Research Paper: Olmec Civilization

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Olmec Civilization

The Olmec culture has been the focus of intense discussion and archeological exploration in recent years. It is considered to be one of the most interesting and also one of the mysterious ancient civilizations. The Olmec civilization is considered to be the first known ordered civilization to arise in Mesoamerica.

It was also the first civilization in the region to build huge monumental temple mounds and building.

In the Preclassic Period, the period when this civilization flourished, the following Gulf Coast sites were occupied in overlapping succession; Firstly, San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, which was occupied between 1450 and 400 BC., then at La Venta from 2250- 500 BC and Zapotes from 1000-50 BC.

One of the most remarkable relics that we have of this culture is seventeen enormous stone heads. The stone used to carve the statues was transported from a great distance -- which implies the reach and extent of this civilization, as well as its spread and influence. These and other aspects of the culture will be discussed in more detail below.

The Olmec culture and society has been described as extremely well organized with "…complex calendar and hieroglyphic writing system" as well as unique art objects of a very high standard.

However, scholars also admit that there is a great paucity of archeological and other evidence and knowledge about this mysterious and complex civilization.Mayans

"We know far less about the Olmecs than we do about, for example, the Aztecs and . There are very few written records to tell us about the culture."

The Olmec culture and civilization is estimated have begun in about 1200 B.C. And ended around 600 a.D. During this period the Olmec were the main group or culture in Mesoamerica.

What is certain about this culture is the importance and centrality of religion, shamanism and religious ritual in their daily lives. There is as general consensus that religion and belief in the supernatural influenced every aspect of their lives. Olmec sites are characterized the prominent position of the ceremonial mounds and later by elaborate pyramids that were erected for worship and possibly for sacrifice. As one study on this aspect notes; "As the clock tower often defines the center of Western town squares, a central raised mound signaled the center of Olmec cities. These mounds were used for religious ceremonies and around 900 BC, they were replaced with pyramids."

The following discussion will refer to the various aspects of the culture, as well as their art and religion in an attempt to provide a comprehensive overview of what is known about the mysterious and influential Olmec.

2. Origins

The term Olmec means 'rubber people' in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec. It was the name that the Aztecs used to refer to those people and the culture that had existed in the area of the Olmec Heartland during the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Simply stated the name means "…those who live in the rubber land," which refers to the "…practice of extracting latex from Castilla elastica, a rubber tree in the area."

There is a general paucity of solid data and information about the origins and the life-world of the Olmec culture. Our understanding of the civilization is made even more obscure by the fact that they did not appear to have a system of writing that would have provided records of their culture. As one commentator states;

If the Olmec ever had a written language, all traces of it have disappeared. Even their bones are gone, rotted long ago in the humid rain forest. Virtually everything that scholars know about them is based on the remains of cities and on comparisons between their artifacts and imagery and those of later civilizations. It isn't surprising, therefore, that while the experts have plenty of theories about the Olmec's origins, social structure and religion, few of these ideas are universally accepted.

Therefore, it is difficult to make incontrovertible and conclusive statements about the Olmec. In terms of what Historians and archaeologists know about the Mesoamerican Pre-Classic period, which extended from 1200 BCE-400 BCE, the Olmec civilization was the most dominant and influential during this time. The centre of this civilization at its peak was situated in La Venta in Tabasco, and San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan and Laguna de los Cerros in Veracruz.

There are many theories and views about the origins of the Olmec. One theory that is often referred to is they were part of the immigration of Asiatic hunter-gatherers to the region after the ice-age. Another view that has achieved some credibility is that they were of African origin.

The view that the Olmec civilization was of African origin seems to be partly substantiated by the large carved heads that possibly depict various rulers and which have African features. "Some writers claim the Olmec were related to peoples of Africa based primarily on their interpretation of facial features of Olmec statues."

This viewpoint is also allegedly supported by genetic and osteological evidence. This was a theory that was first put forward by Jose Melgar, who discovered the first colossal head at Hueyapan.

Some researchers such as Winters link the early origins of the Olmec with the Mande people of West Africa.

However, this theory is very contentious and the proposed evidence has not lived up to modern scrutiny; for example, research during the past two decades has "…failed to yield evidence of precolumbian African contributions to the indigenous populations of the Americas."

Another factor that goes against the view of an African origin to the Olmec is that the people of the region were very susceptible to diseases brought by the Europeans. This means that the Mesoamericans of the region has been isolated for a considerable time, which in turn goes against a theory of origins that would include contact with the African continent.

There are numerous other theories, including the contention that the Olmec were of Chinese origin. This view states that the original Olmec were Chinese refugees who came to the region during the Shang dynasty.

However, this view is not supported by the majorly of researchers. Most researchers are of the view that "…the Olmec and their achievements arose from influences and traditions that were wholly indigenous to the region, or at least the New World, and there is no reliable material evidence to suggest otherwise."

This view suggests that the Olmec and the subsequent cultures that developed in the region had their own specific and indigenous character and heritage and that they were independent of any outside influences.

The study of the origins and development of the Olmec culture is steeped in mystery and doubt. Another issue that is debated is the transformation of the possible hunter-gatherer origins of the Olmec into a highly successful agricultural society. As one pundit comments; "…archaeologists don't know what transformed a society of farmers into the class-based social structure of the Olmec, with their leaders and commoners, bosses and laborers, artisans and priests."

2.1. Spread and Influence

The mysterious Olmec civilization is estimated to have reached its peak a thousand years before the great Mayan civilization of Central America and twenty -- five centuries before there Aztecs. This ancient civilization was extremely influential and affected many other cultures and tribes in the region, as one article states;

Starting in 1200 B.C. In the steamy jungles of Mexico's southern Gulf Coast, the Olmec's influence spread as far as modern Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, Costa Rica and El Salvador. They built large settlements, established elaborate trade routes and developed religious iconography and rituals, including ceremonial ball games, blood-letting and human sacrifice, that were adapted by all the Mesoamerican civilizations to follow.

Therefore, the Olmec were influential on a number of interconnected levels, from trade and economics to religion and cultural practices. David M. Jones ( 2007) states that the art and the architectural styles of the Olmec were influential in the region. "The Olmec art style and architectural organization of ceremonial spaces were exported in the early stages of long-distance trading networks and, possibly, empire-building."

What is clear from research into the spread and influence of this culture is that it influenced Gulf Coast as well as spreading inland to the Basin of Mexico and to the states of Morelos, Guerrero and Oaxaca.

3. The Importance of Olmec Culture

The importance of the Olmec culture lay in their inventiveness and their discoveries which influenced later civilizations that arose in the area. They "…developed many things culturally and religiously that were later used by the Mayans and Aztecs and many other cultures."

Many of their ideas spread throughout the region.

In terms of farming and agriculture, for example, there is strong evidence that the Olmec were responsible for the invention of a method of irrigation that was to influence the agricultural techniques of the Maya and Aztecs. This also applies to the water system that archeologist have found at the sites of Olmec cities. This refer to the finding that the "…most important features of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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