Regarded as the first major civilization of Mexico, the Olmec people thrived between 1500 BC – 400 BC. They were primarily based in the present-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco and left various examples of their art behind. Their ‘colossal heads’ are one of their most famous art works, but they created many artistic objects for use as both functional or ceremonial (and religious) items. Scholars continue to study these ancient objects in the hopes of understanding more about this ancient culture.
Monumental stone art and cave paintings make up a significant portion of Olmec artistic tradition. Archaeologists believe that, among the artifacts uncovered, the Olmec created their most substantial works for religious or possibly even political motivations. Aside from their rock art, the Olmec people also developed early calendars and writing systems that would influence the development of later examples by subsequent major civilizations like the Aztecs. Historians aren’t sure what led to the Olmec people’s decline; they had already vanished into history by the time the first Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico nearly 2,000 years later. However, their artifacts are still being sought and studied extensively.
The Olmec have a strong stonework tradition. Historians believe they were also gifted woodworkers, but few examples made of wood have survived. The colossal heads are regarded as stone carving far ahead of their time. The largest of the discovered heads weighs upwards of forty tons. The features of the heads are elaborately carved and convey extremely realistic human features. Olmec artisans also created huge thrones carved from basalt. Cave paintings revealed that noble rulers or priests sat upon them. Many statues owing to Olmec creation have also been unearthed in the region. Artisans employed many different types of stone found in their region like basalt and even jadeite. As major regional traders, it may be safe to assume that some material may have been traded into the region.
The most significant Olmec cave paintings can be found within the mountains of the present-day state Guerrero. Many of the cave paintings reveal details about Olmec life and culture. Some paintings as well as carvings depict infants with jaguar heads. Small masks and ornaments discovered among Olmec ruins reveal further details about this extraordinary civilization. Because Olmec artists were so advanced, their works had a profound impact on later Mexican cultures. In fact, replicas of their work are important to today’s tourist industry; Olmec art souvenirs are created by modern artisans and sold to throngs who visit Mexico today in celebration of this ancient people who are still revered for their artistic contributions.