The name “Olmec” comes from the Nahuatl word for the Olmecs: Ōlmēcatl (singular) or Ōlmēcah (plural). This word is composed of the two words ōlli, meaning “rubber”, and mecatl, meaning “rope”, so the word means “rubber line or lineage”.
What is today called Olmec first appeared fully within the city of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, where distinctive Olmec features occurred around 1400 BCE. The rise of civilization was assisted by the local ecology of well-watered alluvial soil, as well as by the transportation network provided by the Coatzacoalcos River basin.
The first Olmec center, San Lorenzo, was all but abandoned around 900 BCE at about the same time that La Venta rose to prominence. Following the decline of San Lorenzo, La Venta became the most prominent Olmec center, lasting from 900 BCE until its abandonment around 400 BCE. La Venta sustained the Olmec cultural traditions, but with spectacular displays of power and wealth.
The Great Pyramid was the largest Mesoamerican structure of its time. Even today, after 2500 years of erosion, it rises 34 metres (112 ft) above the naturally flat landscape. Buried deep within La Venta, lay opulent, labor-intensive “offerings” – 1000 tons of smooth serpentine blocks, large mosaic pavements, and at least 48 separate deposits of polished jade celts, pottery, figurines, and hematite mirrors.
The post-Olmec culture, often labeled Epi-Olmec, has features similar to those found at Izapa, some 330 miles (550 km) to the southeast.
While Olmec figurines are found abundantly in sites throughout the Formative Period, the stone monuments such as the colossal heads are the most recognizable feature of Olmec culture. These monuments can be divided into four classes:
- Colossal heads. The heads were carved from single blocks or boulders of volcanic basalt, found in the Tuxtlas Mountains;
- Rectangular “altars” (more likely thrones);
- Free-standing in-the-round sculpture, such as the twins from El Azuzul or San Martin Pajapan Monument 1; and
- Stelae, such as La Venta Monument 19 above. The stelae form was generally introduced later than the colossal heads, altars, or free-standing sculptures. Over time, the stelae changed from simple representation of figures, toward representations of historical events, particularly acts legitimizing rulers. This trend would culminate in post-Olmec monuments such as La Mojarra Stela 1, which combines images of rulers with script and calendar dates.
As the first civilization in Mesoamerica, the Olmecs are credited with many “firsts”, including the bloodletting and perhaps human sacrifice, writing and epigraphy, and the invention of zero and the Mesoamerican calendar, as well as perhaps the compass. Some researchers even postulate that the Olmecs formulated the forerunners of many of the later Mesoamerican deities.
The Olmec may have been the first civilization in the Western Hemisphere to develop a writing system. Symbols found in 2002 and 2006 date from 650 BCE and 900 BCE respectively, preceding the oldest Zapotec writing, which dates from about 500 BCE.
The 2002 find at the San Andrés site shows a bird, speech scrolls, and glyphs that are similar to the later Mayan hieroglyphs. Known as the Cascajal Block, and dated between 1100 BCE and 900 BCE, the 2006 find from a site near San Lorenzo shows a set of 62 symbols, 28 of which are unique, carved on a serpentine block.
The Long Count calendar used by many subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations, as well as the concept of zero, may have been devised by the Olmecs. The Long Count calendar required the use of zero as a place-holder within its vigesimal (base-20) positional numeral system. A shell glyph – – was used as a zero symbol for these Long Count dates, the second oldest of which, on Stela C at Tres Zapotes, has a date of 32 BCE. This is one of the earliest uses of the zero concept in history.