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Mesoamerica is the name given to the culture area that includes most of Mexico and Central America. The concept was originally defined by Paul Kirchhoff in 1943 on the basis of the geographical distribution of hundreds of cultural traits shared by the many civilized societies from northern Mexico to western Costa Rica at the time of the Spanish Conquest. The traits included virtually all cultural aspects of life, such as agriculture (the use of the digging stick; cultigens such as maize, beans, squash, chili peppers, avocados, and cotton), food preparation (the use of grinding stones and clay griddles; tortillas, tamales), domestic animals (dogs and turkeys), beverages (pulque, chocolate), clothing (cotton tunics for the nobility, loincloths for commoners), architecture (terraced platform temples arranged in plazas, ball courts), economy (regional markets; the use and exchange of obsidian, cacao, and jade), and religion (pan-Mesoamerican deities such as Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl that were more or less parallel in different societies, ancestor worship, hieroglyphic writing, the Mesoamerican calendar, painted bark paper manuscripts, human sacrifice, and an institutionalized priesthood). Most of these traits were present throughout the Mesoamerican culture area at the time of the Conquest, but they developed gradually in different regions and spread among different societies as a result of interregional contacts from the time the area was first inhabited.


Biologically modern humans, the ancestors of modern American Indians, first entered the Americas by crossing the Bering Strait from northeast Asia more than 15,000 years ago. At this time a broad landmass, known as Beringia, which was exposed when large amounts of water were locked up in the glaciers, offered passage to these early migrants from eastern Siberia to Alaska. The earliest date of their arrival in the Americas is disputed by specialists, but by the end of the Pleistocene epoch (12,000-9,000 years ago) a very distinctive form of projectile point, known by the type names Clovis and Folsom, was widespread from Alaska and Canada to Tierra del Fuego. These are large, lanceolate points with fluted or channeled bases to facilitate hafting. They were used in hunting big game such as mammoths, mastodons, camelids, and giant sloths, and the remains of such Pleistocene megafauna are often found in association with fluted points at ancient hunting camps and kill sites throughout North, Central, and South America. These sites were the settlements of small social groups of nomadic hunters and gatherers. One such site in Mexico is Tlapacoya, in the Valley of Mexico, which has yielded evidence suggestive of human presence more than 20,000 years ago.

As the last great ice age came to an end and the large mammals became extinct, the adaptations of the earliest Mesoamericans shifted to a mixed economy emphasizing hunting of small game and gathering of wild plant foods. These changes characterize the Archaic period (9000–2000 bce), during which there was an adaptive shift from hunting and gathering to full-time agriculture supporting sedentary villages. The earliest known evidence of plant domestication occurs in arid highland valleys such as the Tehuacán Valley of Puebla and the Valley of Oaxaca, where a number of excavated sites provide a glimpse of the gradual course of plant domestication in Mesoamerica. Research from these sites has demonstrated that the process was not uniform throughout the area. Different crops were domesticated at different times in widely separated regions.

During the long course of the Archaic period, maize, beans, and squash became the basis of the Mesoamerican diet. Other important cultigens that were domesticated during the period include the bottle gourd, chilies, avocados, and cotton. The evidence from Tehuacán and the Valley of Oaxaca indicates that most of these crops were domesticated between 5000 and 3000 bce.

Social groupings at this time consisted of small, semisedentary, egalitarian bands that coalesced during times of abundance to form seasonal macrobands. In richer environments, such as the Basin of Mexico and the fertile coastal regions, where fish and shellfish were always available in abundance, sedentism and larger, permanent social groups may have developed earlier. Mesoamerican religious ceremonialism also began to develop during the Archaic. Tehuacán has provided possible evidence of human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism dating to 7000–5000 bce, and Gheo-Shih, a site in the eastern Valley of Oaxaca dated to about 5000 bce, has a cleared space lined by stones that may have been a dance ground or possibly a very early ball court.


