What Were The Ceremonial Centers Of The Olmecs?

The ceremonial centers   of the Olmecs were built from 1500 BC and are San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, La Venta, Tres Zapotes, and Laguna de los Cerros. Each of these centers has particular characteristics and locations.

San Lorenzo remained the capital of the Olmecs until the year 900 BC. C., when the central city became La Venta, which remained functional until the fall of the Olmecs around 400 BC. C. Probably the river or possible changes in the climate caused this movement.

Olmec head found in San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán.

The Olmecs were the first great civilization in Mexico. They lived in the tropical lowlands in south central Mexico, in the current states of Veracruz and Tabasco, their center was located in the city of La Venta.

The Olmecs prospered during the formative period of Mesoamerica, dating from roughly a year as early as 1500 BC. Until around the year 400 a. Pre-Olmec cultures had emerged in the area since 2500 BC. But for the year 1600-1500 a. C., the Olmec culture had emerged.

They were the first Mesoamerican civilization and formed many of the foundations for the civilizations that followed, such as the Mayans.

Judging from the archaeological evidence it is likely that they practiced the Mesoamerican ball game and bloodletting rituals.

List of ceremonial centers of the Olmecs

San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán

Olmec statue of a jaguar found at the San Lorenzo archaeological site. Source: Uploaded by Leoboudv [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

The iconic finds at this site are the famous colossal heads. These heads are about 200 cm long. San Lorenzo is located in the southeast of the Mexican state of Veracruz. It was the largest center of Olmec culture from 1200 BC. Until the year 900 a. C.

Today, San Lorenzo is best known for the colossal stone heads found here; the largest weighs about 28 t and is about 3 m high.

The oldest evidence of Olmec culture is found in El Manatí, a sacrificial swamp with artifacts dating from 1600 BC. C. or even earlier. Sedentary farmers had lived in the area for centuries before San Lorenzo developed into a regional center.

San Lorenzo was located in the middle of a large agricultural area. This site appears to have been only a ceremonial center, a town without city walls centered in the middle of a medium agricultural population.

The ceremonial center and its buildings had the capacity of about 1,500 people, while the entire area may have reached 13,000.

San Lorenzo was the first Olmec site to demonstrate a great level of complexity. The site is dominated by the lowlands of the Gulf Coast, creating an Olmec cultural diffusion throughout the rest of Mesoamerica.

San Lorenzo was the largest city in Mesoamerica from 1200 BC. Until the year 900 a. C., period in which it began to be overshadowed by the Olmec center of La Venta.

For the year 800 a. C., there was very little or no population, although there was an important recolonization in San Lorenzo from 600 to 400 BC. C, as well as another recolonization around 800 to 1000 BC. C.

The sale

South face of the La Venta pyramid, Tabasco, Mexico

This site of the Olmec civilization is located in the current state of Tabasco. While an occupation layer of La Venta originated in 1200 BC. C., La Venta did not reach its apogee until the decline of San Lorenzo, later the year 900 a. C.

Located on an island in a coastal swamp, La Venta probably controlled the entire region between the Mezcalapa and Coatzacoalcos rivers. There was a large resident population at the site, a number of specialists not dedicated to food production, and to the political, religious or economic sectors.

This site is known because its east and west sides are practically identical, showing bilateral symmetry. It is believed that this was related to his religion. This site was built of earth and clay, since there were not abundant stones for its construction.

The stones that were exported were used exclusively for monuments, including colossal heads, altars, and some columns. As a ceremonial center, this site contains an elaborate series of buried offerings and tombs, as well as monumental sculptures.

The oldest pyramid in Mesoamerica is located in La Venta, a clay structure with an average diameter of 128 m and a height of 31.4 m.

After 500 years of preeminence, the sale was abandoned by the beginning of the fourth century BC. C.

Three Zapotes

Entrance to the Tres Zapotes archaeological site. Source: [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Tres Zapotes is located in the south central lowlands of the Gulf of Mexico, on the planes of the Papaloapan River. Tres Zapotes’s 2,000-year existence as a cultural center is unusual, but not unique in Mesoamerica.

It was founded sometime in the centuries before 1000 BC. C. Tres Zapotes emerged as a regional center early in the Middle Formative Period, around 900 – 800 BC. C., approximately coinciding with the decline of San Lorenzo.

The oldest architecture detected dates from around 500 BC. Two colossal heads are believed to date from this period. The heads found at this site are smaller than the heads from San Lorenzo.

Unlike the other Olmec centers such as La Venta, Tres Zapotes was not abandoned at the end of the middle formative period, around 400 BC. C., nor was it immediately affected by the depletion of the Omeca culture in the east of the Olmec nuclear area.

However, over the next few hundred years, the Olmec culture at Tres Zapotes and on the western edges of the Olmec nunuclear area would gradually be transformed into what would become the post-Olmec culture.

Lake of the Cerros

Map of the location of Laguna de los cerros and other archaeological sites. Source: Madman2001 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

This site is located within the municipality of Ayacuan, in the state of Veracruz. This area was not occupied during the post classical period. It is believed that this site was the point of penetration of commerce between the Mexican highlands and the town of Tuxtepec.

This site was settled between 1400 and 1200 BC. C .; it covered about 150 ha. Unlike the three other main ceremonial centers, no colossal heads have been found at Laguna de los Cerros, although around two dozen Olmec monuments have been found at the site.


  1. The Olmec in World history – Boundless. Recovered from rachel.golearn.us
  2. San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán. Recovered from wikipedia.org
  3. The sale. Recovered from wikipedia.org
  4. Tres Zapotes. Recovered from wikipedia.org
  5. Laguna de los Cerros. Recovered from wikipedia.org

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