The Olmec civilization was one of the oldest (if not the oldest) civilizations that rose in Mesoamerica. The Olmec people’s enduring legacy was their colossal head statues, detailed rock carvings, and writing system. The cities of San Lorenzo, La Venta, and Tres Zapotes near the Gulf of Mexico served as their major urban centers. These cities rose and declined one after the other until the last major urban centers were abandoned completely. According to the Biblical Timeline Chart with World History, the final decline of the Olmecs occurs just before the time of Christ’s birth.
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Possible Causes of the Decline
The environment that sustained the Olmec civilization may have played a great role in its decline. The Olmec people lived in a rich land near the coast of the Gulf of Mexico where they could farm and make use of the vast trade networks on the coast. But it was also vulnerable to climatic changes that brought on drought, as well as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. These may have caused the river channels to shift, preventing the Olmec from irrigating their crops and disrupting their food production.
Human actions such as internal strife and warfare with other tribes may have also affected the Olmec people and one of the possible causes for their decline. Their gigantic head statues and altars showed signs of mutilation and defacement. Some were partially broken or grooved while others were completely smashed—signs of a great upheaval that may have come from a rebellion within or an invasion of other tribes.
The Olmecs abandoned their cities on the Gulf coast and trade routes, as well as distribution networks. The decline of the Olmec civilization on the Gulf Coast also coincided with the rise of highland urban centers. Their increased use of irrigation in the highlands and greater agricultural production eclipsed the last major Olmec center. This may have resulted in a major shift in population.
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Childress, David Hatcher. The Mystery of the Olmecs. Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 2007
Grove, David C. Discovering the Olmecs: An Unconventional History. University of Texas Press, 2014
Sharer, Robert J., and David C. Grove. Regional Perspectives on the Olmec. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989
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