*** native American civilizations -- Meso American people

Great Native American Civilizations: Meso-America

Figure 1.--This Olmec baby ceramic figure (cinabar/red ocher) has been roughly dated to the 12th-9th century BC. The Maya appear to have originated as an offshoot at the Olmec people.

The New World Neolithic Revolution occurred first in Meso-America. The term Meso-America is a cultural-geographic construct. The geographic area extends from central Mexico south to approximately the middle of Central America (Honduras/Nicaragua). Culturally it is defined as the area in which the great pre-Columbian societies of North America developed. These civilizations share important cultural traits, a corn-based agricultural economy with productive units centered on agricultural villages. In sharp contrast to the rural villages are the large ceremonial and politico-religious capitals. Mesoamerica means "mid America" in Greek. It was a term coined by Paul Kirchhoff, a German ethnolocist. Kirchhoff first noted the similarities among the major pre-Columbian cultures within the region. What is not entirely clear is why this fairly resrictive geopgraphic region proved such a fertile ground for cultural advance. But it was here that corn was domesticated--a technological of enormous consequences. Many of the Meso-American civilizations are poorly understood, especially Teotihuacann. The other great civilizations include the Olmec, Maya, Toltec, Zapotec, and Aztec.

Mother Culture

Many different peoole have inhabited Latin America. In the years before Carbon 14 dating, it was very difficult to accurately date states. Spanish texts focused understandably primarily on the Aztecs. And until the 18th century the Mayan civiliztion was basically unknown. This only changes when some of the great Mayan cities began into be found (mid-18th century). Until then the Maya were thought to have been a primitive people. Than archelogists began to associate the Dresden and other codicies with them, although it would be a century before they were deciphered. Archeologists then began to think that it was the Maya that were the mother culture. Than archeologists discovered Olmec sites that predated the Maya. Teotihuacan was also an important formative civilization, but came after the Olmec and the Maya. There are certain cultural phemomenon associated with Mesoamerican civilizatiions. Most of the civilizatiins practiced these signature phemomenons, but none of the major civilzatiins practiced all of them except for corn-based agriculture. These include: agriculture (bean, corn, and squash), astronomy, ball courts, bloodletting, calendars, chocolate, hero twins/underworld mythology, humam sacrifice, vigesimal mathenatics based on 20, polytheism with some shared concepts and gods, monumental archetecture often pyramid building, interconnected trade, and endemic warfare. Only the Maya of all the indigenous people of the Americas developed a written language.

Olmec (1600-400 BC)

The Olmec civilization is one of the six 'pristine' human civilizations. This means that they created civilizatioin and agriculture on their own. These pristine civilizatioins are: the Sumerians (Mesopotamia), Egypt, India (Indus Valley), China, the Omec, and the Chavin (northern Peru). The Maya appear to have originated as an offshoot at the Olmec people. For many years archeologistzs studying native American civilizations saw the Maya as the 'mother culture' of Meso-American pre-Colomvian civilizations. Gradually scholars armed with improved dating techniques and improved archeoligical methods have come to see the Olmecs as much more important than had earlier been believed. Dating the Olmecs is complicated by the acidic soil which means thatdkeletins do not survive. The Olmecs are best known for their huge carved stone heads. For years little more was known about the Olmec. Recent work has uncovered some information about this enigmatic early people. The basic conclusion is that the Olmec pre-dated the Maya. They developed a complex society centuries before the Maya and appear to have influenced the Maya and other later Native American civilizations. The relationship between the Olmec and Maya as well as the Olmec's relationship with other early Native American civilizations is still not fully understood and much discussed among Native American scholars.

Maya (200 BC-1524 AD)

The Maya are one of the best studied of the major pre-Colombian native American civilizations. Unlike the Aztecs and Incas, the Maya were a much older civilization which had passed its peak by the time of the encounter with the Europeans. The Maya first appear in the Yucatan Peninsula about 2600 BC,but this is not when Mayan civilization began. Thus dating the Maya is a tricky enteroptrise. The Maya became a civiization of importance once Olmec cultural influences began to become imortant (about 200 BC). The mayaa began to flourish what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, western Honduras, El Salvador, and northern Belize (abiut 250 AD). Unlike the Inca and Aztecs, the Maya were not a centralized imperial state. There virtually independent city states were connected by extensive trade routes. There wsere many different civilzations. The Maya show evidence of assimilating the technology and culture of previous civilizations which had developed to the north in modern Mexico, especially the Olmecs. The Maya are especially noteworthy for their achievements in astronomy, mathematics, accurate calendars, hieroglyphics, and archectecture. Mayan hieroglyphics,probably of Olmec origins, was the most sophisticated writing system in Meso-America. The Mayan archetectural heritage is especially impressive. Many sites in the Yucantan and northerm Central America include temple-pyramids, palaces, and observatories. The Maya especially venerated the jaguar and built temple-pyramids to the being they saw as the Lord of the Underworld. As with the other Meso-American civilizations, these edifaces were built without metal tools, beasts of burden, or even the wheel. Mayan agriculture was especially impressive as methods such as storing rainwater in underground reservoirs dealt with the limited available groundwater. The Maya were also accomplished weavers and potters. The Spanish encountered the Maya centuries after their classical era, unlike the Aztec and Inca who were in their acendancy. The decline of the Maya is one of the great mysteries in archeology. There are numerous theories. Increasingly archelogists are coming to believe that the decline was a more gradual process than was once believed. The process appears to have involved expanding populations which required overcultivation of available land resulting in decling yields that could not support dense populations.

Teotihuacan (1-500 AD)

Teotihuacan was not the first great civilization in the Americas, but it was the dominant civilization for an extended period. The civilization was a vast commercial empire that dominated central Mexico and began encroaching on the Maya in the south. Thec ruins of the city just north of Mexico City still impress modern visitors. The Pyramid of the Sun was the largest structure built in pre-colonial America. Such massive construction must have meant a rich and hugely powerful society, the center ioff a vast trade network. A major resource they trade was onsidian. They were also war-like peoople who just before their collpase had begun to colonize Mayan areas to the south, most famously Tikal. We are unsure what the people were called. It was the Aztecs tghat named it Teotihuacan (the place where the gods were created). By that time it had been abandoned for a millenium. The fall of the civilization is not well understood. It is generally thought to have been enviromental collapse. The city may have grown too large for the surrounding agricultural area to support. Some historians believe drought may have weakened the civilization. This may also explain the onslaught of barbaric northern tribes who moved south into the central valley of Mexico.

Toltec (900-1150 AD)

Another classic civilization of Mesoamerica were a Nahuatl-speaking people who dominated central Mexico from the 10th to the 12th century AD. The Toltecs centered on Tollan (Tula). The peoples of Mesoamerica often distinguished between two major cultures. There were the Toltec (which meant "craftsman"). These were the civilized people who built urban culture and advanced skills. The other peoples were the Chichimec, or uncivilized war-like wild people who migrated into Mesoamerica from the north. The Aztecs saw the Toltecs as their intellectual and cultural predecessors.It was The Toltecs which conquered the once dominate eotihuancanos. The Toltecs sacked the great city of Teotihuacán (about 900 AD). Mixcóatl (Cloud Serpent) led the Toltec army. His son, Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl, oversaw the transitiion from small states of various ethnic origins into an empire (10th century). Topiltzin introduced the cult of Quetzalcúatl (Feathered Serpent), whose name he adopted. This cult and others, as well as the Toltec military orders of the Coyote, the Jaguar, and the Eagle, were introduced into important Mayan cities to the south in Yucatán. The Toltec influence can be seen in Chichén Itzá and Mayapán. The Castillo in Chichén Itzá is a Toltec style pyrmid.