By about 2000 bce almost all of Mesoamerica was inhabited by full-time agriculturalists who lived in small villages of wattle-and-daub houses. These villages were generally small communities, usually containing no more than about a dozen houses with associated cooking sheds and storage pits. Social and political organization was generally egalitarian and kinship-oriented. Status differences were based strictly on age, sex, and personal achievement. Agricultural tasks, craft production, and trading activities were probably organized by extended-family households.

As population increased in most regions during the Early Preclassic, or Formative, period (1500–900 bce), some of these small villages grew in size and importance, becoming centers of political, economic, and religious activities. These sites were larger than most contemporary settlements, and they were characterized by nonresidential civic-ceremonial structures. Social inequality, political hierarchies, and tributary economies developed during the latter part of this period. These changes are reflected in differences in grave goods and residential form and construction, and differential distributions of imported goods (such as ceramics, marine shells, jade, and obsidian).

One of the most complex societies in Formative Mesoamerica was the Olmecs of the Gulf Coast region of Mexico. They emerged during the latter part of the Early Formative, and their power and influence continued into the Middle Formative period (900–400 bce). Sometimes considered to be Mesoamerica's first civilization, the Olmecs built sumptuous monumental centers, such as San Lorenzo, Tenochtitlán (not to be confused with the Aztec capital), and La Venta, in the lush tropical lowlands of southern Veracruz and Tabasco. The heartland Olmecs maintained social and economic relations with contemporaneous societies all over Mesoamerica, from Chalcatzingo, Morelos, in the west, to Chalchuapa, El Salvador, in the southeast. These connections are revealed by the presence of distinctive Olmec iconography, such as the so-called flaming eyebrow and the jaguar paw-wing motifs of the fire serpent and were-jaguar, in ceramics and on stone monuments in these distant centers. The widespread distribution of these symbols reflects interlocking exchange and interaction networks, and probably also the existence of a pan-Mesoamerican belief system.

By the Late Preclassic period (400 bce–ce 200), Olmec influence had waned in Mesoamerica, but population continued to increase and great centers of a different kind arose throughout the highlands and the lowlands. Monte Albán, perhaps the earliest urban center in the Americas, was established by the Zapotecs on a mountaintop in the center of the Valley of Oaxaca at about 500 bce. In the highlands of central Mexico, Cuicuilco in the south and Teotihuacán in the north became prominent centers of political, economic, and ritual activity with populations of approximately 20,000 each at the beginning of the Christian era.

In the Maya lowlands, a population increase on the order of 300 percent from the Middle to the Late Preclassic is suggested by settlement pattern studies. During this time, the distinctive hallmarks that would later characterize Classic Lowland Maya culture (elaborately carved stelae and altars, hieroglyphic writing, masonry structures with corbeled arches, and so on) were developed. Sites such as El Mirador, Tikal, Cerros, Becan, and Dzibilchaltún became the centers of complex, hierarchical chiefdoms with very large populations. Large temple platforms and spacious plazas attested to the power and authority of rulers. Ritualized warfare was conducted on a large scale as an aspect of interregional elite competition. Widespread uniformity in Lowland Maya ceramics during the Late Preclassic indicates a high degree of craft specialization and strong interregional economic ties throughout the area that transcended political hostilities. Exchange networks linked the lowland centers with the great Highland Maya capital of Kaminaljuyú, on what is now the western edge of Guatemala City, and Izapa, on the Pacific coast of Chiapas, which shared a common sculptural style.


By about ce 250–300, major transformations occurred in Mesoamerican culture and society. The Classic period (ce 250–900) witnessed the development of macroregional state-level political organization with hierarchical class divisions, an internally stratified ruling class, full-time craft and agricultural specialization, tributary economies, and often large market systems. By ce 500, Teotihuacán had become a city of perhaps 200,000 people; most of them were farmers, but a large number were craft specialists. The capital of a hegemonic empire, Teotihuacán had a powerful, centrally organized government. It maintained colonies at distant centers such as Matacapan, Veracruz, and Kaminaljuyú for the control of trade in luxury goods such as jade, cacao, animal pelts, and tropical bird feathers. Teotihuacán maintained a special diplomatic relationship with Monte Albán (a group of Oaxacans lived in a special ward of the city), and its influence was felt as far away as Tikal.

