The Olmec and Mayan Civilizations

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The Olmec is vastly regarded as the first major elitist civilization in ancient Mexico. The Olmec occupied the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico near the Gulf Coast region in what is today known as the modern-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco. The Olmec are believed to have flourished at various different periods of their history: during Mesoamerica's Formative era (dating from 1500 BCE to 400 BCE); during the Pre-Olmec era (up to 2500 BCE) and particularly during 1600–1500 BCE a period in which the Early Olmec culture was emerging around its center at the San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán site on the coast in southeast Veracruz (Coe). This was the Mesoamerican civilization that would lay the foundation for the civilizations that followed.

The Olmec practiced ritual bloodletting and played the Mesoamerican ballgame, which is a feature that almost all future Mesoamerican societies have in common. Olmec artwork is named "colossal heads” and the civilization continues to be defined through artifacts found or purchased in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Olmec artworks are considered among ancient America's most striking until this day (Coe).

Most importantly, while generally there is a broad consensus among experts who argue that not only is Olmec culture is the oldest in Mesoamerica, but, it is the Mother Culture from which all other cultures would be derived, there are those who argue that there is not enough evidence to support this theory and that the culture (beginning around 1400 BC) was a sister culture who was drawing from an unknown source (LACMA n.p.). Is the San Lorenzo Olmec culture the Mother Culture of the oft-celebrated Mayan civilization? This paper will attempt to resolve that questions and to contribute to the debate over whether or not the great Mayan civilization owe tributary to a number of sister cultures who were all interacting with one another and with other chiefdoms and ethnicity groups to produce the regional features of art, religion, hierarchical organization and political structures that researchers have found that they share in common. In effect, it is clear that archeologists will continue to grapple with the question of the Olmec culture origins and impact that they will probably debate the relative influence of the Olmec civilization for many years to come with no definitive answer in sight.


San Lorenzo

San Lorenzo was erected on some 700 hectares of elevated ground between tributaries with a city core that spanned 55 hectares which are believed to have been leveled by 500,000 to 2,000,000 cubic meters of earthen fill in an intensive and laborious effort which involved transporting the deposits by the basket load. Clearly, the rulers of this magnificent city, once the largest in Mesoamerica, intended for San Lorenzo to play a crucial role in integrating the population and transforming the natural environment into the sacred and secular landscape upon which San Lorenzo’s leaders would be honored (Coe and Koontz; Symonds 55).

San Lorenzo is a ceremonial site, a city without walls, pressed into a medium-to-large agricultural population. While San Lorenzo controlled most or all of Coatzacoalcos basin; there were independent polities to the east (such an area where La Venta would later become prominent) and north-northwest (Tuxtla Mountains). The largest city in Mesoamerica from roughly 1200 BCE to 900 BCE was overtaken by the Olmec center of La Venta. By 800 BCE, there was little or no population in the city despite a recolonization of the San Lorenzo plateau from 600 to 400 BCE and again around 800 to 1000 CE (Coe 44).

San Lorenzo boasted of a vast architectural and impressive drainage system that was made of stone and fully covered, buried underground. Moreover, residents enjoyed fresh spring water which was available on the elevated lands, though not as easy to access in the low lying areas (Coe). Researchers have speculated that the purpose of the U-shaped draining system was to provide drinking water and to supply water for ritual utility as well as the polity was "intimately linked to the figure of a patron water supernatural” (Cyphers 165).

La Venta

La Venta is the first major Mesoamerican civilization of the Olmec culture. It thrived from about 1200 - 400 B.C. in the humid lowlands of Mexico's Gulf coast and had an important influence on the Maya culture that followed it. La Venta was the heart of the Olmec culture from 900 to 400 B.C. which necessarily meant that this modern city produced much of the area’s spectacular art, like the colossal heads found at four Olmec sites. Unlike San Lorenzo which was vastly unpopulated at its height, La Venta was home to thousands of citizens and was a bustling political and social center in Mesoamerica (Coe and Koontz).

The ruins of La Venta contain a major key to understanding Olmec society through artifacts left from ritual-based practices over the centuries. Complex A, the designation given a ceremonial center and part of the Royal Compound, has been the key to unlocking a number of secrets this civilization holds. Archaeologists have located and studied 30,000 items from Complex A and the site has “become one of the most important sources of information on the elusive Olmec culture.” Complex A is adjacent to an important pyramid and is flanked by a number of offering sites where thousands of items were presented to the gods over the centuries (Coe and Koontz). The discoveries found at Complex A and San Lorenzo will be elaborated upon later in this paper.

