Let’s take a moment to see what was going on in North America during ancient history.
The various cultures collectively termed “Mound Builders” were prehistoric, indigenous inhabitants of North America who, during a 5,000-year period, constructed various styles of earthen mounds for religious, ceremonial, burial, and elite residential purposes.
These several different cultures existed from roughly 3500 BCE to the 16th century CE, and lived in regions of the Great Lakes, the Ohio River Valley, and the Mississippi River valley and its tributary waters.
The namesake cultural trait of the Mound Builders was the building of mounds and other earthworks. These burial and ceremonial structures were typically flat-topped pyramids or platform mounds, flat-topped or rounded cones, elongated ridges, and sometimes a variety of other forms. They were generally built as part of complex villages.
The best-known flat-topped pyramidal structure is Monks Mound at Cahokia, near present-day Collinsville, Illinois. This mound appears to have been the main ceremonial and residential mound for the religious and political leaders; it is more than 100 feet (30 m) tall and is the largest pre-Columbian earthwork north of Mexico.
At its maximum about 1150 CE, Cahokia was an urban settlement with 20,000–30,000 people; this population was not exceeded by North American European settlements until after 1800.
Some other mounds in North America were constructed in the shapes or outlines of animals. One of the most famous is the Serpent Mound in southern Ohio:
The head of the serpent is aligned to the summer solstice sunset and the coils also may point to the winter solstice sunrise and the equinox sunrise.
Because these people have no written records, what we know about them comes from archeology and reports from early European explorers who spoke to their descendants.
Between 1540 and 1542, Hernando de Soto, the Spanish conquistador, traversed what became the southeastern United States. There he encountered many different mound-builder peoples who were perhaps descendants of the great Mississippian culture who were mound builders. De Soto observed people living in fortified towns with lofty mounds and plazas, and surmised that many of the mounds served as foundations for priestly temples. Near present-day Augusta, Georgia, de Soto encountered a group ruled by a queen, Cofitachequi. She told him that the mounds within her territory served as the burial places for nobles.
Most of the mounds were built by cultures who practiced agriculture, but the Watson Brake Complex (the first picture on this page) was believed to be built by a hunter-gatherer society.
The name “Olmec” means “rubber people” in Nahuatl, and was the Aztec Empire term for the people who lived in the Gulf Lowlands (in Mesoamerica) in the 15th and 16th centuries, some 2000 years after the Olmec culture died out. The term “Rubber People” refers to the ancient practice, spanning from ancient Olmecs to Aztecs, of extracting latex from Castilla elastica, a rubber tree in the area. The juice of a local vine, Ipomoea alba, was then mixed with this latex to create rubber as early as 1600 BCE.
The prefix meso comes from the Latin mesos, meaning middle.
In science you see the prefix meso in words like:
- mesoblast (middle layer of an embryo)
- mesocarp (the middle layer of a 3-layer fruit)
- mesophyll (the photosynthetic tissues of a leaf that is located in between the upper and lower layers)
- mesosphere (the layer of the atmosphere that is in between the thermosphere and the stratosphere)
Early modern explorers and archaeologists, however, mistakenly applied the name “Olmec” to the rediscovered ruins and artifacts in the heartland decades before it was understood that these were not created by the people the Aztecs knew as the “Olmec”, but rather a culture that was 2000 years older. Despite the mistaken identity, the name has stuck.
Early farmers in Mesoamerica turned wild plants into domestic crops with maize, squash, and tubers. Foragers in the southern Mexican highlands lived on a diverse diet of plants and animals, including cactus fruit, corn, squash, beans, fish, deer, and rabbits. Their contemporaries in the tropical lowlands further south consumed tubers like manioc (cassava), sweet potato, arrowroot as well as fruits like avocados.
While Mesoamericans did domesticate most of these crops, they did so before becoming sedentary, a fact revealing the existence of regional variations in the path to agriculture. Thousands of years ago, Mesoamericans began to cultivate squash, both as a food source and as storage containers. Rather than staying near their cultivated land, however, early planters formed mobile “agricultural bands” that still hunted and would return to harvest mature squash or chilies.
Over time, these bands planted more and hunted less until eventually they formed sedentary agricultural villages. But that process took at least 2,000 years. In fact, it may have been in the much denser tropics in and around Panama where residents first left foraging behind for agriculture. Eventually, these tropical peoples begun to cultivate their forest environment. Tropical cultivation tended to be cramped, but tropical residents did manage to domesticate the tubers like manioc, sweet potato and arrowroot that we mentioned above.
