10 Most Important Cultural Contributions Of The Olmecs

The cultural contributions of the Olmecs can be classified into several types such as monuments or pyramids.  
This original town of the Gulf of Mexico (in the territory that today is known as Veracruz and Tabasco), was a civilization that had its flowering during the Pre-Classic period of what is called Mesoamerica, approximately between 1,200 BC and 400 BC.

The reason why they were called “Olmecs” was not very clear until a few years ago. It was known that it was related to the area where they lived. The term comes from the word ” Olmecatl ” which in the Aztec language Nahuatl means “the people of rubber.”

Olmec cultural contributions

The Olmecs were a complex and in some ways mysterious indigenous people. They formed an organized society rich in architectural, artistic and intellectual expressions, with well-defined hierarchies.

Olmec society was mostly concentrated in three sites, which had a ceremonial character, such as the sites of San Lorenzo, La Venta and Tres Zapotes, where some elements are preserved today. These places became the scene of great economic and political power and of an important religious leadership.

They were characterized by their impressive buildings and large cities, which evidenced their great capacity for planning and expansion. But not only did they stand out in this type of affairs, but their way of life and the way in which they interrelated with other peoples is also remarkable.

Their legacy was largely passed on to subsequent civilizations, making the Olmec culture invaluable.

Cultural contributions that the Olmec culture has made to the world

1- The rubber

Recent research has shown that the name is due to the fact that the Olmecs processed the latex of rubber trees ( Castilla Elastica ), which were abundant in the region and when combined with the juice of a species of vine, produced a kind of resistant rubber .

Evidence has been found, such as rubber balls dating back several centuries, that they were made by the Olmecs. While Charles Goodyear gets the credit for inventing rubber, there was definitely a people who already knew something about it. 
After all, it is the “rubber town”.

2- The monumental Olmec sculptures

Olmec head. Source: National museum of Anthropologie, Mexiko-Stadt Photograph: Luidger.

They are considered as the most distinctive expressions of the Olmec culture. These are colossal sculptures, of sizes that reach up to 3 meters in height, made of carved basalt stone.

Mainly you can find human heads (which probably represented warriors, even gods), large altars and thrones, life-size human figures as well as hybrid forms of animals and humans.

In the town of Villahermosa is the La Venta Museum, where you can see several altars and colossal heads in the open air, as well as in other places where they are exhibited, such as squares and other museums.
 

The unique and realistic style of Olmec art is such an authentic characteristic that it is practically infallible to attribute them to this pre-Hispanic culture, although the place where it was found is not certain.

3- Pyramids

South face of the La Venta pyramid, Olmec culture. Source: Alfonsobouchot / Public domain

The Olmec pyramids had the function of serving as support structures for temples or ceremonial centers where a series of religious rituals took place. They were usually built around a plaza and were made of unbaked clay bricks.

The top of the pyramids was flat, that is, they were truncated pyramids; In this place the temple was built, which was later surrounded with tombs. Obviously, these constructions were part of complexes dedicated to the religious practices of the Olmecs.

4- Chocolate

The first civilization to consume the cocoa fruit was the Olmec, approximately in the year 1900 BC. The cocoa beans were subjected to a process of fermentation, curing and roasting to later be ground and mixed with hot water.

Initially it was consumed as a hot drink and was used in ritual ceremonies, according to the evidence found in San Lorenzo (Olmec site) where cocoa residues were found in remains of ceramic vessels.

5- Ball games

Exhibition of Olmec objects related to the construction of power, Mesoamerican Museum of Jade. Source: AlejandroLinaresGarcia / Public domain

There are several indications that the Olmecs practiced some type of game with rubber balls, especially in the aforementioned town of San Lorenzo.

One of them is found in the colossal heads themselves, since many were represented with a kind of helmet, and it is believed that the latter could have acted as protectors for the practice of the game in question.

As there is no evidence that proves the existence of fields to develop this activity, it is believed that it was carried out in open fields.

6- Rituals and religious cults

Beliefs and cults are considered one of the ways in which many ideas and knowledge spread among pre-Hispanic peoples.

This is evidenced by the fact that many religious practices became part of the customs of later civilizations such as the Mayans, Aztecs and Zapotecs, whose cults and deities come in part from Olmec beliefs.

Also art was an important way of expressing and extending religion, through the representation of deities in sculptures and small figures.

7- The development of the calendar

The system devised by the Olmecs was extraordinarily precise and was based on a 365-day solar year and a 260-day lunar year, from which combination a 52-year cycle was generated.

This cycle was believed to signal the end of an era, by which time dangerous events were expected to occur.

8- Invention of zero

The creation of a calendar like that implied an advanced knowledge of Mathematics. The Olmec culture is also considered as the civilization that invented the concept of “Zero”, although this discovery has been erroneously attributed to the Mayans.

They had a vigesimal number system, that is, base 20, and three symbols were used: a point to signify the number 1, a bar to indicate the number 2 and a symbol similar to a seashell that represented 0.

The invention of Zero allowed the Olmecs to do complex calculations and write numbers by position, just as we do today.

9- Hieroglyphic writing

Olmec statuette with Epiolmec writing. Source: Adrian Hernandez / Public domain

Hieroglyphs could often be found on stone monuments accompanied by dates, and also on small objects.

Researchers believe that archaeological evidence indicates a strong possibility that Mesoamerican writing originated from the Olmec culture and its iconography.

10- Epigraphy

In fact, the contribution of the Olmec epigraphy was directly to the Mayan writing, which is also composed of influences from other civilizations.

The use of symbols as a form of expression was undoubtedly a legacy that allowed the development of many other pre-Columbian cultures.

References

  1. Bernal, I. (1969). The Olmec World. California, University of California Press.
  2. Cartwright, M. (2013). Ancient History Encyclopedia: Olmec Civilization. Recovered from: www.ancient.eu.
  3. Cartwright, M. (2014). Ancient History Encyclopedia: Chocolate. Recovered from: ancient.eu.
  4. Douglas et al (2016). Encyclopaedia Britannica: Pre Columbian Civilizations. Recovered from: www.britannica.com.

    Kaufman, R. (2010). National Geographic News: Aztec, Maya Were Rubber-Making Masters? Recovered from: news.nationalgeographic.com.

  5. Powis et al (2011). Cacao use and the San Lorenzo Olmec. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Recovered from: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
  6. Suchlicki, J. (2008). Mexico: From Montezuma to the Rise of the PAN. Washington DC, Potomac Books.
  7. Trigger, B. and Washburn, W. (1996). The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas. Cambridge, Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.

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