Olmec Civilization Success Through Trade

Besides foodstuffs, common trade materials where rubber, obsidian and jade stone, utilitarian and decorative pottery, feathers of tropical birds, and mirrors fashioned from unique crystalline stones polished to a high gloss.

Prior to the Olmec civilization arising, the tribes in the area would undoubtedly trade with each other. The land mass is not so vast that each group would stay separate for very long. In those early days, organized trade routes or dedicated merchants would not exist. Instead, groups would simply come together, organize a trade of goods, and then move on again. There were a lot of middlemen involved and highly desired objects which get traded frequently.

The city that would one day become San Lorenzo stood at the centre of Olmec society and trade. As this first civilization had an economy based primarily on agriculture, they would not trade for food with other groups. Instead, archaeologists have discovered things that the Olmec would not have made in the digs in the land that they controlled. Some of these included jade figures and obsidian blades. It also made sense that the Olmec would trade for salts and cocoa, which they undoubtedly enjoyed drinking hot like the later Maya.

The luxury goods created by the Olmec themselves, such as pottery, small humanoid figurines, and natural items like parrot feathers and jaguar skins, undoubtedly fetched a high price. Whenever trade exists, so too does the spread of cultural ideas and art styles. This is one predominant way that archaeologists and historians unravel the mysteries of Mesoamerican trade. When they find something obviously made by an Olmec potter, for example, far south in what would become the cradle of Mayan growth, they can see the extent of the trade routes.