the ethnic-linguistic affiliation of the Olmec remains unknown
THE CASCAJAL BLOCK
The Cascajal block is a tablet size (36x21x13cm and about 11,5Kg) writing slab made of serpentite (rock composed of one or more serpentine group materials) from Mexico which has been dated to the early first millenium BCE, incized with hitherto unknown characters that may represent the earliest writing system in the New World (the Americas).
Archaeologists say that this discovery helps to link the Olmec civilization (first major civilization in Mexico) to literacy and document an unexpected writing system.
The Cascajal block was discovered in the late 1990s by road builders, in a pile of debris in the village of Lomas de Tacamichapa in the Veracruz lowlands; the ancient Olmec heartland. Details of the find were published by researchers in the 15 September 2006 issue of the journal "Science".
THE OLMEC CIVILIZATION
The Olmec have traditionally been placed between 1400 and 1200 BCE. Past finds of the Olmec civilization though, have moved this back to at least 1600-1500 BCE.
The Olmec have their roots in early farming cultures of tabasco. The rise of civilization was assisted by the local ecology of well-watered alluvial soil, as well as by the transportation network provided by the Coatzacoalcos river basin.
The elite class created the demand for the production of the symbolic and sophisticated luxury artifacts that define Olmec culture. Many of these artifacts were made from materials such as jade, obsidian and magnetite, which came from distant locations and suggest that early Olmec elites had access to an extensive trading network in Mesoamerica.
The Olmec culture was first defined as an art style, and this continues to be the hallmark of the culture. Much of the Olmec art is made of jade, clay, basalt and greenstone among others and is surprisingly naturalistic. Other art expresses fantastic anthromorphic creatures, often highly stylized, using iconography reflective of a religious meaning.
In addition to making human and human-like subjects, Olmec artisans were adept at animal portrayals.
DECLINE OF THE OLMEC CIVILIZATION
The cause of the eventual extinction of the Olmec culture hasn't been clearly determined.
Between 400 and 3500 BCE, the population in the Eastern half of the Olmec heartland dropped precipitously, and the area was sparsely inhabited until the 19th Century.
According to archaeologists, this depopulation was probably the result of "very serious environmental changes that rendered the region unsuited for large groups of farmers", in particular changes to the riverine environment that the Olmec depended upon for agriculture, hunting, gathering and transportation.
Another theory says that the Terminal Formative period proposed relocation of settlements due to volcanism, instead of extinction. Volcanic eruptions during the Early, Late and Terminal Formative periods would have blanketed the lands and forced the Olmec to move their settlements.
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