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).