The Olmecs: A Mesoamerican Wonder

Kimberly Lavin

ã December 1, 1999

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RS 350: Independent Study

Fr. Thomas Hart

Fall 1999

 

 

Table of Contents

 

Outline…………………...…………………………………………………………………………i

Introduction……………………...………………………………………………………...……….1

Periods of Olmec History……………...………………………………………………...…………3

Agriculture……………………………...………………………………………………..………...3

Demography…………………………...……………………………………………………...……4

Language……………………………...………………………………………………………..…..5

The Calendar Year…………………...…………………………………………………….………6

The Olmec’s Physical Type…………...…………………………………………………………...7

History of this Area…………………..…….………………………………………………………9

Olmec Sites and Their Architecture………………………..……………………………………..10

The Art of Sculpture and Ceramics…………………………..………………………..…………14

Olmec Society……………………………………..………………………………..…………….17

Religion………………………………………..………………………………………………….20

Conclusion………………………………………………………………………………………..23

Bibliography……………………………………………………………………………………...25

 

 

 

  1. Introduction
    1. MesoAmerica’s Three Time Periods
    1. Preclassic (2000 B.C. – A.D. 250)
    2. Classic (A.D. 250 – 900)
    3. Postclassic (A.D. 900 – 1521)
    1. Mesoamerican’s Indian Groups
    1. Olmecs
    2. Mayans
    3. Zapotecs
    4. Teotihuacans
    5. Mixtecs
    6. Huastecs
    7. Los Tajines
    8. Toltecs
    9. Aztecs
    1. Olmecs lived during the 1200 – 400 B.C. time period
    2. Olmecs three major cities
    1. La Venta in Tabasco
    2. Laguna de los Cerros in Veracruz
    3. San Lorenzo in Tenochtitlan
    1. Influence spread
    1. Guatemala
    2. Honduras
    3. Belize
    4. Costa Rica
    5. El Salvador

 

  1. Periods of Olmec History
    1. Olmec’s four different periods
    1. Olmec I (1500-1200 B.C.)
    1. Man domesticated plants
    2. Permanent communities
    3. Ceramics
    4. Wove cloth
    5. Baskets, mats
    6. Polished stone
    7. Social organization based on kinship
    8. Practiced magic
    1. Olmec II (1200 – 600 B.C.)
    2. Olmec III (600 – 100 B.C.)
    3. Post – Classic (100+)

 

  1. Agriculture
    1. Gourds were the first plant to be domesticated in 6500 B.C.
    2. Followed by:
    1. Beans
    2. Squash
    3. Peppers
    4. Avocados
    5. Cotton
    6. Corn (2250 B.C.)
    1. Lived near the river – two crops a year
    2. Lived in or near the mountains – one crop a year

 

  1. Demography
    1. Densely populated
    2. 40 – 60 people per square mile
    3. 350,000 people

 

  1. Language
    1. Mix of Mayans and the Huastecs
    2. Recently a language (possibly Olmecs) was deciphered
    1. Dr. Terrence Kaufmann
    2. Dr. John Justeson

 

  1. The Calendar Year
    1. 1 Olmec Calendar Year = 52 Current Calendar Years
    2. Symbols to explain numbers
    1. A dot – 1
    2. A horizontal line – 5
    3. Special glyph – 0

 

  1. The Olmec’s Physical Type
    1. Characteristics
    1. Low stature
    2. Obese
    3. Slanted eyes
    4. Epicanthus fold
    5. Short, wide nose
    6. Thick lips
    7. Short heavy neck
    1. Celebrates the baby
    2. African or Asian Descent
    3. Clothing

 

  1. History of this Area
    1. 1518 – La Venta was discovered
    2. San Lorenzo was in existence before La Venta

 

  1. Olmec Sites and Their Architecture
    1. Three Major Cities
    1. La Venta
    2. Tres Zapotes
    3. Rio Chiquito Sites
    1. San Lorenzo
    2. Potrero Nuevo
    3. Tenochtitlan
    1. La Venta
    1. Swamp on the Tonala River
    2. Area of living and worshipping
    3. Large pyramid
    4. Ceremonial court
    5. Life ended here between 450 and 325 B.C.
    1. Tres Zapotes
    1. Small area
    2. Dense population
    1. Laguna de Los Cerros
    1. Twenty-eight monuments were found
    1. Other Sites
    1. Rainy season
    2. Six colossal heads found

