The Olmec Culture: La Venta and Izapa

In 1862 a colossal stone head was discovered in the state of Veracruz along the steaming Gulf Coast of Mexico. In the years to come, artifacts from the culture later termed "Olmec" turned up at widespread sites in Mexico and adjacent Central America, with the greatest number of characteristic themes being present in the region of the original discovery. For decades these findings were misinterpreted. The Maya were thought of as the "mother culture" of Mexico, and therefore the Olmecs were either insignificant or Mayan themselves, and in any case later in development.

Then in 1939 a carving was discovered near the gigantic head with a characteristic Olmec design on one side and a date symbol on the other. This revealed a shocking truth: the Olmecs had a far greater right to be considered the mother culture. Hundreds of years earlier than anyone had imagined, simple villages had given way to a complex society governed by kings and priests, with impressive ceremonial centers and artworks. Today many find the term "mother culture" misleading, but clearly the Olmecs came first.

Other megalithic heads were discovered in the intervening years, all with "African" facial features. This is not necessarily to suggest that the founders or leaders of Olmec civilization came directly from Africa, since many original populations of countries like Cambodia and the Philippines have similar characteristics. These might have been brought along when the first humans entered the Americas from Asia.

A characteristic motif of Olmec art is a human face with a jaguar mouth, sometimes called a "were-jaguar" (as in werewolf). This suggests a derivation of Olmec religion from shamanistic shape-shifting. There is evidence that the Olmecs practiced human sacrifice, including that of infants.

The Olmec culture flourished from around 1200 to 300 BC in central Mexico and parts of Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica. Olmec works of art, made of stone, clay, and jade, represent the first sophisticated artistic style thus far discovered in the Americas.

Olmec society was hierarchical, with social classes determined by wealth and status. The rulers, priests, and skilled artisans lived in larger towns or cities, such as San Lorenzo or La Venta, and they depended upon farmers in the surrounding countryside to produce food to sustain the urban population.

Because no written records of the Olmecs survive, we have to reconstruct Olmec society on the basis of architecture, sculpture, ceramics, tools, and other objects that have survived. Some scholars use the term Olmec to name a complex civilization that formed the foundation of all Mexican civilizations. Other use the term, however, to designate an artistic style. The name derives from the Aztec word "Olman" ("Rubber Country") for the topical lowlands near the Gulf of Mexico, where the Olmec archaeological sites are found. It is said that at the time of the Conquest, rubber trees were plentiful.

The hallmark of the Gulf Coast Olmec is the monumental basalt sculpture in the form of colossal heads, thrones and human figures, and supernatural creatures. But the stone does not occur naturally in the region. The massive blocks of stone had to be imported from mountains, some sixty miles away, a task that required a large, well-managed labor force.

The colossal heads from San Lorenzo are the oldest known representations of Olmec rulers. Their gigantic scale asserts the ruler's superhuman power, but their expressive faces are realistic portraits of specific individuals.

"Spirit forces pervaded the Olmec world, animating the earth, skies, water, and all aspects of life. To convey the power of these unseen spirits, Olmec artists represented them by combining features of the most awesome predators that inhabited the land, air, rivers, and sea. The result was a strange menagerie of supernatural hybrids … [like] the were-jaguar, which blends human facial characteristics with those of a jaguar."—quoted from "Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico," the guide to an exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Art in collaboration with the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

The chronology of this period is divided into three general epochs: Early Formative (c.1500-900 BC.), Middle Formative (c.900-300 BC), and Late Formative (c.300 BC-AD 300).



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