by Steve Hardy
The Olmec were the first major civilization in Central America and dominated the tropical lowlands of what are today the Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco.
The Olmec civilisation emerged around 1500 BC and lasted until approximately 400 BC. They emerged out of the tribal cultures in the area that are traced back to about 2500 BC. Their culture laid the foundations for many of the great Central American civilisations that followed.
The Olmec culture is famed for its ‘giant stone heads’, exquisite stone, jade and clay art, and for a style of square stone ‘altar’ that is assumed to have been used for human sacrifice. Little is actually known of there culture and religion, beyond what can be interpreted from their stone artefacts and structures. (These statues all have African facial features. Thus many claim the Olmecs were of African decent.)
It would appear that their religion was shamanic and worshipped figures such as the feathered serpent. They appear to have constructed several cities suggesting that there was some form of centralisation and hierarchy, although there is little evidence of the standing armies and dominant priestly caste of later cultures. The spread of their artefacts does suggest however that they engaged either in trade or migration to other areas. They may have been the first civilisation to develop recognisable written language, and indulged in some form of ballgame that may precede the famous later ‘Ulama’ ballgame.
It is suggested that their later decline saw the culture split into warring city states and tribes. What caused this decline is unclear although the most widely accepted theory suggests volcanic activity with associated environmental collapse in the area.
The Olmec armies are somewhat speculative and are likely to have been tribal in nature, lacking much formal organisation or training. They are likely to have used primarily hunting weapons such as fire-hardened spears, bows, stone ‘axes’, clubs and so on, and there is some evidence that they ‘upgraded’ these tolls with obsidian blades.