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Mexican History: Meso-American Civilizations

Figure 1.--Diego Rivera has dramntically depicted Mexican history in his murals painted in the Palacio Nacional. This pannel depicts the the market at Tlatelolco with Mexica (Aztec) Tenochtitlan in the background. The Tlatelolca were another Nahuatl speaking people who arrived in what is now central Mexico with the Mexica (13th century). They also settled on Lake Texcoco. They devekoped primarily as allies of the Mexica, but occassionally fought them. As Tenochtitlan grew, with its vital market became the southen part of the city. We see the great causeway into the city where Cortz would fight the battle of the 'Noche Triste' to escape the city.

Siberian hunters, the genesis of Native American people first into North America along the Bearing Sea land bridge formed during the Ice Age. These Ice Age migrations appear to have occurred about 15,000 years ago, although historians debate this. There appear to have been several waves of migrations. These people were nomadic hunters. The first advanced civilization was theOlmecs. For many years archeologists studying Native American civilizations saw the Maya as the "mother culture" of Mexican pre-Colombian civilizations. Gradually scholars armed with improved dating techniques and improved archeological methods have come to see the Olmecs as much more important than had earlier been believed. The Olmecs are best known for their huge carved stone heads. The Olmecs established themselves along the western Gulf of Mexico (Veracruz and Tabasco) (about 1000 BC). The Olmecs worshiped a jaguar God. They built the first cities in what is now Mexico. They are best known for the massive stone heads they sculpted, one of the few surviving artifacts. The Olmec mysteriously disappeared (about 400 BC). The Olmec provided the cultural base for subsequent Native American peoples--the Teotihuacan, the Zapotecs and Mixtecs (Monte Alban), the Maya (Yucatan), the Toltecs, Aztecs, and many other smaller civilizations. The Toltec people of the Central Valley of Mexico developed corn. Although not immediately as important as the potato, it is today with the 20th century development of synthetic fertilizer the single most important food crop. This made possible the modern expansion of the world population. The Native Americans that the Spanish Conquistadores encountered were the Maya and Aztec. The Aztec in particular were a chillingly blood thirsty people, exceeding the Spanish in their lust for war, but not in their ability to wage war. The Spanish Conquistadores wanted gold, but it was corn that was Mexico's great contribution to human society. Native Americans were stone age peoples. Nonetheless they accomplished major advances. The most important achievement in Mexico was the development of corn, but there were other impressive accomplishments in various fields, including architecture, art, astronomy, engineering, mathematics, pottery, and textiles. The Maya were the technologically most advanced, especially in mathematics and astronomy. The Maya calendar was the most accurate in the world until the 20th century. These accomplished, however, were to a degree overshadowed by the prevalence of human sacrifice. And here the war-like Aztecs escalated human sacrifice to unprecedented levels. The Aztecs were the dominant civilization in central Mexico when the Spanish arrived.

