The Olmec civilization is believed to be the first true civilization in Mesoamerica (area which now covers Mexico and Central America). Traces of them are found in the tropical lowlands of Mexico. The Olmecs were the predecessors of the Maya, Aztec and other later civilizations in the region. Their culture was one of the important pre-Columbian cultures that flourished in south-central area of modern-day Mexico in 1500 BC.
Facts about the Olmec Civilization
- According to their history, the Olmecs were the first people who settled down in the coastal regions of central America, about 1500 years before Christ was born. It is believed that they first settled down in San Lorenzo.
- From about 900 BC, their capital city moved to La Venta. The city was situated on an island in the Tonala river. This city then became the main trading center for them.
- Distinctive sculptures and the exclusive temple architecture was developed over eight centuries. The massive stone heads (more than two meters in height and weighed about 20-40 tons) found at San Lorenzo and La Venta are the examples of astonishing creations of the Olmecs.
- The sculptures of square-jawed, fat-lipped warriors (since most of the time they are shown wearing helmets with ear flaps) are really amazing. The colossal heads were carved from basalt from the nearby mountains. The first Olmec sculpture (huge stone head) was discovered in 1862.
- Their food consisted mainly of corn. They were knowledgeable about farming. Availability of ample food and nutrients helped the civilization to grow.
- It is believed that the Olmecs were the first people who introduced writing. Archaeologists think that writing could have originated during the Olmec era, but there is no proof. However, recent discoveries strongly suggest that the Olmecs may have invented a system of hieroglyphic (consisting of pictorial symbols) writing around 1000 BC.
- Priests were considered as the heads of the society. They led the society by performing the elaborate rituals to please their gods.
- Their towns had a similar typography. They were known for large settlements. The elaborate trade routes that they developed is a subject of research now.
- Development of religious complexes throughout the cities like temples, is the characteristic feature of their civilization. The priests, pilgrims, and common men had to climb steps before seeing the authority.
- Archaeologists have discovered that five hundred years before the golden era of Olmec civilization, their ancestors had created stone monuments and had constructed elaborate tombs and earthen pyramids. The pyramids also had steps. (Egyptian pyramids don't have steps)
- La Venta in Tabasco was the trading center of cocoa, rubber, and salt.
- San Lorenzo in Veracruz was the center of political activities. It was also a religious center and was the first city in Mesoamerica to have a drainage system.
- The city, Laguna de los Cerros, in Veracruz was known for basalt mines and mountains. Making of metates (grinding stones) and stone monuments required basalt.
- Along with stone sculptures, cave paintings, jade artifacts and statues depict their love towards art.
- They imported jade and magnetite from distant regions and used them to make jewelry, pottery and statues. Those were also used to decorate facades of public buildings and as furnishings for their homes.
- They were the first ones to practice bloodletting (drawing of blood for therapeutic purpose) for curing ailments.
- It is believed that they first introduced the zero and a functioning calendar based on scientific calculations.
- It is believed that they ate chocolates!
- They knew that 365 days make a year.
The prosperous years of the Olmecs laid a strong foundation for the Mayan civilization and the Zapotec culture. The Olmecs also had prominent influences in the region. They were surprisingly peaceful. Mesoamerican cultures like the Maya, Toltecs, Aztecs and others grew after the end of Olmecs. But the Olmec style of government, their religious and artistic philosophies and their modern and scientific outlook towards agricultural and trade had made them outstanding and influencing in the history of the world.