The southern Maya lowlands were dominated during the Classic by a number of state-level polities. Major centers included Palenque, Piedras Negras, Yaxchilan, Altar De Sacrificios, Seibal, Dos Pilas, Tikal, Uaxactún, Altún Ha, Caracol, Quiriguá, and Copán. These city-states claimed a regional territory that included a number of secondary and tertiary centers paying tribute to rulers in the primary centers. These kings erected monuments with hieroglyphic inscriptions legitimizing their authority and glorifying their royal ancestry. The major centers possessed a complex division of labor that included craft specialists such as potters, obsidian and chert knappers, weavers, feather workers, leather workers, basket makers, architects, stonemasons, manuscript painters, and monument carvers. The population in the southern lowlands was very large, at least as high as 10 million in the Late Classic period (ce 600–900).

At the end of the Classic the population suffered a precipitous decline. Monument erection and other elite activities ceased in all of the major centers of the southern lowlands between about 800 and 900. Various causes have been suggested for this collapse: ecological deterioration, demographic pressure, endemic warfare, and disease. Whatever the causes, the collapse profoundly altered the balance of power in eastern Mesoamerica. The northern lowlands maintained a large and growing population, and centers such as Chichén Itzá and Cobá experienced florescence rather than decline.

Teotihuacán collapsed as a major economic and political power about 750, an event that undoubtedly had a ripple effect in the decline of Classic Lowland Maya civilization. The population of Teotihuacán had fallen to as low as 30,000 by the end of the Classic. The heart of the civic-ceremonial zone was burned and looted in a massive act of political destruction and desanctification. In the wake of the collapse, fortified centers of long-distance trade such as Xochicalco and Cacaxtla rose to power, filling the economic vacuum left when the Teotihuacán empire contracted.


The Postclassic marks the advent of history in central Mexico. The salient theme is the rise of the Toltec capital, Tollan, founded by the legendary leader Quetzalcoatl at the site of present-day Tula, Hidalgo, in the tenth century. Tollan, which had a strong centralized government, was the center of a multiethnic trading empire within which Nahuatl speakers enjoyed political and probably numerical superiority. The population of Tollan at its peak was around 60,000.

Toltec influence spread throughout Mesoamerica during the Early Postclassic (900–1200). Unmistakable evidence of Toltec art and architecture appears as far away as Chichén Itzá, Yucatán, and Cihuatan, El Salvador. Nahuatl speakers known as Pipils began to migrate to Central America at this time. Toltecs from both Tollan and Chichén Itzá apparently had close ties with El Tajín, on the north coast of Veracruz.

Toltec dominance ended in the late twelfth century, when Tollan began to experience a long decline caused by drought, famine, rebellion, and Chichimec invasions from the north. After the collapse of Tollan there were no more great centers in central Mexico until the rise of the Mexica Aztecs at Tenochtitlán in 1427. Within less than a century they controlled the greatest empire yet in Mesoamerica, incorporating earlier city-states established in the Valley of Mexico such as Tetzcoco, Atzcapotzalco, and Tlatelolco, and extending their hegemony from Veracruz to the Pacific Ocean and from central Mexico to southern Chiapas. The population of Tenochtitlán at its peak was 150,000-200,000, and the population of the entire Valley of Mexico in the early sixteenth century was as high as 1 million.

Elsewhere in Postclassic Mesoamerica, the Valley of Oaxaca disintegrated economically and politically with the long decline of Monte Albán, which began around 700. A number of small trading centers, such as Lambityeco, arose at this time. Mixtec warloads from the highland and coastal regions of western Oaxaca began a series of conquests that even took them into the valley. Principal Zapotec centers of the valley at the time of the Conquest included Zaachila, Yagul, and Mitla. In Veracruz, El Tajín collapsed around 1200, and the Totonacs first encountered the Spaniards at Cempoala in 1519.

