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Mayan and Olmec Cultures Comparison Research Paper

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Description of Mayan Culture

What is the difference between Mayan culture and Olmec culture and what controversies do exist between the two? Mayan Culture is a culture that emerged after the fall of the urban culture in 900 A.D. It is a Mesoamerican culture that came to be in the classical period and it was characterized with cultural creativity that took place in the whole region. They borrowed many cultural traits from the North and at the same time developed their own. The combination of the two revolutionized the subsequent Mesoamerican cultures. Much of this culture is still in use and valued among the Native Americans especially in Guatemala and Hondulus. On the other hand we have the Omes Culture. This was first noted in Mesoamerica and was deemed to be the mother of the Pre-Hispanic Mexican Culture. This culture began in the period between 1600B.C. and 1400B.C in the Southeastern Mexico. It was believed that these people created their first cities in this region. In this research paper, the main focus will be on the differences between the two cultures and the controversies that exist.

The classical Mayan culture developed in Mesoamerican Southern lowland areas. It was characterized by a lot of constructions, urbanism, monumental inscriptions and the people city empire that comprised of many city states and some of these cities are Tikal, Calkment, palenque Dos pilas Uaxactum, Bonampak, Copan and Alturitta. (Fagan, B.1991)

The most notable feature of these people is the construction of the pyramids that were constructed non-religious centers and in palaces where their rulers resided. There are other notable and highly valued archeological materials that remained and these are the stone slabs that were known as ‘Stelae’ but the Mayan referred to them as ‘tetun’ These curved stone slabs portray rulers with some texts written in hieroglyphics explaining their military victories genealogy and some other achievements they had.

The Mayan people just like the other Mesoamericans were long distance traders. Examples of those who participated with Mayans in the long distance trade were the Teotihuacán, various groups in Mexico and the Zapotech some things that attests to this fact have been collected by the archeologists and these are items such as Cacao, jade, seashells and obsidian, most of them which were used in trade. Miller M. and Simon M..2004)

Controversies between two cultures

There was some controversy on who between the Olmecs and the Mayans owned some particular cultures. For example a colossal head was discovered in 1862 along the Mexican Gulf in Mexico and to be specific in Veraoruz. Later some other cultural materials that were termed as Olmec were discovered in several sites in Mexico and Central America. Most of these findings were not known who was the original owner so they were misinterpreted. At that time, the Mayan culture was assumed to be the Mexican ‘mother culture’ thereby disputing the other theories that held that Olmecs were the owners of these cultures. This was not the truth of the matter but mere allegations that were without any foundation. Far much later in 1939 another caring of a head with an Olmec design on the side of the head was found. It had an Olmec label and dating system on the other side.

This disrupted the zealously held belief that the Mayan were the first to use the culture. The belief that the Olmec were the original in using this culture was later grounded by the radiocarbon dating. This discovery almost made the two cultures to switch sides and the Olmec to be referred by man as the mother culture.

Michael Coe (38-42) says that Oimec culture was the original culture and that the Mayan and the rest were dependent on it. Since the quintessential site of Laventa was discovered, the scholars have raised some speculations on the relationship about the art and iconography between the Mayan and the Oimec Culture. Many have come to the conclusion that the Laventa monuments were the original products of Mayan people. The recent advert of archeological and effective research methods have brought people to the attention that there is an analogy between the Olmec and the Mayan culture. They show that there are some Olmec traits in these iconographs and arts that were incorporated in the later Mayan cultures.

Description of the Olmec culture

The Olmec history that came to be even before 1200 BC shows that their civilization was favored by the well watered alluvial soil which was very suitable for agriculture and to be specific the maize production a civilization that is comparable with that of the Mesopotamian region. The population concentration in San Lorenzo is assumed to be the motivating factor behind the rise of elite class that led to the creation of symbolic and highly sophisticated artifacts, which were used to define the Oimec culture. This shows that these early elites were part of the long distant traders that carried their trading activities in Mesoamerica. For example these sophisticated artifacts of the Oimec are believed to have become from the Motagua river valley in Guatemala while Obsidian were also found in the same region but in the highlands. (VanDerwarker, 2006)

The decline of the Olmec culture started sometimes back in the 900 BCE but the cause is not well known but it is believed that the internal uprisings and the change of the river course could have contributed. The Olimecs are the first people who came up with the zero concept, calendar and the creation of hierographics as a mode of writing. Their myths and rituals greatly influenced the Mayan, Mixtec, Zapotech and Aztec cultures.

The Olimecs are widely known for their originalities for example they are known their culture of blood letting human writing, epigraphy, zero invention, ballgame and the afore mentioned Mesoamerican calendar. Their states were hierarchically organized and were very influential on other cultures that followed as they emulated this culture.

There is a controversy that resulted after some artifacts were excavated southeastern settlements in Mexico, which believed to form the Olmec civilization however this belief was not shared by all as they portrayed some remnant of the language that was used together with some for example a cylindrical ceramic seal together with some pieces of jade plague were formed in 1997 and 1998 after some excavations were done in Sam Andres site. These items contained some symbols that were curved on them which according to archeologists contained some writing system that were common to the Oimec spoken language (Bower B. 2002).