 

  1. The Art of Sculpture and Ceramics
    1. Colossal Heads
    1. First found in 1862 – Veracruz
    2. Found in all Olmec areas
    3. Made of rock from the Tuxtlas Mountains
    1. Small heads
    2. Monoliths
    3. Alters

E. Stalae/Columns

    1. Mutilation of sculptures
    1. After someone’s death
    2. Destroyed by enemies

 

  1. Olmec Society
    1. Achievements
    1. Art
    2. Politics
    3. Religion
    4. Economics
    1. Classes of Men
    1. High class
    2. Merchants/Warriors
    3. Farmers/Artisans/Sculptors
    1. Authoritarian
    2. Two Groups
    1. Elite – Urban Areas
    2. Common People – Rural Areas
    1. Weapons
    2. Music

 

  1. Religion
    1. Polytheistic
    2. Practiced shamanism
    3. Worshipping of the jaguar
    4. Ten Divinities
    5. Rain ceremonies
    6. Great Serpent
    7. Burial rituals

 

  1. Conclusion
    1. Connection between Religion and everything else
    2. Life was very structured

The Olmecs - A Mesoamerican Wonder

"The Olmecs, for their part, remind us of the Sumerians: like them long unknown, like them precursors, like them buried beneath ruins many thousands of years old and hidden from our eyes by the traces of peoples who succeeded them." The Mesoamericans were a large group of different Indian groups that dwelled in Mexico between 2000 B.C. and A.D. 1521. The Mesoamerican civilization is made up of three different periods: the Preclassic (2000 B.C.-250 A.D.), the Classic (A.D. 250 - 900), and the Postclassic (A.D. 900 - 1521). Among the Mesoamericans were smaller Indian groups which included the Olmecs, the Mayans, the Zapotecs, the Teotihuacans, the Mixtecs, the Huastecs, the Los Tajines, the Toltecs, and the Aztecs. "A Mesoamerican city was the result of a synoecism: on the one hand, the center, the residence of the gods and their priests, civic leaders, merchants-a focal point of ritual, administration, and commerce; and on the other, the neolithic villages and hamlets whose daily life-save for their inhabitants’ participation in the work projects required by the central authority-had doubtless not changed since the beginnings of agriculture." It is said that the Olmecs are the oldest known group of Indians in the Americas.

The Olmec were believed to be in existence during the Preclassic era, from 1200 - 100 B.C. This Indian group is thought to be the oldest of the Mesoamericans, that we know of. The Olmecs had their home among three major cities: La Venta in Tabasco, Laguna de los Cerros in Veracruz, and San Lorenzo in Tenochtitlan. The Olmec influence went much furthur though. It spread through Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, Costa Rica, and El Salvador. The Olmecs were thought to have lived in other areas but nothing has been found to confirm that. Olmecs are usually referred to as the "mouth of the jaguar" or the "Rubber People". The Olmecs were the people who discovered natural rubber and this is where they get their nickname - the "Rubber People."

The Olmec area is made up of 7000 square miles in an area that has a lot of rainfall. "The rest of the area, with the exception of a few humid plains and the swamps, was and is still covered with tall vegetation which in reality is an impenetrable jungle whose only open spaces are those

cut by the rivers that form the only possible means of communication."

Periods of Olmec History

According to Ignacio Bernal, the Olmec civilization is made up of four different periods - Olmec I,II,III and Post-Olmec. The dates are listed below:

Olmec I

1500-1200 B.C.

Olmec II

1200 - 600 B.C.

Olmec III

600 - 100 B.C

Post-Classic

100 +

During the time period of the Olmec I, there were many advances in the way people lived their lives. "Man domesticated plants and learned how to make use of them; he began to live in permanent communities of settlements and villages; he made ceramics, wove cloth of cotton and of fibers, made baskets and mats, and polished stone. He was controlled by a social organization based on kinship. And, finally, he practiced magic." Throughout the rest of the Olmec periods, many other advances in life were made, including agriculture and the way of life. As in all walks of life, people live and adapt differently to changes. Although we may think they lived was very primitive, it was a large step from how they used to live.

