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Mesoamerica, cultural area encompassing present-day Mexico and most of Central America, where a number of civilizations with shared traits and cultural traditions developed before the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century. Mesoamerica refers both to the cultures that existed before European contact and the region where they flourished, which included present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. The boundaries of Mesoamerica shifted constantly, and its traditions changed over time as cultural traits spread among the various societies. Among the important civilizations to develop in the region were the Olmec, Zapotec, Maya, and Aztec.
The cultures of Mesoamerica developed complex systems of government, religious beliefs, scientific knowledge, and artistic forms. Within this area, people shared traits ranging from the food they ate and the clothing they wore to the types of temples they built and the gods they worshiped. Typical crops included corn (maize), beans, and chili peppers. Corn tortillas, a staple food item, were made using grinding stones and clay griddles. Nobles typically wore richly embroidered cotton tunics, while common people wore loincloths and simple capes. Architectural features included large, terraced temple platforms and ball courts where teams competed at games of religious significance. The intellectual achievements of Mesoamerica included hieroglyphic writing systems, advanced studies of astronomy, and a highly complex and accurate calendar. Religious beliefs and practices shared throughout the region featured common deities, ancestor worship, and human sacrifice.
Mesoamerican traits and traditions developed in different regions and spread among societies as a result of interregional contacts. By the time of the Spanish conquest, which began in 1519, virtually all Mesoamerican societies shared these traits. The diverse environments of Mesoamerica contributed to its cultural development. The division between highlands and lowlands produced different plants, animals, and resources in different regions. This variety fostered mutually beneficial relationships between societies. For example, lowland crops such as cotton and cacao (used to make chocolate) could be traded for highland products such as obsidian (volcanic glass used to make tools) and basalt (rock used to make grinding stones).
Archaeologists typically divide Mesoamerican cultural history into five major stages: Paleo-Indian (before 8000 bc); Archaic (8000-2000 bc); Preclassic, or Formative (2000 bc-ad 200); Classic (200-900); and Postclassic (900-1521). Each stage embodies a series of major interrelated developments.
The Paleo-Indian period represents the time when Mesoamerica and the rest of the western hemisphere were first inhabited by nomadic hunter-gatherer groups, whose ancestors had migrated from Asia. During the long Archaic period, Mesoamerican groups began to live in permanent villages and developed agriculture as their principal means of subsistence. The major cultural achievement of the Archaic period was the cultivation of corn, which became a staple of the Mesoamerican diet.
During the Preclassic era, the first complex societies developed, with large populations supported by intense farming. These populations were divided into commoners and an elite class. The development of close ties between the ruling elites of different regions made Mesoamerica into a distinct cultural entity, where people shared common ideas about religion and government, even though they inhabited many different societies and spoke hundreds of different languages.
The Classic period witnessed the maximum development of the first true Mesoamerican states, ruled by kings whose power was bolstered by official religions and large, powerful armies. These states produced great cities with dense populations and extensive market systems. There were sharply defined social classes, including full-time artisans and farmers, and a professional ruling class. After the great civilizations of the Classic period collapsed, the Postclassic period saw the rise of societies that emphasized long-distance trade and military power. During this period, societies became more secular, meaning that religion remained important but was less enmeshed with politics and economics. Armies became important for protecting trade routes and conquering other states to acquire goods and workers. It was these Postclassic societies that Spanish armies made contact with and conquered in the early 1500s.
The Spanish conquest of Mexico began in 1519 and concluded with the siege and capture of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán in 1521. Spanish conquerors then moved into Central America, subjugating the native peoples there. Huge numbers of Mesoamerican people died in battle and from diseases that the conquerors had introduced into the region. Many of the survivors of the conquest suffered enslavement, forced labor, and cultural disorientation.
European conquest brought about the end of the indigenous Mesoamerican civilizations. Spanish overlords replaced the ruling native elites, Christianity largely replaced native religions, and new foods and animals were introduced. However, many elements of Mesoamerican culture survived and blended with European traditions, giving rise to a new civilization.
Fowler, William R., Jr., B.A., M.A., Ph.D. Associate Professor of Anthropology and Latin American Studies, Vanderbilt University. Author of El Salvador: Antiguas Civilizaciones. Editor of Ancient Mesoamen'ca.
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