Classical-Era Culture and Society in Mesoamerica, 600-900 C.E.

Mesoamericans were unified by similarities in material culture, religious beliefs and practices, and social structure.


  1. platforms and pyramids devoted to religious functions
  2. large populations divided into three classes
  3. classes dominated by hereditary political and religious elites
  4. elites controlled nearby towns and villages and imposed their will on rural peasantry

Achievements depended on the ability of increasingly powerful elites to organize and command growing numbers of laborers and soldiers.


Inhabitants: 125,000 to 200,000

Architecture: Religious architecture rose above a city center aligned with nearby sacred mountains and reflecting the movement of the stars.  Enormous pyramids dedicated to the Sun and Moon and more than 20 small temples devoted to other gods were arranged along a central avenue.

Religion: Recognized and worshipped may gods and lesser spirits.  Among the gods were the Sun, the  Moon, a storm-god, and Quetzalcoatl (feathered serpent; culture god believed to be the originator of agriculture and the arts).  Practiced human sacrifice!  Sacrifices were viewed as a sacred duty toward the gods and as essential to the well-being of human society.

Urbanization: Initially, people fled to the city due to a series of volcanic eruptions that disrupted agriculture.  Later, city elites increased power and forced farm families from smaller villages to relocate to the urban core.  2/3 of city's residents still dependent on agriculture.

Agriculture: Swamps drained, irrigation works were constructed, terraces built into hillsides, and use of chinampas was expanded.

Housing: Dramatically changed as population grew.

-Commoners: Apartment-like stone buildings.  Housed members of a single kinship group or housed craftsmen working in the same trade.  

-Elites: Lived in compounds built for aristocratic families, separate from commoners.

Social Hierarchy: Members of the elite controlled the state bureaucracy, tax collection, and commerce.  Priestly class held great prestige in society.  Most residents were commoners tied to the land.

Government: Power was not concentrated in the hands of a single ruler.  Some scholars suggest that Teotihuacan was ruled by alliances forged among elite families or by weak kings.

Military: Early development was peaceful. A powerful military  was created to protect long distance trade and to compel peasant agriculturalists to transfer their surplus production to the city.  The military was also used to expand trade relations, evidence is seen in Guatemala.  Teotihuacan was not an imperial state controlled by a military elite.

Collapse:It's unclear what forces brought about the collapses of Teotihuacan around 650 C.E.  Pictorial evidence suggests decades of violence leading to collapse.  More recent findings suggest conflict within the ruling elites and the mismanagement of resources.  This could have led to class conflict and a breakdown of public order.


Shared a single culture but never unified politically.  Rival kingdoms led by hereditary rulers struggled with each other for regional dominance.

Agriculture: Used the practice of draining swamps and building elevated fields.  They used irrigation in areas with long dry seasons, and they terraced hillsides in the cooler highlands.  Almost every household planted a garden.  Maya agriculturalists also managed forests.

City setup: Open plazas were surrounded by high pyramids, commonly aligned with the sun and Venus, and elaborately decorated palaces.  The temples, pyramids, and palaces drew people to the cities and the open plazas were centers of religious and political rituals.

Art and Architectural Design: Bas-reliefs (a kind of sculpture in which shapes are carved so that they are only slightly higher than the flat background) painted in bright colors covered most public buildings.  Religious allegories, the genealogies of rulers, and important historical events were the most common designs. Carved alters and stone monoliths (a large single upright block of stone, especially one shaped into or serving as a pillar or monument) were erected near major temples

Everything was constructed without wheels- no pulleys, wheelbarrows, or cart- or metal tools.  Humans with the aide of levers and stone tools constructed this amazing buildings and monuments.

Power: Rulers and other members of the elite served both priestly and political functions.  Kings communicated directly with the supernatural residents of the other worlds and with deified royal ancestors through bloodletting rituals and hallucinogenic trances.

Warfare: Infused with religious meaning and attached toe elaborate rituals.  Maya military forces fought to secure captives rather than territory.  Days of fasting, sacred ritual, and rites of purification preceded battle.