Agriculture

The Olmec were a typical Indian group that we think of today. For the most part they

farmed, fished, and hunted. Basically in the beginning the only items that they grew were corn,

beans, and squash. Later on, other plants were cultivated in this area. In fact, gourds were the first plant domesticated in 6500 B.C., followed by beans, squash, peppers, avocados, and then cotton. Although maize was thought to be the first item that was cultivated, it did not come until later, about 2250 B.C.. Everything else that they used was usually traded, using the barter method. Farming was difficult at times for them though because of the area in which they lived. Most of their land was part of the jungle so they had to spend a lot of time clearing the jungle for the fields. For those that lived near the rivers, there were usually two crops a year. However those that lived near or in the mountains had only one crop a year. The clearing of the fields was usually done in March. During the year they had two sets of harvesting. There was the main crop or milpa del ano and the tonamil which was the winter crop. Although they had two harvests a year, this did not always mean that they would be taking in a lot of food. Most of the time the land was not fertile, so it would only produce food every couple of years. Because of this, the Olmecs were always on the move, and could not live as a community as most people think Indians did.

Demography

The group of the Olmecs was large and abundant. Although no one knows for sure how many people were around at any one time, we do know that this area was very densely populated. "There were probably a number of different populations, forming groups that rose and fell over time and shifted alliances. I don’t think there was any political integration."

Depending on the authors and anthropologists, some say that there were forty people per square mile, while others say that there were sixty people per square mile. The Olmec area was said to be the most densely populated Indian group of the Mesoamericans. As an estimation, authors such as Bernal and Soustelle use the number of 350,000 people to give an idea of how large this group really was.

Language

Up to this point, no one has been able to confirm a specific language which they spoke. Some say however that their language was a mix of Mayans and Huastec. Researchers say that what might have happened was that the Mayan and Huastec languages developed from the Olmecs since the Olmecs were the first of the three. Lyle Campbell and Terrence Kaufman hypothesized that "the language of the Olmecs was most likely a proto-Mixe-Zoquean."

Before 1986, no one was sure as to whether or not the Olmecs had a writing system. No books have ever been found from this Indian group, until a picture of a well-dressed man with text alongside was found in Vera Cruz in Mexico. It is not definite that this finding was of Olmec origin but it is possible. Books and scrolls that were made of a soft material did not last the thousands of years that has spanned since that time. There were obviously many carvings into the rocks and sculptures that they made, but no one is quite sure what kind of writing system it was. Seen on many of the drawings are different symbols that were more likely "letters" than pictures. However, it is possible that some of their words were written down in the form of a picture. Just because most cultures and languages today have letters and words to signify what they want to get across does not mean that the Indian groups of this time could not have "written" in pictures.

In March, 1993, this mysterious writing system was deciphered by two main researchers: Dr. John Justeson of the State University of New York at Albany and Dr. Terrence Kaufmann of the University of Pittsburgh. They commented, "The script may itself descend from an Olmec hieroglyphic system, but too little of the Olmec script has been recorded to confirm or disprove a connection." This language was called Epi-Olmec because it came from where the Olmecs dwelled. To decipher this language, Dr, Kaufmann studied the current Mixe-Zoquean languages of Mexico and then reconstructed the vocabulary and grammar of their unknown language. Dr. Kaufmann said, "It was like reconstructing old Latin from our knowledge of modern romance languages. After the Epi-Olmec language was discovered, Dr. Justeson and Dr. Kaufmann found more than 150 signs of Epi-Olmec writings.

The Calendar Year

The Olmecs had a calendar despite the fact that they did not have a writing system until

later on in their civilization. Their calendar began as a "calendar year" consisting of 52 years, and ended up as a calendar year that is very much like ours today. They had different words for days, months, etc. but the same idea was there. Their year was only a few days off of ours - 360 days as opposed to 365. The only form of writing that they needed for their calendar was a couple of symbols to explain their numbers. A dot symbolized one, a horizontal line symbolized five, and they had a special glyph for zero.

