The World of Fables and Legends - 19

Olmec: The Mother of Mesoamerican Civilizations

Continued from Previous Page

While it is beyond doubt that the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe, collectively known as the Old World or Afro-Eurasia, boast of the world’s most evolved, glorified and lost civilizations. In the context of the ancient cultural, philosophical and religious developments, the Old World civilizations had almost simultaneously evolved into three historical spheres, namely the Western (Hellenism), Near Eastern (Zoroastrian and Abrahamic) and Far Eastern (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism and Taoism), many of which have already been explained in previous parts. On the other hand, the Americas and Oceania are together regarded as the New World. The term "New World" as such was initially coined during the early 16th century in the context of the voyages of Christopher Columbus followed by the European colonization of the Americas. In this part of the globe too, many civilizations had independently evolved but fizzled out with the onslaught of the European colonizers and missionary activities. Some such civilizations namely Maya, Inca and Aztec, etc. have been briefly described in the previous parts. The author proposes to discuss the Olmecs of Mesoamerica in the present part which is often considered as a "mother culture" to the later evolved Mesoamerican civilizations.

History and Other Civilizational Attributes

Unlike Mayan and Aztec people, the history of Olmecs is shrouded with several ambiguities and gaps. The nomenclature itself appears to have been derived from the Nahuatl (A Mesoamerican language) word Olmecatl, which is a combination of two words. The word “olli” means natural rubber and “mecatle” refers to people. Thus the word Olmec implies to “Rubber People”, probably for the reason that the natural rubber was an important product of ancient Mesoamerica and important ingredient of the ancient Mesoamerican ballgame which was a kind of sport of ritual association since at least 1650 BCE. Due to inadequate archaeological and other evidences, exact ethnic origin and location of Olmecs is not convincingly established but it is widely opined that they had their roots in early farming tribes of Tabasco, one of the many federal entities of Mexico, which prospered as agrarian society between 5100 BCE and 4600 BCE. This origin concept is based on the facts of similar basic food crops and technologies of the ancient Tabasco society and the later Olmec civilization.

It is commonly believed that the Olmec civilization evolved in the ancient Mesoamerica along the coastal areas of Gulf of Mexico in the modern-day Mexican states of Tabasco and Veracruz and the Olmec people lived in these areas from about 1600 BCE to around 350 BCE. The exact reason for their decline and extinction is not clear but the common belief is that the drastic changes in environmental factors made their villages unlivable. Historians regard the Olmec as the first great Mesoamerican civilization and as precursors of monumental sacred complexes, cult of animal gods, massive stones sculptures/artifacts, ball games and chocolate drinking habits followed by other people too in the later ages in these parts. The modern states of Veracruz and Tabasco in the heartland of the Gulf of Mexico were the main areas of Olmec occupation and influence arguably from around 1200 BCE till their civilization lasted. The ecological conditions of well-irrigated alluvial soil and the transportation network provided by the Coatzacoalcos river basin in the larger part of Veracruz offered favourable living conditions and growth of an agrarian society of Olmecs.

The aforesaid favourable ecological conditions came handy for the prosperity of Olmec people as they were able to grow rich and often surplus crops of corn and beans fully exploiting the fertile and well-watered areas of the Gulf of Mexico; in addition, abundant local availability of plant food, palm nuts, and marine food items like turtles and clams was also a favourable factor. Several important unban conglomerations had also emerged around 1200 BCE, including San Lorenzo, La Venta, Las Limas, Laguna de los Cerros and Tres Zapotes. Of these urban centres, San Lorenzo was the most developed city reaching to its zenith in terms of prosperity and good living between 1200 to 900 BCE due to its amenities and trade potential on account of its connectivity and safe location from the danger of flooding, etc. The popular trade goods during the times included rubber, jade, obsidian, mica, pottery, serpentine, feathers and polished mirrors of limonite and magnetite.

The relics and remains of San Loranzo include several mound structures probably of the earliest ball courts, carved basalt drains and the Red Palace with floors and workshops painted in red. The historians and experts compare the environmental conditions and prosperity of Olmec people with those of ancient civilizations evolved in Mesopotamia and around the Nile, Indus and Yellow River Valleys. The artifact items like jade, magnetite, obsidian, etc. suggest the presence of the elite and rich class among the Olmecs in San Loranzo, which explains the production and use of sophisticated luxury items in the society. They apparently had an extensive trade network across the far areas of Mesoamerica. The chief source of the most valued jade was the Motagua River valley of the present day Guatemala, in the south and east of Mexico in Central America. Similar artifacts have also been found in another federal entity Guerrero, the site of another Mezcala culture, suggesting strong commonality between the Olmec and Mezcula culture.

