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READ: The Olmec and Chavín

They didn’t leave us much, but two ancient societies in the Americas left enough clues behind to piece together the rituals and systems they may have developed several millennia ago.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. How and why did early agrarian societies form in this region?
  2. What does evidence from the Americas tell you about how production and distribution worked in these societies?
  3. What does evidence from this reading tell you about how people in these societies formed and maintained communities (religious, state, and otherwise)?
  4. What does the evidence in this reading tell you about how the societies in this region participated in networks that moved ideas, people, and things?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. Compare and contrast this society to other societies in readings from the same set. What seem to be some commonalities of early agrarian societies, when viewed through the three frames of production and distribution, communities, and networks?
  2. What is the principal evidence cited in this article? How do you think the availability of different kinds of evidence affects what we know about these societies?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Ancient Agrarian Societies: The Olmec and Chavín

Detailed stone carving of a person sitting cross-legged in a dome.
By Bridgette Byrd O’Connor
They didn’t leave us much, but two ancient societies in the Americas left enough clues behind to piece together the rituals and systems they may have developed several millennia ago.


Early humans migrated to the Americas at least 15,000 years ago, but possibly much earlier. They established foraging communities throughout North, Central, and South America. As in other parts of the world, these foragers eventually began to cultivate (farm) crops, usually along river valleys. The earliest community that practiced a mixture of farming as well as foraging methods like hunting and fishing was known as the Olmec, in modern-day Mexico. One of the earliest settlements in South America was the community at Chavín de Huántar in modern- day Peru. These cultures had a lot in common with other Mesoamerican and Andean people who inhabited these regions from Paleolithic times until the arrival of the Spanish in the fifteenth century.

The Olmec (c. 1600-350 BCE)

Foraging communities lived in this portion of Mesoamerica from at least 2500 BCE. Around 1600 BCE, the Olmec people founded settlements along the Coatzacoalcos River near the Gulf of Mexico in modern-day Veracruz, Mexico. These settlements included structures used for religious rituals and more permanent dwelling sites. The largest Olmec city was San Lorenzo, initially occupied by the ruling elites and religious leaders of Olmec society. Other major cities of the Olmec included Tres Zapotes, Laguna de los Cerros, and La Venta. These were located along the Papaloapan and Tonalá rivers that also extend from the Gulf of Mexico. Those areas are known today as Veracruz and Tabasco, Mexico. Archaeologists believe that central rulers, such as kings or chiefs, governed these cities using political and economic power as well as religious authority.
Map shows major Olmec settlement sites along the Gulf of Mexico.
Olmec, major settlement sites (yellow) and secondary sites (red). By Madman2001, CC BY 3.0.
The Olmec did not leave any written records, but archaeological evidence provides a wealth of information about this early Mesoamerican society. The most recognizable artifacts of the Olmec are the massive sculpted heads that were carved from volcanic rock, called basalt, and weighed about 20 tons each. These statues were carved out of the Sierra de los Tuxtlas Mountains to the north of the Olmec cities. They were then transported about 60-70 km (37-43 miles) to various sites. Each depicts a male head and face with pretty distinctive features, suggesting that these statues represented individual Olmec kings rather than gods. Depictions of gods tended to be more magical creations that blended animal and human imagery. Temple structures in the major Olmec cities also contained freestanding and relief sculptures, pottery, masks, and ritual tools. Much of this art was created using clay and stone but there are also many pieces made from the green gemstone called jade and the volcanic glassy rock known as obsidian.
While the basalt and stone were sourced locally, the jade was imported from areas to the south of the Olmec settlements, and they obtained obsidian from the north. The frequent use of these materials in Olmec art suggests that this society developed extensive trade networks with other cultures in this region. Later societies like the Maya and Aztecs also share enough similarities with Olmec art and culture to suggest that they adopted certain cultural aspects of this earlier community.
Very large, detailed Olmec sculpture of a head.
Olmec head, San Lorenzo, c. 1200-900 BCE. By Mesamerican, CC BY-SA 4.0.
The main cities were reserved for the kings and elite members of Olmec society, and were usually places for rituals. Most people lived in more rural areas, where they worked as farmers and craftspeople. The Olmec cultivated a variety of crops including maize, cotton, squash, beans, sweet potatoes, manioc, and rubber. The Olmec society was one of the first to discover how to extract the sap and juice of the rubber tree to create a useful substance that could be stretched and bounced. Archaeologists also found the ruins of a ball court, which the Olmec used to play an ancient Mesoamerican game using a rubber ball. In fact, it was the Aztecs who would give the Olmecs their name, which translates to "rubber people."
The Olmec ballgame may have been played for sport as well as part of a ritual where the losing team was subject to sacrifice—as in, killed. There is also evidence of ritual bloodletting1 practices as archaeologists have found daggers and other bloodletting tools. These rituals of human sacrifice and bloodletting were probably performed to appease the Olmec gods, who were a combination of human and animal forms, both male and female. They could have also been used as a way to control the people through a mixture of spiritual beliefs and fear.
At its height, Olmec society may have grown as large as 20,000 inhabitants. But without any written documents to support these numbers, archaeologists have to make assumptions based on the land area and artifacts. Over the course of Olmec history, it appears that certain cities gained prominence at different times and then declined. This may indicate that the ritual centers had to be moved for some reason. Archaeologists and environmental historians have theorized that climate change as well as volcanic eruptions could have ruined the farmland in certain parts. These are the main reasons that historians use to explain why the Olmec society eventually ended around 350 BCE.

