The Olmec

Learning Objective

  • Give an account of the society, trade, art, and religion of the Olmec

Key Points

  • The Olmec lived in south-central Mexico, with their center in La Venta in Tabasco.
  • Little is known about Olmec religion, though scholars believe there were eight main deities.
  • People lived in small agricultural villages outside of urban centers, which were mainly for ceremonial use.
  • The decline of the Olmec population from 400—350 BCE may have been due to environmental changes.


La Venta

The main city of the Olmec civilization.

Mesoamerican ballgame

An ancient ritual sport that involved keeping a rubber ball in play in designated courts. It most likely originated in the Olmec culture.

Olmec colossal heads

Basalt sculptures of human faces wearing large helmeted headdresses that stand up to 3.4 meters high. These sculptures most likely represent important rulers.

The Olmec were the first major civilization in Mexico. They lived in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, in the present-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco, and had their center in the city of La Venta.

The Olmec flourished during Mesoamerica’s formative period, dating roughly from as early as 1500 BCE to about 400 BCE. Pre-Olmec cultures had flourished in the area since about 2500 BCE, but by 1600–1500 BCE, Early Olmec culture had emerged. They were the first Mesoamerican civilization and laid many of the foundations for the civilizations that followed, such as the Maya. Judging from the available archeological evidence it is likely that they originated the Mesoamerican ballgame and possible that they practiced ritual bloodletting.

The Gulf of Mexico’s lowlands are generally considered the birthplace of the Olmec culture, and remained the heartland of this civilization during its existence. This area is characterized by swampy lowlands punctuated by low hills, ridges, and volcanoes. The Tuxtlas Mountains rise sharply in the north, along the Gulf of Mexico’s Bay of Campeche. Here the Olmec constructed permanent city-temple complexes at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, La Venta, Tres Zapotes, and Laguna de los Cerros. San Lorenzo remained the Olmec capital up until about 900 BCE, when the central city became La Venta, which remained functional until the demise of the Olmec around 400 BCE. Possible river or weather changes caused this movement to occur.

Trade and Village Life

There are no written records of Olmec commerce, beliefs, or customs, but from the archeological evidence it appears they were not economically confined. In fact, Olmec artifacts have been found across Mesoamerica, indicating that there were extensive interregional trade routes. The Olmec period saw a significant increase in the length of trade routes, the variety of goods, and the sources of traded items.

Trading helped the Olmec build their urban centers of San Lorenzo and La Venta. However, these cities were used predominantly for ceremonial purposes and elite activity; most people lived in small villages. Individual homes had a lean-to and a storage pit nearby. They also likely had gardens, in which the Olmec would grow medicinal herbs and small crops, like sunflowers.


The Great Pyramid in La Venta, Tabasco. Remains of the last capital of the Olmec society, La Venta, include this religious site where elites most likely performed rituals.

Most agriculture took place outside of the villages in fields cleared using slash-and-burn techniques. The Olmec likely grew crops such as:

  • Maize
  • Beans
  • Squash
  • Manioc
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Cotton


Unfortunately, there is no surviving direct account of Olmec beliefs, but their notable artwork provide clues about their life and religion.


Olmec king. Surviving art, like this relief of a king or chief found in La Venta, help provide clues about how Olmec society functioned.

There were eight different androgynous Olmec deities, each with its own distinct characteristics. For example, the Bird Monster was depicted as a harpy eagle associated with rulership. The Olmec Dragon was shown with flame eyebrows, a bulbous nose, and bifurcated tongue. These gods were believed to provide the rulers a mandate to lead. Deities often represented a natural element and included:

  • The Maize deity
  • The Rain Spirit or Were-Jaguar
  • The Fish or Shark Monster

Religious activities regarding these deities probably included the elite rulers, shamans, and possibly a priest class making offerings at religious sites in La Venta and San Lorenzo.


The Olmec culture was defined and unified by a specific art style, and this continues to be the hallmark of the culture. Wrought in a large number of media—jade, clay, basalt, and greenstone, among others—much Olmec art, such as The Wrestler, is surprisingly naturalistic. Other art expresses fantastic anthropomorphic creatures, often highly stylized, using an iconography reflective of a religious meaning. Common motifs include downturned mouths and a cleft head, both of which are seen in representations of were-jaguars and the rain deity.


Olmec hollow baby figurine. Realistic ceramic objects, such as this portrayal of an infant, illustrate the highly skilled artistic style of the Olmec culture.

Olmec Colossal Heads

The most striking art left behind by this culture are the Olmec colossal heads. Seventeen monumental stone representations of human heads sculpted from large basalt boulders have been unearthed in the region to date. The heads date from at least before 900 BCE and are a distinctive feature of the Olmec civilization. All portray mature men with fleshy cheeks, flat noses, and slightly crossed eyes. However, none of the heads are alike, and each boasts a unique headdress, which suggests they represent specific individuals.

The boulders were brought from the Sierra de los Tuxtlas mountains of Veracruz. Given that the extremely large slabs of stone used in their production were transported over large distances, requiring a great deal of human effort and resources, it is thought that the monuments represent portraits of powerful individual Olmec rulers. The heads were variously arranged in lines or groups at major Olmec centers, but the method and logistics used to transport the stone to these sites remain uncertain.

The discovery of a colossal head at Tres Zapotes in the 19th century spurred the first archaeological investigations of Olmec culture by Matthew Stirling in 1938. Most colossal heads were sculpted from spherical boulders, but two from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán were re-carved from massive stone thrones. An additional monument, at Takalik Abaj in Guatemala, is a throne that may have been carved from a colossal head. This is the only known example from outside the Olmec heartland.


Olmec head. This sculpture is typical of the colossal heads of the Olmec.

The End of the Olmecs

The Olmec population declined sharply between 400 and 350 BCE, though it is unclear why. Archaeologists speculate that the depopulation was caused by environmental changes, specifically riverine environment changes. These changes may have been triggered by the silting up of rivers due to agricultural practices.

Another theory for the considerable population drop relates to tectonic upheavals or subsidence, as suggested by Santley and colleagues who propose relocation of settlements due to volcanism, instead of extinction. Volcanic eruptions during the Early, Late, and Terminal Formative periods would have blanketed the lands and forced the Olmec to move their settlements.