The Olmec’s Physical Type

It is hard to know exactly what the Olmec people looked like. Considering the conditions of the area in which they lived, no one has been able to find a full skeleton intact. Covarrubias, a researcher and author, says, "there is an emphasis on a definite physical type, radically opposed to the bony and aquiline type we are accustomed to regard as Indian." There have been a great deal of sculptures and monuments found which are a possibility of what this group may have looked like. The description of their features are as follows: "persons of low stature but with well-formed bodies tending toward obesity, slanted eyes that are puffy and the epicanthus fold, a short wide nose, mouth with thick lips and corners turned downward, a prominent jaw and a short heavy neck"

Olmec is the only ancient civilization which celebrates in a monumental and masterful way, the human baby. As a baby, when the skull was still malleable, the skull was compressed. No one has learned up to this point why this was done. We think of this as deformation, but this seemed normal for their society. Another thing that they did which people from the 20th century find strange was that they mutilated their front teeth, again a reason is unknown.

Although this is what many people consider to be the "Olmec type" there are some problems with this story. "I believe that the occupants of the major Gulf Olmec centers were actively engaged in a process of ethnic differentiation," said Philip Arnold III. "Many have argued over whether the Olmecs were of African or Asian descent, because of their facial features." When looking at the sculptures of the large colossal heads many people relate them to the Negroids which would mean that they would have had to travel over from Africa. Others are certain that they were from China. Han Ping Chen said, "Clearly, these are Chinese characters." Chen has a theory as to how they got here. "After the Shang Army was routed and the Emperor killed, some loyalists might have sailed down the Yellow River and taken to the ocean. There, perhaps, they drifted with a current which skirts Japan’s coast, heads for California, then peters out near Ecuador." Michael Coe, however, says what Chen has to say is "insulting to the indigenous people of Mexico." Aguirre Beltran says that "This migration is improbable though not impossible." Many think that it would have been nearly impossible for them to be able to reach the Gulf Coast at that time. It is very hard to believe that people from a civilization that existed more than two thousand years ago would have been able to cross an ocean as big as it is. The only possibility that has been thought of is the positioning of the land. Many historians say that over the years the layout of the world has changed. All of the land may have once been connected, but it now it is spreading apart. Holland Cotter of the New York Times describes the Olmec as "ice-age ancestors who crossed the Bering Strait from Asia and moved down North America to present day Mexico."

Since nearly all clothing has been destroyed over the past two thousand years - it is hard to say what the Olmecs wore. Researchers found however, that the men wore loincloths or a skirt and some sort of cloak while the women wore skirts and bodices. The women (which is still not uncommon for today’s Indian society) often went with their breasts bared. Considering that certain terrain was rocky, sandals were most likely worn. People also wore bracelets, necklaces, and other decorative paraphernalia along with piercings in their nasal septum. Of course, there were also headdresses and turbans also worn by the appropriate officials.

History of this Area

Although there are many cities that cover a large area that is considered part of the Olmec civilization, there are three major cities which are the most important. These cities are the most important because research has found that these cities had the highest population, most pyramids, ceremonial courts, and sculptures were found. In 1518, while on an expedition, two explorers came upon La Venta without knowing that it would turn out to be the most important of the Olmec cities. "La Venta is certainly a place of many puzzles, and further work should be done there in order to ascertain more definitely where this ancient city should be placed in our sequence of cultures." After years of research it was discovered that

San Lorenzo, although far less important of a city, was in existence before La Venta. The other discovery was that the plateau of San Lorenzo is artificial, which is amazing considering it is over 50 meters tall. Throughout all the years of researching and collecting artifacts from the Olmecs, a plethora of mistakes had been made. Many years ago, various researchers did not know anything about the Olmecs or even that they existed, so when they found artifacts they were sometimes misplaced and combined with another group, or they were grouped in a category titled "the ancient ones." The Olmec were only discovered in the second half of the 19th century. In 1929, "Saville took a significant step forward when he christened the culture Olmec." Although a lot has been learned over the decades about this ancient culture, much remains unknown. A lot of research is still being done to find out more about this interesting group of Mesoamericans.

Olmec Sites and their Architecture

"The ancient Olmecan culture, apparently had its center in the San Andres Tuxtla area around Lake Catemaco, and extended down to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in the southern part of the State of Vera Cruz." The Olmec civilization is essentially made up of three different cities: La Venta, Tres Zapotes, and the Rio Chiquito sites, which include San Lorenzo, Potrero Nuevo, and Tenochtitlan. At these cities, the Olmec built large pyramids and religious centers as meeting centers for the group.

