Who were the Olmecs?

The Tomb – These basalt columns were transported many miles for two reasons – to make ‘fences’ around sacred areas, and also to be used in making buildings. This building is a tomb, and it housed two coffins filled with luxurious offerings such as jade, serpentine, obsidian, manta ray spines, shark teeth, and hematite.

Little is known of the Olmecs, but what is known is that they preceded the Mayans in Mesoamaerica, and are thought to be the foundation of all subsequent cultures in that part of the Americas. It is believed the Olmecs were the first people to use a written language, as well as the first to cultivate and use the cacao tree. There will always be differing opinions when it comes to dates, but the Olmecs are believed to have originated around 1250 B.C. and disappeared around 400 B.C. Nobody seems to know what might have happened to their civilization at that point.

Monkey Looking at the Sky – They aren’t sure if this sculpture was positioned vertical like this, or horizontally inside a building.

The Olmecan heartland is an area on the Mexican coastal plains of southern Veracruz and Tabasco. The area is referred to as the heartland because of the concentration of a large number of Olmec monuments as well as the greatest Olmec sites. The Olmec heartland is characterized by swampy lowlands with a few low hill ridges and volcanoes.

A few things that are known of the Olmecan people is that they followed a 365-day year, built pyramids, cultivated corn and cacao, and had similar religious rituals as the Mayans who came after them. They also had the same gods of fertility, war, sky, and nature as the Mayans.

Until the early 1900’s, the Mayan civilization was considered to be the parent culture in Mesoamerica and all other societies sprouted from them. Because there were many Mayan sculptures and carvings found in the region, all other carvings were also considered to be that of the Maya. However, some astute researchers began to notice distinct differences in the carvings from what is now known as the Olmec areas – some carvings of large heads had faces had more African looking features than many of the other Mayan works. In 1929, researchers officially declared the Olmec people were a distinct group and were not part of the Mayan empire. It is not known what name the ancient Olmec used for themselves but later Mesoamerican accounts seem to refer to the ancient Olmec as “Tamoanchan”.

Of the multitude of carvings the Olmecs left behind, many show thick-lipped Negroid features. This leads some researchers to think that the Olmecs originally came from Africa. Details of facial scaring and lines on Olmec statues also bear similarities to tribal marks found among the Yoruba peoples of West Africa.

The Olmecs were farmers and fishermen who also did a small amount of hunting. The major crops were maize, beans, and squash. The fishing season coincided with the flooding of the river. The men would catch fish in landlocked ponds after the flooding of the river subsided. Along with fish, the Olmec would catch turtles for their main source of protein. If the fishing was slow and the turtle hunting was not going well, the Olmec would substitute domesticated dog and turkey meat in their diet.

Olmec religion featured mainly worship of the Jaguar and Werejaguars (children with Jaguar features), though snake worship was popular too. They believed that the Jaguar was very closely associated with a person’s spirit and that should the Jaguar die, the person would also die. The people believed their rulers were either Gods or that they were associated with The Gods (Gods of Fire, Water, Earth & Sun were the popular deities).

The Olmecs must have had a high regard for art as many cave paintings & huge stone sculptures have been found, along with jade artifacts & statues. Typical Olmec art featured jaguars, thick-lipped soldiers and goatee-bearded men and often a combination of jaguar and children. As they believed themselves to be descendants of the Jaguar, the animal was held in very high esteem, often featuring in religious ceremonies.

Some of these huge carved stone heads have been found up to 100km away from the source of stone, leaving researchers still wondering exactly how they managed to transport such massive pieces those distances, though the most likeliest explanation must be that they floated them on barges down the extensive network of rivers.




The area where the Olmecs lived is a coastal plain, and there are no large pieces of stone to be found. All the stone found in the Olmec sites were transported there from up to 100 kilometers away. Many of the stones were carved into elaborate statues, but some – if they were found with a functional shape to begin with – were kept as they were found. This is the case with this monument – The Throne.
Quadrangular Alter – In this alter, you can see a character emerging from a cave. This represents the idea that life emerges from a cave – symbolizing the connection between the exterior world and the interior of the earth.
Colossal Heads – Three enormous heads all lined up together were found in La Venta. All three share similar features such as a half-open mouth revealing teeth. The basalt stone used to make these heads came deposits in Veracruz.
Alter of the Children – Just like other alters from the Olmec times, this alter also depicts the central figure emerging from a cave or entrance to the underworld. However, in this one, the figure carries a child in his arms.
Triumphal Altar – This is one of the most preserved altars and has very powerful symbols. On the character emerging from the cave, you can see the human face and jaguar jaws, along with crossed bands which represent the spots of the jaguar. The Olmec people worshipped the jaguar, which is depicted in many of their carvings.
The Warrior – this colossal head is different from the others found at La Venta. While the other three have an open mouth revealing teeth, this one does not. This one also has a very stern expression and wears a helmet.
The Grandmother – The monuments found in the Olmec site of La Venta are all dated from between 900 – 300 BC. That’s 2500 years ago!

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

Connect with us!

We love to get to know new people. Send us a message!

, , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply