Ancient Mexico was part of a region often referred to as “Mesoamerica”, or middle America. It is a cultural region which includes all of Mexico, Belize and
Guatemala, extending into parts of Honduras. Mesoamerica , particularly the Valley of Mexico, was the heartland for the earliest of civilizations in the
Americas. It encompassed a diverse environment ranging from mountainous and semi-arid desert conditions to tropical rain forests.
The subarctic regions of North America have long been believed to be the gateway for prehistoric people migrating into the Americas. These migrations
across the Siberian peninsula and Bering Strait may have occurred as early as 25,000 years ago over a land bridge that existed during the last Ice Age.
There is also the belief that some peoples may have crossed over to the Americas by water, constituting many trans-Pacific crossings over a long period
of time. Over thousands of years the peopling of the Americas took place, with migrations traveling as far south as Central and South America.
However the means of arrival, the early people in the Americas were hunter-gathers following the migrations of the big game animals. The woolly
mammoth and American bison were staples of their diets. The people themselves were dark skinned, having dark hair and dark eyes with an epicanthic
fold which links them to their Mongolian/ Siberian origin. The Chinese, Japanese and all people of Mongolian or Siberian origin have this trait, thereby
linking them to the same common ancestors.
By approximately 5,000 b.c.e., the early beginnings of agriculture were apparent in Mesoamerica. Building cities in ancient Mexico was a slow process for
the Mesoamericans as they never developed the use of the wheel. Beasts of burden such as cattle and horses were unheard of in ancient Mexico. Over
the next 2,000 years, magnificent stone structures and pyramids would be built by hand. The stones used to build these structures would be carried by
human porters. Even today, archaeologists and anthropologists struggle to understand how many of the heavy stones were moved, considering some of
these stones weighed more than a ton. There is speculation that in some areas the stones may have been floated on a raft down the local rivers.
As early as 1500 b.c.e., urban and ceremonial centers were being built in the Gulf Coast lowlands of Mexico by a people known as the Olmecs. They are
often referred to as the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica. In western Mexico around 500 b.c.e., the first true “cities” emerged in the Valley of Oaxaca. These
cities constituted the first complex political societies in ancient Mexico.
Social structure also became more defined during this period reflecting the distinction between nobility, commoners and laborers. Generally, the broad
periods of cultural growth and change in Mesoamerica are defined as formative, classic and post-classic.
Although there was a rise in social and political structure around this time, most Mesoamerican cultures remained agricultural. Chinampas, or raised,
terraced farmland surrounded by water, were utilized particularly by the Aztecs. Food such as beans, squash, corn, sweet potatoes, peppers and
tomatoes were cultivated, many of which were indigenous to the Americas.
The Mesoamericans lived in a theocratic society and were polytheistic, believing in multiple gods. The development of religion in Mesoamerica was also
permanently intertwined with agriculture, as many of the gods were associated with sun, rain, fertility and crops. The rain god “Tlaloc” or “Chac” was a
predominate god, particularly among the Maya, although widely worshiped throughout the region.
Another extension of this religion was the creation story which became a ceremonial manifestation in the form of the Mesoamerican ballgame. It was
believed to have been played as a religious event rather than a sport. The people of ancient Mexico portrayed their belief in the creation of the world and of
the gods living in the underworld through the ballgame. The ballgame can be traced back over 2,000 years to its origin with the Olmecs.
Trade was an important factor affecting growth and social change in Mesoamerica. A merchant class began to rise as well as regional trade markets.
The long-distance merchants were called “pochteca”. This class reached its peak among the Aztecs. Objects of trade included items such as silver,
gold, jade, macaw and parrot feathers, jaguar skins, cocoa and various food items. These trade items allowed the nobility and the common people alike
to experience and use items not readily available to them for ritual or household use.
The Mesoamericans also practiced astronomy, studying the moon, stars and night sky movements. Out of these studies they developed a highly accurate
calendar. In fact, they are credited with the invention of two basic calendars in addition to the use of the number zero. The 260 day calendar, consisting of
twenty 13 day months, is believed to be associated with the agricultural year or growing season. The 365 day calendar, consisting of eighteen 20 day
months is related to the solar year. Each calendar had specific day and month names and when combined on an interlocking wheel, produced a 52 year
cycle. Each 52 year cycle was equivalent to the modern calculation of a century.
These calendars are extremely complex when compared to our modern day calendars. The first evidence for the use of calendars in Mesoamerica occurs
around 500 b.c.e., but it was nearly 1,000 years later that it reached its height of perfection with the Maya.
Writing in Mesoamerica also reached it height with the Maya. The Classic Maya are considered the first “fully” literate culture in the Americas, leaving
behind a complex writing system of carved glyphs documenting and recording their history.
The last of the great civilizations in ancient Mesoamerica were the Aztecs. Around 1300 a.d., they established their capital in central Mexico. By this time,
the other great cultures, including the vast empire of the Maya were at the end of their reign. The Aztec culture flourished only about two-hundred years or
until 1519 when the Spanish arrived. With the introduction of weapons and disease, the great Aztec culture would soon fall, marking the end of over 2,000
years of Mesoamerican civilization.
Mesoamerica developed complex systems of government, religion, science, architecture, writing & art, astronomy and precision calendar.
By 2000 b.c.e Mexican crops included corn (maize), beans, chili peppers, tomatoes, avocados, cotton and cacao (used to make chocolate).
This material is protected by current United States copyright laws. Use without author's permission is prohibited.
Tammy Leigerot Elder & North American Indian Research Institute © 2010