Cultures & Traditions

Olmec

Mesoamerica, or Middle America, is a vast culture area that encompasses most of what is today central and southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and the western areas of Honduras and El Salvador. Mesoamerica's first highly developed civilization, which archaeologists have named the Olmec, emerged about 1500 BCE in two distant areas of Mexico--the central highland valleys (particularly in Morelos and Guerrero) and the lowland forests of south and east (particularly Veracruz and Tabasco). In addition to creating a sophisticated symbol system, the Olmec built the earliest planned ceremonial centers in Mesoamerica, San Lorenzo and La Venta, and constructed the first monumental architecture and large-scale stone sculpture. Through colossal stone heads and a range of figural sculpture, the Olmec established the tradition of portraits of rulers. Their long-distance trade networks provided access to many of the raw materials for their art. The widespread locations from which the Olmec obtained material resources represented a significant portion of Mesoamerica: magnetite for iron-ore mirrors came from the Valley of Oaxaca, obsidian for cutting tools from Orizaba Volcano near Puebla and from Guatemala, and jade and greenstone from Guerrero and Guatemala.

The Gulf Coast center of La Venta, which was prominent from 900 to 500 BCE (during the Middle Formative period), is an island in a swamp east of the Tonalá River, which divides the modern states of Veracruz and Tabasco. La Venta was probably Mesoamerica's first state, and its population at that time is estimated to have been 10,000 people. The major complex on its 500-acre site replicates the Olmec cosmos in architectonic form. At the southern end is a man-made earthen pyramid whose fluted sides resemble a volcanic cone. This massive structure, which is more than 100 feet tall and incorporates about 100,000 cubic yards of dirt fill, approximates the shape of the Olmec Creation Mountain. Immediately north of the mountain is the ball court, the place where the ancestral gods were sacrificed and reborn. North again is the Three-Stone-Place, the hearth of heaven, where the current cycle of creation was reset after the great flood. North of this is a basalt-pillar monument, mythological First Father's House in the North, symbol of the present world he placed in order.

La Venta is also the source of an astonishing volume of stone sculpture: altars or thrones; the first vertical slab monument, or stela; a gigantic mosaic mask of serpentine blocks; colossal heads that are the hallmark of the Olmec style; and refined figures and celts carved from jade and other greenstone. The dual ideas of divinity and kingship embodied in Olmec art united Mesoamerican peoples of different cultures and languages in a common vision of the world that transcended local politics. The masks and images both exalted and defined Olmec kingship, emphasizing the obligation of the ruler to serve his people as shaman, incarnation of the creator god, rainmaker, and protective warrior.

Adapted from

  • Gallery text [Olmec], A. H. Meadows Galleries.

  • "Olmec Mask (1973.17)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Suzanne Kotz (Dallas, Texas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1997), 182.

  • "Seated ruler in ritual pose," DMA Connect, 2012.

Related Multimedia

Ancient Art of the Americas lecture series (6th year), re: El Pital; speaker is the Director of the Institute for Cultural Ecology of the Tropics, Inc.
Boshell lecture; part of the Art of the Olmec: Mexico's First Great Civilization lecture series;
Boshell Ancient Art of the Americas lecture; aka Frank Kent Reilly III; Art of the Olmec: Mexico's First Great Civilization lecture series?; speaker is Professor of Anthropology, Southwest Texas State University
Boshell Ancient Art of the Americas lecture; aka Frank Kent Reilly III; Art of the Olmec: Mexico's First Great Civilization lecture series?; speaker is Professor of Anthropology, Southwest Texas State University
Learn about the Olmec culture.
Boshell lecture series; part of the Art of the Olmec: Mexico's First Great Civilization lecture series; speaker is Professor of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University
Ancient Art of the Americas lecture series (6th year), re: El Pital; speaker is the Director of the Institute for Cultural Ecology of the Tropics, Inc.
Boshell lecture; part of the Art of the Olmec: Mexico's First Great Civilization lecture series;
Boshell lecture series: Art of the Olmec: Mexico's First Great Civilization; speaker is Professor of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University
Boshell lecture series; part of the Art of the Olmec: Mexico's First Great Civilization lecture series; speaker is Professor of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University
Boshell lecture series: Art of the Olmec: Mexico's First Great Civilization; speaker is Professor of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University
1st in Olmec art course in conjunction with Boshell lecture series; speaker was Executive Director ad interim, Meadows Museum and Lecturer in Art History, Southern Methodist University
1st in Olmec art course in conjunction with Boshell lecture series; speaker was Executive Director ad interim, Meadows Museum and Lecturer in Art History, Southern Methodist University

Web Resources