However, the first Olmec urban centre San Lorenzo had declined, rather completely abandoned, by about 900 BCE. The exact cause of its destruction is not known and the various possibilities are adverse environmental changes, violent internal uprisings, or an invasion; the later cause appears least likely while environmental changes due to some important rivers in the region changing their course appears to be more probable. Following the decline of San Lorenzo, La Venta gradually emerged as the chief Olmec urban centre, which retained its position and cultural dominance until around 400 BCE.

For instance, the Great Pyramid at La Venta is said to be the largest Mesoamerican structure and an icon of the cultural significance of its time, which even after nearly 2500 years of erosion still stands at a height of approximately 112 feet above the natural landscape. Some of the precious archaeological findings within the deep strata of La Venta include luxurious and labour-intensive offerings such as 1000 tons of smooth serpentine blocks, huge mosaic pavements and numerous polished jade celts, figurines, pottery and hematite mirrors.

The authentic cause of decline and eventual extinction or extermination of the Olmec civilization has not been convincingly established by the historians and experts so far. What is relatively well known is that the population of the Olmec people significantly dropped throughout their heartland between 400 to 350 BCE. According to archaeologists, this dramatic decline in population was possibly as a consequence of very serious environmental changes that increasingly made the region unsuitable for the people who were mainly based on agrarian economy. The favourable riverine environment facilitated the farmers to have good agricultural crops, hunting and gathering as also transportation. Large scale tectonic upheaval, subsidence and/or silting-up of rivers in the region may have led to choking of water and disturbed environment rendering the region unsuitable for the agriculture based living. Yet another theory propounded by Santley et al. suggests the volcanism as the probable cause of Olmec downfall. In such cases, the large scale volcanic eruptions may have carpeted the fertile lands with heavy ash forcing Olmec settlements to move elsewhere.

As regards the organized social life and trade, any written record of Olmec customs and traditions, commerce and trade, and belief system do not exist but the archaeological evidence and interpretations indicate that the Olmec civilization was comprised of a fairly well developed agrarian society and trade practices. As already mentioned in the previous paragraphs, the Olmec artifacts and archaeological relics found across the Mesoamerica suggest that the majority people lived in villages but a few major urban centres with a fairly well developed interregional trade links had also come up. The findings of various artifacts made of jade, a precious green stone and obsidian, a glassy-black volcanic rock as also some other precious stones suggest trade practices of Olmecs with people outside the Gulf Coast of Mexico. The prominent urban centres such as San Lorenzo and La Venta were predominantly abode of elites and commercial activities. Although people grew small crops and medicinal herbs in gardens near houses, major agricultural activities took place in fields employing slash-and-burn techniques. The main crops of Olmec people were maize, beans, sweet potatoes, squash, manioc and cotton.

Art and artifacts are most characteristic legacy of the Olmec civilization. One remarkable example is ‘The Wrestler’, a basalt statuette, which many believe it to be one of the most significant pieces of sculpture representing the Olmec culture. It is nearly a life size figure widely appreciated for its realism and aesthetic value. Other art pieces include fascinating and stylist anthropomorphic creatures, often using an iconography depicting the religious connotation. Some of the more popular motifs included downturned mouths and a cleft head, both being used to represent were-jaguars - a supernatural entity, supposedly some deity. In addition, the human and animal portrayal was also common among Olmec artisans. Although Olmec figurines are abundantly reported at different sites but the stone monuments namely colossal heads are the most characteristic legacy of the Olmec people. The colossal heads were carved in basalt with unique facial features, some of which were up to three metre high and fifty-five tons in weight. These enormous helmeted heads most probably represent portraits of rulers in an attire of ballplayers. As these giant sculptures are comprised of only heads, which probably also represent the ancient Mesoamerican belief that this was the head that bore the soul.

The Olmec type artifacts, designs, figurines, monuments and iconography have been observed by the archaeologists at several places in Mesoamerica away from the Olmec heartland. These include Tlatilco and Tlapacoya in Central Mexico, in Guerrero and some other places in West Mexico, and Maya areas of Southern Mexico and parts of Guatemala, etc. Some researchers have suggested that the Olmec people ritually practiced bloodletting and human sacrifice too. Bloodletting was a ritualized practice of self-cutting and piercing of body which was associated with a number of cultural and ceremonial functions in many ancient Mesoamerican societies, particularly the Maya civilization. This conclusion is derived following the recovery of numerous natural and ceramic stingray spikes and maguey thorns from the Olmec sites. Similarly, some symbols found during 2002-06 from the Olmec sites of the 900-650 BCE vintage has led to the conjecture that the Olmec may have been first civilization in the New World to develop own writing system too. Although the colossal heads are often related to the Olmec rulers, not much and nothing convincingly is known about the social and political organization, ethnicity and language of the Olmec people.

