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San Lorenzo and La Venta: 1200 - 400 BC

The first civilization in central and north America develops in about 1200 BC in the coastal regions of the southern part of the Gulf of Mexico. Known as the Olmec civilization, its early site is at San Lorenzo.

From about 900 BC the capital city of the Olmecs moves further east along the Gulf coast to La Venta, an island site in the Tonalá River. For the next 500 years La Venta is the cultural centre of a large region, trading with much of central America. The Olmec traditions of sculpture and of temple architecture, developed over eight centuries, will influence all the subsequent civilizations of the region.

The most characteristic sculptures of San Lorenzo and La Venta are astonishing creations. They are massive stone heads, more than two metres in height, of square-jawed and fat-lipped warriors, usually wearing helmets with ear flaps.

The chunky and uncompromising quality of these images will remain typical of much of the religious art of Mesoamerica, particularly in the region around Mexico City. It can be seen in the rain-god masks of Teotihuacan (about 2000 years ago), in the vast standing warriors at Tula (about 1000 years ago) and in the brutally severe monumental sculpture of the Aztecs (500 years ago).

The first American monuments: from 1200 BC

In both the centres of Olmec civilization, at San Lorenzo and then La Venta, numerous large clay platforms are raised. At their top there are believed to have been temples, or perhaps sometimes palaces, built of wood. The concept of climbing up to a place of religious significance becomes the central theme of pre-Columbian architecture.

Its natural conclusion is the pyramid, with steps by which priests and pilgrims climb to the top (unlike the smooth-sided tomb pyramids of Egypt). La Venta initiates this long American tradition too. One of its pyramids is more than 30 metres high.

The Olmec temple complexes set the pattern for societies in America over the next 2000 years. The pyramids, with their temples and palaces, dominate the surrounding dwellings as powerfully as the priestly rulers and their rituals dominate the local community.

It is also probable that the Olmecs engage in a custom which remains characteristic of all the early civilizations of America - the ritual of human sacrifice, reaching its grisly peak in the ceremonies of the Aztecs.

The Zapotecs and Monte Alban: from 400 BC

The Zapotecs are among the first people to develop the Olmec culture in other regions. From about 400 BC at Monte Alban, to the west of the Olmec heartland, they establish a ceremonial centre with stone temple platforms.

Monte Alban eventually becomes the main city of this part of southern Mexico. Pyramids, an astronomical observatory and other cult buildings and monuments (including America's earliest carved inscriptions) are ranged in a temple district along the top of a ridge. In terraces on the slopes below there is a town of some 30,000 people. The Zapotecs thrive on this site for more than 1000 years, finally abandoning it in about AD 700.

Teotihuacan and Tikal: early centuries AD

Around the beginning of the Christian era two regions of central America begin to develop more advanced civilizations, still based on a priestly cult and on temple pyramids.

The dominant city in the northern highlands is Teotihuacan. It eventually covers eight square miles, with a great central avenue running for some two miles. At its north end is the massive Pyramid of the Moon. To one side of the avenue is the even larger Pyramid of the Sun (66 metres high). The sculptures on an early pyramid in Teotihuacan introduce Quetzalcoatl, the most important god of ancient Mesoamerica. His image is a snake's head with a necklace of feathers (the plumed serpent).

The other classic civilization of Mesoamerica is that of the Maya, developing in what is now the eastern part of Mexico and the neighbouring regions of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and western Honduras. Much of this region is jungle. The inaccessibility of the great centres of Maya culture (of which the largest is Tikal) means that they outlast all rivals, surviving a succession of violent changes in the civilization of central Mexico.

The first of these changes is the sudden collapse of Teotihuacan in about AD 650. It is not known for certain which invaders overrun this greatest city of ancient America. But the next people to establish themselves as rulers of the valley of Mexico, in the 10th century, are the Toltecs.

The first American script: 2nd c. BC - 3rd c. AD

Of the various early civilizations of central America, the Maya make the greatest use of writing. In their ceremonial centres they set up numerous columns, or stelae, engraved with hieroglyphs. But they are not the inventors of writing in America.

Credit for this should possibly go back as far as the Olmecs. Certainly there is some evidence that they are the first in the region to devise a calendar, in which writing of some sort is almost essential. The Zapotecs, preceding the Maya, have left the earliest surviving inscriptions, dating from about the 2nd century BC. The first Mayan stele to be securely dated is erected at Tikal in the equivalent of the year AD 292.

The Mayan script is hieroglyphic with some phonetic elements. Its interpretation has been a long struggle, going back to the 16th century, and even today only about 80% of the hieroglyphs are understood. They reveal that the script is used almost exclusively for two purposes: the recording of calculations connected with the calendar and astronomy; and the listing of rulers, their dynasties and their conquests.

Thus the priests and the palace officials of early America succeed in preserving writing for their own privileged purposes. In doing so they deny their societies the liberating magic of literacy.

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