The Olmecs: New Light on a Shadowy Past
In an old movie, a dashing adventurer hacks his way through tangled jungle vines, searching for a lost civilization. Suddenly, he stumbles upon a dark pit hidden by dense undergrowth. At the bottom of the pit stands a huge stone monument covered with strange carvings. The adventurer is thrilled when he realizes that he has chanced upon the remains of an unknown civilization that existed thousands ofyears ago. More than three thousand years ago in the jungles near the Gulf of Mexico, the people now known as the Olmec developed a complex civilization that lasted for at least eight hundred years before mysteriously disappearing (Autry). Today, thanks to the work of many scholars and archaeologists, people from around the world can learn about the Olmecs and see the artifacts they left behind. There was no solo adventurer who, after stumbling upon Olmec monuments, immediately recognized their significance. Instead, researchers have painstakingly pieced together the story of the Olmecs. After years of puzzling finds, careful excavation, and cooperative research, most archaeologists agree that the Olmecs created one of Mesoamerica’s first highly civilized societies, a society that shaped the history and culture of the region.
Field research related to the Olmecs began around 1860 in Tres Zapotes, Mexico. Villagers there unearthed a five-foot-high stone head in a field a workman had been clearing (Stuart 95). In 1862, scholar José Melgar saw the head and, in 1869, published an article about it (Piña Chan 25). Over the years, other archaeologists wrote about discoveries of similar stone heads, old monuments, and smaller relics, which did not seem to have been created by any of the early cultures that were already documented. Archaeologists gradually began to theorize that the objects must have come from a previously unknown ancient culture, one they called Olmec because it seemed to have been centered in Olman, theancient Aztec “Rubber Country” (Fagan 97). Full-scale excavations of the Olmec areas began in 1938. Since then, archaeologists have used many scientific methods to locate Olmec ruins and learn about the Olmec culture. Some of the ruins, for example, were discovered or mapped by aerial photography or, more recently, by satellites. Scientists have used radioactive carbon dating to establish the age of bones and relics found at the sites and have subsequently determined that the Olmec preceded other Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Maya (Grove 27). Using these scientific methods, researchers have learned much about how the Olmecs lived, and most experts now agree that the Olmec civilization continued to influence Mesoamerican cultures even after its demise.
Based on their findings, experts theorize that Olmec society consisted of farming villages grouped around large centers or cities. At first, scholars believed that the Olmecs used these centers only for religious ceremonies (Piña Chan 83). However, excavations in 1986 convinced many archaeologists that the Olmecs actually lived in the centers as well as in the outlying villages (Bower). Early Olmecs probably struggled to grow enough food to survive. Gradually, though, as they developed irrigation and improved farming methods, they were able to grow a surplus of food. Scholars suggest that this surplus came to be controlled by a class of strong leaders, allowing some Olmecs to become specialized artisans instead of farmers. The leaders then built Olmec centers and commissioned artisans to create stone heads as monuments to their power (Piña Chan 83). Sixteen stone heads have been found over the years since Melgar wrote about the first discovery. These stone heads, which many scholars believe preserve the features of actual Olmec rulers, are from five to eleven feet high and weigh as much as 36,000 pounds (Stuart 104; Autry). The stone used to create them is not native to many of the areas where the monuments were found; most...
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