Information and Characteristics

Mesoamerican Civilizations: Summary and Characteristics

Mesoamerican Civilizations: Summary and Characteristics

We explain what the Mesoamerican civilizations are and their characteristics. Also, the main civilizations and their contributions.

What are the Mesoamerican civilizations?

Mesoamerican Civilizations: Summary and Characteristics
Many Mesoamerican civilizations left a valuable legacy.

Mesoamerican civilizations are  pre-Columbian cultures that inhabited the central region of America (in the current countries of Costa Rica, Nicaragua , Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala , Belize and south-central Mexico ), between 1,500 BC and 1,521 AD. Mesoamerica comes from the Greek and means “middle” or “intermediate” and refers to the lands of Central America.

The main peoples that inhabited these lands were: the Olmecs, Chichimecas, Totonaca, Tlaxcala, Zapotecs, Teotihuacanos, Mayas, Mixtecas, Totonacos, Toltecas, Huastecas, Purépechas and Aztecas. Some of them became great civilizations that left evidence of a valuable legacy.

What were the Mesoamerican civilizations?

What were the Mesoamerican civilizations?
The Olmecs made colossal heads carved in stone.

The main Mesoamerican civilizations were:

  • The  Olmecs: They were the first great civilization of the region, between 1500 a. C. and 300 d. They stood out for the buildings, the colossal heads carved in stone, the calendar and the bases of the writing .
  • The Zapotecs: They were one of the first populations of Mesoamerica established in the south of the present country of Mexico, a region of extensive valleys that was very suitable for agriculture.
  • The Mayans: They developed great knowledge of mathematics , astrology, and writing. They were governed by a social group of priests under a strict and pyramidal social structure.
  • The Teotihuacanos: They developed sophisticated techniques in art . The ceramics included geometric paintings and images of gods, also captured on large buildings to decorate them.
  • The Mixtecs: They reached their maximum splendor between 950 AD. C. and 1521 d. C. with a great quantity of city-states under its dominion. They stood out for being among the best artisans in Mesoamerica.
  • The Aztecs or Mexica: They developed great palaces, temples, and markets. They managed to expand their territory under the rule of an authoritarian monarchy that housed a population of almost seven million inhabitants.
  • The Toltecs: They reached their peak between 900 AD. C. and 1200 d. C. They carried out commercial exchanges in which the cocoa bean was used as a “means of payment”. They developed great skills for warfare.

Characteristics of Mesoamerican civilizations

Characteristics of Mesoamerican civilizations
Mesoamerican civilizations planted corn, chili, and beans, among others.

The cultural development of Mesoamerica is divided into 3 periods:

  • Preclassic: From 1,500 a. Until 300 d. C.
  • Classic: Since 300 d. C. until 950 d. C.
  • Postclassic: From 950 to 1521 AD. C.

The first Mesoamerican peoples were characterized by being nomads and by dedicating themselves to hunting and gathering . After they discovered the first agricultural techniques, with the planting of corn , beans and squash, it was that they were able to adopt a sedentary life

According to archaeological evidence, the Olmecs were the first to dominate agriculture and control a large amount of land used for that activity. In addition, they excelled in ceramics, art and architecture , especially with the sophisticated “colossal heads” carved in stone and almost 3 meters high.

The oldest Olmec urban center and dating from 1150 BC. C. is San Lorenzo , located in the coastal plains of the current state of Veracruz. It was the first political and economic city in Mesoamerica that housed a large population and that stood out for its great development. There, four of the colossal heads carved in stone have been found, other of the great archaeological evidences of this civilization.

During the last postclassic period, the Mayan and Aztec civilizations reached their peak. It is estimated that the Mayan culture brought together some two million inhabitants . During this period, numerous confrontations occurred with the aim of conquering territories. Finally, the last Aztec empire was subdued in 1521 with the invasion of the Spanish in America, who found several abandoned Mayan urban centers.

The end of the Mayan culture revolves around several hypotheses and could be due to several factors, such as wars for the conquest of territories in which they lost, times of drought , lack of food and pests that haunted the settlers.

  • Farming: They used different techniques to plant mainly corn, chili, beans, and squash.
  • Government: They had a well-organized and hierarchical form of government. The leaders were the priests, commercial or military and those leadership positions were hereditary.
  • Trade: The trade in utilitarian products and sanctuaries allowed them to have a fluid contact with the rest of the civilizations of the Mesoamerican area and from there to share several of the characteristics and customs.
  • Military organization: Many of the civilizations used a warlike power appropriate for the time (arrows, bows, clubs and armor) and on certain occasions they could respect the customs of the dominated peoples as long as they submitted to them.
  • Religion: They were polytheists, that is, they believed in various gods. Each civilization had its gods and they were dual, that is, they could be kind or evil according to each case. They also worshiped deities such as  water ,   feathered serpents ,  fire , earth and especially green stones (called  chalchíhuitl ), considered sacred.
  • Culture: Some peoples practiced human sacrifice or self-sacrifice (puncture on one’s own body , bleeding, etc.). They also built pyramidal and stepped religious temples.

What language did they speak in Mesoamerica?

The different Mesoamerican peoples developed a wide diversity of languages , it is estimated that there were more than a hundred different languages . Therefore, the writing systems were also very different according to each ethnic group. They used images to represent concepts, symbols and signs that together formed more complex concepts, not just to refer to words.

The Mayan civilization managed to develop a logographic writing system in which the signs fulfilled the function of letters, were designated by sounds and syllables, and combined them to form words.

Contributions of Mesoamerican civilizations

Contributions of Mesoamerican civilizations
The Olmec calendar was adapted by the rest of the Mesoamerican cultures.

Among the most important contributions of Mesoamerican cultures are:

  • The writing system: The first to develop a writing system were the Olmecs. They were called “glyphs” and consisted of symbols that represented a concept.
  • The calendar: The first sacred 260-day calendar was created by the Olmecs. It was a great influence for the Mayan calendar.
  • The architecture: The knowledge of mathematics and astrology of the different Mesoamerican civilizations made it possible to turn the villages into monumental cities.
  • The pyramids: The knowledge in architecture reached its maximum expression with the pyramids. They fulfilled diverse functions like ceremonial centers or points of connection with the supernatural world.

References:

  • “Mesoamerican civilization” on Britannica.
  • “History of Mesoamerica” (video) on YouTube.
  • “Mesoamerica, an introduction” at Khan Academy.
  • “Mesoamerican cultures” on Wikipedia.

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