The Olmec civilization thrived along Mexico's gulf coast from approximately 1200-400 B.C. and is considered the parent culture of many of the important Mesoamerican cultures that came after, including the Aztec and Maya. From their great cities, San Lorenzo and La Venta, Olmec traders spread their culture far and wide and eventually built a large network through Mesoamerica. Although many aspects of Olmec culture have been lost to time, what little is known about them is very important because their influence was so great.
Olmec Trade and Commerce
Before the dawn of the Olmec civilization, trade in Mesoamerica was common. Highly desirable items like obsidian knives, animal skins, and salt were routinely traded between neighboring cultures. The Olmecs created long-distance trade routes to obtain the things they needed, eventually making contacts all the way from the valley of Mexico to Central America. Olmec traders swapped finely made Olmec celts, masks and other small pieces of art with other cultures such as the Mokaya and Tlatilco, getting jadeite, serpentine, obsidian, salt, cacao, pretty feathers and more in return. These extensive trade networks spread Olmec culture far and wide, spreading Olmec influence throughout Mesoamerica.
The Olmec had a well-developed religion and belief in a cosmos comprised of an underworld (represented by the Olmec fish monster), the Earth (Olmec Dragon) and skies (bird monster). They had elaborate ceremonial centers: the well-preserved Complex A at La Venta is the best example. Much of their art is based on their religion, and it is from surviving pieces of Olmec art that researchers have managed to identify no fewer than eight different Olmec gods. Many of these early Olmec gods, such as the Feathered Serpent, the maize god, and the rain god, found their way into the mythology of later civilizations such as the Maya and Aztecs. Mexican researcher and artist Miguel Covarrubias made a famous diagram of how different Mesoamerican divine images all diverged from an early Olmec source.
Apart from the religious aspects of Olmec society mentioned above, Olmec mythology seems to have caught on with other cultures as well. The Olmecs were fascinated with "were-jaguars," or human-jaguar hybrids: some Olmec art has caused speculation that they believed that some human-jaguar cross-breeding had once taken place, and depictions of fierce were-jaguar babies are a staple of Olmec art. Later cultures would continue the human-jaguar obsession: one good example is the jaguar warriors of the Aztec. Also, at the El Azuzul site near San Lorenzo, a pair of extremely similar statues of young men placed with a pair of jaguar statues brings to mind the two pairs of hero twins whose adventures are narrated in the Popol Vuh, known as the Maya bible. Although there are no confirmed courts used for the famous Mesoamerican ballgame at Olmec sites, rubber balls used for the game were unearthed at El Manatí.
Artistically speaking, the Olmec were far ahead of their time: their art shows a skill and aesthetic sense far greater than that of contemporary civilizations. The Olmec produced celts, cave paintings, statues, wooden busts, statues, figurines, stelae and much more, but their most famous artistic legacy is doubtless the colossal heads. These giant heads, some of which stand nearly ten feet tall, are striking in their artwork and majesty. Although the colossal heads never caught on with other cultures, Olmec art was very influential on the civilizations that followed it. Olmec stelae, such as La Venta Monument 19, can be indistinguishable from Mayan art to the untrained eye. Certain subjects, such as plumed serpents, also made the transition from Olmec art to that of other societies.
Engineering and Intellectual Accomplishments:
The Olmec were the first great engineers of Mesoamerica. There is an aqueduct at San Lorenzo, carved out of dozens of massive stones then laid side-by side. The royal compound at La Venta shows engineering as well: the "massive offerings" of Complex A are complicated pits filled with stones, clay, and supporting walls, and there is a tomb there built with basalt support columns. 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. As the Olmec culture faded into the Epi-Olmec society seen in the Tres Zapotes site, the people developed an interest in the calendar and astronomy, two other fundamental building blocks of Mesoamerican society.
Olmec Influence and Mesoamerica:
Researchers who study ancient societies embrace something called the "continuity hypothesis." This hypothesis posits that there has been a set of religious and cultural beliefs and norms in place in Mesoamerica that has run through all of the societies that lived there and that information from one society can often be used to fill in the gaps left in others.
The Olmec society then becomes particularly important. As the parent culture - or at least one of the most important early formative cultures of the region - it had influence out of proportion with, say, its military might or prowess as a trading nation. Olmec pieces that give some information about the gods, society or have a bit of writing on them - such as the famous Las Limas Monument 1 - are particularly prized by researchers.
Coe, Michael D and Rex Koontz. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. 6th Edition. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008
Cyphers, Ann. "Surgimiento y decadencia de San Lorenzo, Veracruz." Arqueología Mexicana Vol XV - Num. 87 (Sept-Oct 2007). P. 30-35.
Diehl, Richard A. The Olmecs: America's First Civilization. London: Thames and Hudson, 2004.
Grove, David C. "Cerros Sagradas Olmecas." Trans. Elisa Ramirez. Arqueología Mexicana Vol XV - Num. 87 (Sept-Oct 2007). P. 30-35.
Gonzalez Tauck, Rebecca B. "El Complejo A: La Venta, Tabasco" Arqueología Mexicana Vol XV - Num. 87 (Sept-Oct 2007). p. 49-54.