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.
Government of Olmec
The Olmec cities were ruled by a family of ruler-shamans who wielded enormous power over their subjects. This is seen in their public works: the colossal heads are a good example. Geological records show that the sources of the stone used in the San Lorenzo heads were found some 50 miles away.
The Olmec King was usually referred to as Tu. The Olmec term for governor was Ku. Interestingly, some of the Olmec rulers were referred to as the Ku and Tu. This may suggest that the Olmec civilization may have been organized into a confederation of city-states lead by a recognized emperor.
Olmec Economy Most common Olmec “citizens” were involved in food production, tending fields of basic crops such as maize, beans, and squash, or fishing the rivers that flowed through the Olmec homelands.
Less dramatic climate changes, such as a drought, could severely affect their favored crops. Human actions likely played a role as well: warfare between the La Venta Olmecs and any one of a number of local groups could have contributed to the society’s downfall.
Contributions. The Olmecs were apparently the first Mesoamerican people to fathom the concept of zero, develop a calendar, and create a hieroglyphic writing system. Also, they are credited for the discovery of the first conduit drainage system known in the Americas.
The Olmec created massive monuments, including colossal stone heads, thrones, stela (upright slabs), and statues. They may have been the originators of the Mesoamerican ball game, a ceremonial team sport played throughout the region for centuries.
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.
Olmec art lived on in ancient Mesoamerican aesthetic traditions as well. The sculptors and painters in Olmec-period Mexico were the first to portray many of the iconic features of self-proclaimed divine rulers in Mesoamerica.
The Olmec were American Indians, not Negroes (as Melgar had thought) or Nordic supermen.”
Like many early Mesoamerican cultures, the Olmec believed in three tiers of existence: the physical realm they inhabited, an underworld and a sky realm, home of most of the gods. Their world was bound together by the four cardinal points and natural boundaries such as rivers, the ocean and mountains.
Civilizations like the Olmec, Maya, Aztec and Inca all built pyramids to house their deities, as well as to bury their kings. In many of their great city-states, temple-pyramids formed the center of public life and were the site of holy rituals, including human sacrifice.
The Olmecs lived in hot, humid lowlands along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in what is now southern Veracruz and Tabasco states in southern Mexico.
The Olmec diet mainly consisted of squash, beans, manioc, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and maize.