The scientists concluded that those writings were characteristics of the ancient New World olmec’s writing about some critics especially those from the Harvard University agreed that it was not possible to interpret the grammatical writing based on a meager suggestive symbols and signs. They concluded that those symbols could have designs that represented other things like people, gods, objects in Stuart’s view who is a scientist based at Harvard University rather than what was termed as Olmec’s grammatical writing style. According to this scientist who is a specialist in Mayan Culture argued that researches that were done prior to that period had revealed that Olmecs used pictorial writing but not symbols. The inscriptions that were found on the seal and on the plague were hieroglyphics that were interpreted as ‘king 3 A jaw. This had some relevance with the olmec’s trend of referring to name of a particular day in their two hundred and sixty calendar and to the king born on the same day. This was according to some other people but the researchers were completely unable to decipher the hieroglyphics which those from Harvard University concluded to have been Mayan writings thus contradicting the theory they were Oimec’s culture. (Bower B. 2002)

There is still controversy over the symbols that were found on a serpentine rock that was excavated in 2006 in a site near the Sam Lorenzo. The rock had sixty-two symbols inscribed on it but twenty-eight of them were unique or they were not seen prior to that period. Many archeologists concluded that the symbols were common to the ancient writing of the Columbians but others differed in their view because of the uniqueness of the stone and yet it was excavated in the same archeological sites. They wondered why the stone did not bear any resemblance to one of the many Mesoamericans writing style. Others viewed them as transitional script between Mayan writing and the ancient Olmecs writing format. Up to now it has not yet been established whose culture it was for there are those who believe it was characteristic of Olmec culture while others hold that the symbols worked more of the Mayan culture. There are also those who believed that the hieroglyphics were the product of the two cultures. (Drew, D 2004)

The belief that Epi-Olmec Script, which was a writing that was in use before the Mayan writing that it was a transitional script between the two cultures is not yet clarified.

According to the research findings that were released on 5th January 2006 by the National Geographic, shows that Mayan writings date back to 400 BC. This suggests that Mayan writing was as old as the oldest know form of writing by Zapotec. If this is the case, there is no controversy that arises between the Oimec’s writing and that of the Maya. This is because the Olmec writing is believed to have been in use before that one by Zapotech and is believed to have been originated in the period between 900 to 600 BCE. (Culbert T. P 1997)

The Mayan people practiced human sacrifices. In their rituals, people were killed while their legs and hands were firmly held then the priest would rip open the said person’s heart and tore his/her heart open as a form of a sacrifice or offering. This culture is clearly depicted in Mayan pictorial texts on objects. Children were the most offered form of human sacrifice as it was held that they were pure from blasphemes. The Oimec were also believed to have practiced human sacrifice or blood letting exercises but there is evidence that attests or supports this belief. So the theory is speculative unlike that of the Mayan. There is none of the Olmec’s artifacts or even any influenced artifacts that are known but there have been discovered disarticulated femurs and skills at El Manati excavation site. There has also been found some full skeletons of children in a heap of other offerings adding weight to the speculation that the Olmecs could have been practicing child sacrifice Burt the cause of the death of these infants is not yet established.

Just like the religions that appeared later, the Mayan religion believed that the nature of time was cyclical. The rituals as well as the ceremonies they performed had some cyclical nature as they ere done after some period of time. They even indicated on their calendar when these particular ceremonies would be held. It was the role of the Mayan priest to give interpretations to these cyclical events and ceremonies and fore see what will happen in the future in relation to their calendars. The priests were also to be very observant so that they would advise their people if it was the appropriate time to hold their rituals by looking at the heavenly bodies. There is no further insight on the Mayan religion but it is common that they believed that the universe or the cosmos was three planed, that is the earth, the underworld and the sky. (Davies, N. 1998)

Defference between Mayan culture and Olmec culture

Unlike the Mayans whose religious activities were solely done by the priests, the Olmec’s religious activities were done by a combination of the priests, shamans and the rulers. The rulers were the most valued of the three as they were believed to have some links with the Olmec deities or that they had an upper hand to the supernatural powers that gave legitimacy to their rule.

The Mayan people lived in tropical forests where they developed an urban culture and their key city was known as Tivel but urbanization was not confined to this city as it extended to others such as Hondurus in the south. The urban centers received raw materials from the temperate highlands. The Mayans urban culture in the tropical rain forest could not be fully developed as the area was very moist and there is too much cold, so human survival was minimal. (Davies, N. 1982) For this reason the agricultural production was dismal as the rains were continuous. There was no area that was densely populated, as it is known that in a whine square mile you could not find more than 30 people as people kept migrating to other areas that were more favorable than this region. Despite the fact that the environment was unsuitable for agricultural production, they applied various sophisticated means of food production. In the past they practiced what was known as shift cultivation but later they switched to forest gardens, raised fields digging fallows and terracing to control soil erosion. They also practiced what is known as wild harvesting or collecting wild fruits to feed their families especially during the classical period.

