MESOAMERICA is an important historical region and cultural area in
Americas , extending from approximately central
El Salvador ,
Nicaragua , and northern
Costa Rica , and within which pre-Columbian societies flourished
before the Spanish colonization of the
Americas in the 15th and 16th
centuries. It is one of six areas in the world where ancient
civilization arose independently, and the second in the
with Norte Chico (Caral-Supe) in present-day northern coastal
As a cultural area,
Mesoamerica is defined by a mosaic of cultural
traits developed and shared by its indigenous cultures. Beginning as
early as 7000 BC, the domestication of cacao , maize , beans , tomato
, squash and chili , as well as the turkey and dog , caused a
transition from paleo-Indian hunter-gatherer tribal grouping to the
organization of sedentary agricultural villages. In the subsequent
Formative period, agriculture and cultural traits such as a complex
mythological and religious tradition , a vigesimal numeric system, and
a complex calendric system , a tradition of ball playing , and a
distinct architectural style , were diffused through the area. Also in
this period, villages began to become socially stratified and develop
into chiefdoms with the development of large ceremonial centers,
interconnected by a network of trade routes for the exchange of luxury
goods, such as obsidian , jade , cacao , cinnabar ,
hematite , and ceramics. While Mesoamerican civilization did know of
the wheel and basic metallurgy, neither of these technologies became
Among the earliest complex civilizations was the
Olmec culture, which
inhabited the Gulf coast of
Mexico and extended inland and southwards
Isthmus of Tehuantepec
Isthmus of Tehuantepec . Frequent contact and cultural
interchange between the early
Olmec and other cultures in Chiapas,
Oaxaca laid the basis for the Mesoamerican cultural
area. All this was facilitated by considerable regional communications
Mesoamerica , especially along the Pacific coast.
This formative period saw the spread of distinct religious and
symbolic traditions, as well as artistic and architectural complexes.
In the subsequent Preclassic period , complex urban polities began to
develop among the Maya , with the rise of centers such as
El Mirador ,
Tikal , and the Zapotec at
Monte Albán . During this
period, the first true
Mesoamerican writing systems were developed in
Olmec and the Zapotec cultures, and the Mesoamerican writing
tradition reached its height in the Classic Maya hieroglyphic script .
Mesoamerica is one of only three regions of the world where writing
is known to have independently developed (the others being ancient
Sumer and China). In Central Mexico, the height of the Classic period
saw the ascendancy of the city of
Teotihuacan , which formed a
military and commercial empire whose political influence stretched
south into the Maya area and northward. Upon the collapse of
Teotihuacán around AD 600, competition between several important
political centers in central Mexico, such as
Xochicalco and Cholula ,
ensued. At this time during the Epi-Classic period, the Nahua peoples
began moving south into
Mesoamerica from the North, and became
politically and culturally dominant in central Mexico, as they
displaced speakers of
Oto-Manguean languages . During the early
post-Classic period, Central
Mexico was dominated by the Toltec
Oaxaca by the
Mixtec , and the lowland Maya area had
important centers at
Chichén Itzá and
Mayapán . Towards the end of
the post-Classic period, the Aztecs of Central
Mexico built a
tributary empire covering most of central Mesoamerica.
The distinct Mesoamerican cultural tradition ended with the Spanish
conquest in the 16th century. Over the next centuries, Mesoamerican
indigenous cultures were gradually subjected to Spanish colonial rule.
Aspects of the Mesoamerican cultural heritage still survive among the
indigenous peoples who inhabit Mesoamerica, many of whom continue to
speak their ancestral languages, and maintain many practices harking
back to their Mesoamerican roots.
* 1 Etymology and definition
* 2 Geography
* 2.1 Cultural sub-areas
* 2.2 Topography
* 2.3 Bodies of water
* 2.4 Biodiversity
* 3 Chronology and culture
* 3.2 Archaic
* 3.3 Preclassic/Formative
* 3.3.1 Preclassic gallery
* 3.4 Classic
* 3.4.1 Early Classic
* 220.127.116.11 Early Classic gallery
* 3.4.2 Late Classic
* 18.104.22.168 Late Classic gallery
* 3.4.3 Terminal Classic
* 22.214.171.124 Terminal Classic gallery
* 3.5 Postclassic
* 3.5.1 Postclassic gallery
* 4 General characteristics
* 4.1 Subsistence
* 4.2 Political organization
* 4.3 Economy
* 5 Common characteristics of Mesoamerican culture
* 5.1 Architecture
* 5.2 Calendrical systems
* 5.5 Food, medicine, and science
* 5.6 Mythology and worldview
* 126.96.36.199 Autosacrifice
* 5.6.2 Ballgame
* 5.6.4 Symbolism of space and time
* 5.7 Political and religious art
* 6 See also
* 7 Footnotes
* 8 Further reading
* 9 External links
ETYMOLOGY AND DEFINITION
Maya Ruins of
Tazumal in Santa Ana,
Mesoamerica – literally, "middle America" in Greek – is
defined as the area that is home to the Mesoamerican civilization,
which comprises a group of peoples with close cultural and historical
ties. The exact geographic extent of
Mesoamerica has varied through
time, as the civilization extended
South from its heartland
in southern Mexico. The term was first used by the German ethnologist
Paul Kirchhoff , who noted that similarities existed among the various
pre-Columbian cultures within the region that included southern Mexico
El Salvador , western
Honduras , and the
Pacific lowlands of
Nicaragua and northwestern
Costa Rica . In the
tradition of cultural history , the prevalent archaeological theory of
the early to middle 20th century, Kirchhoff defined this zone as a
cultural area based on a suite of interrelated cultural similarities
brought about by millennia of inter- and intra-regional interaction
(i.e., diffusion) .
Mesoamerica is recognized as a near-prototypical
cultural area, and the term is now fully integrated in the standard
terminology of pre-Columbian anthropological studies. Conversely, the
Oasisamerica , which refer to northern
Mexico and the western
United States , respectively, have not entered
into widespread usage.
