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Ancient Olmec Civilization


Rise of the Ancient Olmec Civilization (2600BC-1400BC)

What is known as the Olmec civilization arose sometime around 2600BC, along the lowland swamps of the Yucatan. It is thought that a confederation of shamans at the time decided to unite the disparate peoples of the lowland areas into stronger and larger communities, creating the first sophisticated cultures of the Mesoamericas, and which would come to influence all other great cultures thereafter, including the Mayan and Aztec civilizations.


Were jaguar "Infant" Statue

Fairly New to Historians 

The Olmec civilization came to the attention of art collectors at first only as a common art form found throughout mesoamerica, artifacts bought and sold on the pre Columbian art market during the 19th and 20th centuries. The art of the Olmec became the primary hallmark that defined the civilization, and continues to be highly valued by collectors. Not until the 1940's did archaeologist Mathew Stirling of the Smithsonian Institute identify the Olmec as a distinct civilization from that of the Maya that predated many other Mesoamerican cultures at a site called La Venta.

Frog Effigy

The first colossal stone Olmec head, one of the signature items of the culture, was discovered in situ by a farmer clearing land for his hacienda in Veracruz around 1869. Frans Blom and Oliver La Farge did the first archaeological work at the La Venta site in 1925, but thought that the discovery was just part of a larger Mayan identity.

First Discoveries of Olmecs

With the advent of radiocarbon dating, Mathew Stirling and other archaeologists proved that the Olmec thrived before most Mesoamerican cultures, existing in a time frame wholly separate than the Mayan culture.

A Vanishing Culture: Scarcity of Preserved Artifacts

Some of the oldest remnants thought to be connected to the Olmec is at a site called San Andres, where domesticated maize corn pollens were dated to 5100 BC near to a large satellite community of Olmec elites, probably shamans. Charcoal remains, the result of deliberate slash and burn clearing for agriculture is dated also to 5100BC.

Olmec King with Maize God crown

Not much of the culture can be found beyond certain date ranges however due to the unusually high humidity of the tropical Yucatan lowland marshes, quickly deteriorating any remains of the culture and burying larger structures deep underground due to wet land subsidence. To date, in fact, not a single Olmec skeleton has been unearthed.

The ever expanding oil industry in modern Veracruz Mexico also has swallowed up a lot of the land that the cultural heritage of the Yucatan is believed to once have inhabited. Speculation among scientists sets the rate of archaeological losses particularly high for Olmec sites, as many are bulldozed and lost in the redundant landscape of the low swamplands the Olmec heartland occupied. Many mounds simply go unrecognized by land developers, and it is believed that perhaps the majority of the Olmec's true significance and influence will never be fully known.

Oldest Writing of Olmecs (650BC)

Among the refuse at the San Andres site, the first example of Olmec writing, and writing in all the Mesoamericans, is chiseled on a stele called the Cascajal Block, containing many simple pictograms thought precursors to later hieroglyphs. A cylinder seal, used to roll out logograms on clothes or scrolls, contains the image of a bird speaking the word 3 Ajaw, probably meant as a signet ring of the local ruler and current calendar day.

Cylindrical Logogram Rollers and Signets

Marine Origins

The San Andres site is an interesting find in the study of the Olmec culture. According to the Spanish Frair Diego de Landa, the Olmec ancestors of the Mayans migrated from the sea in twelve different journeys, and landed on the Yucatan peninsula.

Called the People of the Serpent in the Mayan mythical text "Chalam Balam", according to the legend they were the first people to set foot on the Yucatan led by a powerful Shaman named Itzamana, a healer who could "cure by laying on hands, and revive the dead." Itzamana later was deified by the Mayans as the wise god of healing similar in appearance to the deities Quetzalcoatl of the Aztecs and Kukulkan, who also, according to myth, arrived via the shores of the eastern Yucatan.

Some believe the Izapa Stela, below, depicts the marine origins of the Olmec (Note waves below what appears to be a boat)

The environmental character of the San Andres site around 5100BC was actually a beach ridge lined by barrier lagoons, features now over 15km to the north. The site may have comprised one of the first landing points that the Olmec migrants settled.

Given the strikingly unique character of the Olmec when compared to other Mesoamerican cultures, the San Andres site gives precedence to the idea that the Olmec may actually have traveled from sea bound sites, perhaps Cuba or Puerto Rico, and may also account for its sudden appearance as a full fledged civilization so early in Mesoamerican chronology.

