Olmec Civilization, Specialization, & The Origins Of Agriculture — Common Threads

February 17, 2015 in Humans

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The Olmec Civilization was one of the largest and most influential cultural centers to emerge in the Americas over the last 10,000 or so years — and was responsible for, amongst other things, domesticating a fair number of the plants that are commonly eaten as food throughout the world today.

The culture’s earliest known center of activity was the city of “San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan” — where clearly recognizable “Olmec” features were first visible sometime around 1600 BC (3600 years ago).

This is when the giant “colossal heads” first started appearing, as well as some of the earliest evidence of the mesoamerican ball game (including rubber balls, and “stadiums”), ceremonial axes, “baby face” figurines/depictions, the feathered serpent, the long count calendar, and cocoa (what we make chocolate out of), amongst other things.

Olmec jaguar man mask

The rise of this civilization was precipitated by the same conditions/causes as most any other civilization — a biologically productive environment well suited to near year-round agriculture, with abundant natural resources.

While it may seem obvious to some, it bears repeating here that without abundant natural resources civilization(s) can’t exist. In fact, you could very well argue that civilizations as we know them are a cultural form that can only exist with the existence of “untapped resource reserves”.

After all, that’s exactly what a study of history shows: civilizations grow in complexity with increasing resource use, and as the resources that the civilization is dependant upon run out, the civilization, and the culture that gave rise to it, begin disintegrating — into competing and distinct factions, fighting over an ever shrinking pie.

At this point civilizations also tend to become weak enough that the actions of previously insignificant outside cultures, and mass migration, can play a significant part in the over stressing of the civilizations structures, social forms, and infrastructure. With this disintegration, of course, also comes the four horsemen — outside conquest, internal war and mass slaughter, famine/the rebalancing of the social order, and death.

And population levels return to those that the — now diminished — environment can support.

Olmec mural

With regard to the Olmecs, the rise of their civilization was also assisted by the local ecology of well-watered alluvial soil, and the extensive transportation network that the Coatzacoalcos river basin provided. In this way, it is very directly comparable to other centers of activity around the world from around this same period of time — the Nile, the Indus, and the Yellow River valleys, as well as Mesopotamia; all (at the time) highly biologically productive environments. Ones conducive, in other words, to specialization and support of classes of elites — as well as professional armies.

It’s easy to think of some of the these regions as they are now — relatively barren, hot, and almost desert-like — and forget that until human/agricultural activity, these areas were largely covered in big old-growth forests, filled with multitudes of now gone animals, and were, overall, far more biologically productive environments. These regions weren’t the diminished shells that you see now, back when the civilizations native to them were at their peaks. (See: Desertification Effects, Causes, & Examples: Top 10 List)

Green obsidian blade

The environment that the Olmecs emerged in may be compared to that of other ancient centers of civilization. This highly productive environment encouraged a densely concentrated population, which in turn triggered the rise of an elite class. The elite class created the demand for the production of the symbolic and sophisticated luxury artifacts that define Olmec culture. Many of these luxury artifacts were made from materials such as jade, obsidian, and magnetite, which came from distant locations and suggest that early Olmec elites had access to an extensive trading network in Mesoamerica.

The process of this genesis brings us to an important point — while many in the modern world like to think of the civilizations of the last 10,000 or so years as being the result of human ingenuity and increasing “intelligence”, the reality seems to be that civilizations have only ever arose (within recorded history anyways) in environments extremely similar to the one that the Olmecs arose in.

Colossal head Olmec

That is to say, highly biologically productive ones where specialization and complex relatively static symbolic systems can be supported/fed.

And for that matter, during times when the weather and climate of the world were/are relatively calm. The last 10,000 or so years have been incredibly mild as far as weather-related, climatic, tectonic, and volcanic events go — truly, almost incredibly so.

The previous several hundred-thousand years had been considerable more chaotic, unstable, and extreme — than what we are used to now. All of which no doubt had a profound effect on the cultural and social forms of those times. To put it simply — the values of the last few thousand years have largely, in many ways, simply been the values of people who can reliably count on a relatively steady supply of food; a relatively mild climate; and a lack of many significant volcanic/tectonic events.

It’s telling that when the civilizations of recent millennia have faced significant food-insecurity or ecological-crises that they have generally almost immediately begun disintegrating. The integration of bands of humans into a common, stable civilization/symbolic-system seems to be entirely, or almost so, dependant upon food-surplus. Without the food-surplus present, things tend to fall apart.

(For more information on prehistory, see: Paleoneurology & Prehistoric Cave Art, Paintings, & Carvings)

Feathered serpent olmec

It’s worth nothing that the idea has been put forward in the past, by a number of different figures, that the emergence of intensive agriculture could very have been solely the result of widespread ecological destruction/collapse following the extinction of the vast majority of the megafauna animals in the world 13,000-10,000 or so years ago (which people very certainly contributed to, to some degree or other).

In other words, that settled agriculture and permanent-settlements arose as a result of environmental-collapse rather than a change in human conceptual-ability. Agriculture did, after all, emerge fairly rapidly after the collapse of megafauna-animal populations around the world — and, presumably, of the big-game hunting cultures that depended on them.

It should also be noted here, that intentional plant cultivation has been in practice for at the very least 28,000 years (taro root, Papua New Guinea) — well before the beginning of what we think of as being agriculture. So the conceptual understanding certainly seems to have been there for a great deal longer than settled agriculture has — nearly 20,000 years more (at the very least).

In South and Central America, for instance — the potato, peanuts, beans, corn, and many other foods commonly eaten today, were first domesticated about 8000 years ago. Just a few thousand years after the collapse of the megafauna ecosystems in the region — just enough time for cultural solutions to the food issues that likely accompanied the extinctions to emerge. (Despite what many in the stimuli-obsessed modern world might like to think, true cultural change is generally a relatively slow process — especially with regard to interactions with the wider environment.)

A final important note to make here is that the megafauna extinctions didn’t occur at the same time everywhere in the world — they tracked very closely with modern human activity. New Zealand makes a good example, the island’s megafauna — 12-foot-tall Moa birds, the largest eagle to have ever existed (Haast’s Eagle), etc — didn’t start going extinct until the Maori arrived in 1200-1300.

The trend seems to be that agriculture only ever emerged after the megafauna animals disappeared (if it wasn’t brought with settlers, as with the Maori) — regardless of where and when in the world this happened.

With regard to the end of the Olmec Civilization, the exacts of the decline and fall aren’t known for sure — but agricultural issues and resource decline, as well as the social problems that always accompany those things, seem very likely to have played a significant part.

Between the years of 400 and 350 BC, the population in the eastern half of the Olmec heartland dropped off a cliff — and that area remained only very sparsely inhabited all the way up until the 19th century.

Olmec collapse volcano

As archaeologists have out it, this depopulation was very likely the result of “very serious environmental changes that rendered the region unsuited for large groups of farmers”.

There does appear to be some evidence (stories of successor cultures, etc) that volcanic eruptions may have played some part (a large part?) in the precipitous drop on population. Previous to that disaster, though, the civilization appears to have been on the decline anyways.

Cenote Olmec

Here’s some more pictures of Olmec art, ruins, pyramids, etc:

Olmec culture mask

Olmec stone carving

Olmec ruins buildings

Olmec pyramid ruins

Olmec cave painting

Olmec jade carving

Olmec statue man

Olmec ruins

Image Credit: Public Domain; Creative Commons

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