Farming, Hunting, and Fishing in the Olmec World

Farming, Hunting, and Fishing in the Olmec World

Farming, Hunting, and Fishing in the Olmec World

Farming, Hunting, and Fishing in the Olmec World


The Olmec who anciently inhabited Mexico's southern Gulf Coast organized their once-egalitarian society into chiefdoms during the Formative period (1400 BC to AD 300). This increase in political complexity coincided with the development of village agriculture, which has led scholars to theorize that agricultural surpluses gave aspiring Olmec leaders control over vital resources and thus a power base on which to build authority and exact tribute.

In this book, Amber VanDerwarker conducts the first multidisciplinary analysis of subsistence patterns at two Olmec settlements to offer a fuller understanding of how the development of political complexity was tied to both agricultural practices and environmental factors. She uses plant and animal remains, as well as isotopic data, to trace the intensification of maize agriculture during the Late Formative period. She also examines how volcanic eruptions in the region affected subsistence practices and settlement patterns. Through these multiple sets of data, VanDerwarker presents convincing evidence that Olmec and epi-Olmec lifeways of farming, hunting, and fishing were driven by both political and environmental pressures and that the rise of institutionalized leadership must be understood within the ecological context in which it occurred.


Chiefdoms developed along the southern Mexican Gulf Coast during the Early, Middle, Late, and Terminal Formative periods (1400–1000 bc, 1000-400 bc, 400 BC-AD 100, and ad 100–300). Scholars interested in regional political economy for this area have long relied on archaeological data from three large sites: San Lorenzo, La Venta, and Tres Zapotes. This focus on large centers to the exclusion of smaller, outlying villages and hamlets has limited our understanding of regional political development. Scholars have also relied heavily on assumptions about regional subsistence economy, for example, that agricultural tribute was used to fund labor projects and feed the elite. Such assumptions, however, are based on little actual subsistence data. We can begin to elucidate the nature and development of Formative agriculture by shifting our attention to rural villages and hamlets and to issues of basic subsistence reconstruction.

Here I consider agricultural intensification and risk in the tropical lowlands of the Olmec hinterland during a period of political formation. To address the relationship between the development of agriculture and the emergence of complex political formations (e.g., chiefdoms and states), I consider subsistence data from two sites spanning the Formative period: La Joya and Bezuapan, located in the Sierra de los Tuxtlas approximately 100 km from the lowland Olmec centers.

The Tuxtla region is well suited for exploring this relationship. Settlement data from the region indicate that Early Formative groups were egalitarian and semi-sedentary (Arnold 2000; McCormack 2002; Santley et al. 1997). By the Middle Formative period, people had settled into more permanent villages, maintaining a relatively egalitarian social organization (Arnold 2000; McCormack 2002; Santley et al. 1997). the subsequent Late and Terminal Formative periods were marked by the emergence of a regional site hierarchy and increasing social differentiation, though the manifestation of social inequality in the Tuxtlas was not as pronounced as among lowland Olmec groups (Santley et al. 1997; Stark . . .

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