Tres Zapotes

Tres Zapotes is an Olmec site in modern-day Veracruz, in the south-central lowlands of Mexico’s Gulf coast region whose central importance lies in helping researchers pinpoint the facts and features of the Olmec civilization’s decline in the years following the Post-Classic period. Tres Zapotes currently lies on the hillside near the rivers Papaloapan and San Juan, in a swampy area in southern Veracruz. Tres Zapotes was the center of Olmec culture after the decline of San Lorenzo and La Venta.

In effect, Tres Zapotes dominated the Late Pre-Classic period (after 400 BC) and was occupied for almost 2000 years. The artifacts and monuments found here contain a lot of clues about the features of a long-standing Olmec Civilization, despite the fact that as it waned, it was increasingly under the influence of the Mixe, a group of people who inhabited the Isthmian region of Mexico and who shared the same linguistic family as the Olmec.

In fact, most of the stone monuments at Tres Zapotes support a theory that the civilization was in decline, these are dated to the Post-Olmec period that began around 400 BC. The artistic expression and syle of these monuments is evidence of that decline because they feature, less prominently Olmec motifs and have offered more connections with the Isthmian region of Mexico and the highlands of Guatemala. The Epi-Olmec period is the date for the Stelae C, a celebrated monument that features the second oldest Mesoamerican Long Count calendar date: 31 BC. After the decline of the Olmec culture, Tres Zapotes continued to be an important regional center but was abandoned during the Early Post-Classic period.


Olmec culture is thought, by some, to be the oldest in Mesoamerica, beginning around 1400 BC (LACMA n.p.). Because of its age, some researchers have proposed that Olmec culture was the “mother culture” to others in the area including the Mayan civilization, while other researchers consider it only a “sister culture” that interacted with other chiefdoms and peoples to produce the characteristic features of art, religion, hierarchical organization and political structures shared in Mesoamerica.

Matthew and Marion Stirling were archeologists who began to suspect that many of the artifacts found in Mexico were older than first estimated. They conducted excavations around the fringes of Mayan ruins and worked at the Tres Zapotes site during 1938. After Matthew Stirling made notes about artifacts in the area including a massive stone head, he received a grant from the National Geographic Society for excavations. In 1939 he and his wife found the monument, Stela C. Because the top half of the monument was missing, the Stirlings estimated the long count date as correlating with 32 BCE, a date very early for Mesoamerican civilization. This estimate caused considerable argument in the archeological community, but the Stirlings were found to be correct when the remaining portion of the monument was located. Radiocarbon dating 15 years later confirmed the age of the monument (Stirling 283).

The concept of the Olmec civilization as mother culture was first proposed by Alfonso Caso at a conference in Tuxtla Gutiérrez in 1942. At the conference, he and Miguel Covarrubias argued in support of Matthew and Marion Stirling’s estimates of the earlier origin of Olmec artifacts found at Tres Zapotes and Caso suggested that the Olmec were the cultura madre of Mesoamerica instead of the Mayans (Caso 48). Since then, archeologists have split sharply over the mother culture question, arguing about whether the Olmecs were a mother culture or sister culture to the Mayans which existed at roughly the same time. Researchers also disagree about which had the primal influence on other civilizations in the region.

As such, proponents of the mother culture theory do not argue that the Olmec is the only civilization to contribute to the culture of Mesoamerica, but they do believe that the Olmecs developed many of the cultural features that are now identified with ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. The area around San Lorenzo where the Olmec culture seems to have been first established features many of the hallmarks of later Mesoamerican civilizations, including monumental sculpture, iconography, archetypical figurines, the patio and plaza concepts for architecture and other recognizable forms of architecture and art (Reilly 370).

