Texas Black History Preservation Project -- Olmecs (2022)


Exploration of an African
Presence in Meso-America:

The Olmecs

To grow up African American in the United States you learn at an early age that you are a descendant of slaves. To
believe that all of your ancestors were slaves – people considered unfit or unable to contribute anything to society other
than manual labor – exacts a heavy toll on the self-esteem. To later discover that you could be a descendant of distant
African kings and queens is redemption, of sorts.

But the thought that Africans may have preceded Europeans such as Columbus to what is now America upends all
conventional thinking on how, when and in what status Africans first arrived on these shores. The thesis that those who
were among the first to discover the Southwest may have been African or of African descent is a revelation that
changes, for some, the entire paradigm of prehistoric life in the part of the world that is now Mexico and Texas.
But a number of anthropologists and scientists have theorized just that and there is more than a little evidence to
support their theories.

The liveliest debates about when and in what condition Africans first set foot in

(Video) Olmec Head removed from African History Juneteenth Mural

Mesoamerica (the area from Central
Mexico south to Costa Rica), often centers around what is called the Olmec civilization. Not unlike much of African
American history in this country, the history of the Olmecs is largely undocumented.

No one knows, definitively, how the Olmecs referred to themselves. Nineteenth century researchers classified this
culture Olmec, which means the "rubber people" or “people from the rubber country” in

Nahuatl, the accepted
language of the
Mexica ("Aztec") people. Ancient Mesoamericans, spanning from ancient Olmecs to Aztecs, extracted
latex from a type of rubber tree in the area. The recent discovery of several rubber balls at the Olmec site of
El Manati,
near San Lorenzo, strongly suggests that ball games were played by the Olmec people. Other aspects of the civilization
uncovered point to their use of irrigation systems, a well-defined religious structure, social stratification and a
knowledge of seafaring.

Most historians, anthropologists and scholars refer to the Olmecs as the “mother culture” of pre-Hispanic Mexico. The
presence of the Olmecs predates the

Mayan civilization by more than 1,500 years and the Aztecs in Mexico by as
many as 2,500 years, which would, indeed, make it the oldest pre-Columbian civilized society in Mesoamerica.
Emerging from the jungles of Mexico’s southernmost Gulf Coast, the Olmec influence spread through Central America
and manifested itself in art, architecture, religious rituals and other areas. There is enough evidence from architectural
digs to support the idea that the Olmec civilization possessed
several of the characteristics of a civilization: a social
structure, a political structure, an economic structure, religion and art.

What is considered the Olmec domain extended from the

Tuxtlas mountains in the west to the lowlands of the
Chontalpa in the east, a region with significant variations in geology and ecology. More than 170 Olmec monuments
have been found within this area, and eighty percent of those were found at the three largest Olmec centers:

(Video) BBC.Lost.Kingdoms.Of.Central.America.1of4.Kingdom.Of.The.Jaguar.The.Olmecs.2014.58Min

La Venta, Tabasco (38%)
San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, Veracruz (30%), and
Laguna de los Cerros, Veracruz (12%).

These three major Olmec centers were infused with natural resources that would have been valuable to the sustenance
of the Olmec life as well as the overall Olmec economy. La Venta, the eastern center, is near the rich estuaries of the
coast, and also could have yielded crops such as maize, cacao, rubber, and salt. San Lorenzo, at the center of the
Olmec domain, controlled a vast flood plain area that included trade routes.

Laguna de los Cerros, adjacent to the Tuxtlas mountains, is positioned near important sources of basalt, a key stone
that would have been needed to manufacture tools and monuments. Some anthropologists theorize that marriage
alliances between Olmec centers helped maintain an effective and cooperative exchange network between the regions.

There are many theories about how the Olmecs came to be in Mexico. Some theories have them as Asian hunter-
gatherers who trace their beginnings to shortly after the last Ice Age, about 12,000 years ago. Other scientists, historians
and anthropologists, however, make convincing and cogent arguments that the Olmecs trace their roots to Africans,
perhaps expelled from Spain as early as 1892 BC.

And it is this theory that is, perhaps, the most intriguing when one looks at the point in time as well as the place in
history where the African presence first manifested itself in what we now know as Mexico and Texas. Numerous
sources suggest that global winds and currents support the idea that ships could have traversed from Africa to the
southernmost shores of Mesoamerica, intentionally or accidentally. For example, one branch of a North Equatorial
current could have carried African sailors from North or West Africa into the Gulf of Mexico.