Chavín (c. 900-250 BCE)

South of the Olmecs by about 5,500 km (3,500 miles)—we never said the Americas were small—a society known as the Chavín developed. They inhabited the area where the Mosna and Huachecsa rivers meet along the Peruvian Pacific coast and in the Andes Mountains region. Like the Olmec up north, Chavín culture did not leave any written records. Actually, we don't even know what they were really called. Chavín comes from the Spanish name for the temple ruins at Chavín de Huántar.
Map shows location of Chavín and its area of influence in relation to Peru and Brazil.
Archaeologists have determined that the temple was used for ritual purposes and may have been shared by different settlements in the region. The temple has staircases, archways, and numerous underground corridors like a maze. It is thought that processions of people would enter the temple and witness a shaman (priest) conduct ceremonies on various platforms in the complex. However, archaeologists haven't found any evidence of people residing at this location. There are no hearths, trash, dwellings, or any other of the typical archeological finds that can prove people lived there. Renovations occurred at the temple after 500 BCE, possibly to accommodate a larger population taking part in religious ceremonies.
A photograph of an interior hallway featuring large stone walls and ceiling.
Chavín de Huántar, interior hallway of the temple. By Martin St-Amant, CC BY 3.0.
The dwellings and agricultural sites they did find at Chavín were located outside of the temple complex. These sites were spaced out, so in the lowlands near the river, crops such as quinoa were grown, while up in the mountains they grew potatoes. There was also an increase in the production of pottery after 500 BCE, indicating an increase in food production. People needed more jars to carry and store extra food. There is also evidence that the Chavín society domesticated llamas. They used these animals for transporting goods throughout the Chavín region and beyond, as more products originating from regions outside Chavín have been found (some of these goods were located hundreds of miles from the center of Chavín society). This also leads scholars to believe that the Chavín were a part of a larger, interregional trade network. Other nearby societies also incorporated Chavín artistic style in their own pottery and sculptures, which shows interconnection and communication between communities.
Chavín society was organized hierarchically, and shaman-priests had the most authority. They also appear to have performed bloodletting rituals on stone slabs at the temple. It is thought that shamans induced a trance-like state by ingesting mushrooms, coca leaves, and cactus juice. As in Olmec society, the residents of Chavín may have been controlled through the use of religion and fear. This indicates that the Chavín may have had a central authority such as a religious leader, but we don't really know how their society was organized politically. There don't appear to be any defensive structures to protect the area or weapons of war. The imagery used in the temple site combined a mix of real and mythical animals including jaguars, snakes, eagles, and a winged crocodile. The Chavín people were also skilled at metal work. They soldered2 gold to create crowns, masks, and jewelry. In addition, they wove cotton textiles to create wall hangings as well as clothing.
Photo of a llama sitting on the grass.
The Chavín used llamas to transport goods over long distances, though this one does not appear to be in a hurry. By Johann "nojhan" Dréo, CC BY-SA 2.5.
At its height, the center of Chavín society encompassed an area of about 1,000 acres, which could support a population of about 2,000-3,000 people. Scholars are not sure why the Chavín society's population declined or relocated. Some possible explanations include environmental changes such as overuse of the surrounding land, or the site that was used for religious purposes declined somehow.
Author bio
Bridgette Byrd O’Connor holds a DPhil in history from the University of Oxford and has taught Big History, World History, and AP U.S. Government and Politics for the past ten years at the high school level. In addition, she has been a freelance writer and editor for the Big History Project and the Crash Course World History and U.S. History curriculums.

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