Some of the significant cultural traits defining the Mesoamerican
cultural tradition are:
* sedentism based on maize agriculture
* the construction of stepped pyramids
* the use of two different calendars (a 260-day ritual calendar and
a 365-day calendar based on the solar year )
* vigesimal (base 20) number system
* the use of locally developed pictographic and hieroglyphic
(logo-syllabic) writing systems
* the use of rubber and the practice of the
* the use of bark paper and agave for ritual purposes and as a
medium for writing and the latter also for cooking and clothing
* the practice of various forms of ritualistic sacrifice , including
* a religious complex based on a combination of shamanism and
natural deities, and a shared system of symbols
* a linguistic area defined by a number of grammatical traits that
have spread through the area by diffusion
Geography of Mesoamerica Landscape of the
Located on the Middle American isthmus joining
North and South
America between ca. 10° and 22° northern latitude , Mesoamerica
possesses a complex combination of ecological systems, topographic
zones, and environmental contexts. A main distinction groups these
different niches into two broad categories: the lowlands (those areas
between sea level and 1000 meters) and the altiplanos, or highlands
(situated between 1,000 and 2,000 meters above sea level). In the
low-lying regions, sub-tropical and tropical climates are most common,
as is true for most of the coastline along the Pacific and Gulf of
Mexico and the
Caribbean Sea . The highlands show much more climatic
diversity, ranging from dry tropical to cold mountainous climates ;
the dominant climate is temperate with warm temperatures and moderate
rainfall. The rainfall varies from the dry
Oaxaca and north Yucatán
to the humid southern Pacific and
Several distinct sub-regions within
Mesoamerica are defined by a
convergence of geographic and cultural attributes. These sub-regions
are more conceptual than culturally meaningful, and the demarcation of
their limits is not rigid. The Maya area, for example, can be divided
into two general groups: the lowlands and highlands. The lowlands are
further divided into the southern and northern Maya lowlands. The
southern Maya lowlands are generally regarded as encompassing northern
Guatemala , southern
Quintana Roo in
Mexico , and Belize
. The northern lowlands cover the remainder of the northern portion of
Yucatán Peninsula . Other areas include Central Mexico, West
Mexico, the Gulf Coast Lowlands,
Oaxaca , the Southern Pacific
Lowlands, and Southeast
Mesoamerica (including northern
There is extensive topographic variation in Mesoamerica, ranging from
the high peaks circumscribing the Valley of
Mexico and within the
central Sierra Madre mountains to the low flatlands of the northern
Yucatán Peninsula. The tallest mountain in
Mesoamerica is Pico de
Orizaba , a dormant volcano located on the border of
Veracruz . Its peak elevation is 5,636 m (18,490 ft).
The Sierra Madre mountains, which consist of several smaller ranges,
run from northern
Mesoamerica south through
Costa Rica . The chain is
historically volcanic . In central and southern Mexico, a portion of
the Sierra Madre chain is known as the
Eje Volcánico Transversal , or
the Trans-Mexican volcanic belt. There are 83 inactive and active
volcanoes within the Sierra Madre range, including 11 in Mexico, 37 in
Guatemala, 23 in El Salvador, 25 in Nicaragua, and 3 in northwestern
Costa Rica. According to the Michigan Technological University, 16 of
these are still active. The tallest active volcano is
5,452 m (17,887 ft). This volcano, which retains its
Nahuatl name, is
located 70 km (43 mi) southeast of
Mexico City . Other volcanoes of
note include Tacana on the Mexico–
Guatemala border, Tajumulco and
Santamaría in Guatemala, Izalco in El Salvador,
Nicaragua, and Arenal in Costa Rica.
One important topographic feature is the
Isthmus of Tehuantepec
Isthmus of Tehuantepec , a
low plateau that breaks up the Sierra Madre chain between the Sierra
Madre del Sur to the north and the
Sierra Madre de Chiapas to the
south. At its highest point, the
Isthmus is 224 m (735 ft) above mean
sea level. This area also represents the shortest distance between the
Mexico and the
Pacific Ocean in Mexico. The distance between
the two coasts is roughly 200 km (120 mi). Although the northern side
Isthmus is swampy and covered with dense jungle, the
Tehuantepec, as the lowest and most level point within the Sierra
Madre mountain chain, was nonetheless a main transportation,
communication, and economic route within Mesoamerica.
BODIES OF WATER
Outside of the northern Maya lowlands, rivers are common throughout
Mesoamerica. Some of the more important ones served as loci of human
occupation in the area. The longest river in
Mesoamerica is the
Usumacinta , which forms in
Guatemala at the convergence of the
Salinas or Chixoy and La Pasion
River and runs north for 970 km (600
mi) – 480 km (300 mi) of which are navigable – eventually draining
into the Gulf of
Mexico . Other rivers of note include the Rio Grande
de Santiago , the Grijalva
River , the Motagua
River , the Ulúa River
, and the Hondo
River . The northern Maya lowlands, especially the
northern portion of the
Yucatán peninsula, are notable for their
nearly complete lack of rivers (largely due to the absolute lack of
topographic variation). Additionally, no lakes exist in the northern
peninsula. The main source of water in this area is aquifers that are
accessed through natural surface openings called cenotes .
With an area of 8,264 km2 (3,191 sq mi), Lake
Nicaragua is the
largest lake in Mesoamerica.
Lake Chapala is Mexico’s largest
freshwater lake, but
Lake Texcoco is perhaps most well known as the
location upon which
Tenochtitlan , capital of the
Aztec Empire, was
Lake Petén Itzá , in northern Guatemala, is notable as the
location at which the last independent Maya city,
Tayasal (or Noh
Petén), held out against the Spanish until 1697. Other large lakes
Lake Atitlán ,
Lake Izabal , Lake Güija ,
Lemoa , and Lake
Almost all ecosystems are present in Mesoamerica; the more well known
Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System , the second largest in the
La Mosquitia (consisting of the Rio Platano Biosphere
Reserve , Tawahka Asangni ,
Patuca National Park , and Bosawas
Biosphere Reserve ) a rainforest second in size in the
to the Amazonas . The highlands present mixed and coniferous forest.