Olmec Influence: Sculpture, Architecture & Iconography

Because of the age of the culture, Olmec monuments and sculptures are some of the earliest artifacts found in Mexico. The huge heads first discovered as Olmec appear to be portraits of rulers and most weigh between 7 and 10 tons, with one as large as 50 tons (LACMA n.p.). At least 17 heads have been discovered, carved of basalt which was transported over long distances. The sculptures have distinctive headdresses and are often flat in back. Many of these megalithic heads carved in Olmec style have “African” type facial features. Researchers do not think this means the founders of the Olmec civilization came from Africa, as some Asian and Oceanic populations have similar features. However, it is thought that the design was brought along when the first immigrants entered the area from Asia (Davies 20).

Olmec Architecture

San Lorenzo. Ten colossal stone heads are evidence of the once-great Olmec civilization that was once centered on San Lorenzo, a city that paid homage to the past and present rulers of Olmec civilization. These rulers’ heads were painted in bright colors and were arranged in a paved plaza with red sand and yellow gravel. Sarcophagus-shaped thrones linked kings with ancestry (Cyphers).

Complex A. Complex A is a relatively small ceremonial ceremony just north of a man-made pyramid that many believe represents a sacred mountain. For four hundred years (from 1000 to 600 B.C.), Complex A was developed by successive generations of Olmecs. Over that time, Olmecs made 30 offerings as gifts to the gods of stones and mosaics. Nine platforms of raised, packed earth serve as a complex where massive offerings were made including a handful of statues, stelae and five massive holes filled with carefully-placed rocks, colored earth, and mosaics (Cyphers).

La Venta Complex. The tombs scattered around La Venta Complex have led archaeologists to surmise that La Venta Complex A may have been a necropolis for the prominent deceased, as evidenced by five tombs found there. Researchers have concluded that Olmecs buried the dead with objects of importance like “Olmec knick-knacks including pottery vessels, objects made of greenstone and jade, stingray spines for bloodletting and figurines. One tomb contained an elaborate stone sarcophagus. No human remains have survived the acidic soils of the Olmec homeland” (Cyphers).

Complex A still has much of its original construction intact, though buried, it is a great treasure passed down from ancient Mesoamerican civilization. In fact, this tributary piece of architecture has taught researchers a lot about ancient Olmec society. For example, Olmec society had access to intensive human labor which would have been needed to haul tons of serpentine rocks that are not indigenous to the area. This suggests that not only did the Olmec have manpower, but, city leadership also wielded a great deal of regional power because they could exercise the authority to make the people work. The design of the compound is complex which indicates that there were skilled architects and craftspersons that the Olmec could turn to manage complicated ideas in a textured cosmos which incorporated the local aesthetic and that of other cultures as well (Cyphers).

Monuments at Complex A. Additionally, “several large stone monuments have been found in Complex A. Monument 77, a stone statue of a man features elaborate headdress sitting cross-legged. Stela 1 is an impressive relief of an Olmec woman.” Monument 13 depicts “The Ambassador,” a figure walking with a banner in his hand with four unexplained carvings including a footprint that might have symbolized travel. Monument 5 is a short, matronly figure holding a bowl that might have reminded locals of a friendly grandmother or “la abuelita” (“the little granny”) (Coe).

Olmec Head Shapes. In 1862 a colossal stone head was discovered in Veracruz, and later other artifacts were discovered there which were also thought to be from the Olmec culture. Similar artifacts were also found at a number of other sites in Mexico and Central America, though most were concentrated in the Veracruz area around San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán. For many years, the significance of the broad dissemination of these artifacts was misunderstood, as the Maya were thought to the mother culture of Mexico, and the Olmecs were thought to be only an insignificant tribal group that developed along the coast (Cheetham).

The diffusion of Olmec iconography and artifacts throughout Mesoamerica indicates the existence of a wide trade network. High-value materials like obsidian, greenstone, and shell were transported across large distances, and pottery and figurines appear to have been exchanged in trade (Cheetham n.p.). Although the Olmecs did not invent long-distance trade in Mesoamerica, they did preside over a significant expansion in trade routes, a greater variety of materials for exchange and greater diversity in sources for trade goods. The existence of these trade routes allowed the dissemination of culture and influence, as well as manufactured artifacts (Hirth 40). Some researchers speculate that the Olmecs introduced cacao as a currency which they used to lever the expansion of Olmec trade (Healy 438).

