A civilization that lived in the Mexico’s tropical lowlands, Olmecs were considered to be Pre-Columbian. The area they inhabited corresponds to the current states of Tabasco and Veracruz.
The period when the Olmec history had its peak was from the year 1400 BC to the year 400 BC. They’re generally considered to be the first civilization of the Mesoamerican type and they were also the first to practice blood based rituals and a ballgame, both of which were found in later civilizations of the same type.
Olmecs had their own type of artwork, characterized by the colossal heads, as they’re known right now. When the Olmec historic artifacts started being found at the end of the 19th century, they were considered to be the most beautiful out of what the old America had to offer.
The area where the Olmecs are considered to have been born was in the Gulf lowlands and it is named the Olmec heartland. In this area, there are low hills, volcanoes, ridges and swamps, with the mountains of Tuxtlas at the North of the area, near the Bay of Campeche, in the Gulf of Mexico. In this area, you will find Olmec history and city temples like La Venta, Laguna de los Cerros, San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan and Tres Zapotes. For almost a thousand years, the Olmecs would appear and reign without a rival in this area.
The beginning of the Olmec civilization was traced to the area of the San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan city. The civilization’s rise in this area was influenced by the alluvial soil, which was watered well, plus by the fact that the Coatzacoalcos river allowed for easy transportation in the area. You can easily compare these conditions with others, that allowed the formation of civilizations in the Indus, Nile, Mesopotamia and Yellow River areas. With an area so productive, the civilization expanded quickly, so an elite class appeared soon. The artifacts that are so treasured these days were in fact a product of the elite class. The materials used for the Olmec artifacts were in some cases brought from distant lands. Some of these materials were obsidian, magnetite and jade. The obsidian was brought from the highlands of Guatemala, which was around 400 km from the Olmecs. This suggests that they traded a lot over long distances, showing an advanced civilization.
San Lorenzo was the first city of the Olmecs, and it remained important for around 500 years. Its importance decreased after that, its place being taken by La Venta eventually. These changes and some of the destruction of artifacts found in the area is believed to have been caused by a change in the course of rivers in the area.
For the next 500 years or so, La Venta was the largest Olmec city, being abandoned in 400 BC. In this period, Olmecs built some huge monuments, a testimony to their power in those times. One of the monuments was the Great Pyramid, which still has a height of 34 meters, even though it eroded for over 2500 years. Within La Venta, there were opulent offerings found, like huge mosaic pavements, pottery, hematite mirrors, jade celts and serpentine blocks.
The exact causes for the Olmec extinction isn’t known exactly, except that the population numbers dropped fast after 400 BC, for a few decades. The reason might have something to do with environmental changes, which affected a lot of Olmec farmers.