The biodiversity is among the richest in the world, although the
number of species in the red list of the
IUCN is growing every year.
CHRONOLOGY AND CULTURE
Tikal is one of the
largest archaeological sites, urban centers, and tourist attractions
of the pre-Columbian
Maya civilization . It is located in the
archaeological region of the
Petén Basin in what is now northern
The history of human occupation in
Mesoamerica is divided into stages
or periods. These are known, with slight variation depending on
region, as the
Paleo-Indian , the Archaic , the Preclassic (or
Formative), the Classic , and the Postclassic . The last three
periods, representing the core of Mesoamerican cultural fluorescence,
are further divided into two or three sub-phases. Most of the time
following the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century is classified
as the Colonial period.
The differentiation of early periods (i.e., up through the end of the
Late Preclassic ) generally reflects different configurations of
socio-cultural organization that are characterized by increasing
socio-political complexity , the adoption of new and different
subsistence strategies , and changes in economic organization
(including increased interregional interaction). The Classic period
through the Postclassic are differentiated by the cyclical
crystallization and fragmentation of the various political entities
Paleo-Indian period precedes the advent of
agriculture and is characterized by a nomadic hunting and gathering
subsistence strategy. Big-game hunting, similar to that seen in
North America , was a large component of the
subsistence strategy of the Mesoamerican Paleo-Indian. These sites had
obsidian blades and Clovis -style fluted projectile points .
The Archaic period (8000–2000 BC) is characterized by the rise of
incipient agriculture in Mesoamerica. The initial phases of the
Archaic involved the cultivation of wild plants, transitioning into
informal domestication and culminating with sedentism and agricultural
production by the close of the period. Archaic sites include Sipacate
Escuintla , Guatemala, where maize pollen samples date to c. 3500
BC. The well-known
Coxcatlan cave site in the Valley of Tehuacán,
Puebla , which contains over 10,000 teosinte cobs (an antecedent to
maize ), and
Guilá Naquitz in
Oaxaca represent some of the earliest
examples of agriculture in Mesoamerica. The early development of
pottery, often seen as a sign of sedentism, has been documented at
several sites, including the
West Mexican sites of
Nayarit and Puerto Marqués in
La Blanca ,
Ocós , and
Ujuxte in the Pacific Lowlands of
Guatemala yielded pottery dated to
c. 2500 BC.
Olmec influences on Mesoamerican cultures El Mirador
flourished from 600 BC to AD 100, and may have had a population of
The first complex civilization to develop in
Mesoamerica was that of
Olmec , who inhabited the gulf coast region of
the Preclassic period. The main sites of the
Olmec include San Lorenzo
La Venta , and
Tres Zapotes . Although specific dates
vary, these sites were occupied from roughly 1200 to 400 BC. Remains
of other early cultures interacting with the
Olmec have been found at
Takalik Abaj ,
Izapa , and
Teopantecuanitlan , and as far south as in
Honduras . Research in the Pacific Lowlands of Chiapas and Guatemala
Izapa and the Monte Alto Culture may have preceded the
Olmec. Radiocarbon samples associated with various sculptures found at
the Late Preclassic site of
Izapa suggest a date of between 1800 and
During the Middle and Late Preclassic period, the Maya civilization
developed in the southern Maya highlands and lowlands, and at a few
sites in the northern Maya lowlands. The earliest Maya sites coalesced
after 1000 BC, and include
El Mirador , and
Cerros . Middle to
Preclassic Maya sites include
Dzibilchaltun , and San Bartolo , among
The Preclassic in the central Mexican highlands is represented by
such sites as Tlapacoya ,
Tlatilco , and
Cuicuilco . These sites were
eventually superseded by
Teotihuacán , an important Classic-era site
that eventually dominated economic and interaction spheres throughout
Mesoamerica. The settlement of
Teotihuacan is dated to the later
portion of the Late Preclassic, or roughly AD 50.
In the Valley of
San José Mogote represents one of the
oldest permanent agricultural villages in the area, and one of the
first to use pottery. During the Early and Middle Preclassic, the site
developed some of the earliest examples of defensive palisades ,
ceremonial structures, the use of adobe , and hieroglyphic writing .
Also of importance, the site was one of the first to demonstrate
inherited status , signifying a radical shift in socio-cultural and
San José Mogote was eventual overtaken by Monte
Albán , the subsequent capital of the Zapotec empire , during the
The Preclassic in western Mexico, in the states of
Nayarit , Jalisco
Colima , and
Michoacán also known as the Occidente, is poorly
understood. This period is best represented by the thousands of
figurines recovered by looters and ascribed to the "shaft tomb
Olmec Colossal Head No. 3 1200–900 BC
Olmec Baby Figure 1200–900 BC
Cuicuilco 800–600 BC
Nakbé , Mid Preclassic (600 BC) Palace remains, The Mirador Basin
The partly excavated main structure of
San Jose Mogote 1500–500 BC
Monte Alban , Building J in the foreground. 200 BC – AD 200
The Classic period is marked by the rise and dominance of several
polities. The traditional distinction between the Early and Late
Classic are marked by their changing fortune and their ability to
maintain regional primacy. Of paramount importance are
Tikal in Guatemala; the Early Classic’s temporal
limits generally correlate to the main periods of these sites. Monte
Oaxaca is another Classic-period polity that expanded and
flourished during this period, but the Zapotec capital exerted less
interregional influence than the other two sites.
During the Early Classic,
Teotihuacan participated in and perhaps
dominated a far-reaching macro-regional interaction network.
Architectural and artifact styles (talud-tablero, tripod slab-footed
ceramic vessels) epitomized at
Teotihuacan were mimicked and adopted
at many distant settlements.
