The End of the Olmecs Civilization
The Olmec civilization lasted for about 1100 years. No one is certain the end of the Olmecs civilization.
Many of the intellectual achievements of the Olmecs, such as a writing system and a calendar, were eventually adapted and improved upon by these other cultures. Around 400 BC, the great Olmec city of La Venta went into decline, taking with it the classical Olmec era. Because this civilization declined two thousand years before the first Europeans arrived in the region, no one is absolutely certain of the factors that led to the declined of the Olmecs civilization.
The Olmecs are probably best known for the statues they carved: 20 ton stone heads, quarried and carved to commemorate their rulers. Why did the ancient Olmec civilization disappear?
What we know about the ancient Olmecs
The Olmec civilization was named after the Aztec word for their descendants, who inhabited Olman, or the “land of rubber”. He is mainly known for the study of their architecture and their stone carvings. Although the Olmecs had some sort of writing system, no Olmec book has survived to the present day.
Archaeologists have discovered two large Olmec cities: San Lorenzo and La Venta, in the present-day Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco respectively. The Olmecs were talented stonemasons, who built structures and aqueducts. They were also talented sculptors, sculpting stunning colossal heads without the use of metal tools. They had their own religion, with a class of priests and at least eight identifiable gods. They were great traders and had connections to contemporary cultures all over Mesoamerica.
Declined and the end of the Olmecs civilization
Two large Olmec towns are known: San Lorenzo and La Venta. These are not the original names by which the Olmecs knew them: these names have been lost in time. San Lorenzo flourished on a large island in a river from around 1200 to 900 BC when it went into decline and was replaced by the influence of La Venta.
Read also: Maya Civilization | People, geography and languages, The ancient Mayan cities, Mayan society, Cosmology and religion, Hieroglyphic writing, Arithmetic, The Mayan calendar, Astronomy, Contemporary civilization
Around 400 BC La Venta fell into decline and was eventually completely abandoned. With the fall of La Venta came the end of classical Olmec culture. Although descendants of the Olmecs still lived in the area, the culture itself has died out. The vast trade networks used by the Olmecs collapsed. Jades, sculptures and pottery in the Olmec style and with distinctly Olmec motifs are no longer created.
What happened to the ancient Olmecs?
Archaeologists are still collecting clues that will unravel the mystery of what caused the decline towards the end of the Olmecs civilization of this powerful civilization. It was probably a combination of natural ecological changes and human actions. The Olmecs relied on a handful of crops for their basic livelihood, including corn, squash and sweet potatoes. Although they had a healthy diet with this limited number of foods, their reliance on it so heavily made them vulnerable to climate change. For example, a volcanic eruption could coat an area with ash or change the course of a river: such a calamity would have been disastrous for the Olmec people. Less dramatic climate changes, such as drought, could seriously affect their favorite crops.
Human actions probably also played a role towards the end of the Olmecs civilizations : the war between the Olmecs of La Venta and one of the many local groups could have contributed to the downfall of society. Internal conflicts are also a possibility. Other human actions, such as overexploitation of agriculture or the destruction of forests for agriculture, could also have played a role.
When Olmec culture declined, it did not completely disappear. Rather, it has evolved into what historians call the Epi-Olmec culture. Epi-Olmec culture is a kind of link between classical Olmec culture and Veracruz culture, which would begin to flourish north of the Olmec lands around 500 years later.
The most important Epi-Olmec city was Tres Zapotes, Veracruz. Although Tres Zapotes never achieved the greatness of San Lorenzo or La Venta, it was nonetheless the most important city of its time. The people of Tres Zaptoes did not make monumental art on the scale of Olossal heads or great Olmec thrones, but they were nevertheless great sculptors who left behind many important works of art. They also made great strides in writing, astronomy, and calendars.
Photo explanation: The End of the Olmecs Civilization – Photo of one of the mosaics from the La Venta Olmec site.
Photo credit: Ruben Charles, (http://www.rubencharles.com) CC 2.5
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons