As one of the significant pre-Columbian cultures that flourished in south central area of modern day Mexico, the Olmecs are understood to have laid the foundation for many of the Mesoamerican cultures that later developed all across the region. Here is some background on the Olmecs, including their contributions to the development of civilization in the New World.
Established in an area of Mexico that is known for its tropical climate and low lying areas, the centers of Olmec civilization were located in what is today the Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Historians tend to agree that the Olmec established the first permanent society in Mesoamerica to actually flourish and develop over a long period of time. It is generally understood that the Olmecs controlled the region from about 1200 BCE to 400 BCE.
The rich soil and the tropical climate of the region made it possible for the Olmecs to develop a highly structured society that was based on the production of maize, or corn. The prosperity of the culture led to a definition of classes, which in turn led to the development of a significant artistic element among the civilization. Precious metals, such as jade and magnetite were brought in from distant regions and used in the creation of jewelry, building facades, furnishings for the homes and public buildings, and pottery and statues.
There are several long last innovations that are traced back to the prosperous years of the Olmecs. The practice of bloodletting as a means of curing illness seems to have first been practiced among this people. An interesting competitive sport that made use of sixteen balls made its first appearance among the Olmecs and is sometimes referred to as the origin of many of the sports later enjoyed in other Mesoamerican civilizations. The arts of writing and epigraphy also appear to have first developed in the New World among the Olmecs, as did the invention of the concept of zero and a functioning calendar based on scientific applications.
The original center of culture for the Olmecs, San Lorenzo, began to decline and was more or less abandoned sometime around 900 BCE. The population and cultural center for the Olmecs had by that time become La Venta. There has been speculation that the gradual move was greatly influenced by the environment, although there are some historians that speculate that the move was also due to trading factors, or that some sort of invasion led to the eventual shift. La Venta remained the cultural center for the Olmecs during the remainder of their reign as a premier civilization.
There is some speculation about what actually led to the decline of the Olmecs around 400 BCE. Some believe that the trading led to a gradual melding of Olmec culture with other cultures within the region, while others wonder about some sort of internal political strife that may have divided the people into smaller groups. In any event, the existence of the Olmecs as a distinct culture seems to have disappeared over the course of a few hundred years, with the Mayan civilization becoming one of the prominent influences in the region, as well as the Zapotec culture.
While the Olmecs ceased to exist as a civilization, elements of their style of government, religious and artistic philosophies, and agricultural and scientific expertise continued to inform the great civilizations of Mesoamerica well into the time of the first expeditions from Spain into the area. Even today, artifacts that are distinctly Olmec in origin can be found in many places around Central and South America, and Olmec customs continue to be part of many subcultures in the region.