Olmec civilization began around 1250 or 1000 B.C. and lasted until 400 A.D., although some cultural traits persisted for a few more centuries. The famous Olmec heads, for example, date to around 600 A.D. These giant heads are 5 to 10 foot images of the heads of helmeted young men. Some have suggested that these sculptures represent the same Mesoamerican gods that were worshipped by later civilizations. Others link these heads to kings playing the Mesoamerican ballgame that the Aztecs would later call Ullamalitzli. In this game, two teams tried to send a rubber ball through a stone ring set high on the wall of a ballcourt. Originally, the game would have been played on a marked field. The stone ring did not appear in ballcourts until 800 A.D. Olmec merchants spread the game into western Mexico, the valleys of Mexico and Oaxaca, and into Mayan lands. The Olmecs were farmers and lived in settled communities. La Venta was the greatest Olmec center. The civilization was known for its sculpture rather than its cities. The Olmecs exported jade items and great monolithic stones. (1, 3)
The Olmecs predated many Mesoamerican and South American cultures. While the Andean Chavin culture (ended c 400 B.C.) were their contemporaries, the Olmecs predate most of the Classical Mayan civilization (250 to 1000 A.D.), Teotihuacan (300 to 750 A.D.), the Toltecs (960 to the 12th century), the Andean Chimu Empire (1200 to 1465), and the Aztecs and Incas (c 1400). Towards the end of their civilization, the Olmecs developed writing and the calendar, which they passed on to the Mayas. The Olmecs may have spoken a proto-Mayan-Huastecan dialect, although this is far from certain. (1)
(1) The Penguin Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilizations, (ed). Arthur Cotterell, New York: Penguin Books, 1980, 1988.
(2) Olmec Writing, Clyde Winters, June 2000, Olmec Writing
(3) The Mesoamerican Ballgame, Dr. Jane S. Day, Denver Museum of Natural History, July 1992, The Mesoamerican Ballgame
(4) Olmec Kings by Clyde A. Winters.
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Updated November 30, 2009