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1200 to 100 BC - Olmec

The most famous of the Pre-Columbian civilizations in Mexico, the Aztecs and the Maya, were themselves preceded by a large and powerful civilization that influenced their way of life. The Olmecs were the first high civilization to develop in Mesoamerica (the fertile region that runs through the south of Mexico and into Central America) from 1200 to 100 BC. They built cities, developed an early calendar and used hieroglyphics as their written language in the area surrounding present day Veracruz.

For decades, a debate has raged in anthropological circles between the mother-culture hypothesis and the theory that the Olmec were just one of several "sister" cultures that developed at the same time. While other ancient settlements made pottery with symbols and designs in the Olmec style, only the early Olmec themselves at San Lorenzo on Mexico's Gulf Coast exported pottery with the distinctive carved designs. The fabled Olmec sculptors of Mexico's colossal stone heads were the region's first dominant civilization, a "mother culture" that set the pace for emerging cultural complexity in the region over three millennia ago.

The earliest Middle American civilization, the Olmec, appeared in the lowland tropical Gulf Coast region of Tabasco. It is very likely that, contrary to common archaeological belief, domestication of several important new world food plants occurred in a lowland rather than highland context. The Olmecs were the earliest complex civilization in Mesoamerica, flourishing along the Gulf Coast lowlands of what is now Mexico from 1200 to 400 BCE and building a society dominated by an elite group employing a system of governance known as divine kingship.

The Olmecs, appear between 1300 BC and 400 BC, and are considered the Formative period of Mesoamerican history. The Olmecs were the first known peoples in Mesoamerica to have a state-level political structure, and writing is a way to communicate power and influence. The earliest form of writing ever found in the New World consists of glyphs carved on a cylindrical seal used to make imprints and on greenstone plaque fragments found near La Venta in Tabasco, Mexico, in the Gulf Coast region. The writings were produced by the Olmecs, a pre-Mayan civilization, and are estimated to date from 650 BC. The artifacts, which push back the date for the first New World writings about 350 years, challenge previously held notions about the earliest of Mesoamerican peoples who developed the first system of written communication.

The most ancient architectural remains in Mexico, indicating the presence of ceremonial centers, date from about five hundred years before Christ, a time when the Old World had already heard the words of the Biblical prophets, and when the first pre-Socratic philosophers had already spoken in Greece. Perhaps the earliest cultural ferment of any importance in pre-Columbian Mexico took place on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. A number of extraordinary artifacts have been found there, along with the oldest calendar inscription yet discovered. For lack of a better name, these mysterious artificers have been called the Olmecs, an Aztec word meaning "people of the regionof rubber." At a later period their art, techniques andreligious ideas influenced a number of groups which had migrated from the distant northern shores of the Pacific Ocean. This cultural influence was to have significant and widespread consequences.

The Olmecs passed from Mexico to Guatemala, which they conquered. Palenque, the oldest American city, was built by tbe Olmecs. The first great exploit of the Olmec chiefs, the destruction of the giants, was performed at some distance from their earliest settlement. The state of Puebla became their chosen ground, and quite soon after the above achievement they undertook the building of the famous tower of Cholula, which is so closely allied in its traditional history with the Tower of Babel. Several authors state that the erection of the pyramid of Cholula was done in memory of the erection of the tower of Babel, at which it is claimed the ancestors of the Olmec chiefs were present.

The medicinal use of cacao, or chocolate, both as a primary remedy and as a vehicle to deliver other medicines, originated in the New World and diffused to Europe in the mid 1500s. These practices originated among the Olmec, Maya and Mexica (Aztec). The word cacao is derived from Olmec and the subsequent Mayan languages (kakaw); the chocolate-related term cacahuatl is Nahuatl (Aztec language), derived from Olmec/Mayan etymology.

An Olmec hematite artifact from San Lorenzo, Veracruz, Mexico has unique morphology (purposefully shaped polished bar with a groove) and composition (magnetic mineral with magnetic moment vector in the floating plane). It is constructive to compare the first millennium Chinese, who used the lodestone compass for geomancy, with the Gulf Coast Olmec, since both were agrarian-terrestrial societies. The Olmec's apparent concern with orientation and skillful use of magnetic minerals also stimulates one to draw cross-cultural parallels. If the Olmec did discover the geomagnetic orienting properties of lodestone, as did the Han Chinese, it is most reasonable to speculate that they would have used their compass for comparable geomantic purposes. It should, however, be recognized that the Olmec claim, if documented, predates the Chinese discovery of the geomagnetic lodestone compass by more than a millennium.

The great culture-hero, Quetzalcoatl, the white saintly personage from the East, said to have been the leader of the Nahuas, appeared during the Olmec rule, and to his honor the Cholulans erected a temple upon the pyramid which their countrymen or predecessors had failed to complete. Quetzalcoatl was, no tribal hero, but was intimately identified with the institutions and civilization of the entire Nahua race. During the Olmec period, that is, the earliest period of Nahua power, the great Quetzalcoatl appeared. We have seen that in the Popol Vuh and Codex Chimalpopoca this being is represented as the half-divinity, half-hero, who came at the head of the first Nahuas to America from across the sea. Other authorities imply rather that he came later from the east or north, in the period of the greatest Olmec prosperity, after the rival Quinames had been defeated. To such differences in detail no great importance is to be attached; since all that can bo definitely learned from these traditions is the facts that Quetzalcoatl, or Gucumatz, was the most prominent of the Nahua heroes, and that his existence is to be attributed to this earliest period, known in Mexico as Olmec, but without a distinctive name in the south. Quetzalcoatl was a white, bearded man, venerable, just, and holy, who taught by precept and example the paths of virtue in all the Nahua cities, particularly in Cholula.

His teachings, according to the traditions, had much in common with those of Christ in the Old World, and most of the Spanish writers firmly believed him to be identical with one of the Christian apostles, probably St Thomas. During his stay in this region his doctrines do not seem to have met with a satisfactory reception, and he left disheartened. He predicted before his departure great calamities, and promised to return in a future year, at which time his doctrines were to be fully accepted, and his descendants were to possess the land. Montezuma is known to have regarded the coming of Cortez and the Spaniards as a fulfillment of this prediction.

At least in the lowland region of the Tabascan coastal plain, flooding due to changing courses of rivers over time led to the abandonment of the Olmec settlement at San Andrs and probably other sites in this area. It is possible, too, that the Mayans increased their power and came to dominate, taking over trade routes, leading to the end of the Olmecs.

Tabasco is located on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec between the Gulf of Mexico on the north and the state of Chiapas to the south. It also shares a border with northern Guatemala. Tourist attractions include the Olmec ruins of La Venta in western Tabasco, and the Mayan ruins of Comalcalco. Also, on display at the La Venta Museum in the state capital of Villerhmosa are three colossal stone heads from the La Venta archealogical site.

In "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" Nicholas Cage's treasure hunting hero Ben Gates comes back to clear the name of one of his ancestors, who could have been involved with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. One of the convoluted parts of the sequel's story is that to do so Ben must find the legendary treasure of "The City of Gold" - the Olmec city called Cibola.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:01:00 ZULU