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History, Early Civilizations

Zapotec people, Olmec civilization, Mesoamerican civilization, Mayapan, Maya religion

Ancient Mexico and Central America were home to some of the earliest and most advanced civilizations in the Western Hemisphere. This region is known historically as Mesoamerica, a term that refers to the geographic area and cultural traditions of the pre-Columbian civilizations of Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Evidence indicates that hunting and gathering peoples populated Mesoamerica more than 15,000 years ago and that crop cultivation began around 8000 bc. The bottle gourd, useful for holding water and other liquids, is believed to have been one of the earliest domesticated crops; corn, beans, and squashes became the basis of the Mesoamerican diet during the period between 8000 and 2000 bc.

Mesoamerican civilization began to emerge around 2500 bc, as agriculture increasingly provided a reliable food source that could support larger and larger populations. Freed from having to constantly search for food, the formerly nomadic peoples were able to establish permanent settlements. The shift from a hunting-gathering existence to one that revolved around agriculture and village life also gave people more time to devote to architectural and cultural pursuits. This made possible large public projects such as irrigation canals and temples, as well as the creation of fired clay objects such as dishes and containers.

One of the first major Mesoamerican civilizations was established by the Olmec, a people who flourished between about 1500 and 600 bc in the swampy lowlands of what are now the Mexican states of Tabasco and Veracruz. Many scholars consider Olmec civilization to be one of the primary cultures from which subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations drew many of their beliefs, traditions, and architectural styles. The Olmec appear to have been the source of the widespread worship of several Mesoamerican deities. They began developing mathematics, used a calendar based on observation of the planets, and produced a variety of intricate jade figurines. Between 900 and 400 bc the major sites of the Olmec were destroyed.

The city-state of Teotihuacan, located in the Valley of Mexico about 40 km (25 mi) northeast of modern-day Mexico City, in turn became a powerful cultural center. Teotihuacan flourished as an important commercial and religious center between about ad 100 to 650. It had a population of at least 125,000 at its height, making it one of the largest cities in the world. Teotihuacan’s wealth and productivity enabled its inhabitants to construct great monumental structures, including the Pyramid of the Sun, more than 60 m (more than 200 feet) high, and the slightly smaller Pyramid of the Moon. Teotihuacan’s influence declined around ad 650, and the city was destroyed by a natural disaster or invasion. The fall of the “city of the gods” dispersed its people and culture across Mesoamerica.

The Zapotec people began building their religious center and capital at Monte Alban around 500 bc. Located on a mountaintop in what is now the state of Oaxaca, Monte Alban was one of the first cities in the Americas and rivaled Teotihuacan as a center of Mesoamerican culture. At its height, about ad 500, the city was home to approximately 25,000 people. The Zapotecs developed one of the earliest writing systems in the Americas, using pictorial characters known as hieroglyphics to convey simple ideas. They left numerous hieroglyphic inscriptions on the buildings and temples of Monte Alban.

Maya civilization flourished in southern Mexico and Central America between ad 300 and 900, a time known as the Classic period. The Maya built large religious centers that included ball courts, homes, and temples. They developed a method of hieroglyphic notation and recorded mythology, history, and rituals in inscriptions carved and painted on stone slabs or pillars known as stelae. Maya religion centered around the worship of a large number of nature gods and chronology among the Maya was determined by an elaborate calendar system. Although highly complex, this calendar was the most accurate known to humans until the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century.

About ad 900, the Maya centers were mysteriously abandoned, and some Maya migrated to the Yucatan Peninsula. During the Postclassic period, from 900 to the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, Maya civilization was centered in the Yucatan. A migration or invasion from central Mexico strongly influenced Maya culture and art styles during this period. Chichen Itza and Mayapan were prominent cities.

The Toltecs rose to power in the 10th century ad and are the first people in Mesoamerica to leave a relatively complete history. Their capital of Tula, whose ruins are located near the town of Tula de Allende 75 km (47 mi) north of Mexico City, extended its political influence over much of central Mexico. Other groups paid them tribute. The Nahuatl-speaking Toltecs established colonies along their northern frontier, protecting the region against hostile groups and greatly expanding the amount of land given over to agriculture. In the 12th century droughts in the north central region weakened the Toltec hold on the region. Desperate and starving people from the north surged southward, eventually overwhelming the Toltecs and forcing them to abandon Tula. Toltec survivors migrated south to the Valley of Mexico, where they joined with other peoples.

Not all Native American groups reached the complex levels of culture achieved by those of southern and central Mexico. In general, as one moved northward the indigenous peoples tended to be more tribal and nomadic, with exceptions such as the Pueblo in what is now the southwestern United States. Native Americans in northern Mesoamerica, typically warlike and nomadic, could not be easily conquered and resisted intruders until well into the 19th century in some areas.

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