Aztec (c1250-1521 AD)

The Aztec were a war-like people located in the central valley of Mexico and dominated much of southern Mexico during the 15th and early 16th centuries until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. The Aztecs were a Nahua-speaking peoples. The Aztecs known to history and which the Spanish encountered were a tribe of the Mexica peoples--the Tenochca. The Mexica migrated south into the Valley of Mexico about the 12th century AD. They were a small group that eked out a meager existence in some of the least desirable land in the Central Valley. They gradually adopted the more advanced culture (Mixteca-Pueblo) that dominated the Central Valley and originated in the culture of Teotihuacan. The Tenocha who built Tenochititlan were at first a small tribal group surrounded by more powerful neighbors, but gradually developed more effective civil and military organizations. The Mexica by the 15th century had organized a military alliance with neighboring Nahua tribes known as the Aztec Confederation. The Confederation through wars of conquest came to dominate vitually all of the tribes of southern Mexico, from Rio Fuerte south to Guatemala. The Aztec Empire was not a centralized state, but rather composed of allies and tributary states that were not forced to adopt Aztec culture. Within the Aztec domains were tribes that resisted their rule, especially the Tlaxcalan tribe which was more than willing to fight with the Spanish. The Aztecs were notable archetects and astronomers. Their religion was, however, barabaric and involved mass human scarifices. A major goal in Aztec wars was the acquisition of victims for human sacrifice. Human sacrifice was practiced by many Native American cultures, but the Azztec are notable for the large numbers of sacrificial victims.

Other Meso-American Civilizations

While theAztecs, Maya, Olmecs, and enigmatic Teotihaacan people are the best known and most imprtant Mesco-American peoples, they aew hardly the only Meso-A,erican civilizations. These civilizations grew and wained over time. They were in contact with the themselves and the greater civilizatiins around them. We know less about them than the greater civilizations, but Mexican and foreign scholars are rapidly filling in the historical record.

Zapotec (700 BC- 1521 AD)

The Zapotecs in Meso-America were known as the 'Cloud People'. They inhabited the southern highlands of central Mesoamerica, the Valley of Oaxaca--essentially the modern Mexican state of Oaxaca. The Zapotecs shared southern Mexico with the related Mixtec people. The Zapotec civilization was at its peak during the late- Preclassic period to the end of the Classic period (500 - 900 BC), but was a thriving civilzation at the time of the Spanish contact. In fact they were at war with the Aztecs when Cortez landed. Their capitals and most important cities were Monte Albán i and then at Mitla. The Zapotecs dominated the southern highlands for centuries, a position between the Teotiahuacan/Aztecs to the north and the Maya to the east. They spoke several variations of the Oto-Zapotecan language--some of which were not mutually inteligible. At their peak, they profited from trade and cultural links with the Olmec, Teotihuacan and Maya civilizations. The Zapotecs like most Meso-American people originated from northerly primitive tribes moving south into Meso-America where agriculture was developed. Their name appears to come from the fruit zapote, one of many Central and South American fruits that have not been marketed to any extent in the United sttes. The Zapotec civilization developed from the agricultural communities which established themselves in the valleys in and around Oaxaca. The Zapotecs may have achieved one of the most important technological achievements in human history. Scholars increasingly believe that Maize (corn) was first domesticated in southern Mexico. Both archaeological and genetic data support this conclusion. The oldest archaeological find of maize cobs dating to (4000 BC) was found in the State of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. [Pipierno and Flannery 2001] This strongly suggests it was domesticated by the people who devdloped into the Zapotecs. Especially important in the development of the Zapotecs during the Pre-classic period was a valuable trade with the Olmec civilization to the north on the Gulf Coast. Ooaxca is essentially the crossroads of a continent. It comands trade routes between what is now Mexico abd Central America as well as the Gulf and Pacific coasts. Agriculture and trade thus created the economic basis for the construction of their impressive capital and ceremonial center at Monte Albán. Their economic success enabled the Zapotec to dominate the region during the Classic period. Monte Albán was strategically sited overlooking the three main valleys.



Piperno D.R. and K.V. Flannery. "The earliest archaeological maize (Zea mays L.) from highland Mexico: new accelerator mass spectrometry dates and their implications, Proc Natl Acad Sci USA Vol. 98. 2001, pp. 2101-03.


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Created: 2:21 AM 7/8/2012
Last updated: 8:11 PM 12/20/2020