Human Sacrifice: Elite captives were nearly always sacrificed; captured commoners were more likely to be forced to labor for their captors.

Society: Patriarchal

Women: Maya of the ruling lineage did play important political and religious roles. Much less is known about common women but it is believed that women played a central role in the religious rituals of the home.  They were also healers and shamans.  Women's main tasks were to maintain garden plots, weave, and manage the family.  

Achievements: Built off what the Olmecs achieved.

-Calendar: Three calendars were used simultaneously  (ritual cycle, solar calendar, and "long-count" calendar).

-Mathematics: Incorporated the concept of zero and place value but had limited notational signs.

-Writing: Hieroglyphic inscription that signified whole words of concepts as well as phonetic cues or syllables.

Decline: Between 800 and 900 C.E. many of the major urban centers of the Maya were abandoned or destroyed.

-Possible causes of decline:

1. decades of urban population decline

2. increased warfare

3. epidemic disease

4. earlier destruction of Teotihuacan disrupted trade

5. population expansion led to environmental downfall and decline agricultural productivity provoked social conflict and warfare.

Postclassical Period in Mesoamerica, 900-1500 C.E.

Essential cultural characteristics of the classic period were carried over to the postclassical.  

The two periods are linked by similarities in religious belief and practice, architecture, urban planning, and social organization.  Some important differences are population expansion during postclassical period that resulted in intensification of agricultural practices and increased warfare.

The Toltecs

Rise: Little is known about the Toltecs prior to their arrive in central Mexico but it is speculated that they were originally a satellite population that Teotihuacan had placed on the northern frontier to protect against nomads.  After Teotihuacan collapse they migrated south.

Contributions: Aztecs and their contemporaries incorrectly believed that the Toltecs were the source of nearly all the great achievements of the Mesoamerican world.  The most important Toltec innovations were political and militarily.  

Military Power: Created first conquest state; power extended from north of modern day Mexico City to Central America.

Tula: Toltec capital city that dominated central mexico.  

Art and Architectural Design: Warlike and violent characters.  Nearly all Toltec public buildings and temples were decorated with representations of warriors or with scenes suggesting human sacrifice.

Power: Two chieftains or kings ruled the Toltec state together.  

Collapse: The division of responsibility between rulers eventually weakened Toltec power and led to the destruction of Tula.


Rise to Power: Pushed into central Mexico after collapse of Tula. Adopted the political and social practices that they found in the urbanized people of the valley.  At first, the Aztecs served as serfs and mercenaries to their more powerful neighbors.  As their strength grew, they relocated to small islands near the shore of Lake Texcoco. Built twin capitals, Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco.

Monarchical System: Established by Aztecs in  this region.  Aztec rulers did not have absolute power, and royal succession was not based on primogeniture (being the first born child).  A council of powerful aristocrats selected new rulers from among members of the ruling lineage.  Once selected, the ruler was forced to renegotiate the submission of tribute dependencies and them demonstrate his divine mandate by undertaking a new round of military conquest.

Social Structure: Ruler and aristocracy had growing power that accentuated social division by creating elaborate rituals and ceremonies.  Warrior elite seized land and peasant labor as spoils of war. Aztec lower classes received some material rewards from imperial expansion but lost most of their ability to influence or control decisions.  Social mobility was achievable for some commoners through success on the battlefield or by entering priesthood. Great inequalities in wealth and privilege characterized society.

-Royals (1%)

-Nobles (1%)

-Merchants, Artisans, Warriors (18%)

-Commoners & Slaves (80%)   

Daily Life:

-Commoners: Lived in small dwellings and are a limited diet of staple foods like corn, grains, beans, chiles, squash.  Marriage customs called for monogamy.

-Nobility: Lived in large, two-story houses and consumed a diet rich in animal protein and flavored by condiments and expensive imports like chocolate.  Rich dress and jewelry also set apart the elite.  Marriage customs allowed for polygamy.  

