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Olmecs

Exploiting the fertile lands around coastal waters and inland lakes, the Olmecs will use their bounties to build striking city complexes brimming with monuments and ceremonial sites.

The Olmec culture spread through central America from 1200 to 500 BCE and offered a rich heritage to the later Zapotec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations.

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The Olmecs remain an enigma: we do not even know their real name. Indeed, the term “Olmeca” actually comes from the Aztecs who, at the time, used it to describe all the populations living in the Gulf of Mexico. The name means “people of the land of rubber” in reference to the material’s widespread use in those regions. First recorded in the 16th century by the Spanish during their conquest of the Aztec Empire, it was not until the 1940s that the name was used to designate a style of art and, by extension, the associated culture. Unfortunately, nothing is known about the Olmec language. Hence, the original names of Olmec cities remain a mystery and archaeologists use modern names to designate these sites. This civilization developed very early in the area around the Gulf of Mexico where it cultivated corn, winter squash, and beans. The hot and humid climate made it possible to collect up to four harvests per year. But although the region was agriculturally fertile, it lacked precious minerals and materials, thus encouraging the creation of a vast trade network with neighboring territories. Trading helped spread Olmec culture, particularly its urban model, which prefigured later architectural design (pyramids, ballgame courts, drainage systems, etc.). Today, the most well-known aspect of their culture is their sculptures, including the famous “colossal heads” as well as many jade figurines typically representing Olmec divinities with feline and childlike features.

Did you know?

It is probably the Olmecs who invented the famous Mesoamerican ballgame played with hips and elbows. It was very popular with the Aztecs and is still played to this day. Indeed, the oldest balls ever found date back to the time of the Olmecs. They were made of local rubber and could weigh up to 3 kilos.