In Yucatán, Chichén Itzá, which had been the center of a large tributary state from about 850 to 1224, was overthrown by Mayapán. In the latter, a small, fortified center, a confederation of three elite lineages unified Yucatán from about 1224 to 1441. This unity eventually gave way to an estimated sixteen to twenty-four highly competitive, small city-states. Tulum, a major trading port on the east coast, was sighted in 1517 by Spanish explorers who mistakenly described it as being larger than Seville. In highland Guatemala, the Kaqchiquels at Iximché, the Quichés (K'iche') at Utatlan, and the Zutuhils at Chuitinamit, all of whom were ruled by warrior aristocrats claiming Toltec heritage, were conquered by the Spanish in 1524.

See alsoAztecs; Indigenous Peoples; Maya, The; Nahuas.


General surveys include Richard E. W. Adams, Prehistoric Mesoamerica, rev. ed. (1991); Michael D. Coe, Mexico, 4th ed. (1994); Muriel Porter Weaver, The Aztecs, Maya, and Their Predecessors, 3d ed. (1993). More theoretically oriented treatments are Richard E. Blanton, Stephen A. Kowalewski, Gary Feinman, and Jill Appel, Ancient Mesoamerica: A Comparison of Change in Three Regions, 2d ed. (1993), and William T. Sanders and Barbara J. Price, Mesoamerica: The Evolution of a Civilization (1968). The results of the Tehuacán Valley research are summarized by general editor Richard S. MacNeish in The Prehistory of the Tehuacán Valley, vol. 5, Excavations and Reconnaissance, by Richard S. MacNeish, Melvin L. Fowler, Angel García Cook, Frederick A. Peterson, Antoinette Nelken-Turner, and James A. Neely (1972). A good overview of the Formative is Kent V. Flannery, ed., The Early Mesoamerican Village (1976). A detailed settlement history of the pre-Columbian Valley of Mexico is William T. Sanders, Jeffrey R. Parsons, and Robert S. Santley, The Basin of Mexico: Ecological Processes in the Evolution of a Civilization (1979). For Oaxaca, see Richard E. Blanton, Monte Albán: Settlement Patterns at the Ancient Zapotec Capital (1978); Kent V. Flannery and Joyce Marcus, eds., The Cloud People: The Divergent Evolution of the Zapotec and Mixtec Civilizations (1983); John Paddock, ed., Ancient Oaxaca (1966); Ronald Spores, The Mixtec Kings and Their People (1967); Joseph W. Whitecotton, The Zapotecs: Princes, Priests, and Peasants (1977); and Ernesto González-Licón, Zapotecas y mixtecas: Tres mil años de civilización precolombina (1992). Several excellent books are available on the pre-Columbian Maya civilization: Richard E. W. Adams, ed., The Origins of Maya Civilization (1977); Michael D. Coe, The Maya, 5th ed. (1993); Robert M. Carmack, The Quiche Mayas of Utatlan: The Evolution of a Highland Guatemala Kingdom (1981); John W. Fox, Maya Postclassic State Formation (1987); Norman Hammond, Ancient Maya Civilization (1982); John S. Henderson, The World of the Ancient Maya (1981); Robert J. Sharer, The Ancient Maya, 5th ed. (1994); and Mercedes de la Garza and Gerardo Bustos Los Mayas: Su tiempo antiguo (1996). For the Pipils of Central America, see William R. Fowler, Jr., The Cultural Evolution of Ancient Nahua Civilizations: The Pipil-Nicarao of Central America (1989). On the Toltecs, see Richard A. Diehl, Tula: The Toltec Capital of Ancient Mexico (1983); Dan M. Healan, Tula of the Toltecs (1989); Nigel Davies, The Toltec Heritage: From the Fall of Tula to the Rise of Tenochtitlán (1980). On the Aztecs, consult Frances Berdan, The Aztecs of Central Mexico: An Imperial Society (1982); Ross Hassig, Trade, Tribute, and Transportation: The Sixteenth-Century Political Economy of the Valley of Mexico (1985), and Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control (1988); Nigel Davies, The Aztecs: A History (1973), and The Aztec Empire: The Toltec Resurgence (1987); Susan D. Gillespie, The Aztec Kings: The Construction of Rulership in Mexica History (1989) and Silvia Trejo Dioses, mitos y ritos del México antiguo (2000).

                                            William R. Fowler

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