Agricultural Support System: The Aztecs utilized a dike that allowed a significant extension of irrigated lands and construction of chinampas.

Tribute System: Imposed on conquered people.  1/4 of the Aztec capital's food requirements was satisfied by tribute payments of maize, beans, and other foods sent by nearby political dependencies.  The Aztecs also demanded cotton cloth, military equipment, luxury goods like jade and feathers, and sacrificial victims as tribute.

Commerce: Specialized class of merchants controlled long distance trade.  Commerce was dominated by lightweight and valuable products like gold, jewels, feathered garments, cacao (used to make chocolate), and animal skins due to lacking draft animals and wheeled vehicles.  Merchants also provided essential political and military intelligence.

-Bartering: Aztec commerce was carried on without money and credit.  Barter was facilitated by the use of cacao, quills filled with gold, and cotton cloth as standard units of value.

Religion: Religious rituals dominated public life in Tenochtitlan.  Aztecs worshiped a large number of gods.  Most of the gods had a dual nature- both male and female.  

Huitzilopochtli: The major contribution of the Aztecs to the religious life of Mesoamerica was the cult of Huitzilopochtli, the southern hummingbird.  Originally associated with war but eventually identified this god with the Sun.  It was believed that Huitzilopochtli required a diet of human hearts to sustain him in his daily struggle to bring the Sun's warmth to the world.  

Human Sacrifice:  War captives were the preferred sacrificial victims, but large numbers of criminals, slaves, and people provided as tribute by dependent regions were also sacrificed.  Human sacrifice had taken place prior to the last postclassical period but was greatly increased during this time.  It is difficult to calculate the number of people sacrificed but numbers reached in the thousands each year.  Sacrifices were carried out in front of large crowds that included leaders from enemy, subject states, and masses of Aztec society.  Sacrifices made it clear to all that rebellion and oppression were extremely dangerous.

Northern People

Around 900 C.E. important cultural centers had appeared in the southwestern desert region and along the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys.

Southwestern Desert Region
Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys

Growing populations in these areas depended on maize (dietary staple) and large scale irrigation projects, although share many characteristics these regions evolved different political traditions.


  1. 1. maize, beans, and squash important
  2. increasingly centralized political power
  3. growing social stratification

Southwestern Desert Cultures

Salt and Gila River Valleys


Many characteristics of the Hohokam culture was influenced by southern Mesoamerican culture.

Mexican influence:

  1. sites have platform mounds and ball courts
  2. pottery
  3. clay figurines
  4. cast copper balls
  5. turquoise mosaics


  • elaborate irrigation system that included a canal
  • ceramic technology


Four Corners Region: Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah

Economy: Based on maize, beans, and squash

Large villages and kivas (underground buildings) helped establish a rich cultural life.

Kivas were used for weaving, pottery making, and religious rituals.


  • pottery with geometric pattern decoration
  • woven cotton cloth
  • large multistory residential and ritual centers
Chaco Canyon (northwestern New Mexico) : One of the largest Anasazi communities

Chaco Canyon: Made up of eight large towns in the canyon, four more surrounding the mesas, and small villages nearby with an approximate population of 15,000.

*Chaco Canyon had high-quality construction, large amounts of kivas, and a system of roads linking the canyon to outlying towns.

Cultural Development: Evidence does not indicate that Chaco's development was influenced by Mesoamerica but by earlier societies in the region.

Decline: Abandonment of major sites in Chaco Canyon in the 12th century suggest a long drought undermined the culture's fragile agricultural economy.  Sites in Colorado Plateau and in Arizona suggest increased warfare, provoked by lack of arable land, due to the those sites constructing large natural caves high above the valley floors (hard to reach locations).

Pueblo Bonito: Largest town in Chaco Canyon community with political and religious dominance in region

Pueblo Bonito Layout: Contained 38 kivas, hundreds of rooms arranged in tiers around a central plaza.  Social life and craft activities were concentrated in small open plazas or common rooms.

