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(ōl`mĕk), term denoting the culture of ancient Mexican natives inhabiting the tropical coastal plain of the contemporary states of Veracruz and Tabasco, between 1300 and 400 B.C. The term is also used to refer to contemporaneous groups in highland regions of Mesoamerica (including the states of Oaxaca, Morelos, Guerrero, and the Federal District) who possessed ceramic or sculptural designs similar to those found in the lowlands. The nature of the relationship between the highland and lowland groups remains unclear. The largest and best known Olmec sites are situated along rivers on the coastal plain and include San Lorenzo (1300–900 B.C.) and Tres Zapotes (1000–400 B.C.) in Veracruz, and La Venta (1000–600 B.C.) in Tabasco. At the time of their apogee, these three settlements were probably the most complex "ceremonial" sites found in Mesoamerica. For this reason, the Olmec are often considered to be the cultura madre (mother culture) of later Mesoamerican civilizations. The Olmec were renowned for their sculpting skills and distinctive motifs, leaving numerous carved stelae, as well as freestanding jade and basalt sculptures. Among the more notable examples are numerous sculptured heads of basalt, weighing as much as 40 tons and standing up to 10 ft (3 m) in height. The basalt used for these carvings came from up to 50 mi (80 km) away and was floated to the riverine settlements on rafts. Earthen platforms and pyramidal mounds were also common features of the settlements. The largest single pyramid, found at La Venta, measures 459 ft (140 m) in diameter and 98 ft (30 m) in height. The Olmec economy centered around agricultural production on fertile floodplains, and was supplemented by fishing and shellfishing. By 400 B.C., the distinctive features of Olmec culture disappeared and the region was overshadowed by the emerging central Mexican and MayanMaya
, indigenous people of S Mexico and Central America, occupying an area comprising the Yucatán peninsula and much of the present state of Chiapas in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, parts of El Salvador, and extreme western Honduras.
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See M. Coe and R. Diehl, The Land of the Olmec (Vol. 2, 1980); R. J. Sharer and D. C. Grove, ed., Regional Perspectives on the Olmec (1989).

References in periodicals archive ?
The widespread Chontal Maya trading enterprise, together with their military expansionist movement into neighboring areas, spread the writing, mathematics, and other vestiges of Olmec civilization throughout the Maya and peripheral areas.
- even before the Olmec civilization crystalized - it's very difficult.
Bachand and his team seem to have found evidence that Chiapa de Corzo was an emerging capital as the Olmec civilization was on its way out - a bluish green jade ceremonial axe, perhaps of Olmec origin, at the base of the pyramid.
Then you relate that to the Olmec civilization. Van Sertima taught us that the Olmec civilization was an indigenousness American civilization, and that Afrikans from the Nile Valley influenced them by sailing to the Americas hundreds of years before Columbus.
The quarry where the script was found abuts an archaeological site, near Veracruz, in what was the heartland of the ancient Olmec civilization. The imagery used in the writing indicates that the artifact, known as the Cascajal block, displays an early form of Olmec writing dating to nearly 3,000 years ago, says Stephen D.
Archaeologists have applauded recent excavations at an ancient settlement in southeastern Mexico that have yielded an array of artifacts from the Olmec civilization. However, controversy has flared with the claim that a few of these artifacts display remnants of the first written language in the New World, dating to around 650 B.C.
Elements of Mayan and epi-Olmec scripts apparently descended from a common ancestor, perhaps the more rudimentary and poorly understood written symbols of the Olmec civilization, which existed from around 1200 B.C.