Olmec Ethnic Origins Controversy

Perhaps one of the most perplexing attributes of the Olmec civilization is the unusual ethnic makeup of the people depicted in their art which continues to elude categorization. No one officially knows for sure where they came from, or what ethnic group they were comprised of, but in many instances the faces of the Olmec represented in their beautiful artwork, reflect a whole cast of races.

Many people for example, pay particular attention to the colossal stone heads, which consistently seem to contain the features that are undeniably African. The first to note such likeness was Jose Melgar, who discovered the first giant Olmec stone head in 1862 at Tres Zapotes (Hueyapan) and subsequently published papers that proposed the Olmecs consisted of a distinctly "African race." The author Ivan van Sertima suggests similarly that the heads depict African settlers that eventually formed the Olmec civilization.

Other smaller statues are usually Asian in appearance, with the slanted eye lid profiles common among Orientals from the Far East. Incidentally, a number of modern Chinese scholars claim that early Olmec script is identical to Shang Chinese Script c.1300BC, and that ancient Asian voyagers settled Mesoamerica around that time. The esteemed anthropologist of the Smithsonian Institute Betty Meggers even proposed in 1975 that the Olmec civilization developed in part due to Shang Chinese influences c. 1200BC. In 1996, Mike Xu and Chen Hanping, claimed characters on Olmec celt stones found in La Venta bear striking similarities to Chinese Shang characters.

Bearded Man Stela of "Uncle Sam"

In addition, unmistakable depictions of Caucasian men with beards also exist at La Venta, first uncovered by archaeologist Mathew Stirling in the 1940's. At the site, the stele known as the Stele of the Bearded Man, shows a foreign looking figure with a distinctly Caucasian long-bridged nose wearing a long cap with full grown beard; so much did the figure appear Caucasian that Stirling named the carving "Uncle Sam." Two figures stand face to face on the stele, both wearing elaborate robes and sashes with upturned shoes (much like classic Persian or Arabian dress).

 Another stone displays an image of a bearded man in the same signature attire at the site, also wearing tight-fitting leggings. Many claim that the following images represent Phoenicians traveling from across the Atlantic to trade with the Olmecs. More curiously, upon being uncovered by archaeologists in the early 1940's, the Stele of the Bearded-man lay enclosed in a stone stockade composed of over 600 stone columns each weighing up to two tons, quarried from a site sixty miles away. Why did the Olmecs invest so much time and effort to protect the stone? Legends of course speak of Quetzalcoatl coming from across the sea and gifting the earliest peoples of Mesoamerica with the arts of civilization long ago, appearing as, none other than a pale-skinned bearded man. Incidentally, descriptions by natives of legendary figures associated with Quetzalcoatl dressed in elaborate robes reoccur throughout central America and South America; those descriptions mirror the depictions on the steles at La Venta and the danzante stones at Monte Alban. Who is the mysterious "Uncle Sam" of La Venta?

"Man in Serpent" Stele found at La Venta


Another intriguing stone called "Man in Serpent", rests at La Venta depicting a man riding a Serpent over the water with x-shaped crosses carved over the man's headdress (the cross frequently appears on Quetzalcoatl's shields in Mesoamerican art). According to legend, Quetzalcoatl sailed on a raft of serpents upon leaving Mesoamerica.

The majority of orthodox scholars dismiss trans-Atlantic contact between the New and Old World as ludicrous, and argue that the "asian" features depicted on statues and masks are actually just symbolic "were-jaguar" expressions, an animal prevalent throughout Mesoamerican cultures associated with the divine. To this day, no one really knows the racial stock of the Olmec peoples.

The Ancestral "Wood Men" of El Manati

The Olmec were surprisingly inventive, possessing the knowledge to produce rubber by extracting latex fibers  from tropical Yucatan trees and cooking it with moon vine juices. Evidence for the rubber ball is found in the El Manati sacrificial bog, dated to approximately 1600 BC. It is believed that the technique had been in long use centuries before this though. The word Olmec is actually a Aztec name for the term, "the rubber people".

In that bog pit, many wooden figures with elongated skulls lay preserved for centuries. The initial , but unsuccessful, "wooden people" fashioned by the gods and subsequently discarded in the creation myth of the Mayan Popul Vuh text, begs the question whether the peculiar wooden Olmec Figurines in the bog later inspired the Mayans to write the mythic legend.

Mud Men of Popul Vuh

Technologically Advanced for their Time

Another astonishing find within Olmec artifacts is a collection of wooden toys, horses and other animals that roll on wheels. If something as simple as a child's toy utilized a wheel, then surely the Olmec must have used wheels for either agriculture or transportation (such wooden apparatus having by now withered away by the merciless humidity of the Yucatan?).

