MESOAMERICA was a region and cultural area in the
extending from approximately central
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 ,
Among the earliest complex civilizations was the
Olmec culture, which
inhabited the Gulf coast of
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 ,
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
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
* 3.3 Preclassic/Formative
* 3.3.1 Preclassic gallery
* 3.4 Classic
* 3.4.1 Early Classic
* 184.108.40.206 Early Classic gallery
* 3.4.2 Late Classic
* 220.127.116.11 Late Classic gallery
* 3.4.3 Terminal Classic
* 18.104.22.168 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
* 5.6 Mythology and worldview
* 5.6.1 Sacrifice
* 22.214.171.124 Autosacrifice * 126.96.36.199 Human sacrifice
* 5.6.2 Ballgame * 5.6.3 Astronomy * 5.6.4 Symbolism of space and time
* 5.7 Political and religious art
* 6 See also * 7 Footnotes * 8 References * 9 External links
ETYMOLOGY AND DEFINITION
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
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
Main article: Geography of Mesoamerica Landscape of the Mesoamerican highlands
Located on the Middle American isthmus joining
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
There is extensive topographic variation in Mesoamerica, ranging from
the high peaks circumscribing the Valley of
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
One important topographic feature is the
Isthmus of Tehuantepec
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
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
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
CHRONOLOGY AND CULTURE
The history of human occupation in
Mesoamerica is divided into stages
or periods. These are known, with slight variation depending on
region, as the
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 throughout Mesoamerica.
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
See also: Olmec influences on Mesoamerican cultures El Mirador flourished from 600 BC to AD 100, and may have had a population of over 100,000.
The first complex civilization to develop in
Mesoamerica was that of
Olmec , who inhabited the gulf coast region of
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
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
In the Valley of Oaxaca , 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 political structure. San José Mogote was eventual overtaken by Monte Albán , the subsequent capital of the Zapotec empire , during the Late Preclassic.
The Preclassic in western Mexico, in the states of
Olmec Colossal Head No. 3 1200–900 BC *
Cermic 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
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
During the Early Classic,
Early Classic Gallery
Great Goddess of
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,
Late Classic Gallery
Main palace of Palenque, AD 7th century *
K\'inich Janaab Pakal I of
Jaina Island type figure (Maya) AD 650–800 *
Cacaxtla , Mural depicting the Bird Man 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
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
Terminal Classic Gallery
Governor's Palace rear view and details, AD 10th century, Uxmal *
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 *
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,
Toniná , in the Chiapas highlands, and
Kaminaljuyú in the central
In central Mexico, the early portion of the Postclassic correlates
with the rise of the
The Tarascans (also known as the P\'urhépecha ) were located in
The Postclassic ends with the arrival of the Spanish and their
subsequent conquest of the
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.
Huejotla defensive wall, built c. 1200 *
Detail of page 20 from the Codex Zouche-Nuttall , 14-15th century *
Bronze objects from Tzintzuntzán , 15th century *
PERIOD TIMESPAN IMPORTANT CULTURES, CITIES
SUMMARY OF THE CHRONOLOGY AND CULTURES OF MESOAMERICA
Archaic 3500–1800 BC Agricultural settlements, Tehuacán
La Venta ,
Tres Zapotes ; Maya area:
El Mirador , Izapa
400 BC – 200 AD
Classic 200–900 AD Classic Maya Centers, Teotihuacan, Zapotec
Cobá , Waka\' , Pusilhá ,
Dos Pilas ,
Yaxchilan ; Central Mexico:
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
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
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
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 Maya civilization
Given that 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
COMMON CHARACTERISTICS OF MESOAMERICAN CULTURE
Main article: Mesoamerican architecture
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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
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
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 the Mixe people of Oaxaca continue using modernized forms of the Mesoamerican calendar.
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
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 include the Olmec , Zapotec, and Epi-Olmec/Isthmian writing systems. An extensive 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 rectangular pages.
See also: Maya numerals
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
Bernardino de Sahagún
MYTHOLOGY AND WORLDVIEW
Mesoamerican religion , Mesoamerican creation
myths , and
Mesoamerican world tree See also:
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,
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 by a 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 nether worlds.
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 energy.
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 genitalia.
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 the sacrifices.
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.
Observatories were built at some sites, including the round
observatory at Ceibal and the “Observatorio” at
The Avenue of the Dead in
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
Later cultures such as the Kaqchikel and K\'iche\' maintain the association of cardinal directions with each color, but utilized different names.
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
POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS ART
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.
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* ^ Taladoire (2001 :98) Note that slightly over 200 ballcourts have also been identified in the American Southwest . This total does not include those, since they are outside Mesoamerica, and there is discussion whether these areas were actually used for ballplaying. * ^ Filloy Nadal 2001 , p. 30. * ^ Leyenaar 2001 , pp. 125–26. * ^ Duverger 1999
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