Ice Age Migrations

The Native American people are primarily descended from Siberian peoples that crossed the Bearing Straits land-ice bridge created by the Ice Age. They were nomadic hunter-gatherers probably followng migrating heards. The where of the crossing is widely accepted by the scientific community. Virtually everything else about proto-Native Americans is a matter of dispute. The history of native Americans is hotly debated by archeologists, anthropologists, geneticists, and linguists. Joining the robust debate are Native Americans themselves who have many legitimate grevinces with the archeologists. Entering the scientific debate are charges of white racism and the counter charge that political correctness is inhibiting science. The problem is that archeologists and anthroplogists which have dominated the study of Native Americans have so often been wrong, often disasterosly wrong. And the new sciences entering the field (genetics and linguistics) are resented by the older experts and just beginning to develop the tools needed to decisively add to the debate. Archeologists once almost unanimously dated this crossing at about 13,500 years ago (11,500 BC). Most modern archeologists grew up at a time when there was a solid consensus among archeologists that Siberian hunters crossed Bearing Sea ice bridge and that they moved through an ice free corridor and desimated the mega-fauna of the Western Hemisphere. The discovery of Clovis-point spearheads was deemed to confirm this chronology. Now almost everything about this consensus has been questioned. Today there is mounting evidence that the crossing occurred earlier--much earlier. We see more and more reports using the apprximate date of about 25,000 BP and quite a number using even earlier dates. Another major question is how much time the migrants spent in Beringia, blocked by the immense North America Ice Sheet. It also appears to have occurred in a series of waves, although it is not at all clear if these were waves crossing the Bearing Straits or waves of migration south from Alaska. After crossing the Bearing Sea ice land-bridge, the Native American people moved south and east. Here there is also controversy. An ice-free corridor through the North American ice shelf was once widely accepted, but today this has come into question. Increasing acceptance is developed for a coastal migration by boats. Actual evidence for either both possibilities, however, is very limited. We know that somehow prop-Indians did get south and eventually populated the entire Western Hemsphere as far south as Tierra de Fuego in South America. The new evidence includes DNA studies and raises many questions about the previously accepted Clovis First theory. This has complicated Native American anthropolgical studies. We now know that migration continued well after development of indignous socities in both North and South America. This means that migrations took place well after civilizations for which we have archeolgical evidence. This had confused early anthrpologists who assumed that the migrations preceeded the early cultures which they found such as the Clovis Point people. The stone tools found at Clovis, New Mexico are believed to date to about 9,000 BC. The Clovis Point people were once thought to be the earlist American culture. Other cultures in recent have sence been found much further south in South America. [Koppel] Clovis-First adherents question the dating of these findings. Linguists has entered the debate. They point out that the language diversity in the Americas is much greater than in the Old World. This suggests a far longer history than allowed by Clovis First adherents. But there are differences of opinion among theorists as well. While the debate rages, there is a growing consensus that Native American occupation of the Americas occurred much earlier than at first believed. There is no consenus on this, but estimates within 20,000-30,000 years are being cited by an increasing number of experts in the widening field of North American studies.


Meso-America means middle America or what is now part of Central america. It is important in world history because it is one of the six universally recognized craddles of civilization. The others are: Sumeria (Mesoptamia), Egypt, Harappan (Indus Valley), Shang China, and northern coastal Peru. The only one of these civilizations that Meso-American people were in contact with was the Andean cultures to the south in South America. hese cultures origunated along the northern coast of Peru. This connection between the two civikizatiins was indirect and probably mostly maritime. Ecuadorean traders seem to have played an important role at least in the final stages before the Spanish conquest. We know there was contact, because the Amdean peopoles adopted corn agriculture developed in Meso-America. And Meso-Americans acquired Andean metalurgical technology. The history of Meso-America is primarily a Mexican story, occuring south of the Soinoran Desert in central and southern Mexico. There is one exception--the Maya. The Maya are one of the most important Meso-Ameticam people and they staddled southern America and Guatemala, including the Guatemalan Highlands and the Peten. The Mayan sites have also been found in Belize, northern Hondurass--close to the Guatemalan border, and El Salvador. Meso-America is important not only because it is one of the six areas in which humans independently invented agriculture and thus civilization, but because of what they developed -- corn. Corn is today by far the most important food crop in the world. Many cultures developed in meso-America, but they all shared several important characteristics, amomg them: 1) corn-based agriculture, 2) a basic calendar (which the Maya pefected), , 3) organization of city states (the Aztecs were an exception), 4) inter-connected trade routes, 5) ancestor worship, and 6) a relgious mythology with a penchnt for human scacrifice (which the Aztec raised to unpresedented levels).


The defining step in Meso-American civilizatiion was the development of corn/maize-based agriculture. Corn, (Zea mays), also called Indian corn or maize, is a a cereal plant of the grass family (Poaceae). Only with agriculture can people develop the wealth needed to create civilization and to support large sedentary populations. It is now believed that people living in central Mexico developed a visble corn crop (about 5000 BC). They began with a wild grass -- teosinte. Teosinte would not be recognized as our modern corn. The kernels were not only small and were not compacted together like kernels on the husked ear of our modern corn. As the Meso-American people slowly oerfected corn this vbegan to change. Some early versions were rather like the little corn ears you get in Chinese restaurants, but gradually the energy-packed ears appeared. And what Meso-Americans develooped not only became the primary food source throughout the Americas, but in our modern world. No other major food crop is so adaptable or such an efficent converter of sun power into an edible crop. Corn is surely the single greatest agricultural boon to mankind. And we can thank ancienbt Meso-American farmers for it. It produces s more food to plant than any other crop. The Andean potato is the only crop close to it. Europe throughout the medieval era had a major problem. Farmers were committed to wheat, a crop suitable to the sunny semi-arid cinditions og the Middle East. And not at all suite to the the more cloudy, humid conditiins of Europe, especually northern Europe. There were frequent crpp failures with devestating consequences. The development of modern Europe depebdended in large measure on the arriuval of Meso-American corn and Andean potatoes (16th century). From Mexico corn spread north into the Southwestern United States and south down the coast to the Andean peopole. Meso-American agricultural was fundamentally based on corn, but included two companion crops--beans and squash. The beans helped fix nitrigen in the soil and the squash ground covering leaves helped preserve moisture in the soil. This critical relationship was held sacred and was nearly universally adopted by the the settled, agricultural people of the Americas.

