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The Olmecs are known as one of the earliest American Civilizations. The emerged along tropical forests around the Mexican Gulf Coast. The civilization of the Olmecs lasted about 900 years (1400 B.C. through 500 B.C.)

The Olmecs originated at a base within San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, where Olmec artifacts seem most abundant. The rise of civilization was help by the local environment, such as; the rich soil and flowing rivers. This environment could be compared to that of other ancient centers of civilization: the Nile, Indus, Yellow River valleys, and Mesopotamia. Many artifacts, such as jade, obsidian, and magnetite pieces came from far locations and suggest that early Olmecs had a trading network.

Ancient Olmec Heads

>== Essential Question == How did the Olmecs affect our way of life?

Summary of Research

The Olmecs are known to have built ceremonial centers made of temples and other buildings. Populations of Olmec societies mainly consisted of nearby farmers who worked on temples and attended religious ceremonies.

Olmecs left behind dramatic ruins of ancient, giagantic heads, placed in the ruins of a religious temple at La Venta. Even today, it remains a mystery how this ancient civilazation moved these 40-ton mounts of rocks from quarries to the tops of temples without wheeled carts or the help of animals.


The Mother of American Civilizations

Olmec Americas

The Olmecs were considered to be the mother of many civilizations of Mesoamerica. Alfonso Caso, a famous Spanish archeologist was the first to propose this, he said: "Esta gran cultura, que encontramos en niveles antiguos, es sin duda madre de otras culturas, como la maya, la teotihuacana, la zapoteca, la de El Tajín, y otras” which translates to: "This great culture, which we encounter in ancient levels, is without a doubt mother of other cultures, like the Maya, the Teotihuacana, the Zapotec, that of El Tajin, and others".

Many features of this early culture are mimicked throughout time for other cultures. Olmec gods are similar to gods of the Aztec's and Inca's society. The Olmecian style of government is also popular with other cultures. Olmecs are often associated with the gigantic head scuptures found near their city-states and religious centers.

These famous landmarks are they most memorable aspect of the Olmec culture, and so far, 17 have been un-earthed. Decades ago these were believed to be famous ballplayers of the Mesoamerican ballgame. Now, it is generally accepted that they are sculptures of their rules.

Site Count Designations
San Lorenzo 10 Colossal Heads 1 through 10
La Venta 4 Monuments 1 through 4
Tres Zapotes 2 Monuments A & Q
Rancho la Cobata 1 Monument 1


Jaguar God

Olmecs gods were similar to the gods of other early American Cultures.

Olmec Jaguar God- The Jaguar God was the main god of the Olmec culture. It had a great influence over the Olmec people because it was a great hunter and considered to be a shaman amoung the animal world

First Mother and First Father- The First Mother and First Father , similar to the biblical story of Adam and Eve, are the first couple in the Olmec belief described in the Popol Vuh. Other gods, such as Itzam-Yeh and Itzamná, are the offspring of this couple. .

Hunahpu and Xbalanque- Are Hero Twins who overcame their own death. They are usually shown wearing red and white cloth headbands, a symbol of Maya rulership.Hunahpu's face serves as a symbol for the ancient word "Ahau" meaning king. These two twins had two older brothers who grew jealous of them and tried to make the twins' lives difficult. The two older brothers were known as the patron gods of scribes. Hunahpu and Xbalanque turned their brothers into monkeys and took their title.

The Maize God- He follows the path across the sky, descends into the Underworld, is reborn, and returns to the sky. The abnormal-shaped head of this god is often paired with shaved eyebrows and parts of hair shaven, leaving parts of hair to resemble and ear of corn. The Maya elite (not the olmecs) changed the shape of their offsprings' heads to resemble the Maize God's abnormal head.

Itzam-Yeh: the Celestial Bird- Very little of the this god is known, but is unclear about its meaning. People believe this is the god who created books and the calendar and gave them to the people

Itzamná: Lord of the Heavens- The highest, onmipotent god belived by the Olmecs. People feared and worshiped him in hopes for a profitable harvest.

K'awil: the god of sustenance- Not much is known about this god, but he is assocatited with royalty and power, often found upon golden scepters of royal families.

The Jaguar Sun God- Almighty God the Sun dwells in the highest levels of the sky. He leads the sun across the sky, similar to Helios the Greek Sun God. When the sun falls into the horizon and leaves the view of people, it enters the Underworld.

Ix Chel: Lady Rainbow- Wife to the god Itzamná, she oversees medicine, weaving, and childbirth and other tasks. She is a moon goddess.

Chac: the Rain God and Cosmic Monster- A Chac is a monster that exists on the edge of the four corners of the earth (remember, people believe it was flat). They were large, dragon-like creatures who provided rain by shedding their blood and provided lightning by hurling stone axes.

The Lords of Death- Like many early civilizations, the Olmecs believed in an Underworld, or land of the dead. The people who reside in this world are known as Lords of Death and often wear items stolen from corspes (eyes and hair).

The Witz monster- The living earth monster. This monster is depicted to look like a vicious, threatening mountian. Apparently he is a symobol for a mountain.

Early Inventions

Because the Olmecs are believed to be the first recorded Mesoamerican culture, the are credited with many "first" inventions such as; the Mesoamerican ballgame, writing, epigraphy, human sacrafices, the number zero, compasses, and even the Mesoamerican Calander. Their ways of life (hierarchial city states) were repeated by nearly every other Early American civilization that followed it.

Mesoamerican Ballgame

A ballcourt goal, Chichen Itza

These balls predate the earliest ballcourt yet discovered at Paso de la Amada, circa 1400 BCE. The fact that the balls were found with other sacrificial items, including pottery and jadeite celts indicates that even at this early date, the ballgame had religious and ritual connotations.

The Olmecs were the originators of the Mesoamerican Ballgame: 'Mesoamerica Ball' It was believed that this game was played for religious purposes and well as recreational purposes. Rubber balls dating to 1600 BC have been found in El Manatí, an Olmec sacrificial bog. These predate any ball court discovered. They were found with other sacrificail items such as; jewely, pottery, and statues, which suggests that Mesoamerica Ball was a highly religious game.

Writing & Epigraphy

The Olmec civilization could have been the first civilization of the Western Hemisphere who developed a writing system. Although this is mostly specuative, ancient symbols which have dated to 900 BC, which proceeds the previously oldest writing system


The Olmecs were the Earliest American Civilizations in America. They gave rise to the many other American Civilizations, such as the Maya, Inca, and Aztec. Their calander was improved by the Mayan and their common ritual and other commom themes are found throughtout many other cultures. The Olmce civilization was founded in the fertile land of La Venta. Even today, inventions originally created by the Olmecs have been modified by time and are still used.


The Olmecs haven't directly influence today's culture and society as much as the many other early American societies, but the Olmecs greatly influenced the societies that help shaped culture today. Without the Olmecs, ancient ancestors would not have been able to discover new ways of farming, create advanced celestial calanders or even care for thier sick.

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