La Venta is an island in a swamp on the Tonala River. Although La Venta is only two square miles, it was a major area for living and worshipping. Only the center part of La Venta has been discovered. The outer areas of this place have yet to be excavated. The major structure in La Venta is a large pyramid with connecting buildings that is the center of the island of La Venta. This pyramid was once thought to be a normal Mexican pyramid with a quadrangular base and a flat top but once all the vegetation was removed, it was discovered to have a cone top. This pyramid was calculated to be 99,000 square miles, which in comparison to other Mexican pyramids is rather small. Studies show that this pyramid was probably never used for religious ceremonies.

However, it has been hypothesized that the Olmecans may have been trying to build a volcano. There are volcanoes at Los Tuxtlas which is about 100 kilometers from La Venta, so it is thought that they were so intrigued by these volcanoes that they tried to build their own. Just like the volcanoes at the Tuxtla Mountains, there are ridges and gullies that run down the sides of the pyramid in La Venta. It was theorized by Heizer, another researcher, that Los Tuxtlas could have been the original cite of the Olmec people, and that when moving to La Venta they wanted to bring "a piece of home" with them. This could be why they built an imitation volcano so that it would remind them of their original homeland. In the center of La Venta was also a ceremonial court which was used for religious ceremonies, as well as some commonly known tombs. During this time, the Olmec would give offerings in relationship to a building or tombs on a central axis. For example, some offerings in this area were found in the corner of courtyards or the foot of staircases. Rebecca Gonzalez of the National Institute of Anthropology and History states: "La Venta was not just an empty ceremonial spot visited by Olmec priests and nobles but a prosperous community of fishers, farmers, traders, and specialists, such as the artisans and the sculptors." In La Venta there was an abundant usage of colored clay, which was not seen anywhere else in Mesoamerica. In this area there were many of the colossal heads and other monuments found in this area.

Life on this island ended between 450 and 325 B.C. for some unknown reason. "No more buildings were erected, no more trenches dug in which to bury the serpentine offerings, no more caches filled with jade figurines. The ruling elite disappeared: driven out, exterminated, or departed into exile of its own accord. Monuments were shattered, statues decapitated, stelae damaged by hammerblows." The Olmec in this area lasted for over one hundred years, building a society for themselves where they could live and prosper. For some reason, people stopped living in this area abruptly, leaving no signs as to why. Maybe they could no longer farm on the land there, or maybe they were forced to move because of another tribe. Although researchers are still studying the possible causes, no one may ever know the real reason.

Tres Zapotes, another of the major cities, is also a very small area of only two miles along the stream of Hueyapan, west of the Tuxtlas Mountains. "More order is noticeable here than at La Venta, and therefore one has the feeling of a step toward planification." Here in this area, stone used was sed in areas for buildings and pyramids. Researchers have found more than fifty mounds in this area, which implies the area to be densely populated.

In 1960, Alfonso Medallin led an exploration of Laguna de Los Cerros where twenty-eight monuments were found. Most of them were destroyed to some extent, as were the monuments at most of the other sites.

These other sites, San Lorenzo, Potrero Nuevo, and Tenochtitlan have been recognized as similar to La Venta because of their rainy seasons and islands that decide to come and go depending on the amount of rain. In the 1960’s, a great deal was discovered in San Lorenzo,

including six colossal heads. "The sculpture of the colossal heads, altars, and animal and human figures at San Lorenzo apparently began about 1200 B.C. and came to a sudden end about 900 B.C., when most of the stone monuments were mutilated and buried, perhaps to conceal them, under earthen mounds." The man who discovered this, Dr. Michael Coe, said that this act was a "revolutionary act done by the people themselves." Although these places were the most used and known sites, these are not all of them. There are many other sites in the general vicinity that have found to also be places of Olmec civilization. Mounds, sculptures and other religious offerings have been found there to confirm this.

