Between 1200 and 400 B.C., the Gulf Coast states of Veracruz and Tabasco in Mexico were the setting for a major cultural and artistic florescence among peoples now collectively known as Olmec, named after the Aztec word for the region (Olman, “place of rubber”). Olmec art is best known for colossal sculpture in volcanic stone and intricate works in jade, both media that were imported from faraway regions. Olmec artists were revolutionary for their time, establishing the first major widespread styles in Mesoamerica, laying the foundation for later innovation from the central Mexican metropolis of Teotihuacan south to the Maya area.
After the spread of maize agriculture in the Early Formative period (ca. 1800–1200 B.C.), people in the river valleys of Olman cooperated to construct monumental earthen platforms and mounds at the site of San Lorenzo, Veracruz. More research is needed to know about the society at San Lorenzo: for example, what they ate, where they lived, what they believed. They shared the common goal to invest in major building projects, engineering structures and creating large gathering spaces that transcended the functional needs of daily life. Evidence from the nearby site of El Manatí demonstrates that people were creating sculptures out of wood and stone early in San Lorenzo’s history. Rubber balls found at El Manatí are also some of the earliest evidence for the importance of a ballgame to Olmec peoples.
Potters at San Lorenzo created sophisticated vessels out of white clay, such as globular containers known as tecomates (1989.314.18), and black clay, such as incised and gouged bowls (1979.206.367) and zoomorphic vessels (1986.45). They also began sculpting ceramic figures known as “babies,” named after their infant characteristics (1979.206.1134). Ceramic arts at San Lorenzo were exported and imitated in the Valley of Mexico, near modern-day Mexico City, at village centers such as Tlatilco (2014.244.26), Tlapacoya (1995.550.2), and Las Bocas (1978.412.104). Experimentation with paste recipes and surface treatment for ceramic arts is especially evident in Olmec-period Mexico, even as far south as Guatemala and Honduras.
Evidence of the earliest dynastic rulers in Mesoamerica comes from San Lorenzo’s famous colossal heads. Sculpted out of basalt imported over long distances, these portray stoic male faces with individualized headgear. The Olmec naturalism achieved in megalithic portraits extended also to portable stone sculptures, such as regalia related to the Mesoamerican ballgame (1978.412.39), and ceramic figures, such as depictions of seated individuals (2008.637) and people with nonstandard bodies (1989.392). No graves were ever excavated at San Lorenzo, and the few examples of Olmec writing remain undeciphered, so the identity of the possible leaders and residents of this important place have yet to be discovered.
After about 900 B.C., the residents of San Lorenzo migrated away from the monumental center. To the east, people built a complex of platforms and a large pyramid at the site known as La Venta, Tabasco. La Venta architecture is distinguished by massive offerings composed of pavements made of rectangular greenstone slabs. In fact, the growth of La Venta as a center coincides with the influx of jade, from the Motagua River valley in Guatemala, and other types of greenstone from local sources into the Olmec region. Other offerings of greenstone axes (1989.314.5) and standing human figures excavated at La Venta are some of the most iconic works of Olmec art.
Olmec mythological beliefs were expressed by La Venta–period artists in jade sculpture. They animated large symbolic axes by portraying supernatural figures with downturned mouths, almond eyes, and cleft heads (1979.206.942). They also incised large celts with abstract images pertaining to the Olmec Maize God, depicted with L-shaped eyes, fangs, an elaborate headband, and a facial mask (1978.412.5). Greenstone celts seemed to have held symbolic power as representations of maize sprouts.
Olmec mythology was populated by a variety of characters, expressed as animal creatures that appear in jade sculptures, such as eagles (1994.380) or ducks (1974.271.65). Regalia in jade, such as imitations of the claws of felines (1995.484), hint at the elaborate adornments worn by important Olmec leaders. Large stone sculpture at La Venta contains portraits of such leaders, both men and women, who are shown in standing portraits and mythological situations in which they emerge from caves or wrangle infant deities (1979.206.940). After 400 B.C., however, the center of La Venta was abandoned and monumental building and sculpting ceased. Peoples at other Olmec centers, such as Tres Zapotes and Cerro de las Mesas, Veracruz, continued monumental sculpture and ceramic production for many more centuries.
Later Mesoamerican cultures revered works of art created by the Olmec. Many Classic Maya rulers were buried with Olmec figurines or pendants passed down through many generations. Maya artists even inscribed several objects of Olmec origin with hieroglyphic inscriptions and images of early rulers. Costa Rican peoples in the first millennium A.D. imported Olmec works and Maya-inscribed Olmec objects for use in ritual regalia. Recently, archaeologists uncovered an offering at the Aztec Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan in which the Aztecs deposited an Olmec mask made 2,000 years prior.
Olmec art lived on in ancient Mesoamerican aesthetic traditions as well. The sculptors and painters in Olmec-period Mexico were the first to portray many of the iconic features of self-proclaimed divine rulers in Mesoamerica. The Olmec legacy is seen in later Isthmian cultures that continued to sculpt greenstone into figures seated on benches, presumably the elite members of successor communities (1979.206.1123). Large stone sculptures, such as those featuring predatory felines (1978.412.22), also continued to be a hallmark of art in descendant Mesoamerican societies until the arrival of Europeans in the sixteenth century.