c. 1600 BC – c. 400 BC
Four months into this insane project and I finally reach a North American nation, the fourth modern continent to be represented (approximately 85% of the nations/civilisations I’ve covered so far have been in Asia), and we start over there with the Olmecs, the first major civilisation to inhabit Mexico and the first for which we have documented evidence of their existence. Even if it is mostly a collection of very large heads. Like this.
These were probably depictions of rulers but they are notable in that they seem to be realistic depictions of the faces shown, there’s no touching up or attempting to make them look like beautiful Adonis’ like with so many civilisations in the Old World, and this is helpful because it can give us an idea of what the average Olmecian looked like.
The Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco (not a sauce homeland) were the heartland of the Olmec civilisation. If you aren’t familiar with the states of Mexico that is just in the little dip between the peninsula on Mexico’s south eastern end of the north coast and where the coast starts to curve up towards the US.
Now obviously human life in North America did not start with the Olmecs, there were hunter-gatherer societies in there for a time and would have been since before the Norte Chico/Caral civilization I’ve written about in the past. But no one wants to read about hunter-gatherer things unless you are a really nerdy archaeologist. Correction, that’s slightly mean. There’s just only so many generic things you can say about non-civilisation cultures. At least as far as my broad sweep (as much as I’d like to go into detail, I don’t have the energy to go into detail except where I really want to). But even for my broad sweep there isn’t much to say on kings or what they did as we don’t really have much of that information.
They had an elite class who had lots of luxury materials and they flourished far better than any of the peoples before them which was why they are classed as the first major North American civilisation, they clustered around the rivers of Mexico for food and water and one of the major sites was what is now called San Lorenzo, of course we don’t know the Olmec name for it. This place seems to have been inhabited from about 1400 BC to 900 BC where it probably, maybe, served as the centre of Olmec culture.
Later on, another site called La Venta became more important than San Lorenzo, which had been abandoned or scaled back, possibly due to a war or an uprising or something pleasant like that. It happens to us all, even when most of the major political state nudging is an entire world away. La Venta was the main centre from 900 BC to 400 BC, it was also in Tabasco so not that far away from San Lorenzo. In La Venta is a structure known as ‘The Great Pyramid’, while not as well known as its Egyptian cousin, it was large enough that it still rises above the landscape today. It may look like just an average mound but in Olmec times it was probably the centre of a city.
And, unfortunately, we don’t really know the cause of extinction (or mass movement, all we really know is that these major settlements were abandoned and little happened here for a century or two after that, it wouldn’t truly become a major population centre again until as late as the 19th century) of the Olmec culture. Theories range from generic environmental changes to blaming the cosmic calendar that later Mesoamerican cultures would make famous enough to inspire doomsday predictions. They died in a huge fiery volcanic earthquake, then. Seems sensible.
Honestly the main reason they are considered a huge civilisation and the great forerunners of the Aztecs up north and the Maya to their east is that they made a lot of art that survived. Few records about what they did, who they were and what their goals in life were relating to which neighbours they felt like invading but plenty of art and stone sculptures. Leaving that big head as our archetype signal for a mysterious bygone race in fiction. They have a large amount of human and animal sculptures with really stylized and evocative imagery, when you consider this is over 3000 years old it’s quite amazing.
The prominence of the heads is what prompts large amounts of study on them. There’s a theory (mostly discredited because of how insane it is to suggest an ocean-spanning cultural connection this early in history) that because of the head’s facial features, which I said earlier tends to be assumed to be a direct correlation with how the Olmecs actually looked (although it may not in the slightest) they are related to Africans in some way.
We also sort of credit the Olmecs with a lot of firsts that they may have been the first to do, like using crude forms of compasses, playing an early form of an ancient ballgame, using the number zero, and of course, like any selfrespecting Mesoamerican civilisation, a whole lot of bloodletting and sacrificing to the sun god. In all seriousness though, there is considerable debate about whether they actually practiced human sacrifice or whether that was something that only came about later. They potentially even had writing and the number zero. Writing’s a pretty key part of a civilisation but no other states were close to theorising the concept of a zero, as in, dedicating a number to the concept of nothing. Yet. It would arise independently in the Old World later. And them having zero is partly why I mentioned the later, famous, Mayan calendar of the Long Count. The Olmecs may have started that too. We don’t know, but they may have done.
That’s basically it for the Olmecs, we know they were there, and we think they may have potentially been really innovative and passed down all the innovations that their successors in Mexico would benefit from, or these things may all have come about after the Olmecs were dead and gone. Whisked away by the fates of lost history.