Early Civilizations of Mesoamerica

Section 2 - Tyler Schlecht and Rachel Elshoff

Mesoamerica is a name used for areas of Mexico and Central America where ancient empires flourished.

Olmec Culture

  • Olmec society was first discovered in the 1940s.
  • Olmec means “rubber people”
  • Farmed along riverbanks and traded for jade and obsidian.
  • Oldest city was San Lorenzo, which contained pyramids and other large monuments
  • Around 400 B.C., their civilization declined and eventually collapsed.
  • The Maya eventually would use some Olmec technology and beliefs in their culture, so they Olmec did not collapse without leaving anything behind.

The City of Teotihuacan

  • Was the first major city in Mesoamerica
  • Located about 30 miles northeast of Mexico City in a fertile valley.
  • City had many temples and palaces, and a massive pyramid known as the Pyramid of the Sun (possibly related to Ra, the God of the Sun) - Monument was over 200 feet tall
  • Most people were farmers, and trading centers were very busy. Teotihuacan was known for their Obsidian - It was estimated that there were around 400 obsidian workshops in the city.
  • Goods were shipped to Central America, Mexico, and even Southwestern North America - in turn, they received luxury items and raw materials.
  • Sometime around A.D. 800, the city was destroyed and abandoned due to the ruling class leaving the city.

The Maya and the Toltec

  • The Maya were a civilization that flourished from A.D. 300-900, on the Yucatan Peninsula.
  • The Maya built sophisticated temples and pyramids, and developed calendars that were as accurate as any in existence during that time.
  • Again, sometime around 800, the civilization began to decline. There are many theories, but there is no conclusive evidence pointing anyway. It could have been volcanic eruptions, invasion, internal revolt, or even overuse of the land.

Political and Social Structures

  • Maya cities were built around a central pyramid topped by a shrine to the Gods
  • Maya civilization was composed of city-states, each governed by hereditary rulers. These city-states often went to war - nobles and war leaders were often used as human sacrifice to the Gods.
  • Rulers of the city-states claimed to be descended from the Gods
  • The society also contained peasants and townspeople who worked as skilled artisans, officials, and merchants.
  • Most of the Maya people were peasant farmers
  • Men did the fighting, women performed the housekeeping and raised children
  • Chocolate (cocoa), was a popular food, derived from cacao trees.
  • Their supreme God was called Itzamna, or “Lizard House”
  • The Maya also used human sacrifice as a way to please the Gods

Writings and Calendar

  • The Maya created a sophisticated writing system based on hieroglyphs (pictures).
  • When the Spanish took over the Maya, they burned all their books, because of little respect for their language.
  • The Maya wrote on bark, clay, jade, bone, shells, and stone monuments.
  • The Maya were well known for their calendar, known as the Long Count -- it was based on a belief in cycles of creation and destruction.
  • According to the Maya belief, the world was created in 3114 B.C., and would have ended on December 23rd (Historians later believed the date to be December 21st)
  • The Maya used two different systems for time measurement. There was a solar calendar of 365 days, divided into 18 months of 20 days each, with 5 extra days at the end.
  • The other system was divided into 260 days, with 13 weeks of 20 days each. Only trained priests could use these systems.
  • Many Mayan hieroglyphs recorded important events in Mayan History.

The Toltec

  • Most significant peoples after the collapse of Teotihuacan
  • Toltec empire flourished from A.D. 950-1150
  • Many of what is known of the Toltec is from legend after the Aztec destroyed the center of their empire, Tula.
  • Tula had a population of about 40,000-60,000 people while the city was between 5 and 6 square miles
  • Toltec people were warlike, builders, and brought metal-working to Mesoamerica. They were also the first to work with gold, silver, and copper
  • Quetzalcoatl was one of their major gods, god of learning and culture
  • The empire started to decline after fighting in Tula
  • Sometime around 1170 the city was sacked and burned
  • The Aztec empire gained control shortly after and carried on Toltec traditions

Rise of the Aztec

  • The Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico
  • Survived snake infested regions and a sign came from their god of war and sun, Huitzilopochtli
  • He said when they see an eagle perched on a cactus growing out of a rock, their journey would end
  • In 1325, Aztecs arrived at Lake Texcoco where they saw an eagle standing on a cactus on a rock at one of the islands
  • They began building Tenochtitlan- “place of the prickly pear cactus”
  • Built roads to connect the lake to the mainland

Political and Social Structures

  • By 1500, 4 million Aztecs lived in the Valley of Mexico and central Mexico
  • Authoritarian state
  • Male children were sent to temple schools that put emphasis on military training. Once they were adults, the could select a job in the military, bureaucracy, or the priesthood
  • Nobles received large estates from the government as a reward
  • There were many indentured workers, commoners, and slaves
  • Most people were commoners, many of those commoners were farmers who built chinampas or swampy islands crisscrossed by canals that provided water for their crops
  • Boys- “ You must understand that your home is not here where you have been born, for you are a warrior.”
  • Girls- “As the heart stays in the body, so you must stay in the house.”

Religion and Culture

  • Aztecs believed in many gods
  • One supreme god called Ometeotl, represented the all powerful forces of the heavens
  • Ometeotl, Huitzilopochtli, and Quetzalcoatl were most important gods
  • Believed in an unending struggle of good and evil throughout the universe, struggle had already destroyed 4 suns or worlds
  • Now they were living in the time of the 5th sun, this world was also destined to end with destruction. They believed they could delay this destruction by practicing sacrifices
  • Religion had a big influence on art and architecture

A Strong Empire

  • Tenochtitlan formed Triple Alliance, enabling them to dominate Mexico from the Atlantic to the Pacific and as far as the Guatemalan border