Published on November 21, 2007
The Olmec: The Olmec Geography and Ecology Art and Technology Socio-Political Structure Religion Important Sites Who were the Olmec?: Who were the Olmec? Studies began in early 1900s 1939 Matthew Stirling was sent by the Smithsonian and National Geographic to investigate giant stone carvings. Olmec means “dweller in the land of rubber”, refers to people who lived along Gulf of Mexico, southern Veracruz, and western Tabasco. Olmec lived in this area between 1500 B.C. and 100 A.D. Characteristic Traits: Characteristic Traits Building of clay pyramids and temple mounds Particular sculptural style weeping or snarling jaguar/human infant were-jaguar colossal heads basalt monuments fine jade carving Basic Mesoamerican civilization?: Basic Mesoamerican civilization? Artifacts with Olmec traits found in preclassic horizons throughout Mesoamerica. “Cult of the Jaguar” considered a basic Olmec trait. Or-One of several “Sister” Civilizations (such as in Western Mesoamerica)? Evidence from Pottery: Evidence from Pottery Jeffrey P. Blomster examined pottery samples from Mexico and Central America. He found through chemical analysis of the clays and potsherds that while other ancient settlements made pottery with symbols and designs in the "Olmec style," only the early Olmec themselves -- at San Lorenzo near Mexico's Gulf Coast -- exported their pottery. This suggests that Olmec was “mother culture”. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A32926-2005Feb17.html Pottery at Etlatongo: Pottery at Etlatongo Pottery is made from Clay found at San Lorenzo. Excavated by Jeffrey Blomster and colleagues. www.archaeology.org/online/features/olmec/ Map of Mesoamerica: Map of Mesoamerica http://mexico.udg.mx/historia/precolombinas/ingles/olmecas/ Geography and Ecology of Olmec Area: Geography and Ecology of Olmec Area Located in southern Veracruz and Tabasco Olmec zone is about 125 mi long and 50 wide High rainfall - over 300 cm/year Dense tropical forest Limited on west by Bay of Alvarado and Rio Papaloapan Limited on east by the Rio Grijalva-Mezcalapa and the swampy Chontalpa lowlands limited on south by uplands of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec Coatzalcoalcos river system in the middle Volcanic upthrust of the Sierra de los Tuxtlas Art: Art Jade carved with techniques such as drilling, string-sawing, and incising blue-green color until recently, more were known from Guerrero than heartland Stingray spines real and jade "icepicks" or perforators Clamshells Ceramic babies Art Con’d: Art Con’d Mirrors made of polished iron ore (magnetite, ilmenite, hematite) Sculpture colossal heads thrones ("altars") figures seated in cave mouths theme of royal descent (ruler with infant God IV) forerunner of ceremonial bar? theme of conquest (ruler grasping a rope with captive) Jade: Jade Jade Axe Were-Jaguar Olmec Figure http://isis.csuhayward.edu/dbsw/anthropology/miller/3250/03olmec/aolmec2.html#PHOTO%20GALLERY: Ceramic: Ceramic Duck Figure Human Figure http://isis.csuhayward.edu/dbsw/anthropology/miller/3250/03olmec/aolmec2.html#PHOTO%20GALLERY: Thrones/Altars: Thrones/Altars Altar #4 La Venta Monument #19 La Venta Altar #5 La Venta http://isis.csuhayward.edu/dbsw/anthropology/miller/3250/03olmec/aolmec2.html#PHOTO%20GALLERY: Colossal Heads: Colossal Heads May represent simple series of local or regional leaders San Lorenzo, with eight or more, is longest series La Venta comes next with Tres Zapotes is last with 2 subject to mutilation and destruction sometimes buried largest found at head of arroyo in Tuxtlas Colossal Heads: Colossal Heads Colossal Head #10 Basalt San Lorenzo http://isis.csuhayward.edu/dbsw/anthropology/miller/3250/03olmec/aolmec2.html#PHOTO%20GALLERY: “Mutilation”: “Mutilation” Colossal Head #2 San Lorenzo Colossal Head #5 San Lorenzo http://isis.csuhayward.edu/dbsw/anthropology/miller/3250/03olmec/aolmec2.html#PHOTO%20GALLERY: Socio-Political Structure: Socio-Political Structure Chiefdom notion formulated by Julian Steward and Kalervo Oberg Sanders and Price were first to apply this term to Olmecs hierachically arranged society highest rank is that of the chief fewer status positions than those available to fill them intermediate step between egalitarian societies and states Religion: Religion Continuity Hypothesis (Covarrubias) sees continuity from Olmec to Aztec beliefs all or most images in Olmec art represent ancient rain deity were-jaguar may be ancestral to Tlaloc suggests almost monotheistic system Stirling Hypothesis myth of creatures with human and animal attributes Stirling noted Monument 3 at Potrero Nuevo gigantic jaguar copulating with supine woman does not account for complexity of iconography Religion Con’d: Religion Con’d Astral Hypothesis (Mary Popenoe Hatch) many elements and combinations may refer to celestial bodies and events Las Limas Hypothesis (Coe and Joralemon) Coe recognized five representations of deity heads on figure from Las Limas Joralemon defines ten deities, each of which represented a cluster of discrete iconographic elements we know that many animals were important besides jaguar rattlesnake, cayman/crocodile, toad Calendar: Calendar The epi-Olmec - from 31B.C. - the peoples who subsequently inhabited the same lands and were probably descended at least in part from the Olmec, seem to have been the earliest users of the bar and dot system of recording time. The low relief on this stone shows the detail from a four-digit numerical recording, read as 22.214.171.124. The vigesimal (or base-20) counting system has been used across Mesoamerica. A value of 5 is represented by a bar, and a value of 1 is