The Olmec World
Olmec is a Nahuatl word referring to several ethnic and linguistic groups settled on the coastal plain of the Gulf of Mexico, well-known as a rubber producing area in pre-Hispanic times. On the other hand, Olmec started to be applied by specialists to the archeological remains found in the southern part of these plains, and which are recognizable by a particular style of sculpture. They are gigantic, although they do also exist in small format, dating to 1700 to 300 BC.
The present-day states of Tabasco and Veracruz had several dozen pre-Hispanic settlements - but most notably La Venta, San Lorenzo and Tres Zapotes - that could be considered Olmec because of the presence of stone sculptures in this style. However Morelos, Guerrero, Chiapas and the Pacific coast of Guatemala also had sites with the same Olmec sculpture. Small Olmec style objects such as figurines, usually worked in green stone, have been found in such distant places as Costa Rica, the Mayan lowlands and the central highlands of Mexico.
Apart from the enormous area over which this type of object has been found, one of the impressive achievements of the Olmecs was the creation of settlements with planned monumental architecture, with associated residential areas in and around the urban spaces. Other characteristic features were the incorporation of ceremonial centers inside the urban areas and the use of colossal sculpture as a means of large-scale visual communication of a belief system, as can be seen clearly from La Venta, Tabasco.
It is impressive also how the raw material, sometimes weighing more than 30 tons (whether basalt, andesite, schist or sandstone), was taken distances greater than 60 miles, and it was also worked using technology limited to stone tools. Other materials such as obsidian were imported from deposits in Guatemala and central Mexico. Jade came from the valley of the river Motagua in Guatemala and tons of serpentine, a greenish colored stone, were imported from Oaxaca.
The rich humid tropical environment also enabled farming to prosper, with up to three harvests a year in some cases, as well providing abundant natural resources, from land and the water. This was vital to support a growing permanent population with its various social categories. The above was the basis for complex social, political and economic organization with hierarchic societies, in which there had to be governors, but also a great many specialists, together with a populace to provide for the society’s labor needs.
Contrary to the claims of writers in the past, there is no evidence of Olmec writing, since the earliest known writing and calendars are from the Mayan region. Far from being the founding culture of the first millennium before Christ, the people of the Gulf coast were in communication with many regions of Central America. Meanwhile other societies adopted and adapted Olmec cultural practices, just as the Olmecs did in the process of establishing their own remarkable set of cultural traits, which continue to astonish us more than 2,500 years later.
Dra. Rebecca B. González Lauck
INAH Center Tabasco