The Mayan - Olmec Connection
Until the early 1900's, the Maya civilization was considered to be the parent culture in Mesoamerica from which all other societies sprouted. There have been many Mayan sculptures and carvings found in the region, so all other carvings were also considered to be that of the Maya. One difference in the carving is that some carvings of large heads had faces with more African looking features than many of the other Mayan works.
There was also evidence of a half-jaguar half-man beast, which also did not fit in with other Mayan finds. It wasn't until 1929, when Marshall H Saville, the Director of the Museum of American Indian in New York, classified these new works as an entirely new culture not of Mayan heritage. He named this culture Olmec, which means the "rubber people" in Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica ("Aztec") people. It was the Aztec name for the people who lived in this area at the much later time of Aztec dominance. Ancient Mesoamericans, spanning from ancient Olmecs to Aztecs, extracted latex from Castilla elastica, a type of rubber tree in the area. The juice of a local vine, Ipomoea alba, was then mixed with this latex to create rubber as early as 1600 BC.
The word "Olmec" also refers to the rubber balls used for their ancient ball game. Early modern explorers applied the name "Olmec" to the rediscovered ruins and art from this area before it was understood that these had been already abandoned more than a thousand years before the time of the people the Aztecs knew as the Olmec.
Rubber ball games have great antiquity throughout the Americas, and the recent discovery of several rubber balls at the Olmec site of El Manati, near San Lorenzo, confirms that the game was played by the Olmec. Archaeologists working at La Venta twenty years ago discovered what they hypothesized were the remains of a ball court there, and it is possible that such ball courts were also part of the architecture at Olmec centers.
The Olmec were perhaps the originators of the Mesoamerican ballgame, prevalent among later cultures of the region and used for recreational and religious purposes. They were playing ball before anyone else has been documented doing so.
Calendars and Mathematics
The late Olmec had already begun to use a true zero (a shell glyph) several centuries before Ptolemy, possibly by the fourth century BC. This would later become an integral part of Maya numerals.
The Olmecs were clever mathematicians and astronomers who made accurate calendars. The Epi-Olmec who unhabited the same land, and were probably descended at least in part from the Olmec, seem to have been the earliest users of the 'bar and dot' system of recording time.
Olmec mythology has left no documents comparable to the Popul Vuh from Maya mythology, and therefore any exposition of Olmec mythology must rely on interpretations of surviving monumental and portable art and comparisons with other Mesoamerican mythologies. Olmec art shows that such deities as the Feathered Serpent and the Rain Spirit were already in the Mesoamerican pantheon in Olmec times.
Olmec Ruler or God connected physical and spiritual worlds. His pose represents his means to link with the supernatural worlds. The turned down mouth, a feline feature, suggests that the human ruler was aided by a power animal such as a cat, jacquar, traditionally the spirit campanion of shamans and kings.
The Man of Crops is a fertility figure in Mesoamerican mythology. Among the Olmec, gods are often depicted with a distinct cleft on the forehead, perhaps identifying this characteristic as divine. A carved celt from Veracruz shows a representation of God II, or the Maize God, growing corn from his cleft, and also shows this god with the snarling face associated with the jaguar (Coe 1972:3).
The Man of Crops was a human man or boy who chose to give his life so that his people might grow food. The heroic Man of Crops is sometimes mentored or assisted by a god figure from the other world.
The myths of the Popoluca people of Veracruz make him a tribal hero, sometimes called Homshuk, whose death gives food to all mankind. This hero names himself as "he who sprouts at the knees."
In Aztec, Tepecano, and Tarascan versions, he is buried and corn or tobacco grows from his grave.
A myth of the Christianized Quiche states that, during and following his crucifixion, corn and other crops spilled from the body of Jesus.
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