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.