Mesoamerica Research Paper

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Mesoamerica (most of present-day Mexico and parts of Belize, Guatemala and Honduras) was one of the two regions in the Americas (the other being the Andes) where complex state societies developed before the arrival of the Spanish in the early sixteenth century. The long-term and extensive contact among peoples and states in the region influenced sociopolitical, cultural, and religious ideas in other regions to the south and north.

Mesoamerica designates a cultural region of Middle America prior to the Spanish conquest. The label was suggested by the anthropologist Paul Kirchoff in 1943 and has come into general use since. Geographically, Mesoamerica included almost all of Mexico as well parts of what are now the nations of Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. As a cultural region, Mesoamerican states shared a cluster of characteristics (with some regional variation) that distinguished them from societies in regions to the north and south. These included a state-level political organization with power resting in city-states, theocratic rule, monumental architecture and sculpture, and an economy based on the acquisition of food through taxation and warfare. Mesoamerican states typically had a hierarchical social structure with two primary classes, nobles and commoners, the latter being mainly farmers, and a third category of occupational specialists that included priests, scribes, potters, warriors, and sculptors who served the state. The best known of the Mesoamerican states are those of the Olmecs, Maya, and Aztecs. These ancient states and their monumental art and architecture have become part of modern Mexican national identity, while the remains of their cities and buildings are major tourist attractions.

From the perspective of world history, Mesoamerica is important not so much because it was a distinct cultural region but because it was one of the two regions in the Americas (the other being the Andes) where complex state societies developed, because of the long-term and extensive contact among peoples and states in the region, and because of its influence on other regions to the south and north. Mesoamerican states differed from early state-level societies elsewhere in the world in that the domestication of large animals did not occur, despite the domestication of plants. In addition, most Mesoamerica states had less interest in territorial expansion than in maintaining economic control over subjugated communities.

Over the more than three thousand years during which states emerged, expanded, contracted, and disappeared in the region, large and complex trade networks developed that crisscrossed Mesoamerica and extended at times south into present-day El Salvador and north to the Great Lakes. These networks played a leading role in creating a cultural unity across the region that survived the passage of time and the fall of empires. Systems of exchange in Mexico emerged about 2000 BCE, when chiefdoms in several locations began exchanging precious metals, obsidian blades, pottery vessels, and ritual items such as shell ornaments and turtle shells. Most of these trade goods were used in ceremonies and were likely produced by specialists for the rulers. Exchange of objects for ceremonial use accelerated during the Classic period (c. 250 CE–900 CE), when Mayan rulers accumulated feathers, precious stones, foodstuffs, and obsidian objects as signs of their wealth and power.

In central Mexico, in the powerful city-state of Teotihuacan, the focus was on production and trade, with numerous craft workshops creating obsidian objects and pottery for trade throughout Mesoamerica. Also present were professional merchants who coordinated trade among different city-states. The Postclassic period (900 CE–1521 CE) saw a dramatic increase in exchange across much of the region. Not only goods but also ideas—art style, religious beliefs, forms of government—spread across the region, and a few hundred years before the Spanish conquest, professional merchants, marketplaces, and money were in use.


Archaeologists conventionally divide Mesoamerican prehistory into four periods: Archaic (c. 15,000–c. 1600 BCE), Preclassic or Formative (c. 1600 BCE–c. 250 CE), Classic, and Postclassic. Cutting across these periods is a geographic classification of Mesoamerican societies as lowland or highland.

Mesoamerica was settled about 13,000 BCE, and by about 7000 BCE the region was widely inhabited. These first settlers were foragers whose diet was rich in animal protein. During the Archaic period, first gourds and then maize and beans came under cultivation. By the end of the Archaic period people were living in small villages with local burials and signs of ancestor veneration.

States in the Preclassic and Classic Periods

The Preclassic period saw a significant increase in scale, with the development of larger and more permanent settlements and the rise of political leaders, social distinctions based on wealth and power, more intensive farming, and the emergence of exchange networks. The most important Preclassic society was the Olmec culture (1200–400 BCE) on the southern Gulf Coast of Mexico. The key Olmec centers were at San Lorenzo and La Venta, where archaeologists have found remnants of monumental architecture, evidence of a complex religious system and extensive exchange for luxury items used in public rituals, and distinctive large, carved stone heads. By the close of this period, Mesoamerica was dotted with city-states supported by surrounding farming communities and trading with one another. The Zapotecs in the valley of Oaxaca developed the first writing system and calendar at their regional center of Monte Alban.

