What Were Inventions of the Olmec?

Written by adam heskett
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What Were Inventions of the Olmec?
One of the many pieces of art from the ancient Olmecs. (Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images)

The Olmec civilisation rose into prominence around 1400BC and lasted until roughly 400BC. They lived in parts of southern Mexico now known as Veracruz and Tabasco. They were one of the first people in the world to develop an elite class thanks to their dense population growth, use of transportation and advanced agricultural techniques for the time. This elite class invented many things that are still in use today.


The translation of the Aztec word "Olmec" means "rubber people." The Olmec extracted latex from a rubber tree called Castilla elastica and mixed the latex with juice from the Ipomoea alba, a local vine, to produce a form of processed rubber. Rubber from the Olmec spread all throughout Mesoamerica. Though there were many uses for their rubber, archeological evidence suggests that the primary use was to make rubber balls for ritual ballgames and offerings.

Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar

The Mesoamerican Long Count calendar is actually a sophisticated combination of a 260-day ritual calendar and a 365-day secular calendar. Each calendar ran in 52-year cycles as the Olmecs believed that events would repeat every 52 years. This cycle had been mathematically formulated by priests who determined that the first day of the ritual calendar would coincide with the first day of the secular calendar once every 52 years. The Olmec Mesomamerican Long Count calendar became the basis for the more-complex Mayan calendar.

The Number Zero

Before the ancient Olmec, the notion of zero was foreign to the world. When they developed the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, the zero was used as a place-holder for their vigesimal (base-20) numeral system. Some scholars assumed that the Mayans were the first to use the number zero. However, eight of the earliest versions of this calendar were found outside the Mayan homeland and in Olmec territory, suggesting that the first representations of zero were invented by the Olmecs as they predated the Mayans. A shell glyph was used as zero in ancient Olmec texts.

Mesoamerican Ballgame

Known in Spanish as Juego de Pelota, the object of this violent game involved two players (and sometimes two teams of players) to knock a hard rubber ball into the opponent's end. A version of this game involved passing this ball through one of two stone rings. The game did lead to serious injuries and a ritual at the end where the captain of the losing team was sacrificed. The skull of the loser was often sealed within a rubber ball for the next game.

The oldest surviving ball court can be found at the Chichen Itza in Mexico.

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