the Olmecs, c.1400BC-400BC

The earliest civilization we have a record of is one we call the Olmec culture. They left behind no written texts for us to tell us what they were like. (There are some written fragments but not enough to build a history – much less a language – on.) Apart from the archaeological remains and the memories passed down by their neighbors we have no real knowledge of them or their culture.

Still, many historians believe they were the creators of the calendar used later by the Maya and the Aztec; in fact, by all the civilizations of Mesoamerica. That the earliest calendar notations were after their heyday and in the border region where the Maya civilization arose clouds the issue. So, until the certified authors of the calendar can be verified, I shall continue calling it the Mayan Calendar.

The forerunners of the Olmec are assumed to have passed over the Bering land-bridge from Asia, 15,000 to 12,000 BC (or so). The earliest group has been termed the Clovis people from their earliest known site in New Mexico. Some authorities take a dim view of claims of sites that pre-date Clovis. Virginia Steen-McIntyre, and the team she joined at Hueyatlaco (not to be confused with Hueyapan, now Tres Zapotes), an archeological site in Valsequillo, Mexico, determined the site to have been built around 250,000 BC.

This debate will not be settled any time soon, I am certain, even though the pro-Clovis group is holding their own at the moment. Others are finding sites that push the envelope backward as well.

Regardless of earlier sites, the earliest actual civilization we know of is the Olmecs. We know little of their society as all they left us were some large stone heads and other artifacts. Even so, most scholars still attribute the calendar to this mysterious group as well as the ball that is used by all the later cultures that survived in the region: Toltec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and the Maya.

Early celestial observatories can be traced to the Olmec civilization as can the ball courts. The rubber balls came from the region of the Olmecs and the culture’s name comes to us from the Aztecs who called them the “rubber people”.

Perhaps new discoveries will tell us more about this mysterious and yet influential people.

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