|David L. Thorn
March 28, 2003
1. The Olmec civilization was the most prevalent group in Mesoamerica during the time period of 1200 BC to
400 BC. The chronology for the Olmec civilization for many researchers is still controversial, and this is largely
due to problems relating to the dating of artifacts. For the most part however, researchers use the chronology of
researcher Ignacio Bernal (1969), who classified the evolution of the Olmec culture into three phases. The
phases are Olmec I ( 1750-1150 BC), Olmec II (1150-400 BC) and Olmec III (400-100 BC). Archaeological
evidence suggests that the Olmec originated in the area now known as Vera Cruz, and existed mainly along the
Gulf Coast and the Tuxtlas Mountain range area. This is commonly referred to as the Olmec heartland, but
evidence shows that the Olmec culture stretched as far South as Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica.
The climate of the Olmec heartland area is very wet with heavy rainfall, and the landscape is dense tropical
forest. The area is also subject to annual flooding from the rivers in the area, which creates swamps and
marshes along the outer fringes. The area supports an abundant array of plant and animal life, which could
easily support a small community in the area. This supports evidence that suggests early Olmec villages were
The rich environment would have been conducive to hunting and gathering within a local area, and would also
have supported a sedentary lifestyle. While living a comfortable existence, the Olmec would have been free to
experiment with the cultivation of crops, and the naturally wet areas would have been ideal for this endeavor,
especially in the rich soils located in the river basins. At this point you can look at either of two different theories
for what happened next. One-theory states that populations will grow as food supply increases, and another
theory is that the population drives the food production, but either way the result is the same. The population
increased in the villages, and a transition was made from non-agricultural into agricultural.
As agriculture increased, it required someone to manage the resources, and this rapidly created a division of
rank and class among the people. The one’s who controlled the rich farm land would naturally have been the
ones who would rise up as the Elite of the community because they controlled the food supply, and as part of the
management of resources, a central center had to be established. The slash/burn agricultural technique utilized
by the Olmec would not have allowed for a large city of people to develop. The general population would have
had to live in outlying areas in order to maintain the crops, so what appears to have happened is that the Olmec
established religious centers. At this point religion moves into the form of a public religion instead of a private
one, and by 1550 BC monumental architecture begins to appear in these religious centers.
By now a broad division of class has been established, and the rulers, priests, and artisans take up residency in
the religious centers, and the common people in the outlying areas sustain the urban population with their crops,
and also come into the city to provide labor for construction purposes. Originally these religious centers were
constructed around a central raised mound, but by approximately 900 BC, the raised mounds were replaced with
This monumental architecture required labor, and with more people you need increased food production. The
Olmec accomplished this by creating an irrigation system of aqueducts and canals. This construction required
more labor, and the Olmec civilization continued to grow. As the population grew, so did the division between the
elite and the common people. The Olmec had very close ties with Nature, and as a result, animals were strong
symbols in their religion. As the elite became stronger, they began associating themselves with animal deities,
and in doing so became part of the religion of the Olmec. Now the elite are considered gods themselves, which
changed the dynamics of the whole social and religious organization. The rulers could now pass their power
down through their lineages.
The rulers are now well entrenched into the religious and social organization of the civilization, and the desire for
more prestige and power drives them to reach outside the boundaries of the Olmec heartland. The waterways of
the Olmec region provide an excellent means of transportation and communication for this endeavor, and the
Basalt found in the Tuxtlas Mountains provided a good trade commodity. The Olmec rulers had a desire for such
things as Obsidian, Jade, and Cacao (chocolate), which are not found in the Olmec region. As the Olmec
ventured out and established trade relations with other areas, and developed lines of communication, the Olmec
culture was spread across the Mesoamerican area.
Some believe that the Olmec established colonies in these trade areas, and that this concept of colonization and
expansion was a natural step in the process of civilization growth. The archaeological evidence however does
not support this theory completely. The evidence indicates that Olmec elites lived and spent time in some of
these outlying villages, but the people do not appear to be subordinate to them. Instead, it appears that the
people of these villages embraced and incorporated the advances and experiences of the Olmec into their own
culture, and it was more of a blending and acceptance then domination.
