The Olmecs


The most famous of the pre-clasic cultures were the Olmecs, called the Mother Culture. They are known for the sculptures of giant heads that are found where they lived, in the south of the Mexican state of Veracruz and the north of the state of Tabasco. Their influence was great with testimonies that are found throughout different parts of Mesoamerica and Central America as evidence. Everyone knew who they were.

Urban Centers

The Olmecs established cities that were more developed than the central tribes. They had three main centers: Tres Zapotes, Cerro de las Mesas, and La Venta. The first were located in Veracruz, while the last was in Tabasco. La Venta seems to be the first of the three Olmec centers. The place they lived in was the rubber region and everyone in Mesoamerica identified them with rubber. The name they are called by now, Olmecs, means 'Land of Rubber.'

Their urban centers were very advanced. By 1150 BC, in a city near San Lorenzo, Veracruz, Mexico, there was drainage, a ball court, public buildings, and many of the colossal Olmec heads. In 900 BC, La Venta, located in the Mexican state of Tabasco, outshone San Lorenzo. La Venta contained many mosaic masks, tombs for the elites, and carved jade figurines.

The Three Olmec Periods

The First Olmec Period was marked by small settlements along the coast. They had some agriculture, but there was also hunting and gathering. It lasted from 1500 to 1200 BC.

From 1200-400 BC the Olmecs had their second period. San Lorenzo was their mayor urban center until 900 BC, when it was destroyed. La Venta took its place after that. One of the oldest pyramids, found in La Venta, was made during this period. It is thirty meters high and made of compacted dirt.

The decline of the Olmecs occurred during the third period, which lasted from 400-100 BC. The influences of Teohtihuacan and Mayan cultures were already visible as the birth of Christ approached.


The art of the Olmecs set the standards for the art that was to follow from other cultures. Their art was most commonly expressed through ceramics and sculpture, especially the giant Olmec heads. Their ceramics were cilinders, plates, and cups, with figures inscribed in them. They were mostly hand-made, as is typical for the formative period.

The figurines were made up of obsidian and jade. This showed that they were advanced enough to have elites that sponsored art. The most famous figurines are those of were-jaguars and pudgy babies, whose meaning is currently unknown. Another famous sculpture is that of a person with the body of a human heart, believed to be one of the first anatomical models of the human heart. The colossal heads are thought to represent the elite and show how the Olmecs looked like. It is important to note that the heads have African characteristics. They reach three meters in diameter and height and weigh up to 65 tons.


It was first thought that the Olmecs were monotheistic, but it is now known that they were polytheists. The gods that they considered most important had to do with agriculture. For example, life was represented by a jaguar and a serpent. The jaguar represented the earth and the serpent stood for water. Maize grew on the earth when it had water. Food gave them life. Some of their gods are:

Quetzacoatl: a rain or weather god that might have also been a maize god. He was a feathered serpant.
Huehueteotl: the old god, he was also the fire god.
Jaguar god: this god was their main one. He was half a jaguar and half a serpant, therefore meaning life.

The Mother Culture

Many specialists consider this culture to have been the most advanced in the pre-classic period. It is thought that they made the first calendars and writing system. These were later used by the rest of the civilizations, hence the reason for being called the 'Mother Culture.'