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.