The Olmec: Precusors to Mesoamerican History
The Central Olmec region
This lowland area of Mexico is the area that the ancient Olmec inhabited.
The Olmec are known for their exquiste artifacts
There is little doubt that the Olmec were extremely sophisticated.
The Olmec, which translated via the Aztecs, means “rubber people”, were the inspiration behind the other four great main Mesoamerican civilizations namely the Toltec, the Aztecs, the Maya and the Inca, with a decided leaning toward the Maya, who may have been an outgrowth of the Olmec for reasons s we shall explore. We explore them simply because of their profound influence on everything that followed. They were a Pre-Columbian civilization living in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, near the modern-day cities of Veracruz and Tabasco close to the coast before it turns east in the Yucatan peninsula. The Olmec flourished during Mesoamerica's formative period, dating approximately from as early as 1500 BCE to about 400 BCE. They were the first great Mesoamerican civilization and laid many of the foundations for all the Central and South American civilizations that followed. There is evidence that the Olmec practiced ritual bloodletting, played the Mesoamerican ballgame, which are hallmarks of nearly all subsequent Mesoamerican societies, among other firsts.
We propose a hypothesis insofar that the Olmec were at least in part, immigrants from Africa. The original ship(s) might have been blown by storms onto a far coast and then later formed a more traveled sea trade route. We know from archeological evidence that the Pharaohs of Egypt in the same period, had access to tobacco and coca leaves or their derivative cocaine. As these are indigenous to the Americas, this means that there was some form of trading. Perhaps the reason the Aztecs called them the “rubber people” is that these traders were interested in rubber from the south, had some they brought from Africa and traded that for tobacco and cocoa leaves. We know that the Inca harvested rubber in the Amazon much later, so it was at least indigenous by then. The knowledge of rubber might have been imported as the rubber tree grows naturally in Africa and Asia. The tobacco would have been brought in from the north and the cocoa leaves from the south along with local rubber, which the Olmec would process. Rubber would be offered in exchange from the east via shipping and manufacture, mainly from Africa. An outpost may have been established in Central America that became the later remnants of the Olmec empire. They did not attempt to conquer the region as they did not have the means to project power like the later Spanish. Also they lacked the numbers, which would only come later, likely through interbreeding with locals. They were more or less on an equal footing with the inhabitants that far outnumbered them. The fact that they settled in swampland that needed development and likely improved it, suggests that they didn't force their way into already occupied better territory. The fact that they left behind extremely sophisticated artifacts, including a massive pyramid, attests to their skill and specialization. They managed to build an outpost of supreme civilized organization that later spread to other tribes in all directions. It may be possible that the pyramid idea came with them from Egypt. We know for instance, that both Egyptians and Phoenicians were capable of sea voyages and this idea was recently vindicated with a reconstruction of an Egyptian boat that put to sea and proved capable of deep sea travel. The question now arises, why rubber? The ball game they played and later adopted by the Maya and Aztecs, may have used a large rubber ball. Rubber has other uses as well and likely found its way on roof tops as water-proofing and resilient footwear. Bear mind, this is speculative, based on why they were called the “rubber people”, by the later Aztecs. The Aztecs being much later, got their information from the Maya who had been around much longer, long enough in history to be in contact with the mysterious (to us) Olmec.
As the Maya had settled the region and had been farming for a millennium before the Olmec set up shop, scouts would have seen them approach just as they did much later when the Spanish arrived. The Maya had been in place by 2500 BCE and were around by 1500 BCE when the first Olmec settlement became established. The organized May city states emerged shorty after the Olmec civilization waned. The Maya were obviously in the same location and in the historical context with the Olmec, likely picking up on a lot of their ideas and trading directly with them. Trade was not uncommon among the First Nations peoples from all over the hemisphere. We know this though archaeology that has been going on since at least the advent of the second wave of the Clovis people some 12,000 years ago.
The most familiar aspect of the Olmec that has come down to our period is their artwork, particularly the colossal heads. Examination of these heads shows that in part at least, that there is a strong negroid presence in the culture. There are other forms as well, but we cannot escape the mysterious existence of negroid heads likely carved in homage to someone of great power. It may well be possible that there were explorers long before Europeans and Vikings to this part of the world. Some may have set up permanent communities. The Olmec civilization was first defined through artifacts found and sold on the pre-Columbian art market during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Olmec artworks are considered among ancient America's most striking, mysterious and beautiful, and world class historical masterpieces.
