Olmecs – The Rubber People

The Invention of Rubber

In the late 1850s, a farm worker clearing land at a Mexican estate stumbled upon a large stone head hewn from a single boulder. The head had distinct features and wore a fitting helmet. This sculpted monolith was the first major discovery of one of the most ancient civilization in the Americas, the Olmecs.

Olmec Colossal Head San Lorenzo Veracruz 1200 600 BC side
Olmec Colossal Head – Image: Wikimedia Commons

They were the originators of possibly the first written script in the ancient American world, but the Olmecs step into our story because they invented the Mesoamerican ballgame. This ancient ritualistic game forms the gory backstory of one of the most ubiquitous pieces of stationery we all use: the humble eraser.

The Olmecs revered two trees in the forest around their cities. The Panama Rubber Tree (Castilla Elastica) is a large tree which grows all over the region and produces a sticky latex which these ancient people made the centre of their world and trade. Moonflower (Ipomoea Alba), a species of Morning Glory, is a resilient creeper that just so happened to grow on and around the rubber trees. They produce a beautiful white flower that blooms in the night. 3000 years before Charles Goodyear’s discovery of Vulcanization, the Olmecs figured out that mixing the juice of the Moonflower creeper into the latex of the rubber tree would make for a hardy and shapeable rubber material.

They produced it, traded it across the region, they are likely to have made slippers from it, and they also used it to make a large rubber ball. Which brings us back to the game. The mesoamerican civilisations were and continued to be a ritualistic culture for millennia. The ball game became a major part of their life, their power structure and maybe even their entertainment. From what we can tell, it involved two teams playing to throw a ball through a stone hoop on a court. Infamously, the defeated team is said to have been decapitated at the end of the game.

It was believed the many giant Olmec stone heads are wearing the ball-player’s helmet, though recently it’s thought they represent great chieftains. Considering how important this game was, maybe it is both. The Olmecs gave way to other civilizations which carried on the tradition of the ball game and also of making things out of rubber.

When the unprocessed plant latex material from the New World was introduced into Europe, it was discovered to be good at “rubbing” out things and so the rubber (eraser) actually lent its name to the substance. But that’s a story for another time.

The Aztecs called rubber ‘olli‘ and so we owe all our beloved rubbers and erasers to the people the Aztecs called Olmecatl, or Olmec. Very literally ‘the rubber people’.

  1. Nataraj 621 Plasto Eraser Test – https://inkymemo.com/nataraj-621-plasto-eraser-test/
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