Teotihuacan, a large city-state in central Mexico, spanned the Preclassic and Classic periods. It was the largest city in the Americas and one of the largest cities in the world in the first millennium CE. It began to develop as a population center in about 200 BCE and flourished from about 150 CE to 750 CE, when the center of the city was burned. From that time on Teotihuacan ceased to be a major urban center. It may have been home to as many as 200,000 people at times, with its inhabitants depending on foodstuffs raised using irrigation and terraced agriculture. The city was built on a grid plan, with a major northsouth street. Most buildings in the center were large apartment blocks that housed the residents, probably localized on the basis of kinship. There were also numerous craft shops, merchant facilities, and public and ceremonial structures. The rulers never controlled a large territory, but the cultural influence that Teotihuacan spread through trade networks was enormous. Its distinctive aesthetic style, displayed in pottery, sculpture, murals, and carvings, spread throughout Mesoamerica, and its urban planning and religion were models for the latter Aztec Empire.

While Teotihuacan emerged and flourished in central Mexico, what has come to be labeled the Classic Maya civilization emerged and flourished in the lowlands of Mexico and Guatemala. The first Mayan communities emerged between 1000 and 400 BCE. These small villages became larger ceremonial sites, supported by a lucrative trade in honey and salt. Maya civilization flourished from about 300 to 900 CE, with major centers at Coban, Tikal, Palenque, Calakmul, and Copan. A hereditary elite ruled these city-states and maintained an uneasy balance of power based on marriage alliances, trade, and warfare. Eighty percent or more of the people were rural farmers, who supported the cities and ceremonial centers through intensive agriculture. The Maya are notable in human history in the Americas for developing a sophisticated and accurate calendar, a system of writing recorded in stone and in bark texts, and large ball courts where a game that seems a mix of soccer and basketball was played, sometimes to the death. Unfortunately, the Spanish, in an effort to destroy the Mayan religion, destroyed almost all Maya written texts.

The Maya city-states began to collapse in the eight century, with those in the south disintegrating as viable political units first and those in the northern lowlands lasting to about 1000 or later. Their collapse marked the end of the Classic period. The question of why the sudden and widespread collapse took place has intrigued archaeologists for decades. Most now agree that no single factor was to blame, but that environmental change, population pressure, political instability, warfare, and depopulation all played a role, affecting the southern and northern lowlands somewhat differently.

States in the Postclassic Period

The early Postclassic period was marked by the appearance of several regional city-states, including the Toltecs (centered at Tula in Central Mexico), the Mixtecs (in Oaxaca), the Tarascans (in Michoacan), and the northern Maya center of Chichen Itza. The final and largest preconquest state was the Aztec Empire, centered in the Valley of Mexico, which grew to be the largest tribute-based empire in the Americas. The Aztec Empire ruled much of central and southern Mexico from 1430 until 1521. Its capital city of Tenochtitlan was modeled on Teotihuacan, and its religion, too, resembled that of the earlier city-state, while its political system was based on the Toltec system at Tula.

Mesoamerica after the Spanish Conquest

At the time of the Spanish conquest, most Mesoamericans were small-scale farmers. The Spanish rulers established the encomienda system, whereby districts were put under the control of colonists who exploited indigenous labor for work on farms and in mines. Catholic missionaries did their part to convert the native populations to Roman Catholicism, although some missionaries also tried to protect them and end harsh labor practices. The indigenous population was severely damaged by disease and the harsh colonial conditions, and some people sought refuge in isolated villages. In the 1880s the encomienda system gave way to the hacienda system, which saw the remaining good Indian land transferred to the government and sold for commercial use. Indigenous peoples became even more isolated in rural communities, some surviving on poor land as subsistence farmers while many others labored in the hacienda fields.

The Mexican revolutions of the early twentieth century restored some land to native peoples, and more was returned in the land reforms of the 1930s. Nonetheless, most rural indigenous remain impoverished farmers, with most land used for commercial farming by mestizos (people of mixed European and Indian descent), who looked down upon Indians as inferior. Since the 1970s there have been a series of peasant revolts over land rights involving Indians in rural Mexico. There has also been substantial migration to cities, other regions of Central America, and the United States.

In the twenty-first century, Native Americans make up 9 percent of the population of Mexico and 44 percent of the population of Guatemala. In rural areas, indigenous identity is based on speaking a native language; subsistence farming based on maize (corn), beans, and squash; weekly outdoor markets; traditional dress style; use of traditional techniques to produce traditional craft items; and adherence to a religion that combines the indigenous religion with elements of Roman Catholicism. Most indigenous peoples affiliate more strongly with their village than with a region or larger ethnic or language group.

Many of the indigenous groups present in Mesoamerica at the time of the conquest live on, though more as language groups than as distinct, unified cultural entities. Among the major groups are those associated with the Aztec Empire—Nahua (Mexicanos), Otomi, and Mazahua near Mexico City—other surviving groups include Tarascans (Purepecha) in central Mexico; Zapotec, Mixtec, and Mazatec in Oaxaca; and some twenty-one Mayan groups in the Yucantan, Belize, and Guatemala.


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