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.
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.