In conclusion, the Olmec appear to have established the idea of a separation of class between Elite and the
common people, and the management of resources that allows for increased population growth is aided by this
organizational arrangement. As the different areas of Mesoamerica had contact with, and established working
relationships with the Olmec, they would have been influenced by this social arrangement. By adopting this same
concept of social organization it would have been a catalyst for expansion and development within their own
civilizations. The trade alliances would have allowed the different areas to expand beyond their immediate
means. The people of the other areas, who controlled the trade goods with the Olmec, could possibly become
the elite of their communities much as the Olmec landowners once became the elite in their communities. Those
who have control of the resources assume the power, and once an elite class has evolved, they will drive the
civilization to expand and grow. The technological advances of the Olmec for irrigating crops and domesticating
plants also allows the areas a means of producing more food to support their population expansion. Further,
these other areas would have acquired access to the crops previously domesticated by the Olmec, which
potentially are more beneficial and economical then native plants. By having contact with the Olmec, other
cultures and communities could easily have had their civilizations pushed onto the road for expansion without
even realizing it. It provided a blueprint for social organization and a base in which to grow from.
Another area worth discussing has to do with the religious practices of the Olmec. The Olmec practice a very
captivating and intriguing religion. It is inspired by the Nature around them, and deifies the plants and animals. It
has elaborate gods and ceremonies that have the ability to inspire and motivate the people. The priests are
shaman who not only can talk with the gods, but also can change into animals themselves. As the outside
civilizations came into contact with these religious practices, the people could relate to the nature aspect of the
belief, and the excitement and ceremony of the practices.
To the Olmec, religion was part of the social organization, and the ruler’s were deities themselves. As people of
other areas came to the Olmec religious centers for commerce purposes, they would have been interacting with
this social and religious organization. Also, as the Olmec ventured out and set up residency in outlying
communities, the outsiders would have been exposed to, and most likely participated in, Olmec religious
ceremonies. They may have participated only out of respect for the elites in the community, but some people
most assuredly embraced the Olmec religion.
The Olmec religion could also offer political rewards. A common result of trade and alliances is usually inter-
marriage between cultures, and this can be a way of acquiring and maintaining these alliances. For this type of
inter-mixing of cultures to take place, religious considerations are usually made. In regards to marriage of elites,
these conversions could have very beneficial rewards, because within the elite class, divine right of power is
passed along lineage lines, so if a neighboring community practices the same religion, a marriage with an Olmec
elite could help to ensure your position within the community.
The Olmec influence, both socially and religiously, would have been a major catalyst for civilization development
on anyone who interacted with them. The separation of class between the elites and commoners, supported by
the religious belief in the divine right of the rulers, sets the stage for civilization across Mesoamerica.
2. In Mesoamerica, there is a lack of domestic animals. Therefore, it would be a great gamble for people to
spend their time experimenting with domestication of a plant. Further, you would have to experiment with
domesticating several different varieties of plants in order to get the required balanced diet required for survival.
If the experiment did not work, the result would be that the people would starve to death.
Originally the people of Mesoamerica were hunter/gatherers, and they existed in “bands”. Archaeological
evidence suggests that these “bands” led a nomadic way of life, but at certain times of the year may have come
together to exploit certain resources that were in abundance. Even if theses people attempted to domesticate
some native plants during their stays in an area, these limited native species would not have been sufficient to
support the idea of a sedentary agricultural existence. It is believed that for this to happen, it would require the
interaction of people in other areas, so that local domesticated plants could be shared and developed with other
regions, only then could a significant agricultural crop be developed that has the capability of supporting a
In 1948 a researcher by the name of R.S. MacNeish, began a project to trace the establishment of settled life in
Mesoamerica, and he focused his research in an area of caves located in the mountains of northeastern and
central Mexico. MacNeish’s project lasted until 1975, and what he recovered from the caves during this long
period of investigation has suggested a pattern for the evolution of settlement in the area.
