Obelisk Art History
Ancient World

Olmec Civilization
The pouting ancestors of Mesoamerica

Olmec Civilization, Ancient World

The rich culture of pre-colombian Mesoamerica can be traced back to a single civilization of immense creativity and sophistication. Meet the Olmec, the first civilization in Mesoamerica. The Olmec people were born from the early farming peoples of the Tabasco region in modern-day Mexico. The first known signs of a cohesive Olmec culture were discovered in the El Manati shrine in the form of ritual burials of dated to 1600-1500 BCE, but Olmec civilization as we know it appeared in 1400 BCE in the prosperous city of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán. Here we find the hallmarks of Olmec tradition—a dense, stratified population with skilled artisans creating luxury goods from jade and obsidian, sourced from a wide trading network, and served to an elite ruling class.

Around 900 BCE, the Olmec abandoned San Lorenzo, and the civilization’s new hub grew in the flourishing city of La Venta. For the next 500 years, La Venta was the beating heart of Olmec society and religion, becoming home to the Great Pyramid, the largest structure in Mesoamerica. Between 400 and 350 BCE, the Olmec population dropped dramatically, for reasons that scholars can only speculate about. For 1000 years the Olmec had invented, traded and sculpted the earth, and suddenly, they were gone. No doubt their citizens and craftspeople emigrated to other developing societies, but their unique forms of art and architecture ended.

Reed Enger, "Olmec Civilization, The pouting ancestors of Mesoamerica," in Obelisk Art History, Published June 02, 2018; last modified June 11, 2020, http://arthistoryproject.com/timeline/the-ancient-world/olmec-civilization/.

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Olmec Head, La Venta Monument 1, Olmec Civilization

Olmec Head, La Venta Monument 1 1000 – 600BCE

Olmec Head, San Lorenzo Monument 1, Olmec Civilization

Olmec Head, San Lorenzo Monument 1 800 – 400BCE

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