Who were the Olmecs?
Olmec civilization arose along the Gulf Coast of southern Mexico about 1200 B.C., in an area that the Aztecs later called Olman, “The Rubber Country.” There, quick streams flowed into large rivers, with easily cultivated soil and bountiful forests providing sustenance.
Anthropologists have cited the city as proof that Maya culture descended from the Olmec, pointing to similar plazas, pyramids, and ceremonial structures found in both Ceibal and nearby La Venta — a coastal city that was once the cultural hub of Olmec civilization.
Appearing around 1600 BCE, the Olmec were among the first Mesoamerican complex societies, and their culture influenced many later civilizations, like the Maya. The Olmec are known for the immense stone heads they carved from a volcanic rock called basalt.
Some historians assert that the Mayans were the descendants of the Olmecs.
The key to the Olmecs’ rise appears to have been a strong, centralized monarchy. The colossal heads, each one depicting a particular individual, are likely portraits of the Olmec kings who ruled from ornate palaces at San Lorenzo and La Venta.
The Olmec colossal heads are stone representations of human heads sculpted from large basalt boulders. They range in height from 1.17 to 3.4 metres (3.8 to 11.2 ft). The heads date from at least 900 BC and are a distinctive feature of the Olmec civilization of ancient Mesoamerica.
The Maya are probably the best-known of the classical civilizations of Mesoamerica. Originating in the Yucatán around 2600 B.C., they rose to prominence around A.D. 250 in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize and western Honduras.
The legendary origin of the Aztec people has them migrating from a homeland called Aztlan to what would become modern-day Mexico. While it is not clear where Aztlan was, a number of scholars believe that the Mexica—as the Aztec referred to themselves—migrated south to central Mexico in the 13th century.
The word “Maya” itself comes from the name of the ancient Yucatan city of Mayapan, the last capital of the Maya Kingdom in the Post-Classic Period (950-1524 CE). In the late sixteenth century the Spanish attacked and conquered parts of Yucatan including the then capital.
The Olmecs produced an abundance of basalt sculpture. Basalt blocks were quarried, then transported from distant sites. The colossal head monuments have managed to survive thousands of years, however have been faced with various circumstances that have caused damage.
The historic region of Mesoamerica comprises the modern day countries of northern Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, and central to southern Mexico. For thousands of years, this area was populated by groups such as the Olmec, Zapotec, Maya, Toltec, and Aztec peoples.
Olmec art is best known for colossal sculpture in volcanic stone and intricate works in jade, both media that were imported from faraway regions.
Andrzej Wiercinski claims that some of the Olmecs were of African origin. He supports this claim with cranial evidence from two Mesoamerican sites: Tlatilco and Cerro de las Mesas. Tlatilco is a site in the Valley of Mexico. Although outside the Olmec heartland, Olmec influences appear in the architectural record.
But archaeologists don’t know what transformed a society of farmers into the class-based social structure of the Olmec, with their leaders and commoners, bosses and laborers, artisans and priests. Diehl theorizes that it was population pressure and that as the pre-Olmec villages grew, they naturally stratified.
To quickly sum up, the Maya were first but learned a lot from the Olmecs, who started 1,200 years later.