Pachuca obsidian, whose trade and
distribution is argued to have been economically controlled by
Teotihuacan, is found throughout Mesoamerica.
Tikal came to dominate much of the southern Maya lowlands
politically, economically, and militarily during the Early Classic. An
exchange network centered at
Tikal distributed a variety of goods and
commodities throughout southeast Mesoamerica, such as obsidian
imported from central
Mexico (e.g., Pachuca) and highland Guatemala
(e.g., El Chayal , which was predominantly used by the Maya during the
Early Classic), and jade from the Motagua valley in Guatemala. Tikal
was often in conflict with other polities in the
Petén Basin , as
well as with others outside of it, including
Caracol , Dos
Naranjo , and
Calakmul . Towards the end of the Early Classic,
this conflict lead to Tikal’s military defeat at the hands of
Caracol in 562, and a period commonly known as the
Tikal Hiatus .
Early Classic Gallery
Pyramid of the Moon viewed from atop of the
Pyramid of the Sun .
Great Goddess of
Teotihuacan AD 200–500
A reconstruction of
Guachimontones , flourished from AD 200–400
Temple of the Owl, Dzibanche AD 200–600
Mask located on the "Temple of the Masks"
Kohunlich c. AD 500
Acanceh, AD 200–300
The Late Classic period (beginning ca. AD 600 until AD 909 ) is
characterized as a period of interregional competition and
factionalization among the numerous regional polities in the Maya
area. This largely resulted from the decrease in Tikal’s
socio-political and economic power at the beginning of the period. It
was therefore during this time that other sites rose to regional
prominence and were able to exert greater interregional influence,
Palenque , and
Calakmul (which was allied
Caracol and may have assisted in the defeat of Tikal), and Dos
Cancuén in the
Petexbatún region of Guatemala.
Tikal arose again and started to build strong alliances
and defeat its worst enemies. In the Maya area, the Late Classic ended
with the so-called "
Maya collapse ", a transitional period coupling
the general depopulation of the southern lowlands and development and
florescence of centers in the northern lowlands.
Late Classic Gallery
Main palace of Palenque, AD 7th century
K\'inich Janaab Pakal I of
Palenque AD 603–683
Stela H commissioned by Uaxaclajuun Ub\'aah K\'awiil AD
Jaina Island type figure (Maya) AD 650–800
Cacaxtla , Mural depicting the Bird Man AD 650–900
Xochicalco , Temple of the Feathered Serpent, AD 650–900
Generally applied to the Maya area, the Terminal Classic roughly
spans the time between AD 800/850 and ca. AD 1000. Overall, it
generally correlates with the rise to prominence of
in the northern Maya lowlands, so named after the hills in which they
are mainly found.
Puuc settlements are specifically associated with a
unique architectural style (the "
Puuc architectural style") that
represents a technological departure from previous construction
Puuc sites include
Labna , Kabah ,
Oxkintok . While generally concentrated within the area in and
Puuc hills, the style has been documented as far away as at
Chichen Itza to the east and
Edzna to the south.
Chichén Itzá was originally thought to have been a Postclassic site
in the northern Maya lowlands. Research over the past few decades has
established that it was first settled during the Early/Late Classic
transition but rose to prominence during the Terminal Classic and
Early Postclassic. During its apogee, this widely known site
economically and politically dominated the northern lowlands. Its
participation in the circum-peninsular exchange route, possible
through its port site of Isla Cerritos , allowed
Chichén Itzá to
remain highly connected to areas such as central
Mexico and Central
America . The apparent "Mexicanization" of architecture at Chichén
Itzá led past researchers to believe that
Chichén Itzá existed
under the control of a
Toltec empire. Chronological data refutes this
early interpretation, and it is now known that
Chichén Itzá predated
the Toltec; Mexican architectural styles are now used as an indicator
of strong economic and ideological ties between the two regions.
Terminal Classic Gallery
Governor's Palace rear view and details, AD 10th century,
Codz Poop, AD 7th–10th centuries Kabah
Chichen Itza, Temple of the Jaguars AD 900–1000
Chichen Itza, "Temple of Three Dintels" AD 600–1000
Uxmal, Nunnery Quadrangle, AD 10th century
Sayil , three-story palace, AD 600–900
The Postclassic (beginning AD 900–1000, depending on area) is, like
the Late Classic, characterized by the cyclical crystallization and
fragmentation of various polities. The main Maya centers were located
in the northern lowlands. Following Chichén Itzá, whose political
structure collapsed during the Early Postclassic,
Mayapán rose to
prominence during the Middle Postclassic and dominated the north for
c. 200 years. After Mayapán’s fragmentation, political structure in
the northern lowlands revolved around large towns or city-states, such
Oxkutzcab and Ti’ho (Mérida,
Yucatán ), that competed with one
Central America in the 16th century
before Spanish arrival
Toniná , in the Chiapas highlands, and
Kaminaljuyú in the central
Guatemala highlands, were important southern highland Maya centers.
The latter site, Kaminaljuyú, is one of the longest occupied sites in
Mesoamerica and was continuously inhabited from c. 800 BC to around AD
1200. Other important highland Maya groups include the K\'iche\' of
Utatlán , the Mam in
Zaculeu , the Poqomam in
Mixco Viejo , and the
Iximche in the Guatemalan highlands. The Pipil resided in
El Salvador , while the Ch\'orti\' were in eastern
In central Mexico, the early portion of the Postclassic correlates
with the rise of the
Toltec and an empire based at their capital, Tula
(also known as
Tollan ). Cholula , initially an important Early
Classic center contemporaneous with Teotihuacan, maintained its
political structure (it did not collapse) and continued to function as
a regionally important center during the Postclassic. The latter
portion of the Postclassic is generally associated with the rise of
Mexica and the
Aztec Empire . One of the more commonly known
cultural groups in Mesoamerica, the
Aztec politically dominated nearly
all of central Mexico, the Gulf Coast, Mexico’s southern Pacific
Coast (Chiapas and into Guatemala), Oaxaca, and
The Tarascans (also known as the P\'urhépecha ) were located in
Michoacán and Guerrero. With their capital at Tzintzuntzan , the
Tarascan state was one of the few to actively and continuously resist
Aztec domination during the Late Postclassic. Other important
Postclassic cultures in
Mesoamerica include the
Totonac along the
eastern coast (in the modern-day states of
Puebla , and
Hidalgo ). The Huastec resided north of the Totonac, mainly in the
modern-day states of
Tamaulipas and northern Veracruz. The
Zapotec cultures, centered at
The Postclassic ends with the arrival of the Spanish and their
subsequent conquest of the
Aztec between 1519 and 1521. Many other
cultural groups did not acquiesce until later. For example, Maya
groups in the Petén area, including the
Tayasal and the Kowoj
Zacpeten , remained independent until 1697.
