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Mesoamerica or Meso-America ( ) is a region and culture area in the Americas, extending approximately from central Mexicomarker to Hondurasmarker and Nicaraguamarker, within which a number of pre-Columbian societies flourished before the Spanish colonization of the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries. Prehistoric groups in this area are characterized by agricultural villages and large ceremonial and politico-religious capitals This culture area included some of the most complex and advanced cultures of the Americas, including the Olmec, Teotihuacanmarker, the Maya, and the Aztec.

Etymology and definition

Location of Mesoamerica in the Americas.
The term Mesoamerica—literally, "middle America" in Greek—was first used by the Germanmarker ethnologist Paul Kirchhoff, who noted that similarities existed among the various pre-Columbian cultures within the region that included southern Mexicomarker, Guatemalamarker, Belizemarker, El Salvadormarker, western Hondurasmarker, and the Pacificmarker lowlands of Nicaraguamarker and northwestern Costa Ricamarker. In the tradition of cultural-history, the prevalent archaeological theory of the early to middle 20th century, Kirchhoff defined this zone as a culture area based on a suite of interrelated cultural similarities brought about by millennia of inter- and intra-regional interaction (i.e., diffusion). These included sedentism, agriculture (specifically a reliance on the cultivation of maize), the use of two different calendars (a 260 day ritual calendar and a 365 day calendar based on the solar year), a base 20 (vigesimal) number system, pictographic and hieroglyphic writing systems, the practice of various forms of sacrifice, and a complex of shared ideological concepts. Mesoamerica has also been shown to be a linguistic area defined by a number of grammatical traits that have spread through the area by 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 sister terms Aridoamerica and Oasisamerica, which refer to northern Mexico and the western United Statesmarker, respectively, have not entered into widespread usage.

Unrelated to the archaeological and ethnohistorical usage, the term may also be used to refer to a modern economic territory designated the Mesoamerican region (MAR), which comprises the countries of Central America and nine southeastern states of Mexico.


Landscape of the Mesoamerican highlands

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. Archaeologist and anthropologist Michael D. Coe groups these different niche into two broad categories : the lowlands (those areas between sea level and 1000 meters) and the altiplanos, or highlands (situated between 1000 and 2000 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 Seamarker. 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 rain fall varies, between the dry Oaxacamarker, and north Yucatanmarker to the Humid southern Pacific and Caribbean lowlands.


There is extensive topographic variation in Mesoamerica, ranging from the high peaks circumscribing the Valley of Mexicomarker and within the central Sierra Madre mountains to the low flatlands of the northern Yucatán Peninsula. The tallest mountain in Mesoamerica is Pico de Orizabamarker, a dormant volcano located on the border of Pueblamarker and Veracruzmarker. Its peak elevation is 5,636 m (18,490 ft).

The Sierra Madre mountains, which consist of a number of smaller ranges, run from northern Mesoamerican 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, 7 in El Salvador, 25 in Nicaragua, and 3 in northwestern Costa Rica. According to the Michigan Technological University [293363], 16 of these are still active. The tallest active volcano is Popocatépetlmarker at 5,452 m (17,883 ft). This volcano, which retains its Nahuatl name, is located 70 km southeast of Mexico Citymarker. Other volcanoes of note include Tacana on the Mexico-Guatemala border, Tajumulcomarker and Santamaríamarker in Guatemala, Izalcomarker in El Salvador, Momotombomarker in Nicaragua, and Arenal in Costa Rica.

One important topographic feature is the Isthmus of Tehuantepecmarker, a low plateau that breaks up the Sierra Madre chain between the Sierra Madre del Sur to the north and the Sierra Madre de Chiapasmarker to the south. At its highest point, the Isthmus is 224 meters (735 ft) above mean sea level. This area also represents the shortest distance between the Gulf of Mexicomarker and the Pacific Oceanmarker in Mexico. The distance between the two coasts is roughly 200 kilometers (120 miles). Although the northern side of the Isthmus is swampy and covered with dense jungle, the Isthmus of 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. A number of the more important ones served as loci of human occupation in the area. The longest river in Mesoamerica is the Usumacintamarker, which forms in Guatemala at the convergence of the Salinasmarker or Chixoy, and La Pasion Rivermarker and runs north for 970 km (480 km of which are navigable), eventually draining into the Gulf of Mexicomarker. Other rivers of note include the Rio Grande de Santiago, the Grijalva Rivermarker, the Motagua River, the Ulúa River, and the Hondo River. The northern Maya lowlands, especially the north portion of the Yucatán peninsula, are notable for its nearly complete lack of rivers (largely due to its absolute lack of topographic variation). Additionally, no lakes exist in the northern peninsula. The main source of water in this area, therefore, is sub-surface, and consists of water from aquifers that which is retained within cenotes.

