Living around the Gulf of Mexico for nearly 1,000 years, the Olmec civilization was a major influence on the region up until 300 BC. They are often considered the first ordered civilization in the Americas and are thought to have even influenced the Mayans and the Aztecs. One city is estimated to have been the home to 13,000 people at minimum. Their inventions are similar to what we’d see in other first civilizations in a region, yet are wholly unique as well.
1. Water Drainage
Near the town of San Lorenzo sits the remains of one of the largest of all Olmec cities. What has been discovered by archaeologists is an extensive drainage system made up of conduits. Stones were carved into a “U” type of shape and then covered with a capstone. It is believed that these conduits were also used as an aqueduct to provide water to pools and manmade streams were created within the city for bathing.
Long count calendars that came from the Americas were thought to have been a Mayan invention, but a 1939 discovery proved that the Olmecs had their own calendar system as well. The foundation of their calendar system was a place holder where a zero was required and this number was represented by a specific shell. This is one of the first uses of a zero in all of human history that is known and it is also likely the first example of an American civilization recognizing that time is linear.
It’s a game where the object is to knock a ball through a hole and you can only use your hip. Started by the Olmecs and still played today in some regions of Mexico, the first balls that were used were made from the sap of a rubber tree that was molded around a human skull. The game even pre-dates the main era of the civilization itself as some balls have been found in sacrificial areas that date to the 16th century BC. Because of the element of human sacrifice, it is believed that Ulama was also a highly religious experience too.
4. A Writing System
The Olmecs are often credited with the first writing system in the Americas, although writing itself pre-dates this civilization by several thousand years in other parts of the world. Much of their writing style is reflective of the Ancient Egyptian culture as it seems to be based on symbols more than letter representations. The comparisons to Egypt don’t stop there either as the Olmecs built large monuments to their leaders and build land pyramids as well.
The Olmecs had a basic understanding of gravity and they also understood a basic mechanism of magnetism. Combined together they were able to create one of the first compasses that existed in the Americas.