As stated previously, the people of Mesoamerica were originally traveling bands that exploited the natural
environment. What MacNeish found in his caves was evidence that the people during the earlier periods were
indeed hunting and gathering. According to his data, the diet of these people consisted of over 40 percent
gathered plants, and about 54 percent from meat. This group of people dated back to approximately 7200 BC,
and this dietary trend continued until around 7000 BC. By 7000 BC the plant part of the diet had increased to
include at least 19 different kinds of native plants, and three of them showed signs of domestication. The plants
that showed signs of domestication only made up about 5 percent of the overall diet however, and meat is still the
main food source.
In the period of 5500-4500 BC, the diet of the people has increased in use of domesticated plants to 14 percent,
but the main diet is still derived from hunting and gathering of wild native plants, fruits, and seeds.
Stone tools found for this period supported the hunter/gatherer lifestyle. Flint points for hunting, knives for
butchering and skinning, and general digging tools. No permanent housing was built, and it appears that the
people were still living a nomadic lifestyle, however the availability of domesticated food appears to have allowed
the bands to remain longer in one place without having to move. The next big shift came during the period
between 3500 and 1500 BC. During this period domesticated plants accounted for 21 percent of the overall diet,
and by the end of the period it had risen to 35 percent. This trend continued steadily until around 600 AD when
it reached a peak of 75 percent of overall diet. Meat had dropped to only 17 percent of the people’s diet during
Analysis of the plants over the course of their domestication shows a dramatic improvement in genetic
modification making them more beneficial as a food source. Also, in examining the evolution of the diet over the
years, it was found that what some researchers said would have to happen, had happened. The diet showed
signs that new domesticated plants had been added to the diet over the years, and that these domesticated
plants had come from other areas, outside the local area. One of the most important domesticated plants
introduced during this period was brought in around 3000 BC, and it was corn.
Mesoamerica is made up of various climate zones all within a small area, with the highlands and lowlands being
the two most obvious contrasts. The lowland areas, especially along the coastal and river basins, would have
provided a lush tropical environment marked by swamps, marshes and thick vegetation. This area would not only
have been full of edible native plants, but would have provided an ideal environment for game animals. The
concentration of food resources in this area would have easily provided a small band of hunter and gatherers
with everything they needed to survive, without the need to travel. In these lowland areas evidence of the first
semi-permanent structures appears. Though the people are still hunter/gatherers during this time period, they
most likely would have exploited several varieties of plants that are common to the area, which latter become very
important throughout Mesoamerica. These lowland plants are vanilla, cacao, and several varieties of squash as
well as many fruits.
The first evidence of semi-permanent villages appears along both the Gulf and Pacific coasts of Mesoamerica.
Sites such as Sanja and Puerto Marquez have shell middens and what appear to be clay floors. Other sites have
yielded large piles of chipped stone and fire cracked rock, which once again suggests at least a semi-permanent
lifestyle. During the extended stays in these areas, the rich environment allowed the people to experiment with
cultivation of certain native plants without having to worry about the repercussions of failed crops. The rich soil
of the lowland areas, especially in the river basins, most assuredly produced abundant crops from these
experiments into agriculture. With abundant food, population increases, and communities grow.
As stated before, it is not likely that any one area could domesticate enough plants to sustain a population, it
would require outside help. Any naturally wet areas would have been conducive to this evolution of plant
domestication, and different zones would have had their own varieties of native plants suitable for domestication.
While some areas may have had corn and squash native to their area, others may have had a tropical root crop
such as manioc. The main point is that in these wet areas, the cultivation of crops supplemented the hunting and
gathering to provide an abundance of food, and this abundance of food led to a population growth. With
increased population comes more intense agriculture, and this is accomplished by irrigation and controlling of the
water resources. As agricultural areas expanded the crops became more domesticated and surpluses are
maintained. Population growth and expansion of one community causes contact with other similarly growing
communities in other zones.