Men's Daily Responsibilities: Hunting, trade, and the need to maintain irrigation works often drew men away from the village.

Women's Daily Responsibilities: Women shared in agricultural tasks and were specialists in many crafts.  They were also responsible for food preparation and childcare.  

Mound Builders: The Mississippian Culture

Mississippian Culture

Early Economy: Depended on hunting and gathering supplemented by limited cultivation of locally domesticated seed crops.

Political Organization: Ruled by a chief, a hereditary leader with both religious and secular responsibilities.  Chiefs organized periodic rituals of feasting and gift giving established bonds among kinship groups and guaranteed access to specialized crops and craft goods.  They also managed long-distance trade, which provided luxury goods and additional food supplies.

Development of Urban Sites: Developed from the accentuated effects of small increases in agricultural productivity, the adoption of the bow and arrow, and the expansion of trade networks. The improved economy led to population growth and social stratification.  The largest towns shared a common urban plan based on a central plaza surrounded by large platform mounds.

Cahokia: Located near the modern city of East St. Louis, Illinois

*Cahokia controlled surrounding agricultural lands and a number of secondary towns ruled by subchiefs.

Economy: Location allowed for canoe-based commercial exchanges, as far away as the coasts of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.  Seashells, copper, mica, and flint were drawn to the city by trade and tribute from distant sources and converted into ritual goods and tools.

Decline: Occurred in 1250 C.E. due to climate change and population pressures undermined the center's vitality. Environmental degradation caused by deforestation and more intensive farming practices played roles as well.  Smaller Mississippian centers continued to flourish in the southeast until the arrival of Europeans.  

Cahokia: Mississippian greatest urban center and site of largest mound constructed in North America

Andean Civilizations, 600-1500 C.E.

*Amerindian peoples of the Andean area produced some of the most socially complex and politically advanced societies of the Western Hemisphere.

Climate and Physical Characteristics:  Much of the region's mountainous zone is at altitudes that seem too high for agriculture and human habitation.  Along the Pacific coast an arid climate creates agricultural challenges.  To the east of the Andes Mountains, the hot and humid tropical environment of the Amazon created obstacles.

Response to Environmental Challenges: Learned to practice dispersed farming at different altitudes to reduce risks of frost, terraced hillsides to create micro environments.  Also discovered how to use the cold, dry climate to produce freeze-dried vegetables and meat products.  Also the effective use of human labor allowed the peoples to overcome the environment.

  • Coastal Region- abundant fisheries and irrigated maize fields; periodically overwhelmed by droughts or shifting sands that clogged irrigation works.
  • Mountainous Interior- herds of llamas and rich mix of grains and tubers; averaged between 250 and 300 frosts per year.

Domestication of Animals: The llama and alpaca provided meat, wool, and long-distance transportation.

Khipus: Used to aid administration and record population counts and tribute obligations.  


  • large-scale drainage and irrigation works
  • terraced hillsides
  • road building
  • urban construction
  • textile production

Ayllu: Andean lineage group or kinship-based community; Members of an ayllu held land communally.  Ayllu members thought of each other as brothers and sisters and were obligated to aid each other in tasks that required more labor than a single household could provide.  Demonstrates the reciprocal obligations system of Andean society.

Mit'a: Was a rotational labor draft that organized members of ayllus to work the fields and care for the llama and alpaca herd owned by religious establishments, the royal courts, and aristocracy.  Each ayllu contributed a set number of workers for specific tasks each year.  Mit'a laborers built and maintained roads, bridges, temples, palaces, and large irrigation and drainage projects.  They produced textiles and goods essential to ritual life.

Work: Divided along gender lines, but the work of men and women was interdependent.  Hunting, military service, and government were largely reserved for men.  Women had numerous responsibilities in textile production, agriculture, and the home.

Goods Produced: Each community sought to control a variety of environments so as to guarantee access to essential goods.  Coastal regions produced maize, fish, and cotton.  Mountain valleys contributed quinoa (grain), potatoes, and other tubers.  Higher elevations contributed the wool and meat of llamas and alpacas, and the Amazonian region provided coca and fruits.


