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The Mesoamerican Context

The great progenitor culture of Mesoamerica was the Olmec. Subsequent cultures centered around four main areas.

Ca. 1500 BCE-400 BCE. Located on the Gulf in the present state of Veracruz. The origins of the Olmec are the subject of speculation and debate. They are best known today for collosal stone heads and other monumental stone sculpture. The "negroid" features of the Olmec heads have engendered much fanciful speculation. The were-jaguar is another a frequent motif in Olmec art. Many of the qualities of subsequent Mesoamerican culture and belief appear to have originated with the Olmec, including, for example, the Mesoamerican calendar. (Shown is a 6-foot tall head from Las Ventas.)


Gulf Coast Cultures


A. Tajin, ca. 150-1100

Relatively little is known of the culture associated with the site of El Tajin near the Veracruz coast. The city was inhabited more or less during the interval between the height of power of the two great Valley of Mexico cultures based in Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan. By the time of the Conquest, the memory of its people had already faded. El Tajin is noted for its many ball courts.

B. Huastec, ca. 800-1250

The Huastecs are actually a Maya people (see Mayan languages) but as the only Maya group to be geographically separate from the main Maya area, they have acquired features of Mexican culture. They probably moved north with the collapse of the Classic lowland Maya city states. There are perhaps some 80,000 Huastecans today.



The first developed post-Olmec cultures seem to have
arisen in this region.

A. Zapotec, ca. 500 BCE - 1000 CE

The Zapotec constructed the important mountaintop center of Monte Alban. Unlike other major Mesoamerican cultures, they appear to have no migration myth and are probably an extremely old culture indigenous to the region. Although aspects of Zapotec culture have continued to the present, as a dominating political force it entered a period of decline around 1000. About 350,000 Zapotec live today mainly in the southern valleys in the mountains of Oaxaca or in the southern half of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. (The Zapotec zoomorphic figure shown is from Monte Alban.)

B. Mixtec, ca. 850-1400

The Mixtec rose from the northern and western areas of Oaxaca to supplant the Zapotec as the dominant culture of the region, taking control of Monte Alban (which they used as a burial site). By 1400 they had become vassals of the Aztecs. Mixtec codices make up the largest existing collection of pre-Columbian manuscripts. There are an estimated 500,000 Mixtec peoples in Mexico today.


Valley of Mexico Cultures

For nearly two thousand years, beginning with the rise of Teotihuacan in the early centuries of the common era, the Valley of Mexico has been home to cultures that have exerted significant influence in both Mesoamerica and North America.

A. Teotihuacan, ca. 150 BCE - 650 CE

Teotihuacan was a city state located on the northeastern edges of current Mexico City, whose influence or domination was widely felt throughout Mesoamerica, apparently reaching to the southern Maya region, to judge from inscriptions at Copan in present Hondurus. It has been claimed that by 500 CE Teotihuacan was larger and grander than imperial Rome; certainly it was one of the largest cities in the world. And while we are on superlatives, its Pyramid of the Sun is called the classical world's third largest pyramid. Nonetheless, the Teotihuacanos remain shrouded in mystery, including the exact cause of the city's demise by fire in the seventh century (there is speculation that it may have been brought down from within, since only the central structures are burnt). For the classic cultures of the Valley of Mexico, Teotihuacan represents a kind of Camelot (though it would seem a rather cruel one). (Shown is a Teotihuacan representation of Tlaloc, the rain god, counterpart to the Mayan god Chak)

B. Toltec, ca. 550-1100

After the fall of Teotihuacan, the Toltecs (whose name
means "master builder" in Nahuatl) became ascendent in the valley of Mexico. Their capital was Tolan (present Tula). Cholula is considered to be a Toltec site, and Chichen Itza in the Yucatan shows Toltec influence. The Toltecs were brought down by an apparently relatively undeveloped people called Chichimeks, preparing the way for the rise of the Aztecs.

C. Aztec, ca. 1200-1500

The Aztec arrived at the Valley of Mexico as humble nomads from the north (their name for the northlands, Aztlan, has been adopted by contemporary Chicanos) sometime between 1200 and 1300. Gradually they expanded their influence and power by playing off other Mexican groups until, by the time of the Conquest, they had succeeding in subjugating their neighbors and rivals. They ruled from the imposing island city of Tenochtitlan at present Mexico City.


The pre-Conquest Maya were distinguished by a network of city states in which no one was dominant for long. Each city maintained a kind of dynastic cult to a degree not equalled elsewhere in Mesoamerica. In the service of dynastic history and prophecy, the Maya became the leading scribes, mathematicians, and astronomers of Mesoamerica. And they were and remain to this day superlative artists in a variety of mediums. (Shown is a polychrome vase from Bonampak.)

A. Izapa, ca. 500 BCE - 200 CE

Oddly, the earliest pre-Maya cultures revealed by archaeology are in the area of Izapa on the Pacific coast. Odd because the Maya, like the other major Mesoamerican cultures, are presumed to have been strongly influenced by the geographically rather distant Olmec.

B. Maya, ca. 50 CE -

Around the beginning of the common era, Maya city states began to emerge. The period through about 250 is called "pre-Classic." During the first part of the Classic period, Teotihuacan influence or, at times appears significant. This period ends around 900 with a population dispersal (or decrease), for reasons that are still debated (see the Maya timeline). With the Postclassic, the locus of developed Maya cities shifts north and east to the Yucatan region, where the initial encounter with the Spanish conquistadors occurred.