Some Mesoamerican cultures never achieved dominant status or left
impressive archaeological remains but are nevertheless noteworthy.
These include the Otomi , Mixe–Zoque groups (which may or may not
have been related to the Olmecs), the northern Uto-Aztecan groups,
often referred to as the
Chichimeca , that include the Cora and
Huichol , the Chontales, the Huaves, and the Pipil, Xincan and Lencan
peoples of Central America.
Palace of Columns,
Oaxaca 12th century
Huejotla defensive wall, built c. 1200
Detail of page 20 from the
Codex Zouche-Nuttall , 14-15th century
Bronze objects from Tzintzuntzán , 15th century
Aztec sun stone , early 16th century
IMPORTANT CULTURES, CITIES
SUMMARY OF THE CHRONOLOGY AND CULTURES OF MESOAMERICA
Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, obsidian and pyrite points, Iztapan
Agricultural settlements, Tehuacán
2000 BC – 250 AD
Unknown culture in
La Blanca and
Monte Alto culture
Olmec area: San Lorenzo
Tenochtitlan ; Central Mexico: Chalcatzingo
; Valley of Oaxaca:
San José Mogote . The Maya area:
La Venta ,
Tres Zapotes ; Maya area:
El Mirador , Izapa
Naj Tunich ,
Takalik Abaj ,
Uaxactun ; Valley of Oaxaca:
400 BC – 200 AD
Cival , San Bartolo , Altar
de Sacrificios , Piedras Negras , Ceibal ,
Rio Azul ; Central Mexico:
Teotihuacan ; Gulf Coast: Epi-
Olmec culture ; Western Mexico: Shaft
Classic Maya Centers, Teotihuacan, Zapotec
Yaxha ; Central Mexico:
Teotihuacan apogee; Zapotec apogee; Western Mexico: Teuchitlan
Cobá , Waka\' , Pusilhá ,
Dos Pilas ,
Yaxchilan ; Central Mexico:
Cacaxtla ; Gulf Coast:
El Tajín and Classic Veracruz
culture ; Western Mexico:
Sayil , Kabah
Aztec , Tarascans ,
Totonac , Pipil ,
K\'iche\' , Kaqchikel , Poqomam , Mam
Cholula , Tula ,
El Tajín ,
Topoxte , Kaminaljuyú
Joya de Cerén
Cempoala , Tzintzuntzan ,
Mayapán , Ti\'ho ,
Mixco Viejo ,
Until 1697 AD
Mesoamerica and Maya diet and
subsistence Examples of the diversity of maize
By roughly 6000 BC, hunter-gatherers living in the highlands and
Mesoamerica began to develop agricultural practices with
early cultivation of squash and chilli. The earliest example of maize
dates to c. 4000 BC and comes from
Guilá Naquitz , a cave in Oaxaca.
Earlier maize samples have been documented at the Los Ladrones cave
Panama , c. 5500 BC. Slightly thereafter, other crops began
to be cultivated by the semi-agrarian communities throughout
Mesoamerica. Although maize is the most common domesticate, the
common bean, tepary bean, scarlet runner bean, jicama , tomato and
squash all became common cultivates by 3500 BC. At the same time,
cotton , yucca and agave were exploited for fibers and textile
materials. By 2000 BC, corn was the staple crop in the region and
remained so through modern times. The Ramón or Breadnut tree
Brosimum alicastrum ) was an occasional substitute for maize in
producing flour. Fruit was also important in the daily diet of
Mesoamerican cultures. Some of the main ones consumed include avocado
, papaya , guava , mamey , zapote , and annona .
Mesoamerica lacked animals suitable for domestication, most notably
domesticated large ungulates – the lack of draft animals to assist
in transportation is one notable difference between
the cultures of the
South American Andes. Other animals, including the
duck , dogs , and turkey , were domesticated . Turkey was the first,
occurring around 3500 BC. Dogs were the primary source of animal
protein in ancient Mesoamerica, and dog bones are common in midden
deposits throughout the region.
Societies of this region did hunt certain wild species to complement
their diet. These animals included deer, rabbit , birds, and various
types of insects. They also hunted in order to gain luxury items such
as feline fur and bird plumage.
Mesoamerican cultures that lived in the lowlands and coastal plains
settled down in agrarian communities somewhat later than did highland
cultures due to the fact that there was a greater abundance of fruits
and animals in these areas, which made a hunter-gatherer lifestyle
more attractive. Fishing also was a major provider of food to lowland
and coastal Mesoamericans creating a further disincentive to settle
down in permanent communities.
K\'inich Kan B\'alam II , the Classic period ruler of
as depicted on a stele
Ceremonial centers were the nuclei of Mesoamerican settlements. The
temples provided spatial orientation, which was imparted to the
surrounding town. The cities with their commercial and religious
centers were always political entities, somewhat similar to the
European city-state , and each person could identify himself with the
city in which he lived.
The ceremonial centers were always built to be visible. The pyramids
were meant to stand out from the rest of the city, to represent its
gods and their powers. Another characteristic feature of the
ceremonial centers is historic layers. All of the ceremonial edifices
were built in various phases, one on top of the other, to the point
that what we now see is usually the last stage of construction.
