11 julio, 2024

Form of government of the Olmecs: what was it, theocracy, other theories

What was the Olmec form of government?

The Olmec form of government it could have been a theocracy, according to many experts. This culture flourished in the low coastal region of southern Veracruz and western Tabasco, on the Gulf of Mexico, from about 1250 to 500 BC.

Thanks to new archaeological discoveries, the Olmec is considered the first great Mesoamerican civilization. The Olmec culture is believed to have been a precursor to all subsequent Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Maya and the Aztec.

Theocracy as a form of government of the Olmecs

It is generally assumed that, like most subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations, the Olmecs were a theocratic society.

Theocracy is a form of government guided by the divine, or by officials who are supposed to be guided by gods. It is very common then for government leaders to be members of the clergy. It is also typical for the state’s legal system to be based on religious law.

Thus, in the community centers of the Olmecs, clearly distinctive social classes would coexist: priests, bureaucrats, merchants, and artisans.

Those of the privileged classes lived in finely built stone structures. Many of these constructions were temples on top of the pyramids.

The Olmecs had paved streets and aqueducts that brought water to these temples.

Archaeological discoveries seem to support the theory of a theocratic government. The famous colossal basalt heads possibly represented chiefs or kings.

In addition, the crying baby-faced figurines are considered to symbolize the descendants of Olmec deities. These and other symbolic artifacts show the importance of religion in this culture.

For his part, archaeologist Richard Diehl has identified religious elements of this civilization.

In this sociocultural context there were sacred sites, rituals carried out by shamans and/or rulers, and the conception of a cosmos where divine beings and gods controlled the universe and interacted with human beings.

Other theories

Many theorists consider that the archaeological evidence is not enough to affirm that the Olmecs were a theocratic society. In this way, it has been proposed that it could have been an empire, a chiefdom or even a rudimentary form of state.

First, an empire is defined as a major political unit having a large territory, or several territories or peoples under a single sovereign authority.

Some argue that the Olmecs were an empire that exercised political, economic, and military dominance over other local leaders.

But it is unlikely that the population was large enough to have an army controlling other towns. Furthermore, there is no archaeological evidence to support this idea.

On the other hand, chiefdoms are hierarchically organized societies whose basic principle of internal organization is rank.

In these cases, the highest rank is occupied by the boss. The fact that many of the societies that had contact with the Olmecs developed complex chiefdoms seems to reinforce this theory. However, this has not yet been verified.

Finally, the Olmecs are also spoken of as a state. A state is a rather elaborate society in which there are better conditions than a tribal one.

It also supposes a clear differentiation of social classes. Many consider that the Olmec culture reached the level of a primitive state where there was a highly centralized control of the population.


Mark Cartwright (2013). Olmec Civilization. Retrieved from ancient.eu.
Theocracy (2014). Recovered from britannica.com
Theocracy. Retrieved from merriam-webster.com
Waldman, C. (2009). Atlas of the North American Indian. New York: Infobase Publishing.

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