The Olmec did not live luxuriously by any means. The areas in which most of them lived were very populated and their houses were very simple. Without any definite proof, houses in this time were more than likely made of wood with "palm-thatched" roofs. Their walls were made of mud and clay that was dried by the sun and hardened. Although it is thought that the great leaders of Teotihuacan and the Mayan area lived in fabulous stone palaces, this was not the case of the Olmec chieftains.

The Art of Sculpture and Ceramics

The magnificent colossal stone heads, massive altars, and sophisticated anthropomorphic and zoomorphic statues found at Olmec sites in VeraCruz and Tabasco, are the oldest known monuments in Prehistoric Mexico. A man by the name of Jose Maria Melgar y Serrano went to the area of San Andres Tuxtla in Veracruz in 1862 when the first of the colossal heads was found. He wrote about it a few years later:

About a league and a half’s distance from a sugarcane hacienda, on the western slopes of the Sierra de San Martin, a worker on this hacienda who was clearing jungle noticed on the surface of the ground what he took to be the bottom of a huge pot lying upside down. He told the owner the hacienda of this discovery, and the latter ordered this object to be unearthed. As a work of art, it is, without exaggeration, a magnificent sculpture…but what most amazed me was that the type that it represents is Ethiopian. I concluded that there had doubtless been blacks in this region, and from the very earliest ages of the world.

 

Since then many other colossal heads have been found among the different cities that the Olmecs lived in, ranging anywhere from 11 to 24 tons. Twelve have been discovered in all: four in La Venta, two in Tres Zapotes, and six in San Lorenzo. The heads measure between four and ten feet. Many have wondered how they could have possibly moved these enormous rocks from the Tuxtlas Mountains to their homeland. Researchers now believe that the Coatzacoalcos River was used to move these twenty-some tons of rock. Some scholars believe that these heads may represent warriors or chiefs, and were sculpted in honor of them. There were also two smaller heads only thirty inches tall that were discovered at Laguna de los Cerros. These smaller heads resembled the colossal heads, however, they contained jaguar masks underneath. "If something of the Olmecs has endured that allows us to speak of a civilization, it is their extraordinary sculpture, which in many aspects has not been surpassed by any other Mesoamerican people." Over the past couple decades, "interest has switched from a more artifactual and typological approach to a more processual appreciation of archaeological evidence." There were many monoliths that were found that were obviously made by the Olmec, not only because of their extreme weight, but also because of the unique style of the monoliths.

Although these figures are a good representation of what Olmec life was like, some of it is disturbing. On display at the National Gallery of Art in 1996 for a special Olmec exhibit was a "small carved figure of an aged, emaciated woman clutching her pregnant belly is a fevered, disturbing idea of nature, in the form of a mother goddess simultaneously dying and giving birth."

The altars that were found are said to be almost as impressive as the colossal heads. Two were found in San Lorenzo, seven at La Venta and one was found in Laguna de los Cerros. Many of the altars there are carved on them. At times there is a person, usually masculine, holding a child or scenes of children playing.

A lot of stelae have been found that range in height from three to over seventeen feet. These stelae have been found in almost all areas of Olmec civilization: five at Tres Zapotes, eight at La Venta, and one at each of the following: San Lorenzo, Cerro de la Piedra, El Meson, Piedra Labrada, and Roca Partida. Because these columns are so old, the carvings on them can no longer be seen except for a couple of items. The infamous jaguar mask shows up infrequently. There have also been carvings seen of a person with a tall headdress thought maybe to be a priest. "As in all the civilizations that followed it in Mesoamerica, a driving force behind it was an intense religiosity that found expression in art, which in turn was a reflection of the beliefs, the rites, the ceremonies of the Olmecs. In their eyes, this was the one justification for the unbelievable human effort invested in the search for stones and their transportation, the preparation of the sites, the sculptures and the carvings, the practice of massive offerings, the execution of bas-reliefs and paintings on the rock faces of cliffs or in caves."