Ultimately, the ceremonial centers were the architectural translation
of the identity of each city, as represented by the veneration of
their gods and masters.
Stelae were common public monuments throughout
Mesoamerica, and served to commemorate notable successes, events and
dates associated with the rulers and nobility of the various sites.
See also: Trade in
Mesoamerica was broken into numerous and diverse
ecological niches, none of the societies that inhabited the area were
self-sufficient. For this reason, from the last centuries of the
Archaic period onward, regions compensated for the environmental
inadequacies by specializing in the extraction of certain abundant
natural resources and then trading them for necessary unavailable
resources through established commercial trade networks.
The following is a list of some of the specialized resources traded
from the various Mesoamerican sub-regions and environmental contexts:
* Pacific lowlands: cotton and cochineal
* Maya lowlands and the Gulf Coast: cacao , vanilla , jaguar skins,
birds and bird feathers (especially quetzal and macaw )
* Central Mexico:
* Guatemalan highlands:
Obsidian (San Martin Jilotepeque , El Chayal
, and Ixtepeque ), pyrite , and jade from the Motagua
* Coastal areas: salt , dry fish , shell , and dyes
COMMON CHARACTERISTICS OF MESOAMERICAN CULTURE
THIS SECTION IS EMPTY. You can help by adding to it . (April 2016)
Mesoamerican calendars "Head Variant" or "Patron
Gods" glyphs for Maya days The emblem glyph of
Agriculturally based people historically divide the year into four
seasons. These included the two solstices and the two equinoxes ,
which could be thought of as the four "directional pillars" that
support the year. These four times of the year were, and still are,
important as they indicate seasonal changes that directly impact the
lives of Mesoamerican agriculturalists.
The Maya closely observed and duly recorded the seasonal markers.
They prepared almanacs recording past and recent solar and lunar
eclipses , the phases of the moon , the periods of
the movements of various other planets, and conjunctions of celestial
bodies. These almanacs also made future predictions concerning
celestial events. These tables are remarkably accurate, given the
technology available, and indicate a significant level of knowledge
among Maya astronomers .
Among the many types of calendars the Maya maintained, the most
important include a 260-day cycle, a 360-day cycle or 'year', a
365-day cycle or year, a lunar cycle, and a
Venus cycle, which tracked
the synodic period of Venus. Maya of the European contact period said
that knowing the past aided in both understanding the present and
predicting the future (Diego de Landa). The 260-day cycle was a
calendar to govern agriculture, observe religious holidays, mark the
movements of celestial bodies and memorialize public officials. The
260-day cycle was also used for divination, and (like the Catholic
calendar of saints) to name newborns.
The names given to the days, months, and years in the Mesoamerican
calendar came, for the most part, from animals, flowers, heavenly
bodies, and cultural concepts that held symbolic significance in
Mesoamerican culture. This calendar was used throughout the history of
Mesoamerican by nearly every culture. Even today, several Maya groups
in Guatemala, including the K\'iche\' , Q\'eqchi\' , Kaqchikel , and
Mixe people of
Oaxaca continue using modernized forms of the
Mesoamerican writing systems Page 9 of the
Dresden Codex (from the 1880 Förstermann edition) One of the
earliest examples of the
Mesoamerican writing systems , the Epi-Olmec
script on the La Mojarra
Stela 1 dated to around AD 150. Mesoamerica
is one of the five places in the world where writing has developed
The Mesoamerican scripts deciphered to date are logosyllabic
combining the use of logograms with a syllabary , and they are often
called hieroglyphic scripts. Five or six different scripts have been
documented in Mesoamerica, but archaeological dating methods, and a
certain degree of self-interest, create difficulties in establishing
priority and thus the forebear from which the others developed. The
best documented and deciphered Mesoamerican writing system, and
therefore the most widely known, is the classic
Maya script . Others
Olmec , Zapotec, and Epi-Olmec/Isthmian writing systems.
Mesoamerican literature has been conserved partly in
indigenous scripts and partly in the postinvasion transcriptions into
Latin script .
The other glyphic writing systems of Mesoamerica, and their
interpretation, have been subject to much debate. One important
ongoing discussion regards whether non-Maya Mesoamerican texts can be
considered examples of true writing or whether non-Maya Mesoamerican
texts are best understood as pictographic conventions used to express
ideas, specifically religious ones, but not representing the phonetics
of the spoken language in which they were read.
Mesoamerican writing is found in several mediums, including large
stone monuments such as stelae , carved directly onto architecture,
carved or painted over stucco (e.g., murals ), and on pottery . No
Precolumbian Mesoamerican society is known to have had widespread
literacy, and literacy was probably restricted to particular social
classes, including scribes, painters, merchants, and the nobility.
The Mesoamerican book was typically written with brush and colored
inks on a paper prepared from the inner bark of the ficus amacus. The
book consisted of a long strip of the prepared bark, which was folded
like a screenfold to define individual pages. The pages were often
covered and protected by elaborately carved book boards. Some books
were composed of square pages while others were composed of
Mesoamerican arithmetic treated numbers as having both literal and
symbolic value, the result of the dualistic nature that characterized
Mesoamerican ideology. As mentioned, the Mesoamerican numbering system
was vigesimal (i.e., based on the number 20).
In representing numbers, a series of bars and dots were employed.
Dots had a value of one, and bars had a value of five. This type of
arithmetic was combined with a symbolic numerology: '2' was related to
origins, as all origins can be thought of as doubling; '3' was related
to household fire; '4' was linked to the four corners of the universe;
'5' expressed instability; '9' pertained to the underworld and the
night; '13' was the number for light, '20' for abundance, and '400'
for infinity. The concept of zero was also used, and its
representation at the Late Preclassic occupation of
Tres Zapotes is
one of the earliest uses of zero in human history.
