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The Olmec were a people living in south-central Mexico, roughly what would now be the Veracruz and Tabasco regions of the Mexican isthmus. Their immediate cultural influence went much further though, Olmec artwork being found as far afield as El Salvador. The Olmec predominated in their lands from about 1200 BC to about 800 BC; the best-known Olmec centers are at La Venta, San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, Tres Zapotes, Chalcatzingo, and La Mojarra.

Their homeland is characterized by swampy lowlands punctuated by low hill ridges and volcanoes. The Olmec response to this environment was the construction of permanent cities, and they are, in fact, understood to be the progenitors of every primary element common to later MesoAmerican civilizations. They were the first to build permanent city-temple complexes. They were the first to develop a hieroglyphic script for their language, the earliest known example dating from 650 BCE. They were perhaps the originators of the Mesoamerican ballgame so prevalent among later cultures of the region and used for recreational and religious purposes - certainly they were playing it before anyone else has been documented doing so. Their religion developed all the important themes (an obsession with mathematics and with calendars, and a spiritual focus on death expressed through human sacrifice) found in successor cults. Finally, their political arrangements of strongly hierarchical city-state kingdoms were repeated by nearly every other Mexican and Central American civilization that came after.

Olmec artforms emphasize monumental statuary and small jade carvings. While a common theme is to be found in jaguar representations of various sorts, perhaps the best-recognized Olmec art involves enormous helmeted heads, half buried in low mounds. These seem to be portraits of famous ball players, or perhaps kings rigged out in the accoutrements of the game. Olmec figurines were also found abundantly through their period.

Very few individual Olmec people are known to modern scholars; the following sample will perhaps convey some flavor of the people.

It is not known with any clarity what happened to this culture. All that can be said with assurance is that after 800 BC their influence wanes or vanishes, and by the beginning of the Common Era their lands were occupied by successor cultures - most notably the Maya to the east, the Zapotec to the southwest, and the Teotihuacan culture to the west.