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For many years, the Olmec culture was thought to be the 'mother culture' of Mesoamerica, because of the great influence that it exercised throughout the region. However, more recent perspectives consider this culture to be more of a process to which all the contemporary peoples contributed, and which eventually crystallized on the coasts of Meso laws and Tabasco.
The ethnic identity of the Olmecs is still widely debated. Based on linguistic evidence, archaeologists and anthropologists generally believe that they were either speakers of an Oto-Manguean language, or more likely the ancestors of the present-day Zoque people who live in the north of Chiapas and Oaxaca.
According to this second hypothesis, Zoque tribes emigrated toward the south after the fall of the major population centers of the Gulf plains. The Olmec culture represents a milestone of Mesoamerican history, as various characteristics that define the region first appeared there.
Among them are the state organization, the development of the day ritual calendar and the day secular calendar, the first writing system, and urban planning. The development of this culture started to BCE,  though it continued to consolidate itself up to the 12th century BCE.
However, throughout Mesoamerica numerous sites show evidence of Olmec occupation, especially in the Balsas river basin, where Teopantecuanitlan is located. This site is quite enigmatic, since it dates from several centuries earlier than the main populations of the Gulf, a fact which has continued to cause controversy and given rise to the hypothesis that the Olmec culture originated in that region.
Olmec headLa Venta Among the best-known expressions of Olmec culture are giant stone heads, sculptured monoliths up to three metres in height and several tons in weight. These feats of Olmec stonecutting are especially impressive when one considers that Mesoamericans lacked iron tools and that the heads are at sites dozens of kilometers from the quarries where their basalt was mined.
The function of these monuments is unknown. Some authors propose that they were commemorative monuments for notable players of the ballgame, and others that they were images of the Olmec governing elite.
The Olmec are also known for their small carvings made of jade and other greenstones. Apart from the West, where the tradition of the Tumbas de tiro had taken root, in all the regions of Mesoamerica the cities grew in wealth, with monumental constructions carried out according to urban plans that were surprisingly complex.
Toward the end of the Preclassic period, political and commercial hegemony shifted to the population centers in the Valley of Mexico. Around Lake Texcoco there existed a number of villages that grew into true cities: Tlatilco and Cuicuilco are examples.
The former was found on the northern bank of the lake, while the latter was on the slopes of the mountainous region of Ajusco. Tlatilco maintained strong relationships with the cultures of the West, so much so that Cuicuilco controlled commerce in the Maya area, Oaxaca, and the Gulf coast.
The rivalry between the two cities ended with the decline of Tlatilco. As Cuicuilco declined, Teotihuacan began to grow in importance.
The next two centuries marked the period in which the so-called City of the gods consolidated its power, becoming the premier Mesoamerican city of the first millennium, and the principal political, economic, and cultural center in Central Mexico for the next seven centuries.
The end point of this period varied from region to region: Normally, the Classic period in Mesoamerica is characterized as the stage in which the arts, science, urbanism, architecture, and social organization reached their peak.
This period was also dominated by the influence of Teotihuacan throughout the region, and the competition between the different Mesoamerican states led to continuous warfare.
This period of Mesoamerican history can be divided into three phases. Early, from to CE; Middle, from to ; and Late, from to The early Classic period began with the expansion of Teotihuacan, which led to its control over the principal trade routes of northern Mesoamerica.
During this time, the process of urbanization that started in the last centuries of the early Preclassic period was consolidated.
The cities of this era were characterized by their multi-ethnic composition, which entailed the cohabitation in the same population centers of people with different languages, cultural practices, and places of origin.
During this period the alliances between the regional political elites were strengthened, especially for those allied with Teotihuacan. Also, social differentiation became more pronounced: This majority was forced to pay tribute and to participate in the building of public structures such as irrigation systems, religious edifices, and means of communication.
The growth of the cities could not have happened without advances in agricultural methods and the strengthening of trade networks involving not only the peoples of Mesoamerica, but also the distant cultures of Oasisamerica.
The arts of Mesoamerica reached their high-point in this era.
Especially notable are the Mayan stelae carved pillarsexquisite monuments commemorating the stories of the Royal families, the rich corpus of polychrome ceramics, mural painting, and music. Centuries later, long after Teotihuacan was abandoned c. Many scientific advances were also achieved during this period.
The Maya refined their calendar, script, and mathematics to their highest level of development. Writing came to be used throughout the Mayan area, although it was still regarded as a noble activity and practiced only by noble scribes, painters, and priests. Astronomy remained a matter of vital significance because of its importance for agriculture, the economic basis of Mesoamerican society, and to predict events in the future such as lunar and solar eclipses, an important feature for the rulers, proving to the commoners their links with the heavenly world.
This allowed other regional power centers to flourish and compete for control of trade routes and natural resources.Ancient History Primary Sources.
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