Meso-American Peoples

One question archeologists are wrestling with is the issue concerning the possible existence of a Meso-American mother culture. The many shared haracteristics among Meso-American peoples does suggest the existence of a mother culture. Here linguistic studies are not as useful a in other areas as we do nnot know what kanguage the Olmecs abd iother early civilizations spoke. The mother culture initially thought to be the Maya. Then earlier Olmec sites were found and dated using modern techniques. Even more recently, Mayan sites as early as the Olmec sites, like El Mirador, have been found in the Petén. This is northern Guatemala just south of the Olman. Which leaves the question of a mother culture much less certain than it was once thought to be. The two Meso-American peoples familiar to the modern reader are the Aztecs and the Maya. These were at the time of the Spanish Conquest the two major cultures, but there were many other cultures in Meso-America. Thus is one reason that Cortez with a handful of followers was able to overwhelm huge Aztec armies. Cortez was an effective diplomat and recruited native allies to fight the Aztecs--people oppressed by the Aztec or at wsar with them. Meaning that Cortez was able to form an army much closer to the size of the Aztec armies. The names of these allies are largely forgotten and known to only the serious reader who has studied Meso-American history. And over the millennia of historical development many cultures have come and gone before the arrival of the Spanish. One of the moist spectacular was Teotihuacan in the Central Valley and their huge pyramids and central city just north of modern Mexico City testify to their greatness. But they are only one of the countless cultures that make up the vibrant mosaic of Meso-America.

The Conquista (16th century)

pain at the beginning of the 16th century was a rising, newly unified power in Europe. Although it had lost some of its power with the rise of important nation states, the papacy at the beginning of the 16th century still had unrivaled moral aithority. Sanish diplomacy and a new pope obtained papal blessing for a new Spanish empire, in effect spliting the worls between Spain and Portugal. Spain then colonized the Caribbean and then hearing rumors of a rich inland empire began to plan to colonize the mainland. 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. Their capital Tenochtitlan was unknown to Europe, but was one of the great cities of the world. Diego Velasquez, Spanih Governor of Cuba, put a trusted soldier, Hernando Cortez, in charge of an expedition to the mainland. Hernando Cortés sailed from Cuba in 1519. He had only a small force, but it was equipped with horses, fire arms, and cannon. His men had steel body armor. Cortez confronted Indian armies that were vastly superior. He seized upon the strateguy of forming alliances with vassal Indian nations within the Aztec Empire that were willing to fight with him. The first alliance was with the Totonacs. Some of his soldiers, mostly Vlasquez loyalists planned to seize on of the ships and return to Cuba. Cortez took the dramatic action of sinking all but one of the shipps. He then made a dramatic appeal to the men, wining the support of mot of the expedition. Cortez's army left the Totonac capital (August 16, 1519). The expedition counted 400 soldiers, 15 horses, and 7 artillery pieces. With them were 1,300 Totonac warriors, and 1,000 porters. The Totonac force was small in comparison to the forces the Aztecs could marshall. Even so it was significant. Not only did it quadruple Cortez's force, but it provide allies which were familiar with local conditions. Without the Tononac alliance, Cortez's expedition may not have even reached Tenochtitlan. The tsory of the conquest is one of courage and audacity mingled with avarice, treachery, and crulty and stands in sharp contrast to that of North America where colonization was largely based on the desire for religious expression and land to farm. For Spain with it's poweful army, the gold and silver which began to flow from Mecico turned Spain for a century into a European super power.


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Created: 6:18 AM 6/7/2011
Last updated: 11:14 PM 7/31/2015