Part of the success of the evolution of plant domestication in Mesoamerica has to do with the fact that so many
different climate zones exist within a very small land area. The demographics of mountains, volcanoes, rivers,
lakes, etc. allow for a broad variety of native plants to exist, and pockets of lush rich soil allows the opportunity for
domestication. At the same time, the closeness of the areas causes the people of the different areas to have
contact with each other, thus promoting the acquiring of, and trading of food surpluses. It is this sharing of
domesticated crops across regions, that allows the whole evolution of a completely sedentary lifestyle based on
agriculture to take place.
With a sedentary lifestyle, agriculture becomes more intense, management of resources becomes a necessity to
maintain crop intensity, and this eventually leads to changes in social dynamics of the communities. This cycle of
agriculture fueled growth continues until eventually you have large civilizations existing across Mesoamerica.
It is a fact that the Olmec were a driving force in the evolution of civilization in Mesoamerica, and the Maya
lowlands appear to have followed a culturally similar pattern up until the beginning of the Classic period. For the
Maya this was a period of establishment. From 2000 BC until approximately 100 AD, the Maya followed an
evolutionary sequence that led to a complex culture.
Though the Olmec were a major influence in the area, the archaeological evidence indicates that the Maya
lowlands evolved on their own path, with only a small degree of influence from the Olmec. The path of evolution
for the Maya is very similar to the evolutionary path followed by the Olmec civilization.
The areas of the lowlands first developed, are the areas that are naturally wet such as swamps, rivers, and
streams. The people who moved into these areas, and started the initial agriculture, come from unknown
origins. It is unclear if these people came from other areas, or if they were indigenous to the area and just
started cultivating plants one day. Whom ever they were, they began a practice of localized intensive agriculture
in these wet zones, and due to the rich soils found in these areas, food was quickly abundant.
Abundant food supply supports population growth, and by approximately 900 BC, the population had grown to a
point that required major expansion of cultivation. At this time the Maya began to use a slash/burn technique of
agriculture. By doing this they are able to open up more land for farming, but this technique has some major
drawbacks. First, the farmer must cut the vegetation and allow it to dry out, and this is very labor demanding.
Next, the dry vegetation is burned and the seeds are planted in the ash of the burned vegetation. After about
three years, the soil is depleted of nutrients and must be allowed to lie dormant; this requires the farmer to repeat
the cycle again, and again clearing more and more land. As forest and vegetation is cleared, the natural
environment is changed. Game animals lose their habitat, and soil erosion begins to take place. Eventually, the
population, and the crops begin to compete for land, and the Maya look for other means of cultivation.
By approximately 300 BC, the Maya had begun to cultivate the swamp areas of the wetlands. The Maya began
to drain and adapt the swamps for cultivation by constructing raised beds and creating canals and water control
systems. This system of extensive-intensive agriculture continued through the classic period.
Archaeological evidence, supported by radar imagery in some cases, suggests that at one time every major
swamp and waterway in the lowlands was exploited for agricultural purposes.
As villages and cities began to form, one critical aspect had to be addressed. Because of the porous bedrock
and shallow topsoil found in most parts of the lowlands, rainwater quickly drains away, and little surface water
exists. The Maya had to develop a form of water management to insure that they had access to water year
round, and especially during the dry season. This water management concept requires planning and
organization, and as a result a “Simple Chief” is created. The “Simple Chief”, is someone that the village agrees
upon to be in charge of this task. The water management plan that the Maya begin to use at this point takes the
form of reservoirs and enlarged waterholes. As populations increase, and villages expand out, the size of the
reservoirs increase. Eventually it becomes necessary for several villages to work together, in order to maintain
the large reservoirs that provide water for everyone in the district. The cooperation of the villages requires
increased planning and organization between the villages and a “District Chief” is created. Like the “Simple
Chief”, the “District Chief” is someone that everyone chooses to fill this particular position. Population growth
continues and the districts begin to expand even more, requiring much more planning and management, so a
“Paramount Chief” is chosen to oversee the water management system at this point.