Olmec Religion and Deities

Like socio-political organization, ethnicity and language, the details of the Olmec religious beliefs and deities too is rather sketchy and less known. However, with the assistance of the archaeological evidences, it has been feasible to construct certain essential aspects of the Olmec religion. For instance, the Olmec people accorded a lot of admiration to the natural objects like the earth, sky and underworld treating them as different realms. Similarly, the places like caves and springs could have access to the underworld or other realms also appeared to be a part of their belief system. They had blended man and animals to create mysterious and magnificent creatures; for instance, were-jaguar was one such creature with a half-human and half-jaguar, which probably also represents a deity. The nomenclature of the Olmec gods and goddesses is not well-defined although they were associated with various natural phenomenons like the sun, rain, fire, earth, or even major crops particularly the maize.

Olmec religious activities were arguably performed by the rulers, full-time priests and shamans. Among them the rulers were the most important religious figures, with access to the Olmec deities or supernaturals providing legitimacy for their rule. They also accorded significance to higher animals in the food chain such as jaguars, snakes, eagles and caimans, and often identified them with divine entities or supernatural beings perhaps out of fear and respect. In the following paragraphs, the major Olmec deities are briefly explained. The nameless deities are represented in the survived Olmec stone carvings, cave paintings and pottery. Many of them are depicted having the human-like features often with imposing and gruesome images. Archaeologist Peter David Joralemon, who had studied the Olmecs extensively, had tentative identified eight gods with the complex characteristics of human, bird, reptile and feline attributes.

Unlike Mayan and Aztec civilizations, the Olmecs do not have any direct record of their religious beliefs and deities survived till date. Accordingly, different archaeologists have relied on the techniques like typological analysis of iconography and art, its comparison and concordance with the later better documented ancient cultures as also the modern day belief system of the indigenous people in Americas. The technique together is named as the ‘Continuity Hypothesis’, based on which the archaeologists and researchers have identified and described various Olmec deities or supernatural beings. Incidentally, none of these deities have been identified with any gender-specific i.e. male and female characteristics. These gods or supernatural beings are briefly described in the following paragraphs with the pronoun ‘he’ used for them only for the sake of convenience.


1. Olmec Dragon (God I)

Also known as the Earth Monster, the Olmec Dragon was depicted like a crocodile-being with flame eyebrows, bulbous nose and bifurcated tongue but at times also depicted with the human, eagle or even jaguar like features. In typical iconography, the Olmec Dragon appears to have trough-shaped eyes when viewed from the front and L-shaped in profile with prominent fangs. The experts accord this supernatural being as the forebear of the later Aztec gods such as Cipactli, a crocodile god. In the ancient carved images, his mouth is wide open like a cave. The Olmec Dragon represented the earth or the human plane and was associated with the agriculture, fire, fertility and many other worldly things. As a symbol of strength and power, he was also associated with the Olmec elite and ruling class.

2. Maize Deity (God II)

The maize constituted the most important and staple food crop in the life of Olmec people. Therefore, apparently, they conceptualized a dedicated god to its recurring and abundant produce in their fields. Accordingly, it is not at all surprising that the Maize deity appeared in Olmec belief system as a human-ish figure with a stalk of corn growing out of its head. The Maize god symbolism frequently occurred on the depiction of rulers along with the later described Bird Monster; probably this was indicative of the ruler’s duty and responsibility to make sure that there were bountiful crops in the fields for welfare and prosperity of people.

3. Water God (God III)

The Water god and Maize god are often depicted together in the Olmec art; thus two together look like a divine team. He is associated with water in general including the water bodies of sea, river, lake, etc. In the Olmec art and iconography, he generally looked like a chubby dwarf or infant with a macabre face, and its appearance on large sculptures and small figurines and celts is also not uncommon. Some experts believe that he is a forebear of the later Mesoamerican water gods like Tlaloc and Chac. There is a disagreement among the scholars and experts whether the Water god and Were-jaguar or same entity or two different supernatural beings. Archaeologist Joralemon suggested that the Olmec Water god is based on the Were-jaguar characteristics but per se it was not the Were-jaguar.

4. Banded-eye God (God IV)

Among the various gods, the appearance of the Banded-eye god is more human-like compared to other Olmec supernatural beings. The aforesaid name is so ascribed because of his characteristics of a stripe or band passing through his almond-shaped eye on his cleft head with a downturned mouth. His exact association is not known but some scholars describe him as yet another aspect of the Maize god, suggesting his probable role in agriculture crops. His images are found on Olmec pottery and he is also prominently depicted as one of the five prominent supernatural beings on Las Limas Monument 1 in the Olmec heartland.