represented by a dot, such that the three bars and single dot here stands for 16. The Maya would later adopt this counting system for their Long Count calendar. The date in this relief is the oldest recorded date in Mesoamerica, corresponding to a day in the year 31 B.C. Detail of Long Count Date http://www.crystalinks.com/olmec.html Important sites included: Important sites included San Lorenzo Tres Zapotes Chalcatzingo La Venta San Lorenzo, Veracruz: San Lorenzo, Veracruz Oldest Olmec site Occupied by 1500 B.C. Pottery found from earliest period Monumental sculptures not until 1250 B.C. Carved from basalt which was floated on huge rafts from the Tuxtla mountains. Ended around 900 B.C., and all monoliths intentionally mutilated or buried. Thought to have been a revolt by the people who moved the stone to San Lorenzo and built the mounds. San Lorenzo Sculpture: San Lorenzo Sculpture Monument 52 San Lorenzo Figure #34 Basalt San Lorenzo Tres Zapotes: Tres Zapotes Geography in swampy basin formed by Rio Papaloapan Stone sculpture colossal heads stelae Stela C - Long Count date and hieroglyphs (discovered by Stirling, fragmentary basalt monument, abstract, derivative were-jaguar on one side, one of oldest dated monuments in the New World) inscriptions are among earliest examples of writing 25 life-sized jade masks young, middle-aged, and aged versions of same individual probably represent leaders hundreds of jade or serpentine celts assortment of other objects Chalcatzingo: Chalcatzingo Geography located in highlands of Morelos Monuments Monument 1: ruler in cave or monster mouth raindrops from clouds Burials in crypts accompanied with jade earspools, pendants, necklaces, and La Venta-style figurines Life at Chalcatzingo farming on artificial terraces deer and rabbit hunted dog was most prominent food animal Nature of Olmex presence Olmec may have entered for long-distance trade first occupied ca. 1500 BC, reached its height from 700-500 BC Slide27: Located in the eastern part of the state of Morelos, three peaks rise from the nearly flat valley floor. These isolated, igneous intrusions rise over 300 m above the valley floor, and must have been considered sacred in ancient times, as they were by the Aztecs and even by the modern villagers. This place is called Chalcatzingo, a Nahuatl name that means "the revered or appreciated place of the Chalcas". http://instructional1.calstatela.edu/bevans/Art446-01-Olmec/WebPage-Full.00021.html Slide28: Monument 9 was found by looters, apparently atop the "Plaza Central" structure 4. This sculpture repeats the earth-monster motif of "El Rey" and "The Governor", here manifested with a full-faced cruciform-shaped mouth. From the clefts on the exterior of the mouth, bromeliad-like plants again grow. http://instructional1.calstatela.edu/bevans/Art446-01-Olmec/WebPage-Full.00021.html Slide29: The most striking carving in Chalcatzingo is known locally as "El Rey," a representation of an enthroned ruler, although it is not clear if it is male or female. "El Rey" seated within the Earth-monster's mouth has been identified as a rain deity or the God of the Mountain. The whole sequence of the reliefs may represent the collaboration of the clan groups, each one related to natural elements, in their petitions through prayers and ritual to bring the rain clouds from to the mountain of Chalcatzingo, in a ceremony associated with fertility. http://instructional1.calstatela.edu/bevans/Art446-01-Olmec/WebPage-Full.00021.html Slide30: The relief shows a realistic squash plant that has its vines, leaves, and young fruits. About 61 cms. from this plant there is a small rectangular cavity cut out of the bedrock. It was intended for collecting rain or receiving dedicatory water. The placement of water at the foot of the squash plants implies that imitative magic was the reason the cavity is close to the carving. http://instructional1.calstatela.edu/bevans/Art446-01-Olmec/WebPage-Full.00021.html Monument 31: Jaguar as symbol of power and fertility : Monument 31: Jaguar as symbol of power and fertility http://instructional1.calstatela.edu/bevans/Art446-01-Olmec/WebPage-Full.00021.html La Venta, Tabasco: La Venta, Tabasco Contemporaneous to later phases of San Lorenzo and persisting longer. Oriented on a n-s axis on an island in the Rio Tonala Includes mounds, plazas, tombs, basalt slab enclosures, and a clay pyramid. Buried stone offerings jade and serpentine celts colored clay floors mosaics jaguar masks stone figurines La Venta. c.1000 BC : La Venta. c.1000 BC Although modern La Venta is an "island" of high ground surrounded by marshes, the Olmec capital occupied a ridge overlooking the then active Rio Palma River. During the 400 or 500 year occupation of the site, both monumental architecture and earthworks of colored clays and imported stones were completed. http://instructional1.calstatela.edu/bevans/Art446-01-Olmec/WebPage-Full.00021.html Jade mosaic mask representing a stylized jaguar. c. 1000 BC: Jade mosaic mask representing a stylized jaguar. c. 1000 BC http://instructional1.calstatela.edu/bevans/Art446-01-Olmec/WebPage-Full.00021.html Basalt tomb. c.1000 BC : Basalt tomb. c.1000 BC This tomb constructed with giant basalt columns in the form of a subterranean "log house" contained the red-pigment-impregnated remains of two infants accompanied by a rich offering of jade figurines and jewelry. The basalt columns are carved in a way that simulates wooden posts. http://instructional1.calstatela.edu/bevans/Art446-01-Olmec/WebPage-Full.00021.html End of Olmec?: End of Olmec? Around 600 B.C. building and expansion of Olmecs ended. Revolution of working class? External pressures?