The person chosen as the Paramount Chief is elevated above his peers in the community, and since he controls
a vital resource for the survival of the community, has a great deal of social power. This is the beginning of a
class distinction between “Elites” and the common person.
By around 150 AD, many cities in the lowland area have begun to be quite large, and have populations estimated
to be around 72,000 persons in some cases. It is obvious that urban centers have developed, with some of the
most important being Tikal, Coba, and Edzna. A common characteristic of these urban centers appears to be
that they are surrounded by a radiation of smaller cities, towns, villages, and small homesteads, which get smaller
and less populated as you move out. This indicates that the urban centers have developed into Regional
centers, and that the ruler of this center controls the outer communities.
As the Regional states grow and expand it appears that a buffer zone is maintained between Regional states,
and the Maya territories are eventually divided up into approximately 12 to 16 Regional States by the Late
Classic and Early Classic periods.
A by-product of large sedentary populations is that craftsmen and artisans are able to emerge. Also, a
population of laborers is available for construction and maintaining of monumental architecture. The first
construction that appears in all of the major centers is in the form of temples, palaces, ball courts, raised road
systems, and reservoirs. As the centers grow in size and importance, so does their architecture. At the center of
large Regional States, market places and administrative centers are constructed, and people throughout the
Regional area operated in an institutionalized trade system. This allowed resources from local areas of the
Region to be dispersed throughout the region. Elevated roads or causeways were also a major factor within the
Regional States. The roads were constructed in such a manner that they were greatly elevated above the
normal terrain, and they were hard and polished. Another attribute of the roads was that they were cambered in
the center to allow for drainage, and this actually fed into the water system. The roads diverted a large quantity
of water run off to be funneled into the reservoir system for the community. These road systems created a
network of connections between important buildings within the centers, and also formed a connection between
various urban centers.
The Maya functioned around two major cycles of time that are recorded in “The Sacred Almanac”. In order to
record this information the Maya developed a writing system. This writing system allowed certain social functions
to be documented, genealogical information could be recorded, important events and occurrences could be
documented, and in essence, the Elite could place themselves into the cycle of time and insure their place in
history. The writing was obviously controlled by the Elite at this point, who used it to decorate buildings, Stelae,
and pottery of the time. Recording what the Elite’s wanted to have document and known.
In conclusion, the Maya and the Olmec followed a similar pattern that led to a complex culture. Availability of
resources led to a sedentary lifestyle, which developed, into an agricultural existence. The agricultural aspect is
necessary for any large population to survive in a designated place, and to accomplish intensive agriculture you
must be able to adapt your environment. This takes planning and management, which creates a system of
administration and establishes a class of people who control the resources for the community. With control of
resources comes power, and with power comes ego, which has the capability of driving a civilization to grow.
For the Olmec it appears that land control was the resource that drove the class separation, and established who
the Elite of the community were. For the Maya, it appears to be water management, and this is because of the
type of soil and bedrock found in the area. Water resources are different from land resources because they are
localized. This localization of the resources led to the eventual need for cooperative efforts between villages,
which created a “District Chief” position, which eventually evolved into an Elite Ruler, who basically controlled an
expanded model of the original cooperative water management system.
As Regional States grew, rulers would not have been able to administrate everything themselves. Therefore,
levels of administrators would have been established. Power would have been handed down in a descending
manner along hereditary lines, and this has a way of elevating the heads of lineages into a superior status, which
leads into eventual ancestor worship, and divine right status for the lineage. It also creates a degree of conflict
among the Elites as each person jockeys for position and power. Competition between lineages, and expanding
Regional States, appear to be two of the major conflicts that spark out right warfare between centers and
regions. At this time, fortresses begin to appear at most of the centers, and the complexity of the culture
By now the Maya culture has started reaching a break point. The Elite’s appear to be intent on building bigger
and grander architecture, and this is placing a heavy demand on a large portion of the population. All available
land is being utilized for agricultural purposes, and resources are being pushed to the limits. Competition
between Centers is becoming a matter of survival, and internal power struggles are weakening the social
structure. A militaristic culture develops which sets the Maya on a course for destruction.