Olmec Ceramics, Pottery & Figurines

Other characteristic artifacts include pyramids, stelae, thrones, masks, figurines, and statues. The Olmec culture was first defined by its style of art, and this continues to be one of the most notable features of the civilization. The materials used include jade, clay, basalt, and greenstone, and some sculptures are surprisingly naturalistic. Other works show stylized anthropomorphic creatures. Typical features in the sculptures include downturned mouths and a cleft head (Coe and Koontz 88). One notable characteristic of Olmec art is the motif of a human face with a jaguar mouth showing its fangs, which suggests religious influences and the idea of shamanistic shape-shifting (Davies 32).

The shaping of infant's heads into a characteristic elongated profile was common among the Maya from about 1000 BC. Researcher Vera Teisler has found that about 77% of Formative period and 85% of Classic period skulls from all social classes show some degree of shaping. She also found some broad regional and temporal preference for head forms, which were achieved through use of cradleboards and constricting bands (Teisler 295).

One particular pear-shaped head form seems based on Olmec head sculpture and iconography and is found throughout the Maya region. Teisler has proposed that these Olmec forms where not just an aesthetic choice, but that they had meaning related to the corn-shaped vault of the Maize God. During the Late Formative period, The Mayan Maize God was shown with an erect head shape and a steep forehead similar to Olmec representations. Teisler believes the head shapes exhibited by Olmec skulls also suggest head shaping, and that the Olmec symbolism was later incorporated into Mayan practice (Teisler 295).

Olmec Culture, Religion, Ritual & Beliefs

The Olmec culture was highly influential in Mesoamerica, both contemporaneously and historically. According to Brian Fagan, "The Olmec took a set of centuries-old tribal beliefs about the spirit world and transformed them into a complex array of beliefs about prestige, success, and control of society that were entirely in tune with American Indian thinking about the nature of the universe. And they and their successors ruled with these new beliefs for over 2,500 years” (Fagan 68).

As a people, Olmecs are credited with a number of “firsts,” including human sacrifice, bloodletting, writing, the Mesoamerican calendar, the Mesoamerican ballgame and the invention of zero. It is also possible that they invented a compass. Some researchers also suggest that this culture produced prototypes for many of the typical Mesoamerican deities (Covarrubias 27).

The religion of the Olmecs included a number of important deities that were linked to the ruling class and gave legitimacy to their rule. Religious duties seemed to have been carried out by rulers, shamans, and full-time priests. Evidence for shamanistic “transformational figures” is common in the archeological records, which were thought to enter the supernatural world to influence events. Olmec art depicts such well-known figures as the Feathered Serpent, Maize God, and Rain God. Other figures include a Dragon God and Fish and Bird gods (Deihl 103-106).

The Olmec religion seemed strongly associated with the natural world, and caves, springs, and mountaintops were considered portals to the supernatural world. Animals such as the jaguar figured in religious symbolism. Olmec cities were often built near prominent natural features, with buildings designed to look similar to features like mountains. Evidence for human sacrifice is unclear, but the number of infant figurines suggests infant sacrifice (Olmec Culture n.p.).

The Mesoamerican ballgame is a widespread ritual game that seems to have served a purpose beyond just sport, possibly serving as a proxy for war and conquest. The game was played by two teams who wore ritual clothing suggesting warfare and followed rules which included the taking of war captives. During the later Classic period in Mesoamerica, human sacrifice became characteristic of the game, as the losing team also lost their lives. The Olmecs are important candidates for originating the game. For example, a number of rubber balls were found in an Olmec sacrificial bog near San Lorenzo, which predate the earliest ball court discovered so far in Paso de la Amada and dated about 1400 BCE (Hill 878).

The Olmecs believed in a cyclical measure of time and are thought to be the originators of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar. One of the most important discoveries at Tres Zapotes was the monument Stela C from 32 BCE, which provides dates indicating the use of the calendar. The Long Count calendar required use of a zero place holder which was provided by a shell glyph. The calendar started on August 13, 3114 BCE, and the Olmec system of numerals included bars and dots (Olmec Culture, n.p.).

Olmec Language

The Olmecs did not leave a codex, but they did record “documents” on their stelae, including narratives and dates. The earliest symbols have been dated from 1100 - 900 BCE, which predates the oldest Zapotec writing. There are also other well-documented examples of Olmec hieroglyphics. Writing experts had worked on Mesoamerican scripts for many years before tackling the Olmec scripts (Justeson and Kaufman 1703).