The Olmec heartland is an archaeological term used to describe an area in the south western Gulf lowlands that is lately generally considered the birthplace of the Olmec culture. This area is dominated by swampy lowlands, punctuated by low hills, ridges, and volcanoes. The Tuxtlas Mountains rise sharply in the north, near the Gulf of Mexico's Bay of Campeche. At this location, the Olmec constructed permanent city-temple complexes at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, La Venta, Tres Zapotes, and Laguna de los Cerros. It is in this locale that the first Mesoamerican civilization would emerge and reign from 1400 BCE to 400 BCE. Through all of their existence in this region, the Maya lived in all the surrounding regions; thus the Maya had constant contact with the Olmec. We may likely find Maya recordings to vindicate such an idea. To learn of this, one would need to contact a professional Mayanologist who specializes in Mayan culture in its entirety.
What is called Olmec first appears within the city of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán. This is where distinctive Olmec features first appear around 1400 BCE. The rise of civilization here was promoted by the local ecology of well watered alluvial soils as well as by the transportation network provided by the Coatzacoalcos River basin. This environment compares with those other ancient centers of civilization; the Nile, Indus, Yellow River valley, and Mesopotamia. This highly productive environment encouraged expansion and a densely concentrated population, which in turn triggered the rise of an elite class due to the creation of surplus value and specialization as a result. It is clearly evident by what was left behind by way of exquisite carving that this was not a subsistence nor a hunter-gatherer culture. Artwork of such skill, plus other discoveries and practices prove beyond a doubt that this was at one time a high ranking civilization that was sedentary enough and long enough to produce such works.
It was this specialized elite class that provided the social basis for the production of the symbolic and sophisticated luxury artifacts that define Olmec culture. Many of these luxury artifacts were not made from locally available material. These were made of materials, such as jade, obsidian and magnetite, which came from distant locations and suggest that early Olmec elites had access to an extensive trading network in Mesoamerica. This is another hallmark of a powerful civilization. The source of the most valued jade, is found in the Motagua River valley in eastern Guatemala. Olmec obsidian has been traced to sources in the Guatemala highlands, such as El Chayal and San Martín Jilotepeque, or in Puebla. These sources were located at distances ranging from 200 to 400 km away. Though jungles complete with crocodiles, alligators and jaguars, the trek of this distance would have been a challenge. Recall Cortez and Pizzaro who took many months to travel short distances through steaming jungles.
The first Olmec center, San Lorenzo, was all but abandoned by around 900 BCE around the same time that La Venta rose to prominence. Destruction of many of the San Lorenzo monuments also occurred around 950 BCE, which may point to an internal revolt or, less likely, an invasion from outside. Most likely, and supported by later events in other cases, is that environmental changes may have been the culprit for this shift in Olmec centers, when certain important rivers changed course or other influences like changes in rainfall patterns that disrupted agricultural production. What we know of climate change in other regions that affected other nations, make this the most likely scenario.
Following the decline of San Lorenzo, La Venta became the most prominent Olmec center, lasting from 900 BCE until its abandonment around 400 BCE some 500 years later. La Venta sustained the Olmec cultural traditions with spectacular displays of power and wealth. The Great Pyramid found there was the largest Mesoamerican structure of its time, only surpassed later by El Mirador. Even after 2500 years of erosion, it rises 34 meters above the naturally flat landscape. Buried deep within jungle reclaimed La Venta, lay opulent, labor-intensive offerings such as 1000 tons of smooth serpentine blocks, large mosaic pavements and at least 48 separate deposits of polished jade celts, pottery, figurines, and hematite mirrors. Clearly these are remnants of an advanced culture!
It is not known with any clear certainty what caused the gradual and eventual extinction of the Olmec culture. It is known that between 400 BCE and 350 BCE, population in the eastern half of the Olmec heartland dropped precipitously while the Maya city states started to rise in the same era. The area would afterword remain sparsely inhabited until the 19th century. It is considered that this depopulation was likely the result of a very serious environmental changes that rendered the region unsuitable for large groups of farmers. In particular, there are known changes to the river and tributary environment over the period that the Olmec depended upon for irrigation of agricultural lands, for hunting and gathering and for transportation. Ideas proposed by archaeologists suggest that these changes were triggered by earthquakes, or the silting up of rivers due to agricultural practices. One theory for the considerable population drop during the “Terminal Formative period” is suggested by Santley et al in 1997, which proposes shifts in settlement relocation due to volcanism instead of extinction. Volcanic eruptions during the early, late and “Terminal Formative periods” would have blanketed the lands with ash and forced the Olmec to relocate their settlements. The entire region is geologically active today, so this would not be surprising. The disappearance of the Olmec, except those that bred and integrated with the Maya, were spared the horrors of the much later Spanish conquest
Whatever the ultimate cause was, within a few hundred years of the abandonment of the last Olmec cities, successor Maya city state cultures had become firmly established. The Tres Zapotes site, on the western edge of the Olmec heartland, continued to be occupied well past 400 BCE, but without the hallmarks of the Olmec culture. The post Olmec culture, often labeled Epi-Olmec, has features similar to those found at Izapa, some 550 kilometers to the southeast. The Olmec may have been the very first civilization in the Western Hemisphere to develop a writing system and if they were indeed from Africa, imbued with Egyptian culture, this would not be surprising. Symbols found in 2002 and 2006 date to 650 and 900 BCE respectively, preceding the oldest Zapotec writing dated to about 500 BCE. Indeed, the Zapotec may have learned from the Olmec.