Dominated the north coastal region of Peru

They did not establish a formal empire or create unified political structures

Resources: maize, quinoa, beans, manioc, sweet potatoes, and coca

Irrigation: Massive irrigation works were used for agricultural production.  Complex networks of canals and aqueducts connected fields with water sources as far as 75 miles!

Domesticated Animals: Moche maintained large herds of alpacas and llamas to transport goods, used their wool, and meat (important part of their diet).

Society: Moche society was highly stratified and theocratic.  Wealth and power among the Moche was concentrated, along with political control, in the hands of priests and military leaders.  

  • Elite: The residences of the elite were constructed atop large platforms.  Rich clothing and jewelry confirmed their divine status and set them farther apart from commoners.
  • Commoners: Most commoners devoted their time to subsistence farming and to the payment of labor dues owed to their ayllu and to the elite.  Both men and women were involved in agriculture, care of llama herds, and the household economy.  They lived with their families in one-room buildings clustered in the outlying areas of the cities and in surrounding agricultural zones.

Produced Goods: Textiles and pottery were both important and uniquely produced goods of the Moche.  Gold jewelry and heavy copper and copper alloy were used to create agricultural and military tools.

Decline: Decline of the major centers coincided with a succession of natural disasters in the 6th century.  An earthquake caused major flooding, a 30 year drought expanded coastal sand dunes, and powerful winds pushed sand onto fragile agricultural lands, overwhelming the irrigation system.  As the land dried, periodic heavy rain caused erosion.


Near Lake Titicaca in modern Bolivia that was the ceremonial and political center for a large regional population.

Agricultural System: Raised fields and ditches permitted intensive cultivation similar to chinampas in Mesoamerica.

Resources: Fish, llamas, potatoes, and grains

Trade: Depended heavily on llamas for long-distance trade that brought in corn, coca, tropical fruits, and medicinal plants.

Achievements: Tiwanaku's artisans built large structures of finely cut stone that required little mortar to fit the blocks.  They also produced gigantic human statuary.

Influence: Cultural influence extended eastward to the jungles and southward to the coastal regions and oases of the Atacama Desert in Chile.

Decline: Thought that military conflict decline Tiwanaku in power by about 1000 C.E.


Northwest of Tiwanaku, near the modern Peruvian city of Ayacucho.

Layout of Urban Sites: The city center was surrounded by a massive was and included a large temple.  The center had numerous multifamily housing blocks.  Less-concentrated housing for commoners was located in a sprawling suburban zone.

Decline: Thought that military conflict decline Wari in power by about 1000 C.E.


Inca developed a vast imperial state, which they called "Land of Four Corners"

Centered in the valley of Cuzco

Political Organization: The Inca were initially organized as a chiefdom based on reciprocal gift giving and the redistribution of food and textiles.  Strong and resourceful leaders consolidated political authority in the 1430s and undertook an ambitious campaign of military expansion.

Cultural Development: Based on traditional Andean social customs and economic practices.

State Power: Inca power and legacy were built by conquering additional distant territories and increasing the scale of forced exchanges.  They developed a large professional military.  Andean people used state power to broaden and expand the vertical exchange system.

Lifestyle: Inca were pastoralists.  Their prosperity and military strength depended on vast herds of llamas and alpacas.

  • Men: Cared for herd animals and partook in long-distance trade
  • Women: Weaving, textile production, and  and caring for herd animals

Mit'a: Collective efforts of mit'a laborers made the Inca Empire possible.  The mit'a system created the material surplus that provided the bare necessities for the old, weak and ill of Inca society.  Each ayllu contributed about 1/7 of its adult male population of meet these collective obligations.  These draft laborers served as soldiers, construction workers, craftsmen, and runners to carry messages.  They also drained ditches , terraced mountainsides, filled in valley floors, built and maintained irrigation works, and built storage facilitates and roads.

13,000 miles of roads constructed by the