Olmec social organization

Social, political and economic organization of the Olmecs

The Olmecs are considered the first pre-Columbian civilization to occupy American territory, with an estimate of time between 1500 BC and 400 BC Recognized as the mother culture of Mesoamerica and the forerunner of other cultures, such as the Mayan, Aztec and Toltec, it occupied the spaces that currently include Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador.

They were inhabitants of arboreal areas, especially where there were rubber trees, from where they obtained the materials to carry out their main rubber-based productions. This gives them their Olmec name, which means “inhabitants of the rubber region” in Nahuatl. Because these areas were in places deep in jungles, this culture was not found until the 30s by great archaeological discoveries.

Although it is not a culture of which much data is found and there are many mysteries around it, a record is kept that lists it as a great power civilization, to the point of influencing other cultures, such as the Aztec and the Mayan, of which it was thought in the first discoveries of the Olmecs that it was a derivation, when it turned out to be the opposite.

The Olmec culture is recognized for the discovery of large sculptures in the shape of heads, presumably from the leaders of their tribes, who were classified as Kings-Priests, made up of volcanic rocks, weighing around 20 tons each. Currently, these sculptures are called Olmec Colossal Heads.

Social organization of the Olmecs

As there are few gaps in the social organization of the Olmecs due to the little data that there is of this civilization, based on the evidence found by archaeologists it could be said that a centralized order was maintained in capital cities and ritual cities, mainly those known as San Lorenzo, La Venta and Tres Zapotes.

In this culture the Priest-Kings ruled, who kept family groups in command, those who were in charge of shaping the dispersed cities, due to the separations of social classes that they formed. Each family belonged to a specific social group, which were classified according to the functions that were fulfilled within the community.

Olmec social organization

Groups that were considered first class or civil high command, such as farmers, merchants and artisans, enjoyed great privileges and benefits as did the Priest-Kings. While the peasants, the lower class, were forced by the dominant group to work on the land to build the buildings. The women were dedicated to taking care of their children and making textiles or crafts based on clay and clay.

Those belonging to the lower classes, in turn, were in charge of rendering worship, tributes and offerings to those of the ruling class through religious ceremonies that were celebrated in the temples, located in the ceremonial cities where the priests and the people who they made up the upper class they resided apart from those who made up the lower classes, who lived in villages located around them.

In San Lorenzo, areas with cracks in houses have been found, which allow us to assume that this place and its surroundings were where a large part of the population and rulers lived, who had large buildings. La Venta, has market and fishing areas, while in the Tres Zapotes area the construction of great pyramids and sacred sanctuaries was carried out, where cults and rituals were carried out.

There were social activities like a ball game similar to soccer, with the difference that you could use your hands. It was practiced on large courts with tiers at their sides, which were located within cities. The ball was characterized by having a weight of almost 3 kg, so the players used a helmet as protection. The Priest King glorified the captain of the winning team and the loser was sacrificed to the Gods.

Political organization

The political order that ruled the Olmec civilization was theocratic, which means that they had a God as the center of everything. Decisions were based on religious factors and the mandates of Gods, personified by the ruler, called Chichimeca, there was no separation of civic and religious laws. In turn, the shaman had to profess and strengthen political and religious dominance in the community.

Power was held by the kings and priests of each community, landowners, warriors and architects, who could choose the shamans, while the peasants did not count in decision-making or the enjoyment of mineral resources such as water and the stones were only destined to work on the lands belonging to the high command and fulfill other obligations assigned to them.

Economic organization

For the Olmecs, the main economic activity to maintain civilization was agriculture. A great variety of foods such as sweet potatoes, avocado, corn, beans, squash, yams, avocado, cocoa and squash were harvested on its vast lands. For this reason, farms were indispensable in the vicinity of capital cities and memorial territories.

For the growth of the Olmec civilization, the marketing of rubber obtained from rubber trees, to make balls or other utensils, as well as basalt, rubber, shells, ceramics, among other objects that were allowed to be sold and exchanged between the allied communities of Monte Albán and Teotihuacán of shells, basalt, rubber and artistic figures or sculptures carved in ceramics and rocks.

Other activities that were practiced were hunting and fishing, thanks to the opportunities that the ecosystem offered by its geographical location, especially the San Lorenzo area. It had large stretches of rivers and was also rich in land to build haciendas and farms for agriculture and sale, which had a fishing area, as well as a rubber growing area and basalt mines.


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