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Home > Timeline > 6 million BC - 1493 AD > The Mesoamericans

The Mesoamerican civilizations of Central America are divided into three periods although there is some disagreement about the exact dates involved. The Pre-classic or Formative period is taken as being from around 2000 BC to 300 AD whilst the Classic period, representing the golden age of the Mayans, covered the years 300 AD to 900 AD. The Post-classic period covers the decline of the Mayans from 900 to the early years of the 16th century and the arrival of the Spanish.

During these three periods there were numerous social units which developed, thrived for varying times and then collapsed. The Mesoamerican era started with the Corn People’ or Mokaya who, as their name implies are believed to be the first settled communities as opposed to hunter-gatherer tribes.

The Mokaya were followed by the Olmecs (ca 1500 BC – 300 BC) whose name means ‘Rubber People’. The reasons for this are not fully understood but may have been due to the significance to them of the famous Mesoamerican ball game which we know was played in formal ball courts from as early as 1600 BC. Today the Olmecs are best known for their massive sculptures of individual heads, weighing up to 40 tons which are probably individual ‘portraits’ of their leaders which were disfigured on their deaths. The Olmec region was south of the Gulf of Mexico around La Venta in Tabasco and San Lorenzo, Tenochtitlan and Laguna de los Cerros in Veracruz.

It is also believed that the Mayan civilization, which extended from around 1000 BC to 1500 AD, was derived from those Mokaya who moved further south and west, occupying the lowlands of the Yucatan Peninsular, with its most famous town of Chichen Itza, and the highlands of Southern Chiapas and Guatemala. It was in the highlands just to the north of Guatemala City that the Quiche Mayans, the authors of the Popol Vuh, lived. The Mayans created extensive cities built with carved and shaped stone even though they were without metal tools or wheels to assist in the transportation of building materials. Their architecture is at least comparable with that of the ancient Egyptians. The cities contained many ball courts, some dating back to the earliest days of their emergence.

To the northwest of the Olmecs was the cultural region of Teotihuacan, which began around 200 BC and lasted for some 900 years. It was located in the central section of the Valley of Teotihuacan which is on a 2,000-metre plateau in the eastern part of the basin of Mexico. Teotihuacan was a trading state and data indicate that there were well-developed trading routes throughout Mesoamerica, with the Teotihuacans spreading their economic and ideological influence across the whole area. In 700 AD Teotihuacan was destroyed by tribes from the north and this gave rise to a cultural wilderness which lasted until the rise of the Toltecs some 250 years later.

The Toltecs were a warrior people who were important in that they maintained and extended the Teotihuacan culture. Their name is not a tribal name but simply means "craftsman" in the Nahua language of Mexico and it was used to distinguish those Mexican peoples who retained the culture and characteristics of the Teotihuacan peoples from others. By now the Mayan civilization was in decline and the Toltecs expanded into large areas of their territory. The resulting culture is called ‘Toltec-Mayan’ and its greatest centre was at Chichen Itza on the Yucatan peninsula. Around 1200 AD, their dominance over the region faded.

The last great period of cultural unification came under the Aztecs who, by the end of Mesoamerican era in the fifteenth century, had built the most complex urban culture in Native American history. According to their own legends, The Aztecs (also known as the Mexica or Tenochca) originated from north or northwest Mexico and were originally a group of tribal peoples living on the margins of ‘civilized’ Mesoamerica. In the 13th century they settled in the central basin of Mexico where they eventually found refuge on the small islands in Lake Texcoco where, in 1325, they founded the town of Tenochtitlan some 60 km southwest of the site of Teotihuacan. They then set about creating an empire which, during the 15th century, was only surpassed in size (in the Americas) by that of the Incas in Peru.

The Aztecs are the most extensively documented of all the Mesoamerican civilizations as Spanish soldiers, priests and historians left numerous reports of all aspects of their life and culture. These showed them to have a highly sophisticated intellectual and religious outlook on life which placed their society as an integral part of the cosmos. The urban structure was based on individual specialization which included administrators, traders and agronomists. The administrative structure was financed by tributes and it is recorded that their last king, Montezuma, received inter alia 16000 balls of rubber each year as part of this.

On April 21st 1519 Montezuma was musing on Aztec folklore which predicted that on that day the fearsome god Quetzalcoatl would return to claim his kingdom. He would arrive by ship from the east, would have a light skin, a black beard and be robed in black. Later in the day Fernando Cortez arrived at the court of Montezuma in Tenochtitlan and the Mesoamerican era was essentially over.