The 2002 find at the San Andrés site shows a bird, speech scrolls, and glyphs that are similar to the later Mayan hieroglyphs building a strong link to the lineage from Olmec to Maya. Known as the Cascajal Block, the 2006 find from a site near San Lorenzo, shows a set of 62 symbols, 28 of which are completely unique, carved on one of the found serpentine blocks. A large number of prominent archaeologists have since hailed this find as the "earliest pre-Columbian writing". Others though are skeptical because of the stone's singularity, the fact that it had been removed from any archaeological context, and because it bears no apparent resemblance to any other existing Mesoamerican writing system. However, we do not view this as a problem for reasons we mention. In Africa and other regions there are a plethora of writing systems and characters.
There are also well-documented later hieroglyphs known as the "Epi-Olmec" characters, and while there are some who believe that Epi-Olmec may represent a transitional script between an earlier Olmec writing system and Mayan writing, the matter remains unsettled. We are interested in any record of the Olmec that the Maya may have inscribed. Unfortunately, some of this history may have been permanently lost with the mass book burning of Maya literature by the Spanish and Catholic Church. We now have some idea that the May got their long count calendar and the concept of zero from the Olmec.
The Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar and Invention of the Zero Concept
Located on the back of Stela C from Tres Zapotes the second oldest Long Count date yet was discovered. The numerals written in Maya glyphs; 184.108.40.206.18 translate to September 3rd, 32 BCE in the Julian calendar. The glyphs surrounding the date are one of the few surviving examples of Epi-Olmec script.
The Long Count calendar used by many subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations, as well as the concept of zero, may have been devised by the Olmec who could have had it a very long time. As the six artifacts with the earliest Long Count calendar dates were all discovered outside the immediate Maya homeland, it is likely that this calendar predated the Maya and was possibly the invention, or something possessed of and by the Olmec. Three of the six artifacts were found within the Olmec heartland later taken over by the Maya. An argument against an Olmec origin is the fact that the Olmec civilization had ended by the 4th century BCE, but we see this as no problem due to the active trade in virtually all other areas.
The Long Count calendar required the use of the zero as a place holder within its base-20 positional numeral system. A shell glyph, was used as a zero symbol for these Long Count dates. The second oldest of of these long counts was found on Stela C at Tres Zapotes and is dated to 32 BCE. This is one of the earliest uses of the zero concept in history on the par with the Hindus who also had a zero and vastly predates the Muslim mathematical system that also had a zero concept.
The Mesoamerican ballgame
The Olmec, or the "rubber people" in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, are strong candidates for originating the Mesoamerican ballgame that was so prevalent among later cultures of the region. The ballgame is central to Maya culture with great ball courts located at the center of their cities, which were used for recreational and religious purposes. A dozen large rubber balls dating to 1600 BCE or earlier have been found in El Manatí, an Olmec sacrificial bog 10 kilometers east of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan. These balls predate the earliest ball court yet discovered at Paso de la Amada, in existence and use by 1400 BCE. However, there is no completed certainty that they were used in the ballgame except for the fact of logic and that the Maya used it continuously thereafter. We have already shown the close contact between the Maya and Olmec. By the time of the Maya, the ball game had reached a point of great sophistication and was loaded with celestial meaning. The Maya as we have learned, were a sky obsessed culture.
Who Were the Olmecs
Information that came from the Olmec
- The Natural Source of the 260 Day Sacred Calendar
The Maya kept note of six important days in their year. Four of them we can identify readily, being the winter and summer solstices and the fall and spring equinoxes. The other two important days were the days...
- Understanding Mayan Counting and Math
Mayan counting, math and notation differs from ours, but the end result is the same, provided we keep to whole rational numbers, avoiding fractions, irrational and transcendental numbers. Another difference is...
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