Mesoamerica is one of the most culturally rich areas of the world and many civilizations rose to power and vanished over time. The Olmec civilization was one such civilization. Easily identified by large head statues, these people flourished in one of the most difficult terrains in South America. To support an ever-growing population, they practiced agriculture and constructed stone structures by transporting basalt rock from as far as 100 miles away. They even built huge pyramids and produced chocolates. Their story is truly fantastic and needs to be shared.
In the late 1850s, a farmer was clearing land near the village of La Venta in southern Mexico when he found a dome-like rock. He dug out the land to find a head sculpture of nearly six-foot-tall blocks. Later, writing on the back of the head revealed it was being constructed in 32 BCE. The first proof of the ancient Olmec civilization was found by this unidentified and now forgotten peasant.
Who were the Olmecs?
Around eighteen hundred years before the Modern Age, The Olmec’s first appeared in the heavily wooded land along the southern Mexican Gulf Coast. As Olmec farmers learned to grow more food, their population grew. Squash, tomatoes, and peppers were planted but corn was their primary crop. They also produced chocolate at that time.
The thick forest was home to Mesoamerica’s first modern civilizations. The Olmec studied astronomy and developed a writing method as well as mathematics. They were the first pyramid building culture in Mesoamerica. Besides, many scholars call the Olmec the Mesoamerican mother culture as their calendar and religious practices seem to have influenced later cultures.
The Olmec Heads
In total, 17 gigantic heads have been uncovered by archaeologists. The most recent that was found in 1994. The tallest of the heads is more than 11 feet tall and ranges from 6 to nearly 50 tons in weight. All the heads are men’s realistic portraits, some of the heads are laughing, while others are looking relaxed or furious. Yet all of the heads wear what appears to be helmets. Some archaeologists suggested that the sculptures represent the rulers of Olmec who played a ritual game of ball.
We don’t know anything about Olmec ball sports, but archaeologists find signs of level ground for playing such sports in stadiums. The games tend to have been played with a firm rubber ball and seemed to require great skill some evidence suggests that the game was played as part of a religious ceremony. But as to why these heads were carved is still a mystery.
What could have happened to the Olmec people?
The Olmecs were living in a swampy area with no natural rocks. The basalt stone used to make the heads came more than 100 miles from the mountains. The Olmec builders somehow brought the block, without using the wheel, through dense jungles and across major rivers. The Olmec’s created two impressive cities that successively rose and sunk. The first one that was now named San Lorenzo expanded to cover almost three square miles. Then about 1200 BCE San Lorenzo has mysteriously abandoned at about the same time that a larger city grew near the La Venta of today.
In around 350 BCE, ultimately the city was lost but again we don’t know why? Archaeological evidence indicates a rapid decrease in the region’s population. The Olmecs lived in one of Mesoamerica’s wettest areas, and it didn’t take long for the jungle to reclaim the land once their civilization retreated. We don’t know whether the Olmec have blended into other cultures, or whether they left or died out.
The Egyptian culture was similarly enigmatic but its hieroglyphic writing was deciphered by Jean-François Champollion in 1823 helped us to understand Egyptian way of living. Likewise, in recent years, archaeologists have made great strides in understanding Mesoamerican culture too. So the mystery of the region’s Olmec’s and other civilizations in the region will be deciphered very soon.