Fruits and vegetables were supplemented with fish, turtle, snake, and mollusks from the nearby rivers, and crabs and shellfish in the coastal areas. Despite the wide range of hunting and fishing available, the domesticated dog was the single most plentiful source of animal protein.
Over the next several centuries, village dwellings themselves revealed a growing emphasis on permanence and increasing sophistication. Brick walls and plaster floors began to replace hides and sticks. Unlike round huts, new rectangular houses allowed for expansion by extending walls and adding a perpendicular end wall. Expanding permanent dwellings allowed villages to grow through natural population increase. Permanent dwellings also helped establish distinctions between public and private space and public and private activities, effecting communal and private property. Not only did villages have to decide where and how to build, they also had to organize around when to plant, where to settle, when to harvest, and where to store the food. The invention of pottery during this period served storage needs tremendously. Tasks in construction, gathering, defense, and food production became more specialized and supervised, leading to the beginnings of class. The elite developed, a strata usually comprising warriors, priests, and administrators.
The Formative Period
By 300 CE many of these small bands had been replaced by quite common large urban centers. This was possible because of greater use of domesticated crops and storage as well as improved technology, like pottery vessels. A social hierarchy also began to develop, where there was a two-tiered settlement hierarchy of small centers and villages. In other words, the elite had bigger houses. Over time and in more areas, plastered floors and dirt floors appeared in different dwellings and altars in others. Burials too indicated social differentiation. The Olmec were the earliest civilization in Mesoamerica and drove much of this rapid development.
The Olmecs’ most notable accomplishment was their monumental stone sculpture. Other Mesoamerican cultures had stone monuments, but the Olmec versions were unique in their sophistication, size, and number. The largest of them weighed over forty tons. Stones had been transported as much as ninety km from their sources. The labor required to do this demonstrates the power of these rulers.
Aside from statue carving, Olmec elites also commissioned carved columns, drains, and embellishments in large houses. Iron trade also occurred, and objects like polished iron mirrors were found in the tombs of high-ranking individuals. The import of jade sculptures was perhaps even more prominent with thousands of tons of “serpentine blocks” buried in massive offerings.
Early in the Formative Period most groups were organized in tribes, but the Olmec soon began to form a set of chiefdoms that allowed for organized leadership across generations, albeit through kinship ties. The Olmec also became the first civilization in the region to develop a state, where the same hierarchy became more stratified and institutions became more specialized.
Some scholars even call the Olmec an “empire,” but most say it falls short for a few important reasons. First, the Olmec never had a large enough population at their disposal to form a conquering army. Second, while there existed a number of significant urban Olmec sites, none of them has been identified as an Olmec capital. Finally, the art and archeological records of surrounding societies don’t indicate an Olmec domination but rather the existence of something of a theocratic state, as elites seemed to have both political and religious authority and a considerable amount of influence.
The word theocratic comes from the Greek theos, meaning god, and kratos, meaning a rule, regime, or strength.
A theocratic state would be one in which there is a system of government in which priests rule in the name of a god or gods.
The most striking art left behind by this culture are the Olmec colossal heads. Seventeen monumental stone representations of human heads sculpted from large volcanic basalt boulders have been unearthed in the region to date. The heads are a distinctive feature of the Olmec civilization. All portray mature men with fleshy cheeks, flat noses, and slightly crossed eyes. However, none of the heads are alike, and each boasts a unique headdress, which suggests they represent specific individuals. These stone sculptures would be impressive for modern humans to achieve but are made more impressive considering the fact that the Olmec possessed no metal tools with which to cut them. It has been estimated that moving a colossal head required the efforts of 1,500 people for three to four months.
Olmec arts are strongly tied to the Olmec religion, which prominently featured jaguars. The Olmec people believed that in the distant past a race of werejaguars was made between the union of a jaguar and a woman. One werejaguar quality that can be found is the sharp cleft in the forehead of many supernatural beings in Olmec art. This sharp cleft is associated with the natural indented head of jaguars.
Inert were-jaguar babies are often shown held by stoic adults, as if the infant were being presented.
At one of the Olmec sites, the complete skeletons of newborn or unborn children, have been discovered amidst the other offerings, leading to speculation concerning infant sacrifice.
The Olmec may have been the first civilization in the Western Hemisphere to develop a writing system.
It’s unknown why the Olmec culture disappeared (there are various theories), but it’s been postulated that it may be due to volcanic activity in the area. Volcanic eruptions would have blanketed the land and forced the Olmec to move their settlements.
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