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date: 11 November 2019


  • David C. Grove


Term referring to a precocious, early prehistoric Mesoamerican culture known from archaeological excavations in the Gulf Coast of Mexico and to an art style distinguished by the use of certain motifs and the artefacts on which they occur, made by the archaeological Olmec and many contemporaneous non-Olmec Mesoamerican societies. Both the culture and the art style coincided with the transition in Mesoamerican culture from simple agricultural villages to complex proto-state societies in several regions during the Early Pre-Classic (c. 2000–c. 1000 bc) and Middle Pre-Classic (c. 1000–c. 300 bc) periods. (For a discussion of chronologies, see Mesoamerica, Pre-Columbian, §II.)

The archaeological Olmec (see Mesoamerica, Pre-Columbian, §II, 2, (i)) are known from several sites in the humid tropical lowlands of the southern Gulf Coast. For nearly 500 years, only the Olmec created elegant and sophisticated monumental art in stone, an achievement that set them apart from their contemporaries. These creations made them the focus of archaeological attention and writings for nearly half a century, to the detriment of scholarly understanding of contemporary societies, and resulted in unintentionally biased interpretations of the Pre-Classic period. Early scholars credited the Olmec with almost all Pre-Classic-period intellectual achievements, hypothesizing that Olmec long-distance traders, invaders or missionaries influenced the developments of Mesoamerica’s many non-Olmec societies. They argued that Olmec roots were the foundation of ideas that later Mesoamerican civilizations built on. More recent scholarship, while recognizing the importance of Olmec contributions, has suggested that major Pre-Classic-period intellectual achievements in iconography and architecture were developed and shared by many distinct societies throughout Mesoamerica....

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