The Olmec: Civilization & Culture

Instructor: Stacy Chambers
The first civilization of Central and North America, the Olmec, thrived from about 1500 BC to about 400 BC. Learn about the history of the Olmec and how their accomplishments influenced later American civilizations and cultures.

Early Olmec

The Olmec lived in Mesoamerica - what is now Southern Mexico and Central America - along the southern coast of the Gulf of Mexico. In their early days, they made settlements along rivers. It was because of these rivers that fish became the mainstay of their diet.

Eventually, the Olmec realized the land around the rivers was good for growing crops. Rivers made it possible for the Olmec to create irrigation systems, and they began to grow a variety of food, such as squash, beans, and maize (a hearty, multi-colored grain similar to corn). With such fertile land and a nutritious diet, the Olmec population grew, their fishing villages turned into farming villages, and some farming villages turned into cities. The Olmec population thrived.

Cities

The abundance of crops allowed farmers to provide food for their society, which allowed some people to turn to other duties, such as pottery making and building labor. Most commoners lived around the cities in villages, while the elite and upper class - the nobles and priests who ruled Olmec society - dominated the cities. There, the elite lived in large stone houses. The commoners that did live in the cities tended to be craft workers and laborers.

Olmec heartland map

An early city of the Olmec was San Lorenzo. From about 1200-900 BC, it was the Olmec's main city. It's unclear why, but the Olmec gravitated to the island site on the Tonalá River. This site became La Venta, the Olmec's central trading, religious, and cultural hub for the next five hundred years. It is thought the elite did much trading for fancy items, such as jade and iron ore.

Religion and the Pyramids

Olmec La Venta pyramid

In both San Lorenzo and La Venta, the Olmec built clay platforms topped by palaces made of wood. These structures are thought to be early religious temples that the priests and other religious leaders climbed during worship. Later, the Olmec built pyramids, and these pyramids had steps along their sides, supporting the theory that religious leaders climbed to their tops. The Olmec worshiped several gods, one of which was the jaguar. They also worshiped a fire god and a corn god. The Aztecs would later retain the Olmec religious custom of blood sacrifice.

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