As researchers have come upon the statues and carvings of the Olmec civilization, it has been noted that nearly all have been mutilated in some manner. "Almost all of the great stone altars and monuments have been broken and mutilated at the cost of considerable effort. This could not have happened by accident…" It was speculated that the reason the Olmec destroyed these sculptures and carvings was because it was the termination of their life at a certain place. For example, there was a group of Olmec living in La Venta, and when they moved to another place, they would destroy everything that was made there. Some scholars believe that the monuments were mutilated for sacred reasons. It is also believed that when a ruler died, his monuments were destroyed. Another possibility was that a conquering group could have destroyed all sculptures they found when taking over the colony. When archaeologists speak of mutilation - they are speaking in a very broad sense. Some of the art was effaced, decapitated, or broken. Others had grooves, and pits in them that were obviously not there when they were first carved; probably more for ceremonial purposes than mutilation. "We know see that Olmec Art is the most powerful, appealing and seemingly enigmatic to have appeared in the northern hemisphere."

Olmec Society

"Because of their early achievements in art, politics, religion, and economics, the Olmec stand for many as a kind of mother culture to all the civilizations that came after, including the Maya and the Aztec." Their original capital was San Lorenzo until it was destroyed in 900 B.C.

La Venta became the new capital. The Olmec culture was not only known in Mesoamerica, but it seems that people knew of them in other areas of Mexico as well. Although researchers don’t know for sure, it seems to be that there was some kind of trade going on even back a couple of thousands of years. Outside of the Mesoamerican area, Olmec objects have been found. It is true that some Olmec moved outside of the area and brought their culture with them, but there is also evidence that objects had been exported out of the area. Objects have been found in places such as Tlatilco, Monte Alban, and even Central America. The Olmec also had raw materials and seeds imported. Most of the rock and stone that they used in their sculpting had to be imported because none is found in that area.

The Olmec civilization was made up of many different classes of men just like today. There were the farmers, artisans, and sculptors on the lower level. Next came the merchants and warriors and finally the specialists. Above them was a group of high authority which researchers do not know very much about. "they were clearly a display of personal wealth, an indication of status and prestige." This person or group of people could have been a king or a priest or neither. Regardless of their title, this supreme ruler was in charge of commercial trade, the military, the building of monuments and large sculptures not to mention every day things. Bernal says, "I believe that we are dealing with a theocratic state with an extremely important religious basis. Yet I feel that the name ‘theocracy’ does not define this society unless we add the word ‘military’: a military theocracy undoubtedly was the characteristic form of the great majority of Mesoamerican states." It seems that although not very much is known of a military in the Olmec culture - one probably existed. There have been figures found on sculptures that indicate the presence of captives within their culture.

"Olmec society, as best we can imagine it on the basis of the sparse evidence that we possess, must have been authoritarian and hierarchized: at the bottom, an essentially rural population subject to tribute and forced labor-thus supplying the manpower for the enormous

public works projects that were carried out; at the top, probably an elite of magician-priests, observers of the stars, skillful manipulators of their hematite mirrors, worshipers of the jaguar-baby, and city planners and architects as well; alongside this clergy, or dependent upon it,

merchants and traders, responsible in great part for the expansion toward the central plateau and the Pacific, and perhaps military dignitaries; and finally, in the centers themselves, in the heart of the ‘dispersed cities’ a host of servants, masons, painters, sculptors, stone carvers and craftsmen of all sorts."

Olmec society was divided into two groups, the elite, which lived in the urban areas, and the common people, which lived in the rural areas. "The Olmec were apparently the first in Mesoamerica to bring forth an elite cultural component, and it was the elite who determined such matters as art style, complex political and economic affairs, and religious movements."

Researchers have not been able to find any type of weapons in this area, except paddle-shaped clubs. It seems that the stereotypical bow and arrow was not used unless they were destroyed along with everything else.

Curiously, Musical instruments was another item archaeologists have not been able to

locate. Nowhere have they been able to find drums, flutes, or anything of the sort.

 

Religion

"There were certainly religious people living in the New World prior to the Olmecs, but the Olmecs are now generally recognized as the first visible stratum of Middle American civilization, with the latest stratum being represented by the Aztecs, who flourished up to the time of the Spanish conquest."

All of the Mesoamerican religions were polytheistic which was common at this time. Although a lot is speculated as to what their deities were, none is confirmed. The Olmec practiced shamanism. They believed each individual has an animal spirit. Olmec religion centered around the Shaman. "The feared and revered shaman would conduct rituals and heal the sick." Some believe that the sun was a part of their worshipping along with the jaguar.