FOOD, MEDICINE, AND SCIENCE
Mesoamerica would deserve its place in the human pantheon if its
inhabitants had only created maize , in terms of harvest weight the
world's most important crop. But the inhabitants of
Central America also developed tomatoes , now basic to
Italian cuisine ; peppers , essential to Thai and
Indian food ; all
the world's squashes (except for a few domesticated in the United
States); and many of the beans on dinner plates around the world. One
writer estimated that Indians developed three-fifths of the crops now
grown in cultivation, most of them in Mesoamerica. Having secured
their food supply, the Mesoamerican societies turned to intellectual
pursuits. In a millennium or less, a comparatively short time, they
invented their own writing , astronomy and mathematics , including the
Maize played an important role in
Mesoamerican Feasts due to its
symbolic meaning and abundance.
Bernardino de Sahagún collected extensive information on
plants, animals, soil types, among other matters from native
Book 11, The Earthly Things, of the twelve-volume
General History of the Things of New Spain, known as the Florentine
Codex , compiled in the third quarter of the sixteenth century. An
earlier work, the
Badianus Manuscript or Libellus de Medicinalibus
Indorum Herbis is another
Aztec codex with written text and
illustrations collected from the indigenous viewpoint.
MYTHOLOGY AND WORLDVIEW
Mesoamerican religion , Mesoamerican creation
myths , and
Mesoamerican world tree See also:
Aztec religion , Olmec
Maya religion , and
Maya mythology The
xoloitzcuintle is one of the naguales of the god
Quetzalcoatl . In
this form, it helps the dead cross the Chicnahuapan, a river that
separates the world of the living from the dead.
The shared traits in Mesoamerican mythology are characterized by
their common basis as a religion that, although in many Mesoamerican
groups developed into complex polytheistic religious systems, retained
some shamanistic elements.
The great breadth of the Mesoamerican pantheon of deities is due to
the incorporation of ideological and religious elements from the first
primitive religion of Fire, Earth,
Water and Nature. Astral divinities
(the sun, stars, constellations, and Venus) were adopted and
represented in anthropomorphic, zoomorphic , and anthropozoomorphic
sculptures, and in day-to-day objects. The qualities of these gods and
their attributes changed with the passage of time and with cultural
influences from other Mesoamerican groups. The gods are at once three:
creator, preserver, and destroyer, and at the same time just one. An
important characteristic of
Mesoamerican religion was the dualism
among the divine entities. The gods represented the confrontation
between opposite poles: the positive, exemplified by light, the
masculine, force, war, the sun, etc.; and the negative, exemplified by
darkness, the feminine, repose, peace, the moon, etc. (European
The typical Mesoamerican cosmology sees the world as separated into a
day world watched by the sun and a night world watched by the moon.
More importantly, the three superposed levels of the world are united
Ceiba tree (Yaxche' in Mayan). The geographic vision is also tied
to the cardinal points. Certain geographical features are linked to
different parts of this cosmovision. Thus mountains and tall trees
connect the middle and upper worlds; caves connect the middle and
Ritual human sacrifice portrayed in
Generally, sacrifice can be divided into two types: autosacrifice and
human sacrifice . The different forms of sacrifice are reflected in
the imagery used to evoke ideological structure and sociocultural
organization in Mesoamerica. In the Maya area, for example, stele
depict bloodletting rituals performed by ruling elites, eagles and
jaguars devouring human hearts, jade circles or necklaces that
represented hearts, and plants and flowers that symbolized both nature
and the blood that provided life. Imagery also showed pleas for rain
or pleas for blood, with the same intention to replenish the divine
Bloodletting in Mesoamerica See also:
Autosacrifice, also called bloodletting , is the ritualized practice
of drawing blood from oneself. It is commonly seen or represented
through iconography as performed by ruling elites in highly ritualized
ceremonies, but it was easily practiced in mundane sociocultural
contexts (i.e., non-elites could perform autosacrifice). The act was
typically performed with obsidian prismatic blades or stingray spines
, and blood was drawn from piercing or cutting the tongue , earlobes ,
and/or genitals (among other locations). Another form of autosacrifice
was conducted by pulling a rope with attached thorns through the
tongue or earlobes. The blood produced was then collected on paper
held in a bowl.
Autosacrifice was not limited to male rulers, as their female
counterparts often performed these ritualized activities. They are
typically shown performing the rope and thorns technique. A recently
discovered queen's tomb in the Classic Maya site of Waka (also known
as El Perú) had a ceremonial stingray spine placed in her genital
area, suggesting that women also performed bloodletting in their
Human sacrifice in
Aztec culture and
Human sacrifice in
Sacrifice had great importance in the social and religious aspects of
Mesoamerican culture. First, it showed death transformed into the
divine. Death is the consequence of a human sacrifice, but it is not
the end; it is but the continuation of the cosmic cycle. Death creates
life – divine energy is liberated through death and returns to the
gods, who are then able to create more life. Secondly, it justifies
war, since the most valuable sacrifices are obtained through conflict.
The death of the warrior is the greatest sacrifice and gives the gods
the energy to go about their daily activities, such as the bringing of
rain. Warfare and capturing prisoners became a method of social
advancement and a religious cause. Finally, it justifies the control
of power by the two ruling classes, the priests and the warriors. The
priests controlled the religious ideology, and the warriors supplied
Mesoamerican ballgame A small ceremonial
Uaxactun . Ballgame marker from the classic
Lowland Maya site of
Mexico depicting a ballplayer in
Mesoamerican ballgame was a sport with ritual associations played
for over 3000 years by nearly all pre-Columbian peoples of
Mesoamerica. The sport had different versions in different places
during the millennia, and a modern version of the game, ulama ,
continues to be played in a few places.
Over 1300 ballcourts have been found throughout Mesoamerica. They
vary considerably in size, but they all feature long narrow alleys
with side-walls to bounce the balls against.
The rules of the ballgame are not known, but it was probably similar
to volleyball, where the object is to keep the ball in play. In the
most well-known version of the game, the players struck the ball with
their hips, although some versions used forearms or employed rackets,
bats, or handstones. The ball was made of solid rubber, and weighed up
to 4 kg or more, with sizes that differed greatly over time or
according to the version played.