In 1986 a stela was found at La Mojarra near San Lorenzo which featured 21 columns of glyphs, and in the 1990s Terrence Kaufman and John Justeson began to decipher the text. They also found additional glyphs for reference on the Tuxtla statuette of a man in a duck mask. After years of work, the researchers translated the text as a record of the accomplishment of an Olmec warrior-king (Justeson and Kaufman 1703).

Works left by the Olmecs show they had strong ties between their artifacts and social relations. Based on the monuments and artifacts around San Lorenzo, archeologists believe that it was built as a center for government and worship. It probably housed a population of about 1000 people, and a larger population extended through more rural farming regions surrounding the city (Justeson and Kaufman 1703).

The site includes a number of ceremonial mounds and earthen platforms that probably served as the foundations for buildings. San Lorenzo also had residences for the ruling family and separate housing for common people. Because of the large number of sculptures, monuments and other artifacts found at the site, it is believed that the city supported an artisan class that manufactured the designs (Olmec Culture, n.p.).

Many of the Olmec artifacts are thought to represent religious symbols, and the culture was strongly tied to religious and other rituals including the Mesoamerican ballgame, shamanistic transformations, and sacrifices. These artifacts include ceramics, pottery, and figurines. Much of surviving Olmec art seems to have been meant to glorify the work of shamans or rulers. Many pottery and figurine designs suggest natural transformations to jaguars in particular, but also into fish, crocodiles or birds (Rose n.p.).

Besides these, many figurines seem to be infants modeled in white clay, which archeologists think may suggest the practice of infant sacrifice. Other works include masks, some of which also suggest transformation. The Olmecs lacked metal tools, which means that stone cutting and sculpture would have been very difficult and time consuming for masons and artists. More useful common pot designs for household use and storage included thick, excised designs (Rose n.p,)

The distribution pattern of artifacts seems to indicate that the Olmecs dominated long-distance trade in the region, with trade routes extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast. Blomster and his team found that sites like Etlatongo received Olmec pottery and copied it locally, but the potters did not export their own creations, as they lacked the organization and leverage that Olmec traders enjoyed. The one-way trade economy suggests to Blomster and his associates that the Olmecs packaged and exported their cultural and belief systems through the exchange of artifacts along with the ceramic designs. If traders traveled to outside regions and brought back goods, they would have spread their culture along with the trade (Rose n.p.).

Analysis of Material Culture

Pottery Evidence of Olmec as Mother Culture. According to Guy Gugliotta’s 2005 article in the Washington Post on Olmec pottery as evidence that it was the Mother Culture, scientists have found new evidence which proved that the sculptors of ancient Mexico's colossal stone heads were members of the region's first dominant civilization or "mother culture" and were a trade and cultural hub to smaller, less sophisticated settlements. Evidently, this new evidence should squelch much of the fiery debate between scholars who favor the sister-culture theory over the mother-culture hypothesis and who argue that the Olmec were just one of several human cultures that developed simultaneously (Gugluoitta).

Gugluoitta shares some details about researchers’ findings: clays and potsherds were analyzed and researchers found that while other ancient settlements immolated the symbols and designs in the "Olmec style" and only the early Olmec at San Lorenzo near exported pottery.

Blomster and co-researchers -- Hector Neff of California State University at Long Beach and Michael D. Glascock of the University of Missouri -- did elemental analysis of 725 pottery and clay samples from San Lorenzo and six other sites prominent during the "late formative" Olmec period -- between 1,500 B.C. and 900 B.C.

The analysis showed that all seven sites had Olmec-style pottery made from local clays, and all seven also had pottery made at San Lorenzo. But San Lorenzo had nothing from any of the other sites, and the other sites had nothing from one another -- only from themselves and San Lorenzo (Gugluoitta A14).

Blomster would go on to describe the results as a "really striking" demonstration that the Olmec in San Lorenzo "had something to offer that was of great interest" (Gugluoitta A14).

Nevertheless, a leading Sister- Culture proponent, Kent V. Flannery of the University of Michigan, suggested that the Blomster and team had sampled only pottery that looked as if it might have come from San Lorenzo saying, "it is simply not true that nobody else's ceramics show up in San Lorenzo" (Gugluoitta A14).

