The mighty Olmec Empire was begun in the tropical lowlands of the Mexican Gulf Coast at least 3500 years ago.  What is considered the first Olmec city was designated, in modern times, San Lorenzo even though we do not know the name used by the Olmec people or even the language they spoke.  In fact the word Olmec is the later Aztec language term used for these natives and loosely translates as “People from the Region of Rubber” and was officially given to these ancient coastal Mexican inhabitants by early archaeologists in the 1920’s.   There is some supposition that these natives used the name Tamoanchan or Tenocelome as their cultural designation but that has not been confirmed as of now.  San Lorenzo lasted as a cultural center from about 1500 BC until it was conquered and apparently destroyed by a rival group of the Olmec people around 900 BC.  These later natives had built another city on a high ground island in a swamp near the Tonala River about ten miles from the marine coast in the Mexican state that would later be designated as Tabasco.  This city has been given the name La Venta and it existed as the major Olmec cultural center until around 400 BC at which point in time, many of the people abandoned the municipality for somewhat obscure reasons.  But the La Venta geographical sector did not completely die – just the Olmec cultural entity.  During the centuries that followed, the natives continued to thrive in this rich coastal plains region and during what is known as the Classic Period, a native potter made this rare and beautiful La Venta footed bowl.

The ancient Olmec societal existence is today called “The Mother Culture” because it is believed most of the succeeding ethnic groups, such as the Mayans and Aztecs, were given birth by the Olmec.  These coastal residents were a very creative people who invented, among other things, the mathematical concept of zero, an accurate yearly calendar and the geomagnetic lodestone compass.  And they built their urban centers, which probably served as royal compounds, using only local clay and earth since there was little stone available in the immediate district.   This all happened during what is called the Formative or Per-Classic Period when these domestic inhabitants were just beginning to develop their enlightenment of the immediate domain as well as the supernatural world.  Since they lived in a rich and almost equatorial agricultural environment, the natives grew beans, tomatoes, chili peppers and especially maize in multiple harvests each year beginning as early as 1750 BC, which was seemingly before the Olmec cultural lifestyle even existed.  But being ancient peoples who believed in physically taking what they wanted the Olmec, who built La Venta, apparently, did invade San Lorenzo and decimated the town and the people at which point in time the center of the Olmec civilization moved to the island town.  It was probably a civic and ceremonial center which controlled an estimated twenty thousand regional farmers, craftsmen and fishermen.   There most likely was a king who had supreme authority over the territory and the inhabitants.  The natives were probably forced, by military rule, to build earthen buildings and a huge pyramid over one hundred feet tall and four hundred feet in diameter that mostly still exists today.  It is now believed that this huge structure was a symbolic volcano used as a pathway to their gods. There they worshipped supernatural pagan deities and practiced human sacrifice in order to satisfy the blood lusts of the divine beings.  And they made many art objects related to the worship of their gods as well as the kings.  These included jade body ornaments, serpentine idols, ritualistic obsidian blades and ceramic figurines and vessels.  They also carved volcanic rock thrones and colossal head statues with distinctive facial features that possibly were portraits of the rulers.  The Olmec elite and priests were apparently members of a “Jaguar Cult” and they worshipped a hybrid human and feline divinity.  They used powerful drugs in order to reach the hallucinogenic level of “Llay” which was a jaguar alter-ego and thus able to be in direct contact with the cat deity.  Many, if not indeed most, of the crafts items made by the natives are considered high status artifacts used as sources of economic, philosophical and bureaucratic control for the societal rulers – they were tools used by the elites to maintain and enhance their perceived rulership entitlements.  But despite their daily workloads and the demands by the nobility, the aboriginals must have had a reasonable life with the abundance of local seafood and beans and corn.  They dried the corn and ground it into meal which was mixed with pulverized seashells and ashes to make a food staple called nixtamel.   But then the civilization at La Venta came crashing down.  It is now believed that there were at least two reasons for this demise – the first being the stress the average natives suffered in the daily drudgery for their rulers, which they eventually rebelled against.  The second reason is the supposition that the regional volcanoes began erupting which would have definitely caused great turmoil among all the citizens.   Whatever the true reasons were, a profusion of Olmec natives apparently abandoned La Venta around 400 BC but that did not mean the region was completely bereft of human beings.  Some people obviously stayed in the area because of its abundance of seafood and the bountiful agricultural grounds but they did not again build large ceremonial centers for the enrichment of the Olmec kings and gods.  They continued to live and thrive in the district for well over a thousand years during which time they came under the  influence of the Mayans who lived further south in the continent.  Since this indigenous group also worshipped the jaguar immortal, this domination was probably for some religious reasons as well as for local’s craftsmanship ability in stone and ceramic items.

The aborigines who lived along the Gulf Coast of Mexico were very prolific pottery makers.  This statement is made because of the quantity of whole and partially intact vessels as well as the millions of broken pottery sherds that have been found in ruins of the regional cities and the many outlying villages.  For over three thousand years the natives of the region made and used ceramic vessels in a variety of shapes and sizes.  After the collapse of the Olmec lifestyle, the people probably continued to make earthenware cooking and eating containers in the old prevailing styles for a period of time.  But as the Mayan way of life began moving northward into the coastal plains, the natives started adopting the painted Mayan style of terra cotta receptacle manufacturing.  This footed bowl, which is 5 ½ inches in diameter at the rim and exactly 4 inches high, is certainly of the Mayan fashion.  It was probably made in the Early Classic Period or AD 200-400 and appears to be made of fine sand tempered clay.  It has a rolled lip around the bowl opening and three 1 ¼ inch tall pierced and downwardly pointed feet.  It is coated, inside and outside, with dark red Mayan type paint slip.  On the exterior, is a line encircling the bowl just below the upper edge of the rim orifice.  And there are three sets of faded vertical painted black lines separated by three large blocked X’s that surround the container body.  There is no glaze on the pot which is typical of the time period but the exterior and interior surfaces are well burnished.  The vessel is solid except for a small pressure crack on one side but considering it is almost two thousand years old, it has the right to an occasional crack.  Due to probable worker strife and volcanic explosions, the Olmec Empire unfortunately came to a close but also due to the survival instincts of the native regional people, an ancient ceramist did endure and was able to make this uncommon and delightful La Venta footed bowl.



Adams, Richard E.                                                                2005


Benson, Elizabeth P.                                                                       1971


Coe, Michael D. & Rex Koontz                                            2008


Diehl, Richard                                                                                  2004


Drucker, Phillip                                                                    1952

     “La Venta, Tabasco: A Study of Olmec Ceramics and Art”, BAE BULLETIN #153

Gonzaloz-Lauck, Rebecca                                                   1996

     “La Venta: An Olmec Capital”, OLMEC ART OF ANCIENT MEXICO

Heizer, Robert F.                                                                  1957


Kubler, George                                                                     1990


Laughena, Maria                                                                  1988


Rose, Mark                                                                            2005

     “Olmec People, Olmec Art”, ARCHAEOLOGY MAGAZINE