Baldwin's Blog

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Topic Proposal

September 20th, 2010

My topic question is what were the differences between the Olmec civilizations characteristics and the later Mayan and Zapotec civilizations, and why the differences arose.

In Mesoamerican culture the Olmec civilization is considered the mother culture because it is one of the earliest and had far-reaching influence on a variety of other later civilizations. The Olmec civilization lasted from around 1400 BCE to 400 CE, with the high point of the Olmecs at around 900 BCE with their city La Venta. The Olmecs went into a slow decline around 0 CE and abandoned their cities and the area never again became more than sparsely populated.

The Olmecs did develop many stylistic conventions that were passed. Olmecs developed the first steps in a complicated writing system. Many of the same Gods and rituals, such as the jaguar cult and possible human sacrifice were repeated throughout Mesoamerica. Even the astrological semi-divine layouts of their cities were copied by later civilizations. They even invented the concept of the zero and 3 very accurate calenders.

However each subsequent culture had differences in what and how they adopted Olmec characteristics. The most famous example of what the Mayan or Aztecs chose not to copy, for unknown reasons, are the famous Olmec colossal stone heads. There have been about 20 heads uncovered, most with some sort of deliberate damage done to them. These colossal heads seem to be a unique Olmec stylistic choice.

The Zapotec were a later civilization, primarily located in what is today the state of Oaxaca. They lasted from around from 600 BCE to 700 CE, with their peak of power and influence around 400 BCE to 200 CE, located mainly at their prime city, Monte Alban. Monte Alban was at its peak one of the biggest cities in the ancient world, both old and new. The Zapotecs had developed a writing system similar to the Olmecs that they used to record

significant historical events, such as battles and newly conquered areas. They also had calenders

that they used for both religious and secular events.

An excellent article talking about how the Teotihuacan power was maintained is Natural World as Civic Metaphor at Teotihuacan by Ester Pasztory. She discusses how the artwork and artifacts left behind show how the city was put into power and how power was maintained. Teotihuacan was stable and power was peacefully maintained though their ideas of religion and the cosmic order. Peter Furst in Shamanic Symbolism, Transformation,and Deities in West Mexican Funerary Art, discusses how West Mexican cultures specifically Zapotec cities think of the world in religious terms. Most of the primary sources or artifacts for West Mexican cultures are grave goods left behind in shaft tombs.

The way that the Olmecs influenced later civilizations depended on several factors, type of previous contact they had with the Olmecs, the differing natural geography of the areas which changed the function of the deities and/or religion as a whole. Also, how the cites were created and power maintained shaped how religion was created and used.

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