|Olmec artwork showing a were-jaguar baby|
When exactly a civilisation can be said to have started is a tricky question. No civilisation springs up entirely from nothing; there are always precursors. There were extensive Neolithic settlements in the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Egypt and China, and even the Peruvian Norte Chico civilisations all had precursors of Neolithic farming villages, which eventually developed into full urbanisation. The Olmec were unusual in that they seem to have developed an urban civilisation in what were effectively jungles rather than open river plains but their civilisation did nevertheless centre heavily on cereal agriculture, unlike the Norte Chico civilisation in South America. Maize had been domesticated thousands of years earlier, allowing for agricultural surpluses to be built up, providing the basis for later urbanisation in the region.
|Olmec Colossal Head from La Venta|
The Olmec civilisation began around 1500BC near the city of San Lorenzo in the present Mexican state of Veracruz. This formed a collection of sites (San Lorenzo, Tenochtitlan, which is not the same as the later Aztec Tenochtitlan, and Potrero Nuevo). Here the basic elements of Olmec culture were seen for the first time, art, monumental architecture, high population density, social demarcation etc. The city was un-walled and may have featured as a ceremonial site. We do not know how Olmec society was ruled or if they functioned as a state, although most archaeologists assume that there were kings who ruled the society. The city included causeways, a palace type structure and a type of drainage system. The population had a variety of food sources but relied heavily on maize cultivation as a staple. This city area was inhabited continuously for around five hundred years, until around 900BC.
|Olmec Monument from La Venta|
|Great Pyramid of La Venta|
|Zapotec stele showing possible sacrificial victim. |
At the bottom of the slab (to the right of the picture)
are glyphs that may be the name of the person shown
Trade was conducted with the Olmec civilisation to the east but the Oaxaca Valley does not seem to have had the same population density as the Olmec heartlands. Around 500-400BC San Jose Mogote was supplanted by another site, Monte Alban.
|Map showing the Olmec cities and other urban centres|
Ultimately, the Olmec were not destroyed or wiped out. Their culture was absorbed by their neighbours, whose descendants ultimately absorbed the Olmec culture in a broader Mesoamerican culture, most particularly the Classic Veracruz culture that was roughly contemporary with the Classic Maya culture.
It is unclear if the Cascajal Block is genuine. If it is genuine my instinct is that it should be placed on its side, to show the glyphs in downward vertical lines rather than as horizontal elements (but my knowledge of this artefact and of Mesoamerican writing systems is negligible). Considering that the Epi-Olmec culture of Tres Zapotes has continuity with earlier Olmec culture and that they have a writing system completely different from the Cascajal Block makes me suspect that there is much here that we do not understand.
The Zapotecs had their own script but it is as yet not fully deciphered and the dating of the script is problematic. The Mayans may in fact have been the earliest to have fully developed writing in the region. There is a great deal of work to be done in this field of history.
One of the achievements of later Mesoamerican civilisations (mainly the Maya) was the creation of a highly accurate calendar for following the movements of the stars. This was based on a modified base 20 number system that included a zero, albeit not a zero with the full spectrum of uses that is possible using the Indian numbering system.
The earliest instances of this are dated to around the 30’s BC and come from sites that were shared with Olmec and Maya civilisations (an ancient Long Count date has also come from Tres Zapotes). Many suspect that the Olmecs invented this counting method, however, the lack of evidence for it at La Venta and earlier sites suggests that it may have been a late invention.
|Stele from Takalik Abaj showing the |
possible oldest Long Count date
The main feature of the game was that a rubber ball would be manoeuvred by the players without using their head, feet or hands to pass through a loop or marker on the other side of the court. There were two teams and the game was endowed with great ritual significance. The ball game is mentioned in the great Mayan text, the Popol Vuh, and after some games the losers would be sacrificed (this would be rare). Viewing modern versions of it online, it does look quite demand and intense but rather a lot of fun (although modern versions eschew any sacrificing at all).
Olmec art has been justly praised as being some of the finest in Pre-Columbian America but the art that they are best remembered for is the gigantic stone heads that have been found at some of their sites (mainly San Lorenzo, La Venta and Tres Zapotes but with some of the heads in smaller sites). At least seventeen of these have been found to date. These sculptures weigh between 6-40 tons and were transported by unknown methods over 150km to the final sites. Each head was sculpted differently, with different facial features and wearing the headgear of ballplayers. The sheer scale of these heads are actually what alerted the archaeological community to the existence of the Olmec civilisation.
|Olmec Colossal Head from Tres Zapotes|
The Chinese origin theory suggests that perhaps refugees from the collapse of the Shang Dynasty fled on ships and landed in Central America before founding the Olmec civilisation. There are a number of problems with this idea. Firstly, the dates do not work. It would seem that the Olmecs were already advanced before the collapse of the Shang. There is no evidence of such shipbuilding capabilities in China at that period to allow refugees to traverse the span of the Pacific Ocean. Also, the Olmec culture as a whole does not resemble Shang culture in its specifics. There are no elaborate bronze works, no oracle bone writings, etc. The Shang did not make the gigantic stone heads in China so it is unclear why they would begin in Mesoamerica. Insofar as there are supposedly sculptural similarities I have to say I have never been able to see these (although my eye for art is admittedly poor).
I do not think that either of these origins theories are a priori wrong, however, the simplest explanation for the Olmec civilisation is that it was indigenously developed rather than transplanted from outside. Unless there is substantial evidence to the contrary I think that historians and archaeologists are correct to discount other theories. Unfortunately debates about these online often degenerate into accusations of racism, with some accusing people of minimising African culture and others accusing people of minimising indigenous American people’s cultural achievements. If people research the Olmec civilisation online it is likely that these debates will be encountered so please remain respectful while also retaining due respect for the current evidence.
|Example of Epi-Olmec writing with a Long Count date to the left|