The Olmec of Ancient Mexico

A brief overview of one of the world's great civilizations.

The Olmec was a Mesoamerican civilization which emerged during the pre-classic era around 1500 BCE and continued to consolidate up to 1200BCE. It flourished in the tropical lowlands of the southern Gulf coast of Mexico (in present-day Veracruz and Tabasco), and is considered by historians to be a “pristine” civilization, meaning that it emerged independently. Other than the Olmec, only six civilizationsin the world are considered to be pristine, those of ancient India, Egypt, China, Sumeria and the Chavin Culture of Peru. Accordingly, it considered by many to be the mother culture of pre-Hispanic Mexico.

The Olmec culture was first recognized for its art, and it continues to be a much-lauded aspect of the civilization. The most-known works are the colossal heads, which range in size from 4.8 to 11 feet in height and way between 25 and 55 tons. Other smaller pieces are made of jade, clay, basalt, greenstone and other materials primarily with human and anthropomorphic creatures.

Olmec contributions to the world are many and include competitive sports (in fact the colossal heads are thought to be Olmec leaders dressed as ballplayers), the idea of zero, cyclical calendars and highly complex political and governmental systems. They are also known for their understanding of mathematics and astronomy, including their ability to accurately predict eclipses.

The Olmec were agriculturalists and grew tomatoes, beans, sweet potatoes, squash and manioc sometimes using a “slash-and-burn” technique. Later, maize was added to their fields. They tended to settle near water, so fish, alligators, clams and other mollusks would also have been on the menu. Additionally, Nixtamal was an important nutritional component for their diet, which was made by mixing lime or ashes with corn meal and seashells.

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