The Olmec
According to Bulliet in "Earth and its Peoples", "Scholars agree that certain political, social, economic, and technological traits are indicators of civilization:
1.) cities as administrative centers
2.) a political system based on control of a defined territory rather than kinship connections
3.) many people engaged in specialized, non-food producing activities

The Olmec Civilization
Olmec: Early Civilization---- The Olmec Civilization is, by College Board's decision, one of the early empires. However, the Olmec does not meet as many of the requirements of being an early civilization as its counterparts in the East. For instance, by 400 B.C.E. the Roman Empire was established and the Olmecs had still not advanced much at all. The Olmec Civilization vs. the Mesopotamian Civilization would put the Olmecs at a largely lower level. However, because the Olmecs also did not leave behind enough artifacts to allow for close speculation, for how we stand the Olmecs could be much more advanced than we give them credit for. This can be proved with the following reasons:

a.) The Olmecs were "probably...responsible for developing a form of writing (as yet undeciphered)"
b.) The Olmecs "may have influenced later innovations among the Maya"
These two variables alone could give much credit to the Olmecs: the Mayan innovations were credited to be extremely advanced for their time and writing is something the Olmecs could have in common with the Mesopotamian Civilization.

The Olmec Civilization (1500 B.C.E.-400 B.C.E.)


- Commoners (farmers, laborers, etc. under leadership of king, shamans, and elites)
- "Ruling Elites" lived on lifted earth in urban dwellings (literally above the other city dwellers in standing)
- Religious Shamans (religious leaders, advised the king about rains, etc)
- Kings "combined religious and secular roles"
Urban centers used to gather farmers from outside the city during big political/ religious events.The ruling elites organized labor of the commoners produced more food and thus were a service to the commoners. According to Bulliet, "at least some advantages gained from urbanization and growing elite prosperity were shared broadly in the society." Thousands of commoners from nearby villages were required for labor to build buildings and temples in the city centers. Artisans and other skilled craftsmen lived in the city centers and were put to work decorating and painting buildings, etc."While the elite lived in houses decorated with finely crafted objects...the commoners lived in small structures constructed of sticks and mud." The "authority of the rulers and their kin group is suggested by a series of colossal carved stone heads" (some 12 feet high).


- Olmec artistry, "such as jade carvings decorated with the jaguar-god", was found far from the core Olmec location, sometimes as far as Central America near the Pacific and Central Mexico. This means that although an Olmec Empire never did arise (the Olmec never had a military large enough to expand and control enough), the Olmec's cultural influence was wide-spread. Skilled Olmec artisans, "produced high-quality crafts, such as exquisitely carved jade figurines, necklaces, and ceremonial knives and axes." The Elite wore, "elegant clothing and jewelry". Religious tokens and small stone sculptures have been found in commoner and elite household alike, notating that there was a single widely accepted religion. The religion was polytheistic, and most gods were animals (jaguars, snakes, and sharks) that could transform into humans. The shamans "produced a calendar that was able to organize ritual life and agriculture, and they laid out the ceremonial centers in line with the paths of certain stars.

--Humans and Our Environment

- Each city-state had a resource that was unique to its environment- salt, cacao, and clay for pots and ceramics.In order to form the Olmec Civilization, fixed agriculture had to be integrated and animals had to be domesticated; it was a struggle for the Olmecs to gain control of their environment but when they did they took control of stone and metallurgy among others.

--Economics"It appears that each center developed independently to exploit and exchange specialized products like salt, cacao (chocolate beans), clay for ceramics, and limestone." For Olmec city-states that had a surplus of one resource and no access to another necessary resource, trade was introduced to allow the spread of culture but more importantly trade and a faster flow of wealth between each city-state as the laws of supply and demand of a product do their work. "The Olmec elite evidently was able to require and direct the labor of thousands of people from surrounding settlements for low-skill tasks like moving dirt and stone construction materials." The Elite were put in charge of the labor force required of commoners: the Elite were provided free labor and in turn instructed the laborers on how to build what they wanted to build, thus to make the laborers job easy. More refined trade around the area is also evident, "There is also evidence for a class of merchants who traded with distant peoples for obsidian, jade, and pottery." The Olmecs also had long range trading for certain precious metals in order to make prosperous deals for the city-state. The religious Shaman leader also advised the king on when to ask for harvest time, as the Shaman supposedly knew the rain and its habits.

--PoliticsThe king was a highly regarded figure in the life of the Olmecs: he is regarded as more prestigious than Shamans and adapts a God-like status, "Rulers were especially associated with the jaguar." "Most archeologists believed (the 12 foot stone heads) were portraits carved to memorialize individual rulers." The Olmec kings and his Elite subjects controlled their subjects through religion, "The Olmec elite used elaborate religious rituals to control this complex society. Thousands of commoners were drawn in from the countryside to attend awe-inspiring ceremonies at the centers...Rulers and their close kin came to be associated with the gods through blood-letting and human sacrifices, evidence of which is found in all the urban centers.

The Olmec Civilization

Bulliet, Richard. Earth and Its People, AP Edition, (Boston: Wadsworth, 2011) Page 5, 60-65

Weber, George. Olmec Civilization.

Bache, Alice. Mask.