for National Geographic News
Archaeologists have unearthed a city in central Mexico that is more than 2,500 years old and was influenced by the ancient Olmec culture.
Creators of a pioneering written language and calendar, the Olmec are generally regarded as the first advanced civilization in Mesoamerica, the region stretching from central Mexico to eastern Honduras (map of North and Central America).
Located about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Mexico City, the ruins, called Zazacatla, are hundreds of miles from the Gulf of Mexico coast region generally associated with the Olmec (Mexico map).
The discovery of Zazacatla sheds light on early cultural developments and long-distance trade in ancient Mexico. The find also suggests that the influence of the Olmec was perhaps greater than previously thought.
Zazacatla was found buried under housing and commercial development. Its discovery underlines the extent to which Mexico's heritage remains unexplored and unprotected, archaeologists say.
"The public may think that all the important archaeological sites in Mexico are known. But this is not the case," said David Grove, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has worked in central Mexico for more than 40 years.
"Ninety-five percent of Mexico remains essentially unexplored."
The Olmec are often called the mother culture of Mesoamerica. They flourished during the so-called formative period of the region's history—about 1200 B.C. to 400 B.C.
The Olmec lived in the Gulf coast area that today makes up the states of Veracruz and Tabasco. The most prominent Olmec center was the city of La Venta.
Famed for their colossal sculptures of heads, the Olmec may also have been the first Mesoamerican civilization to develop a writing system.
They may not have been ethnically Olmec, but the inhabitants of Zazacatla seem to have revered Olmec culture.
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