The Olmec people, known as the Olmec Indians, were one of the first major civilizations in what we now know as Mexico.
Olmec Timeline for Kids: The Olmec Indians lived from around 1200 to 400 BCE.
The Olmec Indians lived along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, where the climate was extremely hot and humid. The Olmec civilization was made up of both rural and urban areas. They built cities where they often gathered to trade and perform various ceremonies. Farmers would live outside of these cities in more rural areas. The main crop that farmers grew in Olmec’s time was corn.
Social Structure of the Olmec Society
Much like many modern societies we see today, the Olmec people were divided into different social classes. In the Olmec community, you were born into a specific social class and could not move from that class to another, be that up or down.
There were several different classes within the Olmec society. These classes were as follows:
- Classes of command
The command classes were home to people whose role was to exert power over their town. These people were considered ‘elites’ within Olmec society.
The command classes’ job was to handle conflicts between the different groups within the Olmec people and display strong leadership. This leadership was vital in ensuring that the Olmec people survived.
The command classes were not typically involved with harvesting or agriculture but were considered political and spiritual leaders.
- Religious leaders
Religion played a key role in the Olmec society. Faith was so important to the Olmec people that the religious leaders of the time were regarded as the political elite.
Unlike many modern societies, there was no divide between religion and politics in Olmec culture. Religion and politics are two massive areas of influence, and, as religious leaders in the Olmec society controlled both, they were extremely powerful. Religious leaders wielded much power over their community, and their commands were often thought to be from the gods themselves.
When teaching the Olmec timeline to kids, it is important to note that political and religious power gradually began to spread throughout Olmec society.
It essentially meant that while the religious leaders of the time were still highly influential, the political elite spread out to include various families outside of religion. Like a royal family in modern society, these families of the political elite inherited their power through their family timeline. Hence, they were known as dynasties.
These dynasties organized and led the Olmec people’s day-to-day lives and conflicts.
- Artists and craftsmen
While the artists and artisans in the Olmec society did not hold much power, they were highly respected. It is because art was a huge part of Olmec society. Many huge pieces of art from the Olmec period have survived throughout time, so we can see how influential and important art was to the Olmec people.
- Popular Classes
While the many social classes above played various roles and wielded varying amounts of power, most of society was just made up of ordinary citizens. These people were responsible for completing all the mundane tasks that ensured the Olmec society ran smoothly.
Achievements of the Olmec People
When teaching the Olmec timeline for kids, there are several important achievements. For instance, despite living so long ago, the Olmec civilization developed its number system, calendar, and system of picture writing.
As mentioned above, they were also heavily involved with art and created a lot of pottery and jade sculptures throughout their lifetime. They traded these items with other people at the time as a form of currency.
One of the most iconic achievements of the Olmec people was their massive carvings. The Olmec people carved huge heads from basalt, which could get as big as 10 feet (ca. 3 m) tall, weighing as much as 20 tons.
Olmec Timeline for Kids: Early history
The first signs of Olmec society emerged in San Lorenzo Tenochtitlá around 1150 BCE. From this point on, the Olmec society grew and developed.
One of the main reasons the Olmec people emerged and thrived in this area of the world was the unique ecology. The soil in this part of Mexico was extremely rich and well-watered, which enabled high maize production.
It is thought that the dense population of San Lorenzo encouraged the social structure discussed above. It was this social structure that gave the Olmec people power and dominance. Not only that, but it allowed them to produce the fine art that has become indicative of the Olmec culture.
While there is no hard evidence, several materials collected from San Lorenzo suggest that the Olmecs had access to an extensive trading network in Central America. This trading network would have to be protected somehow, which leads many historians to believe that the Olmec civilization had some military system.
Art was a highly important part of Olmec society. There is no one distinct style of Olmec art. However, several techniques seem to have been popular. Olmec art was often full of religious iconography. It also tended to be done in a very naturalistic style, with lots of artwork displaying the human anatomy with great accuracy.
One of the most common themes throughout Olmec artwork is a representation of a divine jaguar. This jaguar, seemingly half jaguar and half baby, are considered a deity in the Olmec religion. In addition, various deities can be found de. These deities included the Feathered Serpent God and the Rain God, which was already in the Mesoamerican pantheon in Olmec times.
Through studying many Olmec artifacts, historians and archaeologists have found that the Olmec people used their ceramic designs to spread their religious beliefs. An interesting fact is that, for the Olmec people to make these ceramics, they would have had to produce temperatures of more than 900 degrees Celsius within kilns. The Ancient Egyptians are the only other prehistoric culture known to have achieved temperatures that high.
The most famous pieces of Olmec art are the gigantic, helmeted heads that they produced. It is not known who these heads represent, but it is thought that they were ancient ball players. It is because the headgear they are sporting is similar to that worn by the players of the Mesoamerican ballgame in other monuments.
As mentioned, our only insight into the Olmec beliefs and religion is through their artwork. Through analyzing Olmec artwork, eight different Olmec deities can be seen. Notably, each deity is depicted as an androgynous figure with male and female characteristics.
Deities in Olmec religion were often representative of an element of nature. Some of the Olmec gods included:
- The Bird Monster
- The Maize deity
- The Rain Spirit or Were-Jaguar
- The Fish Monster
- Olmec Dragon
- Banded-eye deity
- Water deity
- Feathered Serpent
The Decline of the Olmec People
There is no clear end when constructing the Olmec timeline for kids, as it is not known exactly what happened to the Olmec civilization. However, it is just known that San Lorenzo, the hub of Olmec society, was abandoned around 900 BCE, and La Venta replaced it as the main city. It is thought that environmental changes may have been the reason behind this huge change for the Olmec people, as several rivers changed course at that time. On the other hand, it is possible that the Olmec people were invaded, as this is depicted in a number of the artifacts at the time.
A few hundred years later, in 400 BCE, La Venta also ended.