Unlike the Mayans, the Olmecs had diverse source of food though they were also agriculturalist. They (Olmecs) lived in river valley where they relied on floods to plant their crops. They lived in a different environment with a different climatic conditions unlike the Mayans who lived in tropical zone with an all year rains. These people lived in rather dryer land where they relied on floods instead of rains. They used slash and burn method of clearing new agricultural fields. They deserted their old farming plots once they were mined all its nutrients and looked for another virgin land. (Coe, M.D 2002)

Unlike the Mayans, the Olmec’s fields were located just outside the village but those for the Mayans were in the forest. The Olmecs did not practice wild harvesting to feed their population as they had a variety of crops such as beans, sweet potatoes and squash. They also produced cash crop like cotton. Their diet because of this overtime they seemed to shift to maize production. They also grew fruits that were supplemented with other sources of food such as snake, mollusks, crabs that were got from the nearby rivers. They also caught shellfish especially those that resided along the coastal regions. They also hunted dear, rabbit birds and raccoons. (Diehl, R. A 2004)

The Mayan art is referred by many as the most classical and beautiful work ever known in the ancient new world. Their carvings and reliefs were extremely good. They were professionals curved expressing every form of human being such that by a very look at them you would know how the classical civilization of the Mayans was. There is very little evidence of the classical paintings but the pottery and ceramics are evident. Mayan culture is among the few known art works that have their name attached. They are best known for their expertise in making pyramids whose skills were never matched by any other group. On the other hand, the Olmecs artwork is mostly in monumental statuary and in jade work. Much of their arts are reflective of religious works as they use icongraphs, which portray religious meanings. They made art works where they curved beautiful humans that could only be compared with the Mayan work. Apart from these, they also curved other objects such as fish and birds, which were reflective of the diversity of their culture. Their way of curving heads was unique as no other pre-co

Lumbian community ever curved helmeted heads and the motive for this is not yet known.

The social and political structures of the Mayan people were hierarchically organized and at the top there was a rule who was as an A jaw. His dynasty never exceeded capital city although a few of them did exceeded patronized and ruled over these small polities that were within their vicinity. All the kingdom had a name that never sounded the same as the name of the location and the identity of the kingdom was that of a political unit. The Mayans embraced the idea of royal household centrality and more specifically on the King’s people. Contrally to the Mayans, little is known about the organization of the Olmec society both socially and politically. (Coe Michael D. 1999)

Though no evidence hints about the type of arrangement that they had, the colossal heads they curved are believed to be indicative of the kingdomship political units. Those are believed to be the heads of the rulers but they do not have any name curved or inscribed on them like in the Mayan culture where every work of art had the name of that figure. For these reasons the date that archeologists have is based on assumption or speculation. The belief that colossal heads were those of their rulers lead archeologists to conclude that the Olmec society was highly centralized with a clear hierarchical structure. (Miller M and Karl T. 1993)

The use of long calendar has no relationship with the Mayans and it is highly unlikely that it was their ingenuity because this long count calendar and its subsequent calculations were found outside the Mayan territory. Infact about six artifacts with these characteristics were found within the Oimec’s mainland so it is assumed that they must be the ones who came up with these ideas. The Mayans in a bid to keep their cyclical times, they devised a caledrical system and it consisted of 260 days which had two cycles that is thirteen days were numbered which twenty of them were named.


The two cultures that is Mayan and the Oimec differed a lot that they had in common. It is only in some far areas that the two converged for example they both practiced agriculture, organized society with a hierarchical structure although that of the Olmec was speculative they also practiced human offering though again that of the Olmec was not evident. On the other hand the two differed for example in their work or art where the Mayans inscribed the details of their work while the Olmecs didn’t. The Mayans lived in tropical zones while the Olmecs lived in the river valleys. There has been a controversy that has existed over originality of some artifacts for example the inscriptions that were found on the seal and the plaque.

Work cited

Bower B. Script Delivery: New World Writing Takes Disputed Turn Controversy over Artifacts From Oimec Civilization. 2002. Web.

Coe, M.D. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs London: Thames: 2002; 118.

Culbert T.P. Classic Maya Collapse. University of New Mexico Press. 1977; 96.

Coe Michael D. The Maya. Thames and Hudson, New York. 1999; 58.

Davies, N. The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico, Penguin Books. 1982; 98-100.

Diehl, R. A. The Olmecs: America’s First Civilization, Thames & Hudson, London. 2004; 78.

Drew D. The Lost Chronicles of the Maya Kings, New edition, London: Phoenix Press. 2004; 158-162.

Fagan, B. Kingdoms of Gold, Kingdoms of Jade. Thames and Hudson, London. 1991;56,59.

Miller M and Karl T. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. London: Thames and Hudson.1993; 85-92.

Miller M. and Simon. Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. London: Thames & Hudson. 2004; 117-123.

VanDerwarker, Amber Farming, Hunting, and Fishing in the Olmec World, University of Texas Press. 2006; 189-201.

Webster D.L. The Fall of the Ancient Maya. London: Thames & Hudson. 2002; 45.

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