12 julio, 2024

Economic activities of the Olmecs: what they were, products

What were the economic activities of the Olmecs?

The economic activities of the Olmecs they were the exchange of products of agriculture, fishing, hunting and handicrafts, mainly. Therefore, it was an economy based on barter.

The economic system implemented by the Olmec civilization can be considered as an example of evolution and development as society expanded. In Preclassic Mesoamerica, the Olmec economy developed through the exchange of goods as its main activity. It was one of the oldest pre-Columbian cultures, from which many others derived.

Its economy is considered to be of sustenance, that is to say, it uses the items produced and cultivated locally for the acquisition of others, more exotic or useful, with agricultural qualities, due to the predominance of cultivation as a practice compared to fishing and hunting. .

The trade and exchange of goods was essential for the architectural development of the Olmec civilization.

Different types of stones and materials from other regions were imported to erect temples and ceremonial centers, as well as for the elaboration of sculptures and handicrafts.

The Olmec civilization is also credited with having developed the first long-distance exchange routes, with which they allowed not only access to new materials and resources, but also established organizational changes at a social level.

Products of the Olmec economy for exchange and commerce

Initially, Olmec trading activities could be considered as part of a mixed economy that included the exchange of domesticated crops (corn, beans, pumpkins, cacao, etc.), dogs and wild plants, and later fishing.

The small variations of some products between the Olmec subregions began to stimulate short-distance exchange, allowing peoples to have resources outside their locality.

As time passed, the Olmecs began to export their manufactured goods. Hence, Olmec artifacts and sculptures have been found in faraway places.

It has been determined that there is no direct evidence that evidences the exchange of food between the Olmecs and distant civilizations, but it is believed that this technique is the only justification for the Olmecs having access to inputs such as salt, for example.

Beyond the basic resources and utilities or manufactured tools, a good part of the Olmec trade was centered on the exchange of exotic and ornamental objects, of higher quality than those that were obtained locally.

A characteristic of trade between Mesoamerican civilizations was that what was considered a common object for a certain region, was considered a resource worthy of necessity by another.

exotic and ornamental objects

Trade between regions opened up the possibility of new raw materials for construction, and precious materials for the manufacture of ceremonial ornaments.

Obsidian was one of the first stones that reached the Olmec civilization through exchange, since its presence was scarce in the regions they inhabited (southeast of present-day Veracruz and west of present-day Tabasco).

It was used in the manufacture of tools that were later marketed as finished products.

The expansion of trade routes and the possibility of traveling greater distances allowed the Olmecs to establish contact and use materials such as jade, serpentine, cinnabar, andesite, schist, chromite, etc.

In this same way, they obtained the necessary stones for the construction and expansion of their temples and ceremonial centers.

Notably, the more access the Olmec had to exotic and precious new materials as commercial development increased, the ceremonies and rituals became much larger and more lavish.

Evolution of the exchange system

It is thought that the Olmec economic system was able to go through two major market stages during the period of its existence.

A first stage of isolated trade and little traffic and exchange, where the main products were for sustenance and construction materials.

Some Olmec towns had «commercial consulates» in certain regions, small camps with soldiers who guarded the products and merchandise that were far from the main settlements.

The rise and expansion of agriculture had a significant impact on the Olmec economy, driving what would be the beginning of its second stage: the invention and development of long-distance trade routes.

Those first routes extended from the Gulf of Mexico, where the main towns and cities were located, to higher territories within what is now Mexico and part of Guatemala. This commercial expansion began in 1400 BC, approximately.

Exchange with other civilizations

The Olmec commercial expansion allowed them to make contact with civilizations settled in other regions, such as the Mocaya, the Tlatilco and the city of Chalcatzingo.

This contact not only allowed fruitful trade routes to open up, but also generated a cultural transfer between the groups, where Olmec sculptures and pieces of art influenced the crafts and manufacturing of other regions.

Among the products traded with these civilizations, the Olmecs may have had a first contact with items such as cocoa, salt, animal skins, ornamental feathers and some precious stones, such as jade and serpentine.

As specialists in the export of manufactures, the Olmec influence on these civilizations was mainly artistic, craft and cultural.

Importance of economic development

The most developed stage of the Olmec economy was not only that of a much larger civilization than centuries before, but also constituted the beginning of new forms of organization that guaranteed uninterrupted commercial activities.

The chains of command multiplied, generating new functions within the citizens, even coming to be in charge, not only of the protection of goods, but of their redistribution between regions.

Olmec society began to be socially stratified by classes, determined according to the exoticism of the objects and materials possessed.

Among the considered lower classes, specialized practices and trades proliferated, so that the production of manufactured objects and handicrafts for their subsequent trade multiplied.

The economic legacy of the Olmec civilization can be pointed out as the continuity and effectiveness given to long-distance exchange routes, together with the innovations that later Mesoamerican cultures could develop.


Bernal, I. (1969). The Olmec World. Berkeley: University of California Press.
The Olmec. Retrieved from thoughtco.com

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