The Olmecs, who called themselves Xi (pronounced Shi), were an ancient people of Mesoamerica who established one of the region’s first civilizations. The name Olmec comes from the word Olman which means “rubber country” and they were called the “rubber people” because they were the first to utilize the rubber plant. They flourished roughly between 1300 and 400 BC, inhabiting a domain which extended from the Tuxtlas mountains to the lowlands of the Chontalpa in the east, with over 170 monuments being found. The largest Olmec sites include La Venta (1000-600 BC) in Tabasco, and San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan (1300-900 BC) and Tres Zapotes (1000-400 BC) in Veracruz. The three are spaced far from each other, presumably so that each site could control and distribute an individual set of resources that benefited the Olmec economy. Tres Zapotes was located near large sources of basalt (used in sculptures and monuments), San Lorenzo may have controlled trade routes and La Venta was situated near rich estuaries, and could have provided rubber and salt. Whether relations were maintained through trade, marriage or otherwise, during the height of these three settlements were probably the most advanced sites in Mesoamerica. For this reason the Olmec are often considered the mother culture of all later Mesoamerican civilizations.
The cities’ architecture included public ceremonial buildings, residences for noble peoples and the houses of commoners. The ceremonial buildings were typically large platform mounds, some of which had house-like structures built on top. These were the precursors to the tall pyramid mounds and, beginning at La Venta, were arranged in large plaza areas. La Venta was built in an axial pattern, the focal point being a mounded-earth pyramid 100 ft high (one of the earliest in Mesoamerica), and this later became a common building plan in Mesoamerican architecture. The Olmec were the first to use stone as an architectural and sculptural tool, and they were the first to use decorative stone mosaics in their buildings even though the stone had to be quarried and transported from the Tuxtlas mountains some sixty miles away.
The cities also included a buried network of stone drainage tunnels that were produced by covering U-shaped blocks of basalt and laying them end to end to form connected lines. However, there is research suggesting that these tunnels were in fact aqueducts that provided drinking water and irrigation for crops. Some may have also been monuments, which would indicate that the irrigation system was revered in some way.
This is not particularly surprising as that the Olmec economy centered around agricultural production, though there is evidence that they may have had to fight against overgrowth of wild vegetation that would have competed with crops. Their diet was supplemented by fishing and shellfish. The region is far too humid for there to exist remains of hunted animals, though presumably the Olmec would have hunted deer, tapir, wild boar, duck, armadillo, jaguar, monkey and some birds. They may have also had domesticated animals such as turkeys, dogs or bees. The abundance of animal food sources as well as the easily irrigated land (which many other ancient Mexican sources did not have) was probably a contributing factor in the growth of the Olmec civilization.
The Olmec are renowned for their sculpture, mosaics and monuments, which were produced in wood, basalt and jade. They made fine pottery and jewelry, and wood artifacts found at various sites are considered to be the oldest examples in Mesoamerica. Among the most notable and recognizable pieces of Olmec art are the colossal heads sculpted from basalt that range from five to eleven feet tall and weigh up to forty tons. These typically have thick lips, flat noses and wear tight fitting helmets. The heads may have represented sacrificed members of the community, kings, warriors or ball players. Much of the smaller statuary were full figures in various poses (some quite acrobatic), many of which had facial features of both man and beast, normally the jaguar. Sometimes referred to as were-jaguars, these depictions glorifying rulers, deities or some combination of the two, had elaborate headdresses, large down-turned mouths and bushy eyebrows. Some of the statues meant to depict upper class members of society have elongated heads, which indicates that the Olmec most likely practiced skull-binding on infants to produce a desired cranial shape.
The Olmecs were also clever astronomers who produced an accurate calendar of 260 days (that later influenced the development of the Mayan calendar) whose beginning date seems to correspond to 3113 BC. They also produced a unique form of writing, introducing recorded language to the New World. The written Olmec language consisted of carved symbols made up of both pure hieroglyphics and phonetic hieroglyphics. The full system of writing has not yet been deciphered, but many of the glyphs look very much like later Mayan glyphs and meanings have been hypothesized by researchers.
Little is known about the Olmec religion, though based on the strong animal symbolism in their art and architectural design it is assumed that they practiced shamanism, believing that humans were possessed and influenced by animal spirits. It was these spirits that would have controlled forces unalterable by humans, such as the weather and agricultural fertility. Skeletal remains of decapitated people ranging in age from infants to the elderly suggest that humans were sacrificed on a regular basis. It is interesting to note that the losers of the ball game played by the Olmecs (on open courts with a rubber ball) were also sacrificed, but to whom is unknown.
Around 500 BC the Olmec culture began to decline and by 400 BC the Olmecs had disappeared, and the region was overtaken by the central Mexican and Mayan civilizations. During this time, the ceremonial centers at San Lorenzo and La Venta were destroyed. Archaeologists are not certain as to what caused the end of the Olmec civilization, but hypotheses include social distress between the highly divided classes or depleted resources.