The Olmec people are believed to have occupied a large part of modern-day Southern Mexico. The Olmec civilization is what is known as an archaeological culture. This means there is a collection of artifacts thought by archaeologists to represent a particular society.
Where did the Olmec people first settle?
Scientists are typically split between two theories on the subject: Either the Maya developed directly from an older “mother culture” known as the Olmec, or they sprang into existence independently.
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 first evidence of their remarkable art style appears about 1200 bce in San Lorenzo, their oldest known building site.
Some historians assert that the Mayans were the descendants of the Olmecs.
The Olmec were American Indians, not Negroes (as Melgar had thought) or Nordic supermen.”
Overview: The Olmec lived along the Gulf Coast of Mexico in the modern-day Mexican states of Tabasco and Veracruz. The name Olmec is an Aztec word meaning the rubber people; the Olmec made and traded rubber throughout Mesoamerica.
While historians have speculated that the facial features of some monumental carved heads indicate an African origin of these people, most scholars believe that the Olmec, like other native Americans, descended from Asian ancestors who entered North America during the Great Ice Age.
Mel Gibson’s latest film, Apocalypto, tells a story set in pre-Columbian Central America, with the Mayan Empire in decline. Villagers who survived a savage attack are taken by their captors through the jungle to the central Mayan city.
The Maya were native people of Mexico and Central America, while the Aztec covered most of northern Mesoamerica between c. 1345 and 1521 CE, whereas Inca flourished in ancient Peru between c. 1400 and 1533 CE and extended across western South America.
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.
Among their many accomplishments, Olmecs created the first cities in North America. Many archeological sites are known for this culture, but only two were large and splendid enough to qualify as cities: San Lorenzo and La Venta.
The Olmecs studied astronomy and developed a system of writing and mathematics. They were the first Mesoamerican culture to build pyramids. Their calendar and religious beliefs appear to have influenced later cultures. In fact, many scholars call the Olmecs the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica.
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.
The Maya were the most ancient by a wide margin. The culture was well established by 1000 BCE – over 2,000 years before the Incas and Aztecs. Both the Maya and Aztecs controlled regions of what is now Mexico.
Linguistic evidence has contributed to the ethnic identity of the archaeological Olmecs: they spoke a Mixe-Zoquean language. The Olmecs produced the earliest complex civilization in Mesoamerica (c. 1200–400 bce), and it was located mainly in the same area where Mixe-Zoquean languages are found.