The Olmec culture thrived along Mexico’s Gulf Coast from approximately 1200-400 B.C. The first great Mesoamerican culture, it had been in decline for centuries before the arrival of the first Europeans, so much information about the Olmecs has been lost. We know the Olmecs primarily through their art, sculpture and architecture. Although many mysteries remain, ongoing work by archaeologists, anthropologists and other researchers has given us something of a glimpse into what Olmec life might have been like.
Olmec Food, Crops and Diet:
The Olmecs practiced basic agriculture using the "slash-and-burn" technique, in which overgrown plots of land are burned: this clears them for planting and the ashes act as fertilizer. They planted many of the same crops seen in the region today, such as squash, beans, manioc, sweet potatoes and tomatoes. Maize was a staple of the Olmec diet, although it is possible that it was introduced late in the development of their culture. Whenever it was introduced, it soon became very important: one of the Olmec Gods is associated with maize. The Olmecs avidly fished from nearby lakes and rivers, and clams, alligators and various types of fish were an important part of their diet. The Olmecs preferred to make settlements near water, as the flood plains were good for agriculture and fish and shellfish could be had more easily. For meat, they had domestic dogs and the occasional deer. A vital part of the Olmec diet was nixtamal, a special sort of corn meal ground with seashells, lime or ashes, the addition of which greatly enhances the nutritional value of the corn meal.
In spite of only having Stone-age technology, the Olmecs were able to make several sorts of tools which made their life easier. They used whatever was at hand, such as clay, stone, bone, wood or deer antlers. They were skilled at making pottery: vessels and plates used for storing and cooking food. Clay pots and vessels were extremely common among the Olmec: literally millions of potsherds have been discovered in and around Olmec sites. Tools were mostly made of stone and include basic items such as hammers, wedges, mortar-and-pestles and mano-and-metate grinders used for mashing corn and other grains. Obsidian was not native to the Olmec lands, but when it could be had, it made excellent knives.
The Olmec culture is remembered today in part because it was the first Mesoamerican culture to produce small cities, most notably San Lorenzo and La Venta (their original names are unknown). These cities, which have been extensively investigated by archaeologists, were indeed impressive centers for politics, religion and culture, but most ordinary Olmecs did not live in them. Most common Olmecs were simple farmers and fishermen who lived in family groups or small villages. Olmec homes were simple affairs: generally one large building made of earth packed around poles, which served as a sleeping area, dining room and shelter. Most homes probably had a small garden of herbs and basic foods. Because the Olmecs preferred to live in or near flood plains, they built their homes on small mounds or platforms. They dug holes in their floors to store food.
Olmec Towns and Villages:
Excavations show that smaller villages consisted of a handful of homes, most likely inhabited by family groups. Fruit trees such as zapote or papaya were common in villages. Larger excavated villages often have a central mound of greater size: this would be where the home of a prominent family or local chieftain was built, or perhaps a small shrine to a god whose name is now long-forgotten. The status of the families that made up the village could be discerned by the how far they lived from this town center. In larger towns, more remains of animals such as dog, alligator and deer have been found than in smaller villages, suggesting that these foods were reserved for local elites.
Olmec Religion and Gods:
The Olmec people had a well-developed religion. According to archaeologist Richard Diehl, there are five aspects of Olmec religion, including a well-defined cosmos, a shaman class, sacred places and sites, identifiable gods and specific rituals and ceremonies. Peter Joralemon, who has studied the Olmecs for years, has identified no fewer than eight gods from surviving Olmec art. Common Olmecs who worked the fields and caught fish in the rivers probably only participated in religious practices as observers, because there was an active priest class and the rulers and ruling family most likely had specific, important religious duties. Many of the Olmec gods, such as the Rain God and Feathered Serpent, would go on to form part of the pantheon of later Mesoamerican civilizations, such as the Aztec and Maya. The Olmec also played the ritualistic Mesoamerican ball game.
Most of what we know about the Olmec today is due to surviving examples of Olmec art. The most easily recognizable pieces are the massive colossal heads, some of which are nearly ten feet tall. Other forms of Olmec art that have survived include statues, figurines, celts, thrones, wooden busts and cave paintings. The Olmec cities of San Lorenzo and La Venta most likely had an artisan class who worked on these sculptures. Common Olmecs likely produced only useful "art" such as pottery vessels. That's not to say that the Olmec artistic output did not affect the common people, however: the boulders used to make the colossal heads and thrones were quarried many miles from the workshops, meaning that thousands of commoners would be pressed into service to move the stones on sledges, rafts and rollers to where they were needed.
Importance of Olmec Culture:
Understanding the Olmec culture is very important to modern-day researchers and archaeologists. First of all, the Olmec was the "mother" culture of Mesoamerica, and many aspects of Olmec culture, such as gods, glyphic writing and artistic forms, became part of later civilizations such as the Maya and Aztecs. Even more importantly, the Olmec were one of only six primary or "pristine" civilizations in the world, the others being ancient China, Egypt, Sumeria, the Indus of India and the Chavin culture of Peru. Pristine civilizations are those that developed somewhere without any significant influence from previous civilizations. These primary civilizations were forced to develop on their own, and how they developed teaches us a lot about our distant ancestors. Not only are the Olmecs a pristine civilization, they were the only ones to develop in a humid forest environment, making them a special case indeed.
The Olmec civilization had gone into decline by 400 B.C. and historians aren't exactly sure why. Their decline probably had much to do with wars and climate change. After the Olmec, several clearly post-Olmec societies developed in the Veracruz region.
There is much that is still unknown about the Olmecs, including some very important, basic things such as what they called themselves ("Olmec" is an Aztec word applied to sixteenth-century dwellers in the region). Dedicated researchers are constantly pushing the boundaries of what is known about this mysterious ancient culture, bringing new facts to light and correcting errors previously made.
Coe, Michael D and Rex Koontz. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. 6th Edition. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008
Cyphers, Ann. "Surgimiento y decadencia de San Lorenzo, Veracruz." Arqueología Mexicana Vol XV - Num. 87 (Sept-Oct 2007). P. 30-35.
Diehl, Richard A. The Olmecs: America's First Civilization. London: Thames and Hudson, 2004.
Grove, David C. "Cerros Sagradas Olmecas." Trans. Elisa Ramirez. Arqueología Mexicana Vol XV - Num. 87 (Sept-Oct 2007). P. 30-35.
Miller, Mary and Karl Taube. An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1993.