5. Feathered Serpent (God V)

The feathered serpent is abundantly depicted in the Olmec art and iconography throughout the Mesoamerica. It looks like a rattlesnake either slithering or in a coiled position. The prominent locations of its depiction include the La Venta Monument 19 and its painting in the Juxtlahuaca cave, an archaeological site in the Mexican state of Guerrero containing murals linked to the Olmec motifs and iconography. Its precise significance in the Olmec culture is still a subject of conjecture.

6. The Fish Monster (God VI)

In Olmec culture, the Fish Monster, also known as the Shark Monster, represented the deity of underworld. It looked like a frightening shark or fish with shark-like teeth. In the Olmec art and iconography, the Fish Monster has appeared in many stone carvings, pottery and greenstone celts. However, its most famous depiction is on San Lorenzo Monument 58, which is a massive stone with the Fish Monster carved having a fearsome mouth and teeth, a large ‘X’ engraved on its back and a forked tail. The way it is depicted in arts at the San Lorenzo and La Venta sites, it appears that Olmec people indeed venerated it during certain rituals.

7. Bird Monster (God VII)

The Bird Monster or God VII had features of a fearsome bird often mixed with the reptilian attributes which is considered to be a preferred divinity of the Olmec elite class because the carved likenesses of rulers is at times depicted with the Bird Monster iconography. It represented the skies, sun, agriculture and sovereign power. The archaeological evidences from the La Venta site suggest that the Olmec people venerated the Bird Monster as many images and sculptures have been frequently found there, including its prominent image on a significant alter.

8. The Were-Jaguar (God VIII)

Among the Olmec gods or supernatural beings, Were-jaguar is the most intriguing and fearsome entity. In typical iconography, it is depicted as a human infant or baby with feline characteristics such as almond-shaped eyes, a cleft in his head and fangs. In Olmec culture, the Were-jaguar appears to be both as a significant motif and supernatural entity, perhaps a deity associated with rain. The scholars and experts earlier considered it as a primary deity in Olmecs but now it is considered as one of many deities. Perhaps on the analogy of the concept of werewolf, the Were-jaguar was postulated as a supernatural entity following the sexual association of a woman and jaguar.

Olmec Legacy and Mythology

In the context of the New World civilizations, the Olmec appears to be the first great Mesoamerican culture which effectively thrived at least from about 1400 BCE to 400 BCE, thus pre-dating even the Mayan people. Some of the significant achievements of this early Mesoamerican civilization include the creation of sculpted gigantic stone heads, construction of pyramids, ball game, conceptualization of hybrid creatures like were-jaguar (animal gods) and abundant use of jade as favourite of artists. There are some archaeological findings of symbolic writing but not much is known about the language or script used by Olmecs. In the absence of any written accounts of the Olmec culture, almost entire reconstruction of the Olmec society, their customs and traditions, religion and deities, etc. is based on the archaeological findings and their interpretation by the scholars and experts. There is very little or no credible knowledge about the Olmec mythology including legends, myths and folktales as it occurs in respect of many other lost and surviving cultures in various parts of the world.

However, the Olmec being a forebear of many other Mesoamerican civilizations, some striking analogies or commonalities could be easily traced from the Olmecs to later American cultures like Mayan and Aztec. For instance, the featured serpent (snake god) of Olmecs reappears in similar or with slightly modified attributes as Kukulcan in Maya civilization and Quetzacoatl among Aztecs. Although detailed knowledge about the Olmec mythology and legacy traditions is lacking but it is generally agreed that the Olmecs believed in the existence of cosmos with three realms of sky, earth and underworld enabling the interaction of supernaturals (gods) and human beings, with the former controlling the universe. A shaman or priestly class too existed who along with the rulers acted as the intermediary between the people and gods/spirits. Perhaps in some cases the role of shamans was played by the rulers themselves who were considered to have special relationships with gods. The archaeological findings of sharp ceremonial objects and human (including infants) bones suggest the practices of bloodletting and human sacrifice which was prevalent in Maya, Aztec and some other later civilizations as well.

End Note

The Olmec civilization boasts of being the earliest civilization of the New World and probably the mother of all later Mesoamerican cultures. It had many favourable factors including the fertile and well-watered areas in the Gulf of Mexico that even allowed two successive crops during a year, good transport network for smooth trade and plentiful availability of the natural resources such as jade, obsidian, rubber, and so on. Though a few well developed city centres had come up but the majority people continued to live in small villages dependent on the agriculture based economy. Notwithstanding peace and prosperity of Olmec people, their sudden decline and eventual extinction during 400 – 350 BCE from the Mesoamerican heartland has largely remained an enigma for the scholars and experts, who generally believe that the drastic changes in the environmental conditions might have been responsible for this nemesis of the Olmec civilization.

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More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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