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Those who espouse this latter theory point to artifacts said to have a hieroglyphic style of writing that is similar to those
of the

Mande/Manding-speaking people from West Africa. Scholars recognize that the Olmecs engraved many symbols
or signs on pottery, statuettes and other objects that have been identified by some as a possible form of writing.
The Olmec may very well have been the first Mesoamericans to develop a writing system. Although there are disputes
as to whether markings on artifacts found rise to the level of writing as we know it, there is enough evidence to suggest
that symbols found in 2002 dated to 650 BC are actually a form of Olmec writing, preceding the oldest
Zapotec writing
dated to about 500 BC. The markings are similar to the writing used by peoples in ancient West Africa. Likewise,
theories abound that the Olmecs spoke a form of the Manding (Malinke-Bambara) language spoken in West Africa,
based on the writings that have been found. If these theories are true, it means the Olmec either took or created a full
fledged literate culture to Mexico.

Anthropologists, despite varying theories on the origins of the Olmec civilization, generally espouse to a belief that they
lived in the region for as much as 12 centuries. Then, about 300 B.C., the Olmec civilization vanished. There is
speculation that the Olmecs migrated (perhaps because of a failed crop) and were killed by civil war or another
civilization of Native Americans. But no one actually knows why they vanished. A theory less discussed is that they did
not disappear, but intermingled and intermarried with another Native American civilization.

Despite the competing theories about the existence of the Olmec civilization, one cannot help but be struck by the
power of the Olmec heads. In 1862, during an oil drilling expedition, the first Olmec heads were found. Many have
agreed that their features -- kinky hair, thick lips and broad noses -- are distinctly African. Also, the ornamentation of
the hair and marks that appear to be scarification support theories that the artisans were African or modeled the works
on Africans they had seen.

If one believes that ancient art was comparable to present day photography, then the Olmec art represented likenesses
of themselves. And the size of the heads conjure comparisons of the

(Video) Finally! We can see what this Olmec Head looked like in real life | Native History of Mexico

Pyramids, the Sphinx and other larger-than-life
works of art that trace their roots to Africa. Many of the heads were used as large altars.

Art historians and archaeologists agree that the Olmec produced the earliest and most sophisticated art in Mesoamerica
and that their distinctive style provided a model for the Maya, Aztec and other later civilizations in the region.

Ironically, as this debate on the veracity of African roots in Mexico continues, in contemporary Veracruz there lives a
large percentage of black Mexicans. It was generally accepted that some of these people were descendants of fugitive
slaves, brought in by the Spaniards. But could the roots of these blacks extend all the way back to the Olmecs? We
may never know, definitively, the answer to that question.

But look closely at a mammoth Olmec head, with its square jaw, broad flat nose and thick lips, features so visibly
African. That head seems to whisper, in a centuries old African dialect: “I was here. I was here.”

Contributed by Roxanne EvansSources:
  • Paul Alfred Barton, A History of the African-Olmecs, Black Civilizations of America from Prehistoric Times to the Present Era. First
    Books Library, 1998.
  • Richard Diehl, The Olmecs, America’s First Civilization, London, Thames and Hudson, 2004.
  • Ivan Van Sertima, They Came Before Columbus, The African Presence in Ancient America. New York, Random House, 1976.
  • Alexander Von Wuthenau: The Art of Terracota Pottery in Pre-Columbian South and Central America. London, Methuen, 1969.
  • Ivan Van Sertima, They Came Before Columbus, The African Presence in Ancient America. New York, Random House, 1976.

FAQs

Do historians know why Olmecs collapsed? ›

The end of the Olmecs

The Olmec population declined sharply between 400 and 350 BCE, though it is unclear why. Archaeologists speculate that the depopulation was caused by environmental changes, specifically by the silting-up of rivers, which choked off the water supply.

What are the 3 amazing artifacts that Olmecs developed? ›

The Olmec created massive monuments, including colossal stone heads, thrones, stela (upright slabs), and statues. They may have been the originators of the Mesoamerican ball game, a ceremonial team sport played throughout the region for centuries.

What are 3 of the accomplishments of the Olmec? ›

Contributions. The Olmecs were apparently the first Mesoamerican people to fathom the concept of zero, develop a calendar, and create a hieroglyphic writing system. Also, they are credited for the discovery of the first conduit drainage system known in the Americas.

