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Olmec Art and the Olmec Head

Though little is known about the Olmec culture, they were the dominant Mesoamerican culture in Preclassic period, which lasted from 1200-200 B.C. The Olmecs reached their height from 700-400 B.C., and they lived along the Gulf of Mexico, in the modern Mexican states of Tabasco and Veracruz. Much more is known about their cultural descendants, the Aztecs and Maya, who inherited platform mounds, city layout, plazas, ball courts, hieroglyphic writing, art and many other cultural institutions from the Olmecs.

The Olmecs wrote in hieroglyphics and devised an early calendar. Their cities were built around great temples. In their religious system, the jaguar was the sacred animal, both loved and feared by the inhabitants. The jaguar cult was associated with the rain god and fertility. La Venta, one of the Olmec's main cities, was built in a swampy area of modern Tabasco. Nearly eighteen thousand lived nearby. Its ceremonial center contained a large temple pyramid. It was destroyed around 400 B.C.

Most known about them through their art, which was naturalistic and symbolic. It inspired by mythology and religion. One religious belief was that a woman and a jaguar together produced a race with the characteristics of both, and masks were made reflecting this belief. The lips of these masks were often down-turned and snarling in feline fashion. They also made jade figurines, massive stone sculptures and other stone and Olmec art objects. Small pieces have "baby face" characteristics and chubby bodies, suggestive of infants or eunuchs. The famous "Olmec head" was produced many times in different sizes. They may be portraits of rulers or chiefs or the heads of ball-game players. They appear to be wearing a helmet and have African or Asian features. One, made of basalt, is nine feet tall and weighs forty tons.

--Lisa Graff


Baquedano, Elizabeth. Aztec, Inca and Maya (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).

Fairfield, Sheila. Peoples and Nations of the Americas (London: Young Library Ltd, 1987).

Meyer, Michael C. and William L. Sherman. The Course of Mexican History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).

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Aztecs | Day of the Dead | Mayan | Molas | Olmec | Pre Columbian