The Olmec - Central American History
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clay statue of a man sitting down
Olmec clay statue ca. 1100-500 BC

September 2016 - The earliest state government in North or South America was the Olmec, who formed their state about 1200 BC. This is about the time of the Mycenaean kingdoms in Greece, or the Third Intermediate Period in Egypt, or the Assyrians in West Asia. The Olmec (OHL-meck) lived between North America and South America, in Central America (what is now the southern part of Mexico).

This was good land for farming, with a big river bringing plenty of water, and people had recently begun to farm corn and beans there, about 2000 BC. Probably once people began to farm they had more kids, and there got to be a lot more people living in Central America than there had been before. As they got more crowded, they formed into villages, and then into towns, and then into cities, and soon some men emerged as their leaders, and they had formed a state.

The earliest Olmec city was at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, near the Gulf Coast, in the foothills of the Tuxtla Mountains. It was built around 1150 BC. The Olmec rulers got their people to build groups of big stone temples at Tenochtitlan and in several other places nearby. People used these temples to worship the Olmec gods, but they also used them (like earlier Norte Chico temples) to store food and generally as government buildings. The Olmec used writing to record their thoughts on slabs of stone (like our gravestones).

Get your own Olmec head!

The Olmec traded with other people all over South America. Traders carried Olmec pottery all over Central America and Mexico, and they brought back pottery from other people who lived nearby to Olmec cities. Probably the Olmecs also traded tar, or bitumen - sticky black oily stuff like asphalt that you can use to patch boats and seal up roofs. Some of the trade was probably on boats that travelled up and down the rivers, and some of it was overland, carried by traders walking from city to city.

stone mask
Olmec mask

Around 900 BC, after three hundred years, the Olmec pretty much abandoned their main city at Tenochtitlan and moved their government to another city, which is now called La Venta. Possibly this was because of changes in the weather at this time, or it may have been because the river changed its course and the people moved to be near the new riverbed. Or, some people think it could have been because of a civil war or invasions.

The Olmec state kept on ruling Central America for another five hundred years after this move, but by 400 BC the Olmec seem to have lost control of this area. Nobody knows how this happened, or why. As they lost control, new leaders like the Maya and the Zapotec gradually took over.

Check out some tar - you'll find the black stuff oozing out of wooden telephone poles
Maya history
Zapotec history
Aztec history

Bibliography and further reading about the Olmec:

South America after the European invasions
Native Americans
American History home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 27 February, 2017