While the game was played casually for simple recreation, including
by children and perhaps even women, the game also had important ritual
aspects, and major formal ballgames were held as ritual events, often
featuring human sacrifice.
Mesoamerican astronomy included a broad understanding of the cycles
of planets and other celestial bodies.
Special importance was given to
the sun , moon , and
Venus as the morning and evening star.
Observatories were built at some sites, including the round
observatory at Ceibal and the “Observatorio” at
Often, the architectural organization of Mesoamerican sites was based
on precise calculations derived from astronomical observations.
Well-known examples of these include the El Castillo pyramid at
Chichen Itza and the Observatorio at
Xochicalco . A unique and common
architectural complex found among many Mesoamerican sites are E-Groups
, which are aligned so as to serve as astronomical observatories. The
name of this complex is based on
Uaxactun ’s “Group E,” the
first known observatory in the Maya area. Perhaps the earliest
observatory documented in
Mesoamerica is that of the Monte Alto
culture . This complex consisted of three plain stelae and a temple
oriented with respect to the
Space And Time
The Avenue of the Dead in
Teotihuacan , an example of a
Mesoamerican settlement planned according to concepts of
It has been argued that among Mesoamerican societies the concepts of
space and time are associated with the four cardinal compass points
and linked together by the calendar . Dates or events were always
tied to a compass direction, and the calendar specified the symbolic
geographical characteristic peculiar to that period. Resulting from
the significance held by the cardinal directions, many Mesoamerican
architectural features, if not entire settlements, were planned and
oriented with respect to directionality.
In Maya cosmology, each cardinal point was assigned a specific color
and a specific jaguar deity (Bacab ). They are as follows:
* HOBNIL , Bacab of the
East , associated with the color red and the
* CAN TZICNAL , Bacab of the
North , assigned the color white and
the Muluc years
* 'Zac Cimi , Bacab of the
West , associated with the color black
and the Ix years
* HOZANEK , Bacab of the
South , associated with the color yellow
and the Cauac years.
Later cultures such as the Kaqchikel and K\'iche\' maintain the
association of cardinal directions with each color, but utilized
Among the Aztec, the name of each day was associated with a cardinal
point (thus conferring symbolic significance), and each cardinal
direction was associated with a group of symbols. Below are the
symbols and concepts associated with each direction:
* EAST: crocodile , the serpent , water , cane, and movement. The
East was linked to the world priests and associated with vegetative
fertility, or, in other words, tropical exuberance.
* NORTH: wind, death, the dog, the jaguar, and flint (or chert ).
The north contrasts with the east in that it is conceptualized as dry,
cold, and oppressive. It is considered to be the nocturnal part of the
universe and includes the dwellings of the dead. The dog
(xoloitzcuintle ) has a very specific meaning, as it accompanies the
deceased during the trip to the lands of the dead and helps them cross
the river of death that leads into nothingness. (See also Dogs in
Mesoamerican folklore and myth ).
* WEST: the house, the deer, the monkey , the eagle , and rain. The
west was associated with the cycles of vegetation, specifically the
temperate high plains that experience light rains and the change of
* SOUTH: rabbit, the lizard , dried herbs, the buzzard , and
flowers. It is related on the one hand to the luminous
Sun and the
noon heat, and on the other with rain filled with alcoholic drink. The
rabbit, the principal symbol of the west, was associated with farmers
and with pulque .
POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS ART
See also: Category:Mesoamerican art .
Art with ideological and
political meaning: depiction of an
Aztec tzompantli (skull-rack) from
Mesoamerican artistic expression was conditioned by ideology and
generally focused on themes of religion and/or sociopolitical power .
This is largely based on the fact that most works that survived the
Spanish conquest were public monuments. These monuments were typically
erected by rulers who sought to visually legitimize their
sociocultural and political position; by doing so, they intertwined
their lineage, personal attributes and achievements, and legacy with
religious concepts. As such, these monuments were specifically
designed for public display and took many forms, including stele ,
sculpture , architectural reliefs , and other types of architectural
elements (e.g., roofcombs). Other themes expressed include tracking
time, glorifying the city, and veneration of the gods – all of which
were tied to explicitly aggrandizing the abilities and the reign of
the ruler who commissioned the artwork.
* Geography portal
Latin America portal
* Indigenous peoples of
* Indigenous peoples of the
* Painting in the
Americas before European colonization
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American Southwest . This total does
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discussion whether these areas were actually used for ballplaying.
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* ^ Duverger 1999
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Civilizations of Mesoamerica: A Reader. Wiley-Blackwell.
* Suaréz, Jorge A. (1983). The Mesoamerican Indian Languages.
Cambridge Language Surveys. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press
Cambridge University Press .
ISBN 0-521-22834-4 .
OCLC 8034800 .
* Miller, Mary ; Taube, Karl (1993). The Gods and Symbols of Ancient
Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican
Religion. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-05068-6 .
* Taladoire, Eric (2001). "The Architectural Background of the
Pre-Hispanic Ballgame". In E. Michael Whittington (Ed.). The Sport of
Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame. New York: Thames & Hudson.
pp. 97–115. ISBN 0-500-05108-9 . CS1 maint: Extra text: editors list
* Wauchope, Robert , general editor. Handbook of Middle American
Indians. Austin: University of Texas Press 1964-1976.
* Weaver, Muriel Porter (1993). The Aztecs, Maya, and Their
Predecessors: Archaeology of
Mesoamerica (3rd ed.). San Diego:
Academic Press. ISBN 0-01-263999-0 .
Wikimedia Commons has media related to MESOAMERICA .
* Maya Culture
* Mesoweb.com: a comprehensive site for Mesoamerican civilizations
* Museum of the Templo Mayor (Mexico) (in Spanish)
* National Museum of Anthropology and History (Mexico) (in