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Olmec History

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Michelle Sandberg
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« on: June 04, 2007, 01:03:48 pm »



Monument 1, one of the four Olmec colossal heads at La Venta. This one is nearly 3 metres tall.

The Olmec were an ancient Pre-Columbian people living in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, roughly in what are the modern-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Their immediate cultural influence, however, extends beyond this region (Olmec artwork has been documented as far as El Salvador). The Olmec flourished during the Formative (or Preclassic), dating from 1200 BCE to about 400 BCE, and are believed to have been the progenitor civilization of later Mesoamerican civilizations
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Michelle Sandberg
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« Reply #1 on: June 04, 2007, 01:06:38 pm »



The Olmec heartland.
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Michelle Sandberg
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« Reply #2 on: June 04, 2007, 01:08:18 pm »

Overview

The Olmec heartland is characterized by swampy lowlands punctuated by low hill ridges and volcanoes. The Tuxtlas Mountains rise sharply in the north, along the Gulf of Mexico's Bay of Campeche. Here the Olmecs constructed permanent city-temple complexes at several locations, among them San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, La Venta, Tres Zapotes, and Laguna de los Cerros. In this heartland, the first Mesoamerican civilization would emerge and reign from 1200–400 BCE.

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Michelle Sandberg
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« Reply #3 on: June 04, 2007, 01:12:09 pm »

Early history

Olmec history originated at its base within San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, where distinctively Olmec features begin to emerge before 1200 BCE. The rise of civilization here was probably assisted by the local ecology of well-watered rich alluvial soil, encouraging high maize production. This ecology may be compared to that of other ancient centers of civilization: Mesopotamia and the Nile, Indus, and Yellow River valleys. It is speculated that the dense population concentration at San Lorenzo encouraged the rise of an elite class that eventually ensured Olmec dominance and provided the social basis for the production of the symbolic and sophisticated luxury artifacts that define Olmec culture. Many of these luxury artifacts, such as jade and magnetite, came from distant locations and suggest that early Olmec elites had access to an extensive trading network in Mesoamerica. The source of the most valued jade, for example, is found in the Motagua River valley in eastern Guatemala.
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Michelle Sandberg
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« Reply #4 on: June 04, 2007, 01:14:02 pm »




Monument 19 from La Venta is the earliest known representation of a feathered serpent in Mesoamerica.
© George & Audrey DeLange, used with permission.


La Venta
The first Olmec center, San Lorenzo, was all but abandoned around 900 BCE at about the same time that La Venta rose to prominence. Environmental changes may have been responsible for this move, with certain important rivers changing course. A wholesale destruction of many San Lorenzo monuments also occurred around this time, circa 950 BCE, which may point to an internal uprising or, less likely, an invasion.[2] Following the decline of San Lorenzo, La Venta became the most prominent Olmec center, lasting from 900 BCE until its abandonment around 400 BCE. During this period, the Great Pyramid and various other ceremonial complexes were built at La Venta.[3]


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Michelle Sandberg
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« Reply #5 on: June 04, 2007, 01:16:12 pm »

Decline

It is not known with any clarity what happened to the Olmec culture. The Tres Zapotes site continued to be occupied well past 400 BCE, but without the hallmarks of the Olmec culture. This post-Olmec culture, often labeled the Epi-Olmec culture, has features similar to those found at Izapa, some distance to the southeast.

Within a few hundred years of the abandonment of the last Olmec cities, successor cultures had become firmly established, most notably the Maya to the east and the Zapotec to the southwest.

Notable innovations

As the first civilization in Mesoamerica, the Olmecs are credited, or speculatively credited, with many "firsts", including the Mesoamerican ballgame, bloodletting and perhaps human sacrifice, writing and epigraphy, and the invention of zero and the Mesoamerican calendar. Their political arrangements of strongly hierarchical city-state kingdoms were repeated by nearly every other Mexican and Central American civilization that followed. Some researchers, including artist and art historian Miguel Covarrubias, even postulate that the Olmecs formulated the forerunners of many of the later Mesoamerican deities.[4]

See also Olmec influences on Mesoamerican cultures for a discussion of the archaeological debate on this issue.

Mesoamerican ballgame

The Olmec, whose name means "rubber people" in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs (see below), were likely the originators of the Mesoamerican ballgame so prevalent among later cultures of the region and used for recreational and religious purposes.[5] A dozen rubber balls dating to 1600 BCE or earlier have been found in El Manatí, an Olmec sacrificial bog 10 kilometres east of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan.[6] These balls predate the earliest ballcourt yet discovered at Paso de la Amada, circa 1400 BCE. The fact that the balls were found with other sacrificial items, including pottery and jadeite celts indicates that even at this early date, the ballgame had religious and ritual connotations.



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Michelle Sandberg
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« Reply #6 on: June 04, 2007, 01:18:15 pm »



Altar 5 from La Venta. The inert were-jaguar baby held by the central figure is seen by some as an indication of child sacrifice. In contrast, its sides show bas-reliefs of humans holding quite lively were-jaguar babies.

Bloodletting and sacrifice
There is a strong case that the Olmecs practiced bloodletting, or autosacrifice. Numerous natural and ceramic stingray spikes and maguey thorns have been found in the archaeological record of the Olmec heartland.[7]

The argument that the Olmecs instituted human sacrifice is significantly more speculative. No Olmec or Olmec-influenced sacrificial artifacts have yet been discovered and there is no Olmec or Olmec-influenced artwork that unambiguously shows sacrificial victims (similar, for example, to the danzante figures of Monte Albán) or scenes of human sacrifice (such as can be seen in the Maya archaeological record).

However, at the El Manatí site, complete skeletons as well as disarticulated skulls and femurs of newborn or unborn children have been discovered amidst the other offerings, leading to speculation concerning infant sacrifice. It is not yet known, though, how the infants met their deaths.[8] Some authors have also associated infant sacrifice with Olmec ritual art showing limp "were-jaguar" babies, most famously in La Venta's Altar 5 (to the right) or Las Limas figure (see Religion below). Unfortunately, definitive answers will need to await further findings.




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Michelle Sandberg
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« Reply #7 on: June 04, 2007, 01:19:11 pm »

Writing


The Olmec may have been the first civilization in the Western Hemisphere to develop a writing system. Symbols found in 2002 and 2006 date to 650 BCE[9] and 900 BCE[10] respectively, preceding the oldest Zapotec writing dated to about 500 BCE.

The 2002 find at the San Andrés site shows a bird, speech scrolls, and glyphs that are similar to the later Mayan hieroglyphs showing "3 Ajaw", both a calendar day and a ruler's name.

The 2006 find, known as the Cascajal block from a site near San Lorenzo, shows a set of 62 symbols, 28 of which are unique, carved on a serpentine block. A large number of prominent archaeologiests have hailed this find as the "earliest pre-Columbian writing".[11] Others are skeptical because of the stone's singularity, the fact that it had been removed from any archaeological context, and because it bears no apparent resemblance to any other Mesoamerican writing systems.

There are also well-documented later hieroglyphs known as "Epi-Olmec", and while there are some who believe that Epi-Olmec may represent a transitional script between an earlier Olmec writing system and Maya writing, the matter remains unsettled.

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Michelle Sandberg
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« Reply #8 on: June 04, 2007, 01:20:44 pm »



The back of Stela C from Tres Zapotes
This is the second oldest Long Count date yet discovered. The numerals 7.16.6.16.18 translate to September 3, 32 BCE (Julian). The glyphs surrounding the date are what is thought to be one of the few surviving examples of Epi-Olmec scrip


Compass

The find of an Olmec hematite artifact, fitted with a sighting mark and found in experiment as fully operational as a compass, has lead the American astronomer John Carlson after radiocarbon dating to conclude that "the Olmec may have discovered and used the geomagnetic lodestone compass earlier than 1000 BC".[12] Carlson suggests that the Olmecs may have used such devices for directional orientation of the dwellings of the living and the interments of the dead.
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Michelle Sandberg
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« Reply #9 on: June 04, 2007, 01:21:54 pm »

Mesoamerican Long Count calendar & invention of the zero concept
The Long Count calendar used by many subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations, as well as the concept of zero, may have been devised by the Olmecs. Because the six artifacts with the earliest Long Count calendar dates were all discovered outside the immediate Maya homeland, it is likely that this calendar predated the Maya and was possibly the invention of the Olmecs.[13] Indeed, many of these six artifacts were found within the Olmec heartland area. However, the fact that the Olmec civilization had come to an end by the 4th century BCE, several centuries before the earliest known Long Count date artifact, argue against an Olmec origin.

The Long Count calendar required the use of zero as a place-holder within its vigesimal (base-20) positional numeral system. A shell glyph -- -- was used as a zero symbol for these Long Count dates, the second oldest of which, on Stela C at Tres Zapotes, has a date of 32 BCE. This is one of the earliest uses of the zero concept in history. The Monumment 1 in the Maya site El Baul, Guatemala, bears a Long Count Date of 36 BCE


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olmecs
« Last Edit: June 04, 2007, 01:23:27 pm by Michelle Sandberg » Report Spam   Logged
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