The Olmec were the first major civilization in Mexico. 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.
Why were the Olmecs important?
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.
In addition to their influence with contemporaneous Mesoamerican cultures, as the first civilization in Mesoamerica, the Olmecs are credited, or speculatively credited, with many “firsts”, including the bloodletting and perhaps human sacrifice, writing and epigraphy, and the invention of popcorn, zero and the
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 Olmec were American Indians, not Negroes (as Melgar had thought) or Nordic supermen.”
They lived in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, in the present-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco, and had their center in the city of La Venta. The Olmec flourished during Mesoamerica’s formative period, dating roughly from as early as 1500 BCE to about 400 BCE.
How did the physical environment influence the Olmec? The cold and dry climate promoted specialization. The tropical climate was poorly suited for farming. The location on the Central Mexican Plateau allowed for terrace farming.
The Olmec Dragon represented the Earth or at least the plane upon which humans lived. As such, he represented agriculture, fertility, fire, and otherworldly things. The dragon may have been associated with the Olmec ruling classes or elite.
The Olmec may have given Mesoamerica its first written language as well. Undecipherable designs on certain pieces of Olmec stonework may be early glyphs: later societies, such as the Maya, would have elaborate languages using glyphic writing and would even develop books.
Olmec Jaguar God. The jaguar was a very important figure to the Olmec and some form of it was probably their principle God. It was referred to as a nahual, which is an animal that is so closely related to a certain man, that if the animal dies, the man will also die. The nahual can be the animal form of a God.
The End of the Olmec Civilization Around 400 B.C. La Venta went into decline and was eventually abandoned altogether. With the fall of La Venta came the end of classic Olmec culture. Although the descendants of the Olmecs still lived in the region, the culture itself vanished.
Olmec, the first elaborate pre-Columbian civilization of Mesoamerica ( c. 1200–400 bce ) and one that is thought to have set many of the fundamental patterns evinced by later American Indian cultures of Mexico and Central America, notably the Maya and the Aztec.
Some historians assert that the Mayans were the descendants of the Olmecs.