What are the Olmec best known for? ›

The Olmec culture flourished in several civic and ceremonial centers along the Gulf of Mexico more than 3,000 years ago, from 1500 to 400 B.C. Best known for their carvings of colossal stone heads, the Olmec were masters of monumental sculpture, and also produced an array of other distinctive artworks in stone, ceramic ...

Do Olmecs still exist? ›

The End of the Olmec Civilization

Around 400 B.C. La Venta went into decline and was eventually abandoned altogether. With the fall of La Venta came the end of classic Olmec culture. Although the descendants of the Olmecs still lived in the region, the culture itself vanished.

What race are Olmecs? ›

While historians have speculated that the facial features of some monumental carved heads indicate an African origin of these people, most scholars believe that the Olmec, like other native Americans, descended from Asian ancestors who entered North America during the Great Ice Age.

What is the mystery of the Olmecs? ›

The Olmec civilization presents something of a mystery, indeed, we do not even know what they called themselves, as Olmec was their Aztec name and meant 'rubber people'. Due to a lack of archaeological evidence their ethnic origins and the location and extent of many of their settlements are not known.

What did the Olmecs call themselves? ›

The Olmecs were a culture of ancient peoples -1300-400 B.C. - of the East Mexico lowlands. They are often regarded as the Mother Culture of later Middle American civilizations. The Olmec people called themselves Xi (pronounced Shi).

Who came first Olmec or Maya? ›

In short, the Maya came first, and settled in modern-day Mexico. Next came the Olmecs, who also settled Mexico. They didn't build any major cities, but they were widespread and prosperous. They were followed by the Inca in modern-day Peru, and finally the Aztecs, also in modern-day Mexico.

Which color did the Olmec value most? ›

The Olmec especially valued the bluish color of this jadeite mask. Jadeite, a rare variety of greenstone, occurs naturally in very few places around the world. The material for this mask likely originated from the Motagua River valley in present-day Guatemala, the only known source of jadeite in ancient Mesoamerica.

What language did the Olmec speak? ›

Linguistic evidence has contributed to the ethnic identity of the archaeological Olmecs: they spoke a Mixe-Zoquean language. The Olmecs produced the earliest complex civilization in Mesoamerica (c. 1200–400 bce), and it was located mainly in the same area where Mixe-Zoquean languages are found.

How many Olmec heads have been found? ›

To date, 17 colossal Olmec heads have been discovered in various locations associated with the ancient Olmec civilisations; ten (thought to be the oldest) were found in San Lorenzo, Veracruz, four in La Venta, Tabasco, two in Tres Zapotes, Veracruz and one in La Cobata.

Did the Olmecs invent zero? ›

The Long Count calendar used by many subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations, as well as the concept of zero, may have been devised by the Olmecs.

Why did the Olmecs decline? ›

The Olmec population declined sharply between 400 and 350 BCE, though it is unclear why. Archaeologists speculate that the depopulation was caused by environmental changes, specifically riverine environment changes. These changes may have been triggered by the silting up of rivers due to agricultural practices.

Who ruled the Olmec? ›

At the time, La Venta and its all-powerful king dominated the Olmec heartland. Like its predecessor San Lorenzo, which flourished between 1200 and 900 B.C., La Venta was organized around a single dominant plaza featuring administrative buildings, elaborate monuments, and elite residences.

What did the Olmec believe in? ›

The Olmecs were polytheistic, believing in many gods who controlled the natural forces of life. These gods took on human-like forms but had a more frightful quality through also showing mixtures of feline, reptile, and bird-like features.

What do Olmecs look like? ›

The Olmecs are especially identified with 17 huge stone heads—ranging in height from 1.47 to 3.4 metres (4.82 to 11.15 feet)—with flat faces and full lips, wearing helmetlike headgear. It is generally thought that these are portraits of Olmec rulers.

How old are Olmec heads? ›

The Olmec colossal heads are stone representations of human heads sculpted from large basalt boulders. They range in height from 1.17 to 3.4 metres (3.8 to 11.2 ft). The heads date from at least 900 BC and are a distinctive feature of the Olmec civilization of ancient Mesoamerica.

