Olmec Indians


Olmec (ōl´mĕk), term denoting the culture of ancient Mexican natives inhabiting the tropical coastal plain of the contemporary states of Veracruz and Tabasco, between 1300 and 400 BC The term is also used to refer to contemporaneous groups in highland regions of Mesoamerica (including the states of Oaxaca, Morelos, Guerrero, and the Federal District) who possessed ceramic or sculptural designs similar to those found in the lowlands. The nature of the relationship between the highland and lowland groups remains unclear. The largest and best known Olmec sites are situated along rivers on the coastal plain and include San Lorenzo (1300–900 BC) and Tres Zapotes (1000–400 BC) in Veracruz, and La Venta (1000–600 BC) in Tabasco. At the time of their apogee, these three settlements were probably the most complex "ceremonial" sites found in Mesoamerica. For this reason, the Olmec are often considered to be the cultura madre (mother culture) of later Mesoamerican civilizations. The Olmec were renowned for their sculpting skills and distinctive motifs, leaving numerous carved stelae, as well as freestanding jade and basalt sculptures. Among the more notable examples are numerous sculptured heads of basalt, weighing as much as 40 tons and standing up to 10 ft (3 m) in height. The basalt used for these carvings came from up to 50 mi (80 km) away and was floated to the riverine settlements on rafts. Earthen platforms and pyramidal mounds were also common features of the settlements. The largest single pyramid, found at La Venta, measures 459 ft (140 m) in diameter and 98 ft (30 m) in height. The Olmec economy centered around agricultural production on fertile floodplains, and was supplemented by fishing and shellfishing. By 400 BC, the distinctive features of Olmec culture disappeared and the region was overshadowed by the emerging central Mexican and Mayan civilizations.

See M. Coe and R. Diehl, The Land of the Olmec (Vol. 2, 1980); R. J. Sharer and D. C. Grove, ed., Regional Perspectives on the Olmec (1989).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Olmec Indians: Selected full-text books and articles

Ancient Civilizations: The Near East and Mesoamerica By C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky; Jeremy A. Sabloff Benjamin/Cummings, 1979
Librarian's tip: "The Olmecs" begins on p. 236
Mexico By Michael D. Coe Frederick A. Praeger, 1962
Librarian's tip: "The Olmec Civilisation" begins on p. 83
The Rise and Fall of Civilizations: Modern Archaeological Approaches to Ancient Cultures By C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky; Jeremy A. Sabloff Cummings Publishing, 1974
Librarian's tip: "The Olmec and the Valley of Oaxaca: A Model for Inter-regional Interaction in Formative Times" begins on p. 64
La Venta, Tabasco: a Study of Olmec Ceramics and Art By Philip Drucker Government Printing Office, 1952
Excavations at La Venta, Tabasco, 1955 By Philip Drucker; Robert F. Heizer; Robert J. Squier U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1959
Mesoamerican Architecture as a Cultural Symbol By Jeff Karl Kowalski Oxford University Press, 1999
Librarian's tip: Chap. 1 "Mountains of Creation and Underworld Portals: The Ritual Function of Olmec Architecture at La Venta, Tabasco"
Contemporary Archaeology: A Guide to Theory and Contributions By Mark P. Leone Southern Illinois University Press, 1972
Librarian's tip: Chap. 29 "The Olmec Were-Jaguar Motif in the Light of Ethnographic Reality"
Mesoamerica: The Evolution of a Civilization By William T. Sanders; Barbara J. Price Random House, 1968
Librarian's tip: Discussion of Olmec begins on p. 117
The World of the Ancient Maya By John S. Henderson Cornell University Press, 1997 (2nd edition)
Librarian's tip: Discussion of Olmec in multiple chapters
The Ancient Americas: A Brief History and Guide to Research By Hanns J. Prem; Kornelia Kurbjuhn University of Utah Press, 1997
Librarian's tip: "The Olmecs" begins on p. 6 and "The Olmec Periphery" begins on p. 7
Gardens of Prehistory: The Archaeology of Settlement Agriculture in Greater Mesoamerica By Thomas W. Killion University of Alabama Press, 1992
Librarian's tip: Chap. 7 "A Consideration of the Olmec Phenomenon in the Tuxtlas"
Ancient Civilizations of the New World By Richard E. W. Adams Westview Press, 1997
Librarian's tip: "The Olmec of the Gulf Coast" begins on p. 30
Landscape and Power in Ancient Mesoamerica By Rex Koontz; Kathryn Reese-Taylor; Annabeth Headrick Westview Press, 2001
Librarian's tip: Discussion of Olmec begins on p. 137
Bronze Age Economics: The Beginnings of Political Economies By Timothy Earle Westview Press, 2002
Librarian's tip: Discussion of Olmec begins on p. 173
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