The concept of wheels and its presence in mesoamerica thousands of years before historians believe it was imported from Europe by the Conquistadors, is an astounding implication. How did the Olmec come to possess such technology and the later very nearby Mayans did not?

In fact, it is known that both cultures coexisted for a few centuries side by side. Where did the Olmec get it? And more importantly, how long did the Olmec have knowledge of it?

Jade Mask

Shaman Caste of Olmecs

The ruling caste of the Olmec consisted of elite shamans, men that obtained the ability to transform into animal spirits (nahuals) through ingestion of psychoactive drugs. The animal form enabled the shaman to commune with the spirits of the three realms of heaven, earth, and the underworld.

The feathers of the eagle atop the brows of the figurine to left, perhaps acted as a talisman, helping the shaman to ascend to heaven. Bright red cinnabar rubbed into the etched features of the figurine acted as the blood of life that further animated the power of the relic. The sneering face of the Jaguar probably represented the sacred expression of the underworld spirit.

Archaeologists think the shamans used mind altering substances, perhaps by licking the skin of a bufo toad (a creature known to secrete bufotenin), whereby the shaman began to hop around and act like an animal.

Shaman Snuffing with Gourd

The ceremony that likely accompanied the spiritual metamorphosis, also probably entailed a series of mantras, singing and dancing. The Shaman might also ingest Tobacco powder through the nose. A statue of a hollow figure using a snuffing pipe (a gourd) lends proof to such practices.

Oral traditions spoken by modern Nahua indians concerning acrobatic dwarves, mams, or rain children might in actuality be simple legends passed down through the ages of the Olmec shamans. The Zoque people in Chiapas, state the mams most often resemble very old looking but energetic boys.

Many Olmec statues reflect the acrobatic abilities of such "rain boys". The figures contort and move limbs as if naturally, the ease of feline agility (the jaguar) or the flexibility of the serpentine body. It is thought the shaman could flip backward and transform into the animal before landing. A legend survives to the present day of Chaneques, dwarf tricksters thought to live in water falls.

The serpent resembled the spirit of the earth, the Olmec most likely noted that the creature often lived in holes in the ground while tilling and farming corn maize crops. As such, the serpent probably remained central to the soil, fertility, and the vital maize of the Olmec diet.

A few scholars studying Olmec culture believe that the principal deity remained the Jaguar god, that possessed a dual nature as a rain spirit, usually depicted as the serpent.

Olmec Cities: A Conglomeration of Villages around Spiritual Centers 1400BC

The most significant sites of the Olmec existed at two major cities, San Lorenzo and La Venta.

In the beginning, San Lorenzo was the largest and most powerful flourishing around 1400BC in the mid lowlands, the city proper probably numbering at least 13,000 people. From the sites examined, the central urban areas consisted of the large temples and elite classes, while the majority of the people lived in satellite communities dotting the region.

La Venta Site

The region as a whole was a lush breadbasket, and supported large numbers across the Yucatan lowlands, building the base upon which an elite class formed with the acquisitions of valuable exotic goods, such as jade, obsidian, and magnetite over 200 km to the south and west. From the central confluence of wealth and trade that the river valley provided, the exquisite and accomplished art form of the Olmec reached its zenith.

Female Skeletal Vessel

La Venta Rises in Importance 900BC

Later, about 900BC, a sudden climatic shift in the river valley's geography caused a sharp decline in the regions local population along with a deliberate destruction of the cities many monuments. Around the same time, the La Venta site gathered in large numbers, perhaps due to the sudden influx of San Lorenzo's refugee population. At La Venta, the Olmec culture reached its greatest heights of wealth and power.

At La Venta, a great pyramid, with 2500 years of erosion, still rises 112 feet above the flat surrounding landscape with 1000's of tons of serpentine block mosaics, buried amidst 48 separate deposits of polished jade, pottery, statues, and hematite mirrors.

Decline of the Olmecs (300BC)

A number of different theories have been proposed by scientists for the relative decline of the Olmec culture around 400BC, none conclusive. It is known that the population of the Olmec heartland within a span of half a century dropped significantly, perhaps due to the erosion of the soil accumulated with centuries of irrigation and the silting up of rivers.

Others point to tectonic plate upheavals, which could have altered the course of the many important tributaries the Olmec relied upon for soil inundation and vital trade systems. Without either, the important heartland centers surely would have quickly diminished in spiritual and economic authority and the people forced to move into the highlands or further lowlands where the Mayan culture eventually prospered.



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