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ANTH 336  New World Prehistory
Dr. Darlene Applegate
Fall 2006
Mesoamerica Culture Area
Olmec Civilization

Many archaeologists refer to this archaeological culture as the "Mother Culture" of Mesoamerica, because many distinctive features of Mesoamerica (e.g., iconography, trade networks, ceremonial centers, monumental public architecture, religion) are first evidenced with the Olmec. See the textbook for alternative opinions.


Formative (Pre-Classic) Period to early Classic Period

circa 1250 - 100 BC



along Gulf Coast of Mexico

present-day Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco

lowland tropical rain forests

very swampy

Sphere of Influence

throughout rest of Mesoamerica, including the Valley of Mexico, the Valley of Oaxaca, and the Guatemala highlands

sphere of influence reflects exchange networks, military expansion, and/or population dispersal

Map Showing Olmec Heartland (Tan Shading), Major Heartland Sites, and
Other Sites Exhibiting Olmec Influence.  


probably developed from previous indigenous populations

some archaeologists hypothesized that Olmec originated from migrations of non-indigenous peoples from other parts of the world, such as China (Shang dynasty), South America (Peruvian Andes), or Africa (west Africa)


probably were agriculturalists but little direct botanical evidence

evidence of farming includes food production tools and relic raised fields

farming probably supplemented by hunting (deer, musk turtle), gathering, and fishing (snook)


colossal heads of basalt

a total of 17 have been found to date at four Olmec sites

carved from basalt, a volcanic rock, quarried in the Tuxtlas Mountains of Veracruz (Gulf Coast)

sizes range from five to ten feet tall and about 20 tons each

diagnostic features include pupil-less eyes, broad nose, fleshy downturned lips, and head gear ("helmets")

may represent ball players or rulers

One of Four Colossal Heads from La Venta,
Mexico.     http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olmec

sculpted stone altars

most are manufactured from basalt

most have been recovered from ceremonial complexes

may have been used as seating for rulers during rituals

often carved with anthropomorphic images, including seated adults sometimes holding children or deities

Basalt Altar from La Venta, Mexico Showing a Ruler Holding
a Diety at a Cave Entrance.


little research on settlement strategy

settlement pattern includes habitation sites located near rivers, on islands in rivers or swamps, near raw material sources, or near trade routes

settlement system includes ceremonial complexes surrounded by farming hamlets

ceremonial complexes often oriented on north-south axis


Heartland Ceremonial Complexes

San Lorenzo

one of the earliest Olmec ceremonial centers

most significant occupations occurred between about 1200-900 BC, when the population probably numbered several thousand

unlike most other Olmec sites, San Lorenzo was not in the swamps but in a drier area where the ground level was built up with millions of cubic meters of soil

One of Ten Colossal Heads from the
Olmec Site of San Lorenzo, Mexico.

La Venta

one of the most famous Olmec ceremonial centers, with the most intensive occupations between 900-400 BC

located on an island in a swamp

the ceremonial complex is oriented 8 degrees from a north-south axis

most public architecture is of clay, as few sources of building stone were found nearby

the Great Pyramid is earthen and once had four stepped sides

Complex A contained dozens of buried offerings of greenstones, including one pit with 50 tons of greenstone pavements

venta map
Map of the Ceremonial Center at La Venta, Mexico.

Aerial Photograph of the Great Pyramid at La Venta, Mexico.

(Left) One of Many Greenstone Mosaics Discovered in Subsurface Pits at La Venta, Mexico.
This Mosaic Represents a Jaguar Mask. (Right) Greenstone Figurines and Celts from Offering at La Venta.

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/vent/hd_vent.htm            http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/olmec-celts.htm

Tres Zapotes

the third of the three main Olmec ceremonial centers

the site was occupied primarily between 900-400 BC

monumental public architecture include four groups of earthen mounds/pyramids and plazas

two colossal heads were recovered here; the first discovery of this artifact type was made at Tres Zapotes

(Left) One of the Earthen Mounds/Pyramids at Tres Zapotes, Mexico. (Right) "Initiation Stela" Recovered from Tres Zapotes.  
http://www.ancientcumorah.com/Photos.html            http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/olmec-celts.htm

other sites in the heartland include Potero Nuevo, Rio Chiquito, Rancho la Corbata, and Laguna de los Cerros

Outlier Sites Showing Olmec Influences

Las Bocas
Monte Alban
Piedra Parada


little evidence, but likely a theocracy


possible factors are environmental stress, collapse of trade relations, and invasion

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