Besides the key Olmec settlements at San Lorenzo and La Venta, evidence of "Olmec-style" imagery and design is reflected in pottery at other contemporary sites. At a famous meeting of Olmec scholars in 1942, Mexican archaeologists suggested the Olmec were a "mother culture" whose ideas, religion and iconography were adopted and imitated by surrounding peoples.


Simultaneous Evolution Theory

Despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary, the proponents of simultaneous evolution or "sister culture" theory argue that Mesoamerican cultures evolved at the same time, for the most part. Major proponents of this theory include Joyce Marcus and Kent V. Flannery, who argue that while the Olmecs were a standout culture among many equals with many admirable traits that might have been passed down to other cultures, there was a wellspring of culture exchange and the Olmec culture was not autonomous in that regard (Flannery and Marcus 33.

Researchers insist that "it is the adaptive autonomy and frequent competitive interaction of such chiefdoms that speed up evolution and eventually make useful technologies and sociopolitical strategies available to all regions” (Flannery and Marcus 33). Researchers also very boldly imply that Olmec iconography may have originated in the early Tlatilco culture (Flannery et al. 11219-11223).

Though the simultaneous evolution theory is unpopular as a whole, the viewpoint is echoed by art historian Caterina Magni who argues that the Olmecs bequeathed a rich heritage to later cultures but does not agree with the mother culture theory which supposes that the Olmecs should be credited with being the first and most dominant model upon which all art and culture in the region was derived (Flannery et al. 11219-11223). Magni has the following to say about Mother Culture Theory:

Contrary to [this] generally accepted idea, the brilliant [Olmec] culture did not originate in the Gulf Coast of Veracruz and Tabasco. In truth, the varied and voluminous archaeological data shows a much more complex reality; [instead] Olmec religious and political centers emerged simultaneously throughout a vast part of Mesoamerica: from Mexico to Costa Rica (Nierderberger 745-750).


A review of pottery aids in the effort to assess the geographic origins of Olmec artifacts. Moreover, dating of pottery has strong implications concerning the geographic origins of Olmec culture and may even suggest how great (or minor) the influence of Olmec culture upon all cultures in the area around that same time period and immediately following it.

In March 2005, a team of archaeologists assembled 1,00 Mesoamerican Olmec-style ceramic pottery pieces and used instrumental neutron activation analysis (INAA) to compare them with 275 samples of clay. Researchers’ goal was to determine if there was a unique signature or "fingerprint" for the pottery which might indicate, without a doubt, just where it came from and when it was produced. Researchers discovered that: "the Olmec packaged and exported their beliefs throughout the region in the form of specialized ceramic designs and forms, which quickly became hallmarks of elite status in various regions of ancient Mexico” (Blomster, Neff & Glasscock 1068-1072).


A third argument with increasing prominence suggests that researchers may be going about the whole debate backward and that, in fact, the view of the Olmec as a mother or sister culture may be much too simple. What if there were a variety of surrounding cultures that were just as sophisticated as the Olmec? What if all these "sister cultures" were drawing inspiration from an older source that would explain a regional style or preference and the development of similar pottery styles and iconography from a regional and unknown root style?

Prominently, this paper seeks to discuss Still some researchers counter Blomster and argue that the Olmec are given more credit than the evidence supports. They argue that if the Olmec were so influential during the time period, there would be more evidence to corroborate the influence and very little to substantiate an argument that the Olmec was probably a sister culture. Some are incensed that the Olmec have been credited with so much while the obvious art form, monument making, was not prevalent outside this civilization.

Blomster counters the monument-making argument by pointing out that the San Lorenzo Olmec were an elite society with the authority, sophistication, and organization to command labor and handle a multi-ton building project: "The elites can control massive amounts of labor. Other sites didn't have that kind of social differentiation" (Blomster, Neff & Glasscock 1068-1072). In effect, the counter-argument is that less elite societies, even those with much larger populations, did not have a strong ruling elite with the power to command the labor of the masses.


While generally there is a broad consensus among experts who argue that not only is Olmec culture is the oldest in Mesoamerica, but, it is the Mother Culture from which all other cultures would derive, there are those who argue that there is not enough evidence to support this theory and that the culture (beginning around 1400 BC) was merely a sister culture amidst other sister cultures each drawing from an unknown source (LACMA n.p.).

