Together with the highland and lowland Maya, the Zapotec and Mixtec peoples of the Oaxaca Valley, and various culture groups in the central highlands and Basin of Mexico, the Olmec were among the first and most sophisticated Mesoamerican civilizations.
Linguists classify their language in the Mixe-Zoquean family, remnants of which survive in various pockets in southern Mexico. Olmec is a Nahuatl word (the language of the Aztec), imposed by U.S. archaeologist Matthew W. Stirling in the 1940s, roughly translating as "people of the land of rubber".
By around 1800 b.c.e. the semisedentary peoples occupying the gulf coast region exhibited cultural traits not dissimilar from their neighbors elsewhere in Mesoamerica. During the next few centuries, a kind of cultural critical mass was reached, prompting the Olmec to create one of Mesoamerica’s first and most distinctive state and cultural systems.
With the Gulf of Mexico providing ample maritime resources and a fertile plateau with the Tuxtla Mountains and their raging rivers looming behind it, the region exhibited many of the environmental attributes necessary for the emergence of complex civilization.
By 1500 b.c.e. the Olmec had built an elaborate ceremonial structure at San Lorenzo, within which the ruling groups resided. It is estimated that some 81 million cubic feet of rock, most probably floated on rafts from mountain quarries nearly 50 miles away, provided the structural foundation for the ceremonial platform, which rose 151 feet high and covered nearly 0.5 sq. mile.
Surrounding the ceremonial center were hamlets and villages inhabited by farmers, artisans, and commoners, covering nearly 3 sq. miles. The magnitude of the construction indicates a high degree of control over surplus labor by members of the ruling elite.
For reasons still not understood, San Lorenzo fell and was abandoned around 1200 b.c.e. Archaeologists have interpreted evidence of ritual desecration of the site’s structures and sculptures as originating in internal rebellion, as a kind of religious cleansing.
Around 1150 b.c.e. and some 50 miles to the northeast, the Olmec successors to San Lorenzo began building an even larger and more imposing urban center at La Venta. For the next six centuries, from around 1150 to 500 b.c.e., the city thrived.
At its ceremonial core was a cone-shaped clay mound rising some 101 feet into the air, a large pavilion, and a sunken rectangular plaza, along with lesser structures. The walls and floors of the pavilion and plaza were decorated with pigmented clays and sands, while elaborately stone-chiseled sculptures, including numerous colossal stone heads, were placed strategically throughout.
The ceremonial center was reserved for the ruling elite, while the vast majority of La Venta’s inhabitants resided in surrounding hamlets and villages. The Olmec built similar urban complexes to the northwest of San Lorenzo, at Tres Zapotes; about midway between the two at Laguna de los Cerros; and elsewhere in the gulf coast lowlands.
The economic underpinnings of Olmec civilization rested on a combination of intensive and extensive agriculture, harvesting of diverse maritime resources, and networks of local, regional, and long-distance trade and exchange.
Long-distance trade and exchange relations extended throughout much of Mesoamerica, including the Maya zones to the south and east; into the central highlands; and far to the west and south, into contemporary Oaxaca and Guerrero States.
The Olmec left no written record beyond petroglyphs, carvings, and paintings, leaving the core features of Olmec cultural, religious, and political systems a mystery. Olmec art was highly stylized, technically advanced, and innovatively crafted and carried a host of religious and cosmological meanings. The Olmec are perhaps best known for their massive stone heads, most carved of basalt.
Some have noted that these stone heads exhibit distinctly African characteristics, with their broad, flat noses and large lips, and suggested African influence in the formation of Olmec civilization.
Most scholars discount the African-influence hypothesis, instead interpreting the Olmec as a distinctly Mesoamerican cultural tradition that emerged from wholly indigenous cultural antecedents.
Other artistic objects crafted by the Olmec include huge and elaborately carved stele depicting various mythological and cosmological scenes, masks and mosaics composed of diverse precious stones and minerals, intricately crafted ceramics and vessels, and small and exquisitely carved figurines made of jade, serpentine, greenstone, and other rare minerals.
Many of the latter exhibit what has been called "howling baby" or "were-jaguar" imagery. Olmec art also includes stylized depictions of snakes, toads, eagles, and many other natural creatures and supernatural entities.
By around 350 b.c.e. La Venta and other Olmec centers were, like San Lorenzo nearly nine centuries earlier, destroyed and abandoned. What the Olmec left in their wake was of inestimable influence in shaping the subsequent history of Mesoamerica.