What did the Olmec eat? ›

Clams, alligators, and various types of fish were an important part of their diet. The Olmecs preferred to make settlements near water, as the floodplains were good for agriculture and fish and shellfish could be had more easily. For meat, they had domestic dogs and the occasional deer.

Why did the Olmecs make giant heads? ›

Some have suggested that the heads were moved around for ritual purposes or that the heads were used to signify political power. It has also been speculated that some of the heads were buried as part of ancestor worship or by rulers hoping to neutralize a predecessor's influence.

What kind of clothing did the Olmec wear? ›

The Olmec dressed simply in skirts or breechcloths woven of cooton, they loved adornments such as earings, nose rings, bracelts, necklaces and anklets made of jade, shell, bone. Priests and rulers impressed their followers by wearing elaborate head-dresses and mirrors of polished magnetite around their necks.

What's the oldest Civilisation in the world? ›

The Sumerian civilization is the oldest civilization known to mankind. The term Sumer is today used to designate southern Mesopotamia. In 3000 BC, a flourishing urban civilization existed. The Sumerian civilization was predominantly agricultural and had community life.

What was the Olmec dragon god of? ›

The Olmec Dragon represented the Earth or at least the plane upon which humans lived. As such, he represented agriculture, fertility, fire, and otherworldly things. The dragon may have been associated with the Olmec ruling classes or elite.

What evidence of Olmec civilization has been found? ›

Archaeologists have found earthen artifacts at several sites that were evidence of the Olmec civilization. These Artifacts were mounds, courtyards, and pyramids built of stones. Also, on top of the mounds were many monuments made of stone. Some of these stone structures are very large.

What is the name of the oldest known Olmec center? ›

San Lorenzo, the oldest known Olmec centre, dates to about 1150 bce, a time when the rest of Mesoamerica was at best on a Neolithic level.

Why is the Olmec called the mother civilization? ›

Answer and Explanation: The Olmec civilization is called the mother civilization of Mesoamerica because the Olmecs laid the foundation that future Mesoamerican civilizations would follow. Specifically, the Olmecs grew maize, and were highly successful at it. This allowed them to sustain their growing population.

What did the Olmecs do with rubber? ›

The Mesoamericans were robust users of rubber, according to historical and archaeological records. With it they made sandals, rubber bands and also balls, which they used to play a ceremonial game in stone-walled courts.

What is the oldest civilization in the Americas? ›

With more than 5 thousand years old, Caral is considered the oldest civilization in the American continent. Between the years 3000 and 2500 B. C., the people from Caral began to form small settlements in what is now the province of Barranca, that interacted with each other to exchanged products and merchandise.

What were the 3 major indigenous civilizations of America? ›

Eventually, these ancient peoples made the shift from hunting and gathering to farming, which resulted in the settlement of permanent communities in North and South America. This gave rise to three great indigenous civilizations in the Americas—those of the Maya, the Aztec, and the Inca.

What occupation were the Olmec people good at? ›

farming. The land in this region was very fertile and food supply was steady. They lived in villages near rivers and also fished for food. Olmec people also were good at making pottery and weaving.

What are Olmec masks known? ›

Olmec means 'people from the rubber country'This Olmec mask was worn around the neck as a pendant. It may have provided the wearer with a new identity as an ancestor or deity - perhaps as the Olmec rain god. The distinctive toothless, down-turned mouth and infant-like face are typical of Olmec art.

How big is the Olmec mask? ›

Due to its small size (13cm x 11.3cm x 5.7cm), the object was most likely worn as a pendant rather than a mask. The face is probably a depiction of an Olmec king.

Why is the Olmec art important? ›

Olmec artists were revolutionary for their time, establishing the first major widespread styles in Mesoamerica, laying the foundation for later innovation from the central Mexican metropolis of Teotihuacan south to the Maya area. After the spread of maize agriculture in the Early Formative period (ca.

Who made the giant human heads carved from stone? ›

The Easter Island heads are known as Moai by the Rapa Nui people who carved the figures in the tropical South Pacific directly west of Chile. The Moai monoliths, carved from stone found on the island, are between 1,100 and 1,500 CE.

Where did the Olmecs keep their calendars? ›

There are no archaeological finds of Olmec calendars, but evidence shows that Olmec temple complexes were aligned in a way that could have operated as a calendar with the sun rising and shining between structures at different times of the year, similar to the construction of Stonehenge.