The jaguar was a very important figure to the Olmec. "To the ancient Indians the jaguar was a symbol of supernatural forces-not a simple animal, but an ancestor and a god." It was referred to as a nahual, which is an animal that is so closely related to a certain man, that if the animal dies, the man will also die. "The nahual can be that of a god, that is, the animal form of his representation. Peter Furst, an anthropology at the University Museum in Philadelphia commented, "in tropical America, jaguars were the shamans of the animal world, the alter ego of the shaman. They are the most powerful predators." Or it can be the symbol of something harmful and dangerous, although at other times it can be only mischievous, like a poltergeist."

There is also something called a werejaguar baby that was the offspring of a feline father and a human mother. A famous sculpture that found of a human woman and a jaguar copulating. Michael Coe, an important man in the research of the Olmec said about this sculpture, "that this union resulted in a race of infants combining the features of the jaguar and man in varying degrees. These are usually shown as somewhat infantile throughout life, with the puffy features of small fat babies, snarling mouths, fangs, and perhaps even claws. The heads are cleft at the top…. They are always quite sexless, with the obesity of eunuchs." These werejaguars were deities of thunder, lightening, and rain. There is some discrepancy as to what the most important deities were and the categorization is among them. Coe said, that the number one deity is the jaguar-dragon, while other authors believe otherwise.

Peter David Joralemon published a book in 1971 that listed ten divinities that he felt were believed in by the Olmecs.

    1. The jaguar-monster, fire god, or maize god
    2. A god with a maize symbol on his head
    3. A bird god
    4. The jaguar-baby
    5. A being with a human-feline face
    6. A figure representing Xipe Totec
    7. The Plumed Serpent
    8. A death god
    9. A bearded figure
    10. God X

 

"They performed ceremonies that were thought to be dark and powerful, and centered around the jaguar."

The Olmec had a lot of beliefs that are obviously not believed in today, at least by North Americans. One such example is that the Olmec believed that smoke was very close to clouds, and therefore produced rain. Back in the time of the Olmec and even today with the Pueblo Indians, during a rain ceremony, the Indians will smoke in hopes for rain. The Olmec and other contemporary Indian groups seem to have more spiritual relations with their deities and each other than people do today.

The Olmec were brought up believing the Great Serpent was a divine power that was believed to have brought prosperity and growth. When the Olmec first settled around the volcanoes, they noticed in the dried up lava that there were resemblances to their Great Serpent. In all actuality this was only the way that it dried over the land. In any event, the Olmec farmers took these large basalt boulders and carved them into monuments, for example the colossal heads, and placed them in their maize fields. For many years to come after that, everyone in the town acknowledged and revered it. It has also been noted that the top of these colossal heads resemble the heads of snakes. Along with this snake theory there is also mentioned a lot about how in nearly every sculpture the person is seated with their legs crossed. We call that "indian style" today but the authors of books refer to them as coils like a snake. "Worshipers of gods eventually become their controllers; religion becomes science."

Although no remains have been found of any person of the Olmec civilization, researchers have learned how they were laid to rest. After the master dies, he was laid to rest in a special burial mound in the middle of the ceremonial court. He was placed in there adorned with earrings, beads , and necklaces made of jade. Over the body, a layer of thick cinnabar red putty in the shape of an oval was spread over him with thirty-seven serpentine and jade celts. This site was then decorated on top with jewels and other decor. However, only traces of human remains have been found. "The authors posit that the Olmecs believed that the human body, itself, and espescially that of the ruler, divided itself and represented the three cosmic levels: the celestial or heavenly, the terrestrial, the earth’s surface and the watery underworld, reachable through caves and sacred accesses."

In conclusion, while researching the intricate facets of the Olmec and their culture, this writer discovered that everything was tied in with everything else. One cannot read about religion without reading about art and society. This writer believes this is very important because it shows that their life and civilization was very structured and connected. It is

abundantly clear that religion was a very strong integral piece of their culture. A great deal of the material on the Olmec dealth with the jaguar being a major factor of their survival. A lot of the material also discussed the large colossal heads that were found and their possible significance to the Olmec society. This writer is inclined to believe that these large monuments were some sort of symbolization of their leader or priest. Although researchers continue in their efforts, it is very possible that some of the questions about the Olmecs may never be answered.