Friday, December 26, 2014

Olmecs: Before the Aztecs and Mayans

Olmec Civilization
The Mesoamerican region was home to numerous civilizations. The famous Aztecs and the Mayans filled history books of flourishing cities and gruesome human sacrifices. But before the huge Aztecs pyramids and the amazing stone structures of the Mayans, an older civilization flourished mysteriously in the area. Well known for their giant head statues, the Olmecs showed the characters that later Mesoamerican civilizations also showed.

At the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, civilizations began also to rise. And in the Bay of Campeche, one particular civilization caused intrigue to many people. This civilization was called the Olmecs, or in the nahuatl language, meant the rubber people. The Olmecs was given only after their civilization was unearth after the 1860’s. But what the Olmecs themselves called themselves remains unknown. They flourished from 1200 BCE to 400 BCE. The Olmecs were made off people speaking the language of Mixe-Zoquean. They were mainly and agricultural society but later developed into sophisticated traders.

The Olmecs left three prominent settlements for archaeologist to day known about this mysterious and ancient civilization. The oldest and considered the first was the site of San Lorenzo. It was followed by the once flourishing site of La Venta. And lastly, the site when suddenly the Olmecs vanished was Tres Zapotes.  

The first prominent Olmec site was San Lorenzo. It was located near the Coatzacoalcos River. It has located in top of a plateau with man-made mounds at its side and created and appearance of a huge bird in flight. It was estimated that it was occupied by at least 1,000 people. In San Lorenzo, pyramids for rituals and courtyards were built. There were also ponds and canals for water supply, irrigation, and ritual bathing. All the structures of the Olmecs follow a line that crossed from north to south. Many suggested it followed the path of constellation, which meant they have knowledge of the heavenly bodies. But the most intriguing artifacts found in San Lorenzo were 8 of the iconic gigantic heads. Made of basalt from the Tuxtla Mountains, it measured about 10 feet tall and weighed about 20 tons. Even today, many still baffled who were depicted in the heads, are they the rulers or random nobles of the Olmecs. San Lorenzo flourished around 12th century BCE until it was suddenly abandoned in 900 BCE.

The site of La Venta succeeded San Lorenzo as the center of Olmec civilization around 900 BCE.  La Venta was located in the northeast of the San Lorenzo site. It was located in an island in a middle of a swamp. Nevertheless, it did not stop for the Olmecs in flourishing the area. Like in San Lorenzo, the structures in La Ventra were also lined up from north to south although with a few degree slant. In La Venta, courtyards decorated with mosaics, tombs, and columns were found. Also, large heads were found once again. In the center of La Venta laid the great pyramid where religious sacrifices were made.

Olmec religion were similar to the civilization that would follow them. The Olmecs worship numerous gods and deities. One in particular was the so-called Were-Jaguar, a god that was half human and half jaguar. There was also a feather serpent and a rain god that the Olmecs worship. The Olmecs practiced sacrifices for their gods. There were indications of human sacrifices. But also, like the blood sacrifice of Lady Xoc in the Mayan culture, bloodletting rituals using stingray tails were also made by Olmecs.

In La Venta, there were other artifacts found that indicated a thriving Olmec trade culture. Jade figurines, axes, and mirrors made of iron were discovered. Because there were no close source of iron and jade masks, it meant that the Olmecs developed themselves as merchants. They established trade centers in Teopantecuanitlan, Tlatilco, and Chiapa de Corzo. These centers ensured that the Olmecs had access on precious stones and iron ore. Nevertheless, Olmecs continued farming centering on the basic staple of maize.

La Venta continued as main center for four hundred years, until 400 BCE. At that period, the Olmec civilization suddenly disappeared. No one knows how. But theories raged from famine to war. Nevertheless, many of the cultures of the Olmecs continued to appear in the civilizations that followed it. From stone carving, to the knowledge of the stars, and the practice of human sacrifice, all showed up in the following civilizations of Mayans and the Aztecs. The Olmecs was thus known as one of the key civilizations in the formative years of Mesoamerica.

Grimbly, S. (ed.). Encyclopedia of the Ancient World. London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2000.

Kirkwood, J. B. The History of Mexico. california: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2010.

Lippy, C. & P. Williams. Encyclopedia of Religion in America. Washington DC: CQ Press, 2010.

Werner, M. (ed.). Concise Encyclopedia of Mexico. Illinois: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2001.

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