A Brief History of Pre-Columbian Mexico
Mexico is a country with a long history and vibrant culture. But did you know it has only been a country for a little over 200 years?
For tens of thousands of years before that, modern day Mexico was part of Mesoamerica. This region saw the rise and fall of many great civilizations that have impacted us today through their artistic, architectural, scientific, and mathematical discoveries (to name a few).
Let’s take a look at 5 of the major civilizations of Pre-Columbian Mexico, and the legacy they left behind.
Major civilizations of Pre-Columbian Mexico
The Olmec were the first major Pre-Columbian civilization of Mesoamerica, spanning from about 1200 BCE to 400 BCE. They lived in south central Mexico, around modern day Veracruz and Tabasco. As the first Mesoamerican civilization, they are considered to be the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica, influencing many civilizations that came after it.
The Olmec people are known for a few different things, including:
- Developing the first writing system of the Americas
- Creating massive monuments and stone carved head monuments that were up to 11 feet tall
- Building large pyramids and several different types of ceramics that influenced later civilizations
- Being the probable creators of the Mesoamerican ball game, a team sport played throughout the area for hundreds of years
Olmec means “rubber people” or “people of the rubber country.” They got this name because they extracted latex from the rubber tree to produce rubber. The name was invented by scholars and is based on the Aztec word “Olmecatl.” It is unknown what the Olmec called themselves.
Archaeologists still aren’t sure what led to the decline of the Olmec civilization, although they suspect it could have resulted in a change of climate or warfare.
The Teotihuacan civilization rose after the decline of the Olmec. The city of Teotihuacan was settled in 300 BC in central Mexico, about 30 miles northeast of modern day Mexico City. It is considered the first metropolis of North America, at one time housing more than 150,000 inhabitants. Its name translates to “The city of the Gods.”
The city itself covered 8 square miles and featured some of the largest pyramids in the region: the Pyramid of the Sun (over 216 feet tall) and the Pyramid of the Moon (140 feet tall). These pyramids were structures built for worship and sacrifice.
Teotihuacan’s influence spread throughout Mesoamerica, as the city created a trade network that expanded to different regions. While much of its population farmed the nearby land, a smaller percentage focused on trade, creating unique ceramics, obsidian weapons, tools, and jewelry.
Like other civilizations of the Mesoamerican period, the reason for its collapse is unclear. Many of the city’s large buildings were burned and artwork destroyed in 600 AD, and by 750 AD, any remaining inhabitants had abandoned the city.
Not only were the Maya people hugely influential in their own time, but their impact has spanned far into modern times as well. The Maya civilization has been credited for inventing:
- The most developed writing system in Pre-Columbian North America, using nearly 800 distinct hieroglyphs
- A complex calendar system tracking 260 day cycles as well as a long-form calendar tracking time continuously. It started at day zero on a date in 3113 B.C.E.
- An accurate method for tracking the sun, moon, Venus, and the stars
In fact, the Maya people often planned their cities with astronomical alignment in mind. Their careful records and observations allowed them to accurately track the movement of planets and even predict eclipses.
The Maya civilization stretched far throughout Mexico and Central America, covering an area of about 150,000 miles.This area stretched from southwest Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and beyond. Because of its size, Maya never had one single ruler — rather, its civilization consisted of multiple city-states with shared cultural practices.
The Maya civilization spanned from about 500 BCE to 1500 CE, flourishing between 250-900 CE. At the height of the Maya civilization, it had around 40 different cities and an estimated population of 2 million people. The fall of the Maya civilization is still a mystery to scholars and archaeologists.
The Toltec civilization grew to power from 900-1150 AD. Though they are widely known for their sculptures and monuments, the Toltecs were also religious warriors. Their warriors invaded neighboring civilizations in order to spread the religion of their god, Quetzacoatl, and demand tribute through human sacrifice.
The Toltec people were largely based in their capital city, Tula, in what is today central Mexico. However, they created a trade network reaching near and far — even all the way to modern day New Mexico and through Central America! They traded a number of items, including:
- Obsidian, turquoise, and jade
Some researchers have excavated sea shells from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in the city of Tula.
Because the Toltec civilization was so focused on its religion and military, it’s no surprise it’s art would carry over these themes. A lot of Toltec art depicts their gods, warriors, and priests through statues, murals, or stone carvings. However, there isn’t much remaining Toltec art to be found. The city of Tula was overrun by an unknown force in about 1150 AD. The city was looted many times after that, leaving little original art behind.
Similar to the Maya, it’s best to view the Aztec as a collection of city-states that controlled much of central Mexico during its reign from 1300 AD until the Spanish invasion in 1521 AD.
The capital of the Aztec empire was Tenochitlan-Tlatleco, in what is today Mexico City. But thanks to an alliance between three of the largest Aztec cities, called The Triple Alliance, the Aztecs controlled almost all of modern day Mexico.
Let’s review some quick facts about the Aztec civilization:
- The Aztecs kept written records on bark cloth manuscripts
- They used both a 365 day calendar and 260 day calendar for tracking the solar year and ritual year, respectively
- The Aztec civilization regularly practiced human and animal sacrifice for religious and militaristic purposes
- There was a large market in Tenochtitlan, where records show 60,000 people came to trade goods
- Their trade network was so extensive that some goods were mass produced
- Gold jewelry was traded as currency, along with textiles and cacao beans
- Artists used obsidian, jade, chalcedony and shell in jewelry and artwork
The Aztec civilization declined after the Spanish invasion.
Celebrate Mexico’s history with historically-inspired jewelry
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