Because of the age of the culture, Olmec monuments, pottery, and other artifacts appear to be the most compelling evidence that the San Lorenzo Olmecs were the dominant culture with the earliest artifacts found in Mexico. The huge heads were believed to be portraits of rulers and each weighed between 7 and 10 tons, the size of which also reinforced the theory of this city’s dominance (LACMA n.p.). 17 heads have been discovered in and around San Lorenzo and each is carved of a material that had to have been transported from far away.

Moreover, the distinctive headdresses of the sculptures suggest these megalithic heads carved in Olmec style with “African” type facial features show that these early peoples can into contact with people from Africa, Asia and Oceanic populations who features similar to the sculptures. It is also thought that the design was inspired by immigrants entering the area from Asia (Davies 20). Further, pyramids, stelae, thrones, masks, figurines, and statues all possessed clues to Olmec dominance. The Olmec culture was defined by its style of art and this continues to be one of the most notable features of the civilization.

Other works show stylized anthropomorphic creatures. Typical features in the sculptures include downturned mouths and a cleft head (Coe and Koontz 88). One notable characteristic of Olmec art is the motif of a human face with a jaguar mouth showing its fangs, which suggests religious influences and the idea of shamanistic shape-shifting (Davies 32). A peculiar pear-shaped head form seems based on Olmec head sculpture and iconography, and it is found throughout the Maya region. Are these Olmec forms just a general aesthetic choice? Or is Teisler correct in surmising that they are related to the corn-shaped vault of the Maize God? Teisler believes the head shapes exhibited by Olmec skulls employ intentional head shaping, and that Olmec symbolism was later incorporated into Mayan practice (Teisler 295).

Is this elusive culture the Mother Culture to the oft-celebrated Mayan civilization? Or does the great Mayan civilization owe tributary to a number of sister cultures each interacting with other chiefdoms and groups to produce the regional features of art, religion, hierarchical organization and political structures shared by all? Archeologists are firmly split on this question and will probably debate about the relative influence of the Olmec civilization long into the future.

Prominently, this paper discussed the origins and impact of the Olmec culture and presented evidence which weighs in on whether or not this culture was the Mother Culture of Mesoamerica. To that end, San Lorenzo emerges as the potential first capital of the Olmec and a site from which the civilization was able to export goods, beliefs, values and ritualistic practices. Clearly, then, the Olmecs were preoccupied with creating a unified style and iconographic system that could be duplicated throughout Mesoamerica” (Blomster, Neff and Glascock 1068).

Finally, researchers noted that the population in San Lorenzo did not seem to be importing pottery from other areas of the region, a fact that suggests that San Lorenzo had primacy in the area’s cultural development.

The Olmec civilization enjoyed very important art and a distinctive style that rose to prominence because of its uniqueness and iconography. When the first stone head was identified as Olmec in 1862 in modern-day Veracruz, it set off a storm of discoveries that would forever change the way that experts would look at civilization – emerging or otherwise. Hundreds of artifacts have been uncovered in the region since then and then, including monuments, pottery, sculpture, and Olmec heads.


Scholar Michael Coe argues that the “mother” versus “sister” argument is irrelevant when looking at the Mayas and many other cultures of the region because they were irretrievably dependent upon Olmec accomplishments upon almost every single facet of their civilization (Coe and Koontz 6). Further, a recent discovery helps to reinforce this idea that the Olmec civilization had primacy in cultural development.

Moreover, the Olmec design influence can be seen in pottery found in other regions. This very important pottery would have been considered elite, it traveled along semi-extensive trade routes and was disseminated as a way to share and spread the Olmec belief structure. There remain many questions about Mesoamerican cultural development despite the obvious, broad dissemination of pottery from San Lorenzo throughout the other areas and despite the fact that the influence was obviously one-way which suggests that either “lesser” cultures developed simultaneously or they emanated from the area along the Gulf coast. In any case, studies like that performed by archeologist Jeffrey Blomster analyzing 725 ceramic vessels decorated in the Olmec style and collected throughout the region found that almost all of the pottery had come from around San Lorenzo. This pottery was exported by local potters from the economy along the Gulf coast. This is overwhelming evidence in support of San Lorenzo as the first Olmec capital which urges that there was an “Olmec priority in the creation and spread of the first unified style and iconographic system in Mesoamerica” (Blomster, Neff and Glascock 1068).

Works Cited

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