Olmec Civilization: An Enigma Wrapped Up In A Mystery

Olmec - Ancient Mystery

The Olmecs: An Enigma Wrapped Up In A Mystery


By John Prytz 

Once upon a time, some 3300 years or so before you were conceived of in anyone’s philosophy, a motley band of nomads that had many generations previously crossed over into North America from Asia at the height of the last Ice Age, found their way into what’s today known as the tropical lowlands of the eastern coastal region of Mexico. That motley band of nomads settled down and became the first great civilization of the New World – the Olmec. They are classified by scholars as inhabiting the Middle Pre-Classic Period of the America’s ancient history. Early Pre-Classic refers to those prehistoric hunter-gatherers and the transition to those early and very small primitive agricultural settlements.



The Olmecs were the first of the great Mesoamerican civilizations, sometimes referred to as the Mother of all subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations.

They survived, even thrived from roughly 1200 BC to about 400 BC in the southern Gulf Coast area of Mexico, in an area now referred to as the states of Veracruz and Tabasco.



Though the Olmecs were primarily an agricultural society (we all have to eat), they did construct various high density metropolitan population centers, actually more ritual-based politico-religious centers, all with massive monuments including pyramids. The trilogy of those major centers were

*San Lorenzo (approximately 1200 – 900 BC). That site was eventually abandoned and they moved to La Venta, though there’s probably some degree of overlap between the two.

*La Venta (approximately 900 – 400 BC). This is the Olmec site best known and documented. It was actually on an island located within the Tonala River. The estimated population of La Venta has been estimated at some 18,000 individuals. Okay, so Mexico City it’s not, but that’s not a bad ‘city’ for the times.

*Tres Zapotes (approximately 900 BC). The 900 BC date is again a beginnings coinciding with the decline of San Lorenzo. There’s no termination date because other cultures inhabited the site after the Olmec civilization went the way of the dodo.

Sometimes there’s also a mention of Laguna de les Cerros as a major Olmec site.

These Olmec politico-religious sites were built under their rulers on a grand enough scale that one can draw parallels with ancient Egyptian monuments under their pharaohs. In other words, Olmec ‘cities’ were impressive for the times.

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About The Author

Science librarian; retired.

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