What was the Olmecs nickname? ›

It is not known what name the ancient Olmec used for themselves; some later Mesoamerican accounts seem to refer to the ancient Olmec as "Tamoanchan". A contemporary term sometimes used for the Olmec culture is tenocelome, meaning "mouth of the jaguar".

How old are the Olmecs? ›

Olmec, the first elaborate pre-Columbian civilization of Mesoamerica (c. 1200–400 bce) and one that is thought to have set many of the fundamental patterns evinced by later American Indian cultures of Mexico and Central America, notably the Maya and the Aztec.

What language did the Olmecs speak? ›

Linguistic evidence has contributed to the ethnic identity of the archaeological Olmecs: they spoke a Mixe-Zoquean language. The Olmecs produced the earliest complex civilization in Mesoamerica (c. 1200–400 bce), and it was located mainly in the same area where Mixe-Zoquean languages are found.

How many Olmec heads are there? ›

The Olmec heads of Mexico are a collection of 17 giant stone head sculptures believed to have been carved by the Olmecs. The heads, and their inspiration, have been the cause for much debate throughout history.

Who ruled the Olmec? ›

At the time, La Venta and its all-powerful king dominated the Olmec heartland. Like its predecessor San Lorenzo, which flourished between 1200 and 900 B.C., La Venta was organized around a single dominant plaza featuring administrative buildings, elaborate monuments, and elite residences.

Are the Olmec African? ›

While historians have speculated that the facial features of some monumental carved heads indicate an African origin of these people, most scholars believe that the Olmec, like other native Americans, descended from Asian ancestors who entered North America during the Great Ice Age.

What did the Olmec eat? ›

Clams, alligators, and various types of fish were an important part of their diet. The Olmecs preferred to make settlements near water, as the floodplains were good for agriculture and fish and shellfish could be had more easily. For meat, they had domestic dogs and the occasional deer.

Who came first Mayans or Olmecs? ›

In short, the Maya came first, and settled in modern-day Mexico. Next came the Olmecs, who also settled Mexico. They didn't build any major cities, but they were widespread and prosperous. They were followed by the Inca in modern-day Peru, and finally the Aztecs, also in modern-day Mexico.

Who were the Olmec gods? ›

Their religion centered around eight gods: the Olmec Dragon, the Bird Monster, the Shark Monster, the Banded-Eye god, the Maize God, the Rain Spirit, the Were-Jaguar, and the Feathered Serpent. The Olmec had the first representation of the feathered serpent that would show itself in later mesoamerican cultures.

What kind of clothing did the Olmec wear? ›

The Olmec dressed simply in skirts or breechcloths woven of cooton, they loved adornments such as earings, nose rings, bracelts, necklaces and anklets made of jade, shell, bone. Priests and rulers impressed their followers by wearing elaborate head-dresses and mirrors of polished magnetite around their necks.

What caused the Olmec civilization to end? ›

Afterwards, La Venta became the chief cultural center until its abandonment around 400 BCE. There are many other speculative reasons as to why the Olmec civilization collapsed. Some believe that a change in climate and weather patterns caused the general abandonment of the region.

What kind of art is Olmec? ›

The Olmec were gifted artists who produced stone carvings, woodcarvings and cave paintings. They made carvings of all sizes, from tiny celts and figurines to massive stone heads. The stonework is made of many different types of stone, including basalt and jadeite.

Who did the giant Olmec heads represent? ›

The most agreed upon theory is that, because of their unique physical features and the difficulty and cost involved in their creation, they represent Olmec rulers. Seventeen heads have been discovered to date, 10 of which are from San Lorenzo and 4 from La Venta; two of the most important Olmec centres.

How old are Olmec heads? ›

The Olmec colossal heads are stone representations of human heads sculpted from large basalt boulders. They range in height from 1.17 to 3.4 metres (3.8 to 11.2 ft). The heads date from at least 900 BC and are a distinctive feature of the Olmec civilization of ancient Mesoamerica.

What animal represented the rain god for the Olmecs? ›

We, and most other scholars who have studied Olmec art, would further agree that the particular "god" associated with rain is a were-jaguar, that is, a mask dominated by the characteristically feline mouth with downturned corners beneath a pug nose.

What is the definition of the Olmec? ›

Definition of Olmec

: an ancient people of the southern east coast of Mexico who flourished about 1200 to 400 b.c.

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