would have afforded the opportunity for communication of religious, social, and political ideas as well.
Much of this dialogue between the Olmecs and their distant Mesoamerican neighbors is supported by the appearance of Olmec art, or local expressions with characteristic features, in widely dispersed locales. Olmec art possesses distinctive stylistic traits that first appeared in the Olmec heartland between 1250-1150 B.C. Rulership and shamanism are the dominant themes. Most notable for their size and early dates are the three-dimensional human figures carved from stone. These include colossal basalt stone heads, seated and kneeling individuals, throne-like altars, and stelae. The effort that would have been required to procure enormous basalt boulders from their source, the Tuxtlas Mountains, cannot be overstated. First reported in 1862 at the site of Hueyapan in Veracruz, colossal stone heads were in fact investigators’ earliest exposure to Olmec culture. Scholars have convincingly argued that carved heads portray individual Olmec leaders. Often these monuments were found defaced or intentionally broken, which possibly signified the cessation of a leader’s rule or life. Olmec-style art is also found on a considerably smaller scale, as exemplified by portable artifacts.
Ceramics include incised pottery vessels, hollow baby-faced figurines, solid female figurines, and zoomorphic vessels. Jade, a notoriously difficult stone to work with, skillfully carved into figurines, plaques, pendants, and axes were also included in the repertoire of Olmec artisanship.
The appearance of Olmec artistic styles throughout Mesoamerica gave credence to Miguel Covarrubias’s argument that the Olmec represented a pervasive “mother culture” from which all other Mesoamerican civilizations sprang. Advocates of this model argued that Olmec culture was unequaled with respect to sociopolitical complexity, religious influence, and economic reach. Subsequent excavations at sites in the Olmec heartland have uncovered numerous artifacts with typical attributes, adding further support for the dispersal of these artistic symbols and their encoded beliefs from the center outward. Since Covarrubias’s pronouncement in the 1940s, scholars have heatedly debated the notion of the Olmec culture as Mesoamerica’s first civilization.
The counterargument to the “mother culture” model has been deemed the “sister culture” model. Scholars who argue against Olmec-centric models do not emphasize diffusion but consider the developmental processes and interactions of multiple societies. The notion of a central political authority concentrated in the Olmec heartland is disputed, and Olmec-style art is explained as the product of interaction by artisans from different Mesoamerican cultures. Proponents of this model also suggest that the Olmec were no more advanced than other contemporaneous Formative cultures, such as those found at Chalcatzingo in Morelos, the Valley of Mexico, and the Valley of Oaxaca. Sociopolitical development in these areas appears to be concurrent and not influenced by the Olmec. For instance, archaeologists working in the Valley of Oaxaca have identified hierarchically organized chiefly centers, craft workshops, buildings constructed with lime plaster and stone masonry and solar or astral orientations, and trade networks of prestigious goods. Distinct from Olmec imagery of rulers linked to powerful forces in the cosmos, Oaxacan authority is depicted by slain captives and territorial triumphs. Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, proponents of this model, argue for the Olmec as a paramount chiefdom, a large chiefdom that combines sacred authority and secular power, that rose, peaked, and eventually collapsed in a landscape of traditional or open chiefdoms. Chiefly centers throughout Mesoamerica were concentrating power, intensifying agriculture, and exchanging sumptuary goods and ideas.
Drawing on both of these opposing models, Kent Reilly, III has suggested a happy compromise that does not de-emphasize the Olmecs’ importance but situates the culture within a larger Mesoamerican landscape. He recognizes that the Olmecs were a significant cultural force whose influence continued after their decline, but he also acknowledges interaction with other Mesoamerican cultures. Art styles and associated symbols did originate with the Olmecs, but the culture did not represent a centrally organized society. Rather, sharing of ideas, beliefs, and practices occurred throughout Mesoamerica, resulting in a localized variation on a theme. Continued research efforts in the Olmec heartland and throughout Mesoamerica will further clarify our understanding of this long-debated issue.
- Clark, J. E., & Pye, M. E. (Eds.). (2000). Olmec art and archaeology in Mesoamerica. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art.
- Coe, M. D., Diehl, R. A., Friedel, D. A., Furst, P. T., Reilly, F. K., Schele, L., et al. (1995). The Olmec world: Ritual and rulership. Princeton, NJ: The Art Museum, Princeton University.
- Flannery, K. V., & Marcus, J. (2000). Formative Mexican chiefdoms and the myth of the “mother culture.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 19(1), 1-37.
- Miller, M. E. (1996). The art of Mesoamerica. New York: Thames and Hudson.