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4.10: Olmec (1500 BCE – 400 BCE)

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    As with most other civilizations, the Olmec civilization began where there was water, establishing their location on the alluvial fan of the Coatzacoalcos River basin. The Olmec’s erected three large sites around 900 BCE, La Venta, the largest and most prominent. La Venta became the center of Olmec culture, and they developed a government, traded with other locations and established religion, and became one of the first significant cultures in Mesoamerica.

    The grand earthen truncated mound (4.33) was the most massive structure on the Mesoamerican peninsula, rising over 34 meters from the natural level countryside and the center of the city. Researchers initially believed the pyramid was built rounded to reflect the local mountains; however, using modern research tools, the pyramid was rectangular with stepped sides and eroded by time. There are several other pyramid-shaped mounds situated in clusters for over one mile. In the same area, archaeologists found multiple elaborate tombs and the ornate, oversized mosaics (4.34) made from large blocks of serpentine rock, buried under several feet of soil.

    4.33 Grand Mound
    Serpentine mosaic
    4.34 Oversized Mosaics

    The Olmecs were the first people in Mesoamerica to create the massive stone monuments found on Mexico’s southern Gulf Coast. Eighty stone monuments found at La Venta, including seventeen of the famous monumental carved stone heads. These giant heads (4.35) carved from the large basalt boulders with facial features resembling the people of the community. The heads all have helmets or ball caps and may represent the idolization of the ball game the Olmec played. The heads are roughly 2.80 meters high and 2.15 meters wide and carved from basalt. The quarry for basalt rock was in the mountains over eighty kilometers from La Venta, and it is still unknown how the Olmec moved the massive stones and then carved them with small hand tools. The Olmec also carved smaller figures, believed to be for ritual ceremonies, either from granite or jadeite, a blue-green colored and highly valued stone.

    Olmec head
    4.35 Olmec head

    Seven altars made from basalt found at La Venta, are approximately 2 meters high and 4 meters wide in size. Altar 4 (4.36) has a person or deity located just inside a cave-like structure holding a large rope wrapped entirely around the base. The altar has carved fans, eyes, and shows a person sitting in the mouth of a creature. La Venta was the capital of the Olmec people based on the sheer number of artifacts uncovered at the complex. It was a system of control by the hierarchy of a king or priest. No known written language exists from the Olmec; however, there are some glyphs arranged in 21 columns on a stone excavated from a river bed, which gave researchers clues into their culture.

    Altar 4
    4.36 Altar 4

    This page titled 4.10: Olmec (1500 BCE – 400 BCE) is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Deborah Gustlin & Zoe Gustlin (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .