The name "Olmec" is Nahuatl for people of low-lying humid lands, where rubber came from. In post-conquest literature "Olmec" often refered to people of the present-day Puebla region. In the 19th Century, the term came to be applied to certain artifacts, particularly figurines, that were thought to be very ancient, from the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Since similar artifacts were found all over Mesoamerica, a theory developed that "Olmec" was a kind of "mother culture" from which later cultures developed. Finally, in the 1950's radiocarbon analysis showed that very early "Olmec" style artifacts came from widely separated sites while others very similar in form, were not so old.

The prevailing view now is that "Olmec" identifies one of many early cultures emergent in the Formative period from about 2000 BC to CE 200. Olmec formative culture developed on the Gulf Coast (see map) of Mexico, contemporary with other Early Formative centres, but excelling in monumental architecture and sculpture although some other centres did spectacular works.

The stylistic similarity so evident in Early Formative artifacts, which used to be seen as evidence of conquest or cultural dominance, is now seen as a common heritage from earlier beliefs and practices.

The Olmec area appears in red. It is the lowland coastal zone backing up to the Tuxtla mountains. The major centres that have been investigated are La Venta, San Lorenza, and Cerro De Los Mesas. There are at least a half-dozen others.
These Olmec centres, together with other Early Formative ones across Mesoamerica, are the places where people initially made the transition from dispersed farming to village settlements clustered around large scale ceremonial centres dominated by enormous construction projects, huge earth-works, extensive plazas and very massive stone sculptures. It is not known whether this change was forced or chosen. Investment in large scale ceremonial centres implies the existence of specialized social orders that used these settings. Sacrificial rites most likely were central features of the activities conducted in the centres and no doubt political power and status were also involved. At the same time people may have felt that these institutions, the architecture and other artifacts, and rituals, helped to manage the forces of nature for general benefit.
A very long history of speculative philosophy surely must ante-date the emergence of Early Formative cultures. Monumental centres would not seem like good investments unless there was a sufficient level of confidence in the knowledge possessed by the specialists who operated them. We see this knowledge more clearly much later in the Classic and Post Classic Periods. The Early Formative must represent a time when it had already developed to a significant level. Its beginnings must go back many millenia, prior to the development of agriculture.

Some Olmec references:

Regional Perspectives on the Olmec, Robert J. Sharer and David C, Grove (eds), School of American Research Advanced Seminar Series, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989.

The Olmec and Their Neighbours, Elizabeth Benson (ed), Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, 1981.

Dumbarton Oaks Conference on the Olmec, Elizabeth Benson (ed), Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, 1968.

There is more Olmec information in the Gallery Giant Heads exhibit.

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