Friday, 12 March 2010

The ancient Olmec civilisation

People can only speculate at the scale of your influence. The Mayans and Aztecs worshipped your gods long after they had forgotten your name. Your city layout was the blueprint for later civilisations. You traded vast distances; your elite collected beautifully-crafted artefacts in jade, obsidian and magnetite. Your people invented the ball-game, the long-count calendar and you started the practice of human sacrifice. Experts wonder what else you bequeathed down the generations, what other ideas and inventions were yours.

But for more than two thousand years your existence was forgotten, until, in the 1850s, a farm worker discovered a colossal carved head. Archaeologists went on to unearth the splendour of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán with its elaborate structures and complex water systems. They tracked how you used more and more land to feed your growing populace, until soil erosion caused the River Coatzacoalcos to silt up, forcing you to abandon your first great city.

Undaunted, you built magnificent La Venta with its great pyramid. For a thousand years you prospered, until your civilisation suddenly collapsed. Archaeologists think deforestation and overgrazing were to blame, they say your local environment was so depleted that when an earthquake hit you had no reserves and your people starved. Archaeologists call you ‘Olmecs’, but even today no one knows your true name.