The Olmecs   1400 - 400 BC


Olmec 'wrestler' , basalt, found in Arroyo Sonso, Veracruz 1200-800BC


One of the first civilizations to emerge in Mexico was that of the Olmecs in modern-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and are famous for their colossal volcanic basalt, heads of their chieftans in leather helmets, and jade artwork .Large scale stone carving and jade carving originated with the Olmecs .They used mirrors for decoration .At a very early time, the Olmecs broke away from the Mayan linguistic family in the mountains of Guatemala, from which they would spread out , at about 1000 BC.



The Olmec Civilization


Olmec Altar, La Venta, with half human-juguar babies

The Olmecs had hieroglyphs and a calendar and reached the height of their development between 700 and 400 B.C.As the first civilization in Mesoamerica, the Olmecs are credited, or speculatively credited, with many "firsts", including the Mesoamerican ballgame, bloodletting and perhaps human sacrifice, writing , and the invention of zero , a numeric system based on 20, noted in bars and dots,and the Mesoamerican calendar.The Olmec flourished during the Formative (or Preclassic) period, dating from 1200 BCE to about 400 BCE, and are believed to have been the progenitor civilization of later Mesoamerican civilizations.


ceramic fish

jade mask


Olmec holds a half human-half jaguar baby


The guardian god  of the Olmecs was the jaguar, who the Olmecs thought created the mankind .The sacred  city for the Olmecs was the city of La Venta, an island in a swamp in Tabasco .The famous colossal heads were carved from basalt rock, some of which weighted more than 15 tons .The Olmecs loaded the basalt rocks on rafts and floated to the sacred city . At La Venta the stone was shaped into the heads.





Small creatures, either dwarfs or chubby children, called chanaques, are associated with the jaguar god as a sort of assistant .


Olmec Head, made of volcanic basalt. The features of this figure and the colossal heads has led some to speculate on an African origin for the Olmecs, but DNA analysis does not bear this out.


 The Olmecs: America's First Civilization

 The Olmecs of southern Mexico are America's oldest civilization and Mesoamerica's "Mother Culture." Long famous for their colossal heads carved from giant boulders, the Olmecs have fascinated the public and archaeologists alike since the 1940s when National Geographic magazine reported the initial explorations of their centers.


Olmec heads


One major site at  La Venta has a large pyramid and a population estimated to be 18,000 .The Olmecs were masters at carving jade and their most famous legacy are their huge stone heads, some of which are over 9 feet high and weigh up to 40 tons , wearing a sort of helmet . The best-recognized aspect of the Olmec civilization are the enormous helmeted heads. As no known pre-Columbian text explains these impressive monuments have been the subject of much speculation. Once theorized to be ballplayers, it is now generally accepted that these heads are portraits of rulers. The basalt from which the heads were made came from over 50 miles away and were dragged or floated on great rafts with what must have been a huge amount of human labor . They were made with stone tools .



Altar of the Victorious Warrior 800-200 BC, La Venta


The Olmecs gradually declined, perhaps from pressures from the rising Maya and Teotihuacan civilizations . Around 900BC the great Olmec center of San Lorenzo was destroyed, from invasion or revolution.Their society had recognized hierarchies and the destruction seems to point to anger at those political-religious class on the top level . There is evidence of much violence as many monuments were destroyed .

Egyptian looking Olmec priests, possible mirrors on headbands

It is not known with any clarity what caused the eventual extinction of the Olmec culture. It is known that between 400 and 350 BC, population in the eastern half of the Olmec heartland dropped precipitously, and the area would remain sparsely inhabited until the 19th century. This depopulation was likely the result of environmental changes: perhaps the result of important rivers changing course or silting up due to agricultural practices.

figure holding jaguar baby, jadeite 1150-500 BC






Prehistoric Mexico






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