Scholars think that these colossal heads, which the Olmec carved from 40-ton stones, are portraits of actual rulers. No one knows exactly how the Olmec moved these stones from distant quarries without wheeled vehicles or draft animals. Still, the evidence shows that the Olmec could mobilize a large labor force.

The Olmec also engaged in trading jade, obsidian, serpentine, mica, rubber, feathers, and pottery; through such trade, they influenced a wide area. The grinning jaguars and serpents that decorate many Olmec carvings appear in the arts of later Mesoamerican peoples. The Olmec also invented a calendar, and they carved hieroglyphic writing into stone. Recent archaeological excavations in Mexico indicate they may have developed a writing system, which would make them the first Mesoamerican civilization to do so.

Photo of an ancient, large stone carving of a human head with head cover in a tropical forest setting.

Archaeologists discovered the giant Olmec stone heads, made of volcanic rock and weighing up to five tons each, during excavations. The Olmec moved them to ceremonial sites from distant quarries.

Influence of the Olmec

Through trade, Olmec influence spread over a wide area. Archaeologists have identified Olmec religious and artistic influences on two later Mesoamerican civilizations—the Mayas and Aztecs.

Both these civilizations built pyramid-shaped temples similar to those of the Olmec. Olmec ceremonial centers had the remains of ball courts linked to religious rituals. Similar ball courts have been found at Maya and later Aztec sites.

The ball game was fast paced and involved great skill on the part of the players. They had to keep a rubber ball in motion and send it through hoops high on a stone wall. The ball was not allowed to touch the ground. Archaeologists do not know the exact meaning of the game, but it had religious and political importance. It also was a source of entertainment for crowds of spectators.

The grinning jaguars, serpents, and other images that decorate Olmec carvings appear in the arts of later people. A figure similar to the Maya god of maize is found in Olmec paintings on the walls at San Bartolo, and the Olmec snake god is seen in the Maya gods Kukulcan and the Aztec Quetzalcoatl. The Olmec calendar and its number system were passed on to later people. Their most important legacy, however, may have been the tradition of priestly leadership and the religious rituals that were central to later Middle American civilizations.

Ancient mural showing stylized human and beast figures with intricate accessories.

The ruins of San Bartolo have murals deep within the pyramidal complex of Las Pinturas.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments