Olmec Culture

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Olmec Culture


an archaeological culture widespread over what are now the Mexican states of Veracruz, Tabasco, and Guerrero. Although the culture was that of unknown American Indians, it has been conditionally named after the Olmecs, a small group of tribes that later lived in the area (11th–14th centuries). The time of existence of the Olmec culture has not yet been definitely established. The culture’s origin is dated by various researchers to the 15th to the eighth century B.C., and its demise to the first century B.C. to the third century A.D. The economy was based on fishing and slash-and-burn farming. The people were one of the first in America to reach the stage of a class society. The major religious and political centers were La Venta, San Lorenzo, Tres Zapotes, and Laguna de los Cerros. The Olmec culture influenced the culture of the neighboring Indian peoples.

Judging from the excavations at La Venta and San Lorenzo, Olmec religious structures were still relatively primitive. Olmec architecture was characterized by monolithic basalt pillars, found in burial vaults, and by ritual areas covered with mosaics. Olmec sculpture is distinguished by a pronounced interest in the depiction of human beings, by breadth and majesty of design, and by confidence of execution. It characteristically combines heavy, generalized forms with extremely expressive faces, as in the colossal basalt heads discovered in La Venta, Tres Zapotes, and San Lorenzo. Somewhat greater conventionality and styliza-tion are noted in the reliefs on the monolithic sacrificial altars and stelae. Small art objects made of bluish green nephrite, as well as of serpentine and jadeite, are noted for their expressive execution and grotesque quality, as are small ceramic items. These include statuettes of persons and deities, ceremonial “axes,” and stone masks. Of interest are the monumental wall paintings discovered in cultic caves in the 1960’s. Human figures are often depicted with the features of a jaguar. This practice derives from a myth about the tribal primogenitor, according to which the primogenitor was born of a jaguar and a woman.


Guliaev, V. I. Drevneishie tsivilizatsii Mezoameriki. Moscow, 1972.
Kinzhalov, R. V. Opyt rekonstruktsii mifologicheskoi sistemy ol’mekov. Moscow, 1973.
Palacios, M. L. La cultura olmeca. Mexico City, 1965.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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