With an area of 8264 km², Lake Nicaraguamarker is the largest lake in Mesoamerica. Lake Chapalamarker is Mexico’s largest freshwater lake, but Lake Texcocomarker is perhaps the most well-known as the location upon which Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec Empire, was founded. Lake Petén Itzámarker, in northern Guatemala, is notable as the location at which the last independent Maya city, Tayasalmarker (or Noh Petén), held out until 1697. Other large lakes include Lake Atitlánmarker, Lake Izabalmarker, Lake Güija, Lemoa, and Lake Managuamarker.


Almost all ecosystems are present in Mesoamerica; the more well known are the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the second largest in the world, and the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, a rainforest second in size in the Americas only 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.

Cultural sub-areas

Mesoamerica and its cultural areas.

There are a number of distinct sub-regions within Mesoamerica that 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 conceptualized as encompassing northern Guatemala, southern Campechemarker and Quintana Roomarker in Mexico, and Belize. The northern lowlands cover the remainder of the northern portion of the Yucatán Peninsulamarker. Other areas include Central Mexico, West Mexico, the Gulf Coast Lowlands, Oaxacamarker, the Southern Pacific Lowlands, and Southeast Mesoamerica (including northern Honduras).

Chronology and culture

The history of human occupation in Mesoamerica is divided among a number of 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 lumped into 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 throughout Mesoamerica.


The Mesoamerican 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 contemporaneous North America, was a large component of the subsistence strategy of the Mesoamerican Paleo-Indian. Evidence for this time period in Mesoamerica is sparse and the documented sites scattered c. 10,500 BC. These include Chivacabé, Los Tapiales, and Puerta Parada in the highlands of Guatemala, Orange Walk in Belize, and the El Gigante cave in Honduras. This latter sites had a number of obsidian blades and Clovis style fluted projectile points. Fishtail points, the most common style in South America, were recovered from Puerta Parada, dated to c. 10,000 BC, as well as other sites including Los Grifos cave in Chiapasmarker (c. 8500 BC) and Iztapan (c. 7700–7300 BC), a mammoth kill site located in the Valley of Mexico near Texcocomarker.


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 Sipacatemarker in Escuintlamarker, Guatemala, where maize pollen samples date to ca. 3500 BC. The well known Coxcatlan cave site in the Valley of Tehuacánmarker, Pueblamarker, which contains over 10,000 teosinte cobs (an antecedent to maize), and Guila 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 as a number of sites, including the West Mexican sites of Matanchén in Nayaritmarker and Puerto Marqués in Guerreromarker. La Blanca, Ocós, and Ujuxte in the Pacific Lowlands of Guatemalamarker yielded pottery dated to ca. 2500 BC.


The first complex civilization to develop in Mesoamerica were the Olmec, who inhabited the gulf coast region of Veracruzmarker throughout the Preclassic period. The main sites of the Olmec include San Lorenzo Tenochtitlánmarker, La Ventamarker, and Tres Zapotesmarker. 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 Abajmarker, Izapamarker, and Teopantecuanitlanmarker, and as far south as in Hondurasmarker. Research in the Pacific Lowlands of Chiapas and Guatemala suggest that Izapamarker and the Monte Alto Culture may have preceded the Olmec. Radiocarbon samples associated with various sculptures found at the Late Preclassic site of Izapamarker suggest a date of between 1800 and 1500 BC.

The Middle and Late Preclassic witnessed the rise of the Maya 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 Nakbemarker, El Miradormarker, and Cerrosmarker. Middle to Late Preclassic Maya sites include Kaminaljuyúmarker, Cival, Edznámarker, Cobámarker, Lamanaimarker, Komchenmarker, Dzibilchaltunmarker, and San Bartolo, among others.

The Preclassic in the central Mexican highlands is represented by such sites as Tlapacoyamarker, Tlatilcomarker, and Cuicuilcomarker. These sites were eventually superseded by Teotihuacánmarker, an important Classic era site which would eventually dominate economic and interaction spheres throughout Mesoamerica. The settlement of Teotihuacan is dated to later portion of the Late Preclassic, or roughly A.D. 50.

In the Valley of Oaxaca, San José Mogotemarker 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 importantly, the site was one of the first to demonstrate inherited status, signifying a radical shift in socio-cultural and political structure. San José Mogote would eventual be overtaken by Monte Albánmarker, the subsequent capital of the Zapotec empire, during the Late Preclassic.

The Preclassic in western Mexico, in the states of Nayaritmarker, Jaliscomarker, Colimamarker, and Michoacánmarker 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 tradition".


Early Classic

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 Teotihuacán in central Mexico and Tikalmarker in Guatemala – indeed, the Early Classic’s temporal limits generally correlate to the main periods of these sites. Monte Alban in 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 politically, economically, and militarily dominate much of the southern Maya lowlands 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. Carved inscriptions at the site attest to direct interaction with individuals adorned in Teotihuacan-styled dress ca 400 AD. However, Tikal was often in conflict with other polities in the Petén Basinmarker, as well as with others outside of it, including Uaxactunmarker, Caracolmarker, Dos Pilasmarker, Naranjomarker, and Calakmulmarker. Towards the end of the Early Classic, this conflict would lead to Tikal’s military defeat at the hands of Caracol in 562 and a period commonly known as the Tikal Hiatus.

Late Classic

The Late Classic period (beginning ca. AD 600 until AD 800/850 [varies]) 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. It was during this time that a number of other sites, therefore, rose to regional prominence and were able to exert greater interregional influence, including Caracol, Copánmarker, Palenquemarker, and Calakmul (who was allied with Caracol and may have assisted in the defeat of Tikal), and Dos Pilasmarker Aguatecamarker and Cancuén in the Petexbatúnmarker region of Guatemala. Around 710 DC, Tikal arises again and started to build strong alliances and defeating 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 fluorescence of centers in the northern lowlands.

Terminal Classic

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 the rise to prominence of Puuc settlements 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 techniques. Major Puuc sites include Uxmalmarker, Sayilmarker, Labnamarker, Kabahmarker, and Oxkintokmarker. While generally concentrating within the area in and around the Puuc hills, the style has been documented as far away as at Chichen Itzamarker to the east and Edznamarker 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.


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, Mayapánmarker rose to prominence during the Middle Postclassic and dominated the north for ca. 200 years. After Mayapán’s fragmentation, political structure in the northern lowlands revolved around a number of large towns or city-states, such as Oxkutzcabmarker and Ti’ho (Mérida, Yucatánmarker), that competed with one another.

Toninámarker, in the Chiapas highlands, and Kaminaljuyúmarker 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 ca. 800 BC to around AD 1200. Other important highland Maya groups include the K'iche' of Utatlánmarker, the Mam in Zaculeumarker, the Poqomam in Mixco Viejo, and the Kaqchikel at Iximchemarker in the Guatemalan highlands. The Pipil resided in El Salvadormarker, while the Ch'orti' were in eastern Guatemala and northwestern Hondurasmarker.

In central Mexico, the early portion of the Postclassic correlates with the rise of the Toltec and an empire based at their capital, Tulamarker (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 the 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 Guerreromarker.

The Tarascan (also known as the P'urhépecha) were located in Michoacanmarker 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 Veracruzmarker, Pueblamarker, and Hidalgomarker). The Huastec resided north of the Totonac, mainly in the modern-day states of Tamaulipasmarker and northern Veracruz. The Mixtec and Zapotec cultures, centered at Mitlamarker and Zaachilamarker respectively, inhabited Oaxaca.

The Postclassic ends with the arrival of the Spanish and their subsequent conquest of the Aztec between 1519 and 1521. It should be noted that many other cultural groups did not acquiesce until later. For example, Maya groups in the Petén area, including the Itza at Tayasalmarker and the Ko'woj at Zacpeten, remained independent until 1697.

Some Mesoamerican cultures never achieved dominant status or left impressive archeological remains but should be mentioned as 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.

Summary of the Chronology and Cultures of Mesoamerica
Period Timespan Important cultures, cities
Paleo-Indian 10,000-3500 BC Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, obsidian and pyrite points, Iztapan,
Archaic 3500-1800 BC Agricultural settlements, Tehuacánmarker
Preclassic BC 2000-250 AD Unknown culture in La Blanca and Ujuxte, Monte Alto culture
Early Preclassic BC 2000-1000 Olmec area: San Lorenzo Tenochtitlanmarker; Central Mexico: Chalcatzingomarker; Valley of Oaxaca: San José Mogotemarker. The Maya area: Nakbemarker, Cerrosmarker
Middle Preclassic BC 1000-400 Olmec area: La Ventamarker, Tres Zapotesmarker; Maya area: El Miradormarker, Izapamarker, Lamanaimarker, Xunantunichmarker, Naj Tunich, Takalik Abajmarker, Kaminaljuyúmarker, Uaxactunmarker; Valley of Oaxaca: Monte Albánmarker
Late Preclassic BC 400-200 AD Maya area: Uaxactunmarker, Tikalmarker, Edznámarker, Cival, San Bartolo, Altar de Sacrificiosmarker, Piedras Negras, Ceibal, Rio Azul; Central Mexico: Teotihuacanmarker; Gulf Coast: Epi-Olmec culture; Western Mexico: Shaft Tomb Tradition
Classic 200-900 AD Classic Maya Centers, Teotihuacan, Zapotec
Early Classic 200-600 AD Maya area: Calakmulmarker, Caracolmarker, Chunchucmilmarker, Copánmarker, Naranjomarker, Palenquemarker, Quiriguámarker, Tikalmarker, Uaxactunmarker, Yaxhamarker; Central Mexico: Teotihuacanmarker apogee; Zapotec apogee; Western Mexico: Teuchitlan tradition
Late Classic 600-900 AD Maya area: Uxmalmarker, Toninámarker, Cobámarker, Waka', Pusilhá, Xultún, Dos Pilasmarker, Cancuen, Aguatecamarker; Central Mexico: Xochicalcomarker, Cacaxtlamarker; Gulf Coast: El Tajínmarker and Classic Veracruz culture; Western Mexico: Teuchitlan tradition
Terminal Classic 800-900/1000 AD Maya area: Puuc sites - Uxmalmarker, Labnamarker, Sayilmarker, Kabahmarker
Postclassic 900-1519 AD Aztec, Tarascans, Mixtec, Totonac, Pipil, Itzá, Ko'woj, K'iche', Kaqchikel, Poqomam, Mam
Early Postclassic 900-1200 AD Cholula, Tulamarker, Mitlamarker, El Tajínmarker, Tulummarker, Topoxtemarker, Kaminaljuyúmarker, Joya de Cerénmarker
Late Postclassic 1200- 1519 AD Tenochtitlan, Cempoalamarker, Tzintzuntzan, Mayapánmarker, Ti'ho, Utatlánmarker, Iximchemarker, Mixco Viejo, Zaculeumarker
Post Conquest Until 1697 AD Central Peten: Tayasalmarker, Zacpeten

General characteristics


By roughly 6000 BCE, hunter-gatherers living in the highlands and lowlands of Mesoamerica began to develop agricultural practices with early cultivation of squash and chiles. The earliest example of maize comes from Guila Naquitz, a cave in Oaxaca, that dates to ca. 4000 BCE. It should be noted, however, that earlier maize samples have been documented at the Los Ladrones cave site in Panamamarker, ca. 5500 BCE . Slightly thereafter, other crops begin 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 become common cultivates by 3500 BCE. At the same time, cotton, yucca and agave were exploited for fibers and textile materials. By 2000 BCE corn is the staple crop in the region and would remain so up 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, mameymarker, zapote, and anona.

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 Mesoamerica and the cultures of the South American Andes. Other animals, including the duck, deer, dogs, and turkeymarker were domesticated. Turkey was the first, occurring around 3500 BCE. Dogs, however, were the primary source of animal protein in ancient Mesoamericans, 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 cat 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.

Recent reports suggest that Mesoamericans in central America used cocoa beans to help produce beer: the chocolate was a by-product of the beans used to brew the beer. The practise may date to at least 3,100 to 3,200 years before present. It also is apparent that the masticated cocoa beans were ground up after fermentation and added to the beer, giving it a chocolate taste.


Political organization

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 themself with the city in which they 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.


Given that Mesoamerica was broken into numerous and diverse ecological niches, none of the societies that inhabited the area in 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:


Sea shells from both coastal areas were used as currency during the Preclassic . Later, cacao was used as a standard currency used in diverse commercial transactions. At the time of conquest, a well made cotton tunic or shirt in the main markets would sell for about 30-50 cacao beans. Gold was not used as valuable object until the Postclassic, but even then, 1 load of Jade was worth 4 loads of Gold.

Common characteristics of Mesoamerican culture

Calendrical systems

"Head Variant" or "Patron Gods" glyphs for Maya days
For agriculturally-based people, historically the year has been divided 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, considered important as they indicate seasonal changes which obviously had a direct impact on the lives of an agricultural society. In the case of the agricultural Maya, the seasonal markers were avidly watched and duly recorded. They prepared almanacs recording past and recent solar and lunar eclipses, the phases of the moon, the periods of Venus and Mars, the movements of various other planets, and conjunctions of celestial bodies. These almanacs also made future predictions concerning celestial events. These tables are highly accurate and indicate a significant level of knowledge among Mesoamerica astronomers.

Among the many types of Maya calendars which were maintained, the most important included a 260-day cycle, a 365-day cycle which approximated the solar year, a cycle which recorded lunation periods of the Moon, and a cycle which tracked the synodic period of Venus. Philosophically, the Maya believed that knowing the past meant knowing the cyclical influences that create the present, and by knowing the influences of the present one can see the cyclical influences of the future. The 260 cycle was used as a tool to govern agriculture, observe religious holidays, and mark the position of the stars, but was mainly used for divinatory purposes, and to give names to 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' and Kaqchikel, and the Mixe people of Oaxaca, continue using modernized forms of the Mesoamerican calendar.

Writing systems

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 leave it difficult to establish which was earliest and hence the forebear from which the others developed. The best documented and deciphered Mesoamerican writing system, and hence the most widely known, is the classic Maya script. Others include the Olmec, Zapotec, and Epi-Olmec systems. An extensive Mesoamerican literature has been conserved partly in indigenous scripts and partly in the postconquest transcriptions in the Latin script.

The other glyph writing systems of Mesoamerica, and their usage, have been the subject of much debate. The ongoing discussion is whether or not non-Maya Mesoamerican writing systems can be considered examples of true written language or whether it is best understood as a pictographic convention used to express ideas, specifically religious ones, but not representing the phonetic reality of the language in which they might be read.

Mesoamerican writing was practiced on a number of different mediums, including large stone monuments such as stelae, carverd directly onto architecture, carved or painted over stucco (e.g., murals), and on pottery. The Maya codices were produced on amate paper produced from bark. No Mesoamerican society has had widespread literacy, and literacy and use of writing systems have been restricted to the classes of scribes and painters, and the nobility.

The ballgame

The 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 against which the balls could bounce.

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 would strike the ball with their hips, although some versions allowed the use of 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 would be held as ritual events, often featuring human sacrifice.

Medicine and science


Mesoamerican science and learning can be thought of as existing along two principal axes: those of the magical mind and the logical mind, which, despite being distinct, managed to coexist . In the field of medicine there were two schools: one was the shamanist tradition, where shaman is understood as being a priestly healer who dealt with certain ailments, the most common of which was the loss of the soul. In order to cure his patients, the shaman turned to psychotropic drugs (peyote, tobacco, red beans mixed with mescaline, psilocybin mushrooms) and magical manipulations (incantations, offerings).

The other school of medicine consisted of pragmatic knowledge . In Mesoemerica there were healers who knew how to deal with fractures, treat and dress wounds, and were even able to perform certain obstetric procedures. They also knew how to treat using plants, and successfully used the active ingredient in aspirin, which at that time was already known, and extracted from willow bark. Medicine was practiced by priests who inherited their position and received extensive education. The Maya sutured wounds with human hair, reduced fractures, and used casts. They were skillful dental surgeons and made prostheses from jade and turquoise and filled teeth with iron pyrite. Three clinical diseases, pinta, leishmaniasis, and yellow fever, and several psychiatric syndromes were described. Tuberculosis, although wide spread both in North and South America, has not been documented in Mesoamerica, with the exception of 3 skeletons near today's Mexico City, it can be due to a wide spread of Iron deficiency common among the Mesoamericans, according to a recent (2006) study by AK Wilbur, J. E. Buikstra, from Arizona State University. The ceramic figurines depicting dwarfs, and other diseased people are common, as well as maternal breast feeding and pregnancy.


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 Zapotesmarker is one of the earliest uses of zero in human history.

One of the great contributions to arithmetic, above all that of the Mexica, was the invention of the nepohualtzitzin, an abacus used to quickly carry out mathematical operations. The device, made of wood, string, and grains of maize, is also known as the "Aztec computer".

Mythology and worldview

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 different cosmic entities, 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.

The typical Mesoamerican cosmology sees the world as separated into a day world governed by the sun and an underworld to which the dying sun goes at night to be reborn again the following morning, and united by a Ceiba tree (Yaxche' in Mayan). The geographic vision is also tied to these concepts and the cardinal points as well as certain geographical features in nature are linked to different parts of this cosmovision. For example caves are extremely important geographical features as are mountains and cenotes (natural wells), because they are seen as connecting the upper and the nether worlds. The influence of this cosmovision on most mesoamerican societies was so strong as to be crucial in cityplanning and architecture. .


Among the Mesoamerican cultures, sacrifice was a deeply symbolic and highly ritualized activity with strong religious and political significance. The various kinds of sacrifice were performed within a range of cultural contexts, from mundane everyday activities to those activities performed by elites and ruling lineages, the aim of which were the maintenance of sociocultural and political structure.

Sacrifice symbolized the renewal of the divine cosmic energy and the continuation of life, as well as gratitude to the gods. Its ability to do so is based on two intertwined concepts that are common to most Mesoamerican belief systems (in one form or another). The first is the notion that the gods had given life to mankind by sacrificing parts of their own bodies. The second is that blood, which often signified life among Mesoamerican belief systems, was partially made up of the blood of the gods (who sacrificed it and gave it to humans while creating life). Thus, in order to maintain the order of their universe, most Mesoamerican groups believed that blood and life had to be given back to the gods.

As mentioned, blood signified life, and was the liquid that satisfied the thirst of the gods (which varied depending on the culture) and revitalized them. Blood would not only revitalize the gods, but also the earth, plants (especially the maize harvest), and animals (e.g., the jaguar and the eagle, both highly symbolic animals). Blood was viewed as necessary for life as water, both in the terrestrial world and the world of the gods, and to replenish it to the gods was an obligation.

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 is easily practiced among 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 in 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.

Human Sacrifice
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 the capturing of 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 control the religious ideology, and the warriors supply the 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 a number of sites, including the round observatory at Ceibal and the “Observatorio” at Xochicalcomarker. Often, the architectural organization of Mesoamerican sites was based on precise calculations derived from astronomical observations. Well-known examples of these include the El Castillomarker pyramid at Chichen Itza and the Observatorio at Xochicalcomarker. 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 Uaxactunmarker’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 3 plain stelae and a temple oriented with respect to the Pleiades.

The symbolism of space and time

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 (Duverger 1999). 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 mythology, 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 Kan years.
  • 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 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:
  • Eastcrocodile, 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.
  • Northwind, death, the dog, the jaguar, and flint (or chert). The north contrasts 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 is the one who 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 seasons. *
  • Southrabbit, 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

Mesoamerican artistic expression was conditioned by ideology and generally related to focusing 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 into explicitly aggrandizing the abilities and the reign of the ruler who commissioned the artwork.

Another type of pre-Hispanic art that was produced for its inner, rather than outward, meaning. It is differentiated from the first type in that its value is related not so much in what is visually depicts, but rather in what it represents. Earthenware (ceramic vessels) are an example of this type of artistic expression, and were symbolic due to the origin of their source material; they were often in burial rituals and as the invisible faces of statues.

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