2016 August 2016

By Manzanillo Sun Writer From the August 2016 Edition

Olmec,  the first elaborate preColumbian civilization  of  Mesoamerica (c. 1200–400 bce) and one that is thought to have set many of the fundamental patterns evinced by later American Indian cultures of Mexico and Central America, notably the Maya and the Aztec. The Nahuatl (Aztec) name for these people, Olmecatl, or Olmec in the modern corruption, means “rubber people” or “people of the rubber country.” That term was chosen because  the  Olmecs  extracted  latex  from  Panama  rubber  trees (Castilla elastica) growing in the region and mixed it with the juice of a local vine (Ipomoea alba, moonflower) to create rubber.

A brief treatment of Olmec civilization follows. For full treatment, see preColumbian civilizations: The rise of Olmec civilization.

The chief Olmec sites are San Lorenzo, La Venta, Laguna de los Cerros, and Tres Zapotes in what is now southern Mexico. Much of what is known about the Olmecs was inferred from archaeological excavations at those sites, which have uncovered large earthen  pyramids  and  platforms  and  monumental  stone  carvings. The Olmecs are especially identified with 17 huge stone headsranging in height from 1.47 to 3.4 metres (4.82 to 11.15 feet)with flat faces and full lips, wearing helmet like headgear. It is  generally  thought  that  these  are  portraits  of  Olmec  rulers.

Other Olmec artifacts include so-called baby-faced figures and figurines.  These  display  a  rounded facial  form,  thick  features, heavy lidded  eyes,  and  down turned  mouths,  and  they  are sometimes referred to as were jaguars.

The Olmecs lived in hot, humid lowlands along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in what is now southern Veracruz and Tabasco states in southern Mexico. The first evidence of their remarkable art style appears about 1200 bce in San Lorenzo, their oldest known building site. This site is remarkable for its many stone monuments, including some of the colossal carved heads mentioned above plays 465 glyphs, greatly facilitated the interpretation of the epi Olmec language, though many questions remain.

The  Olmecs  developed  a  wide  trading  network,  and  between 1100 and 800 bce their cultural influence spread northwestward to the Valley of Mexico and southeastward to parts of Central America. The constructions and monuments of the Olmecs, as well as the sophistication and power of their art, make it clear that their society was complex and nonegalitarian.

Olmec stylistic influence disappeared after about 400 bce. Not all  of  the  Olmec  sites  were  abandoned,  but  Olmec  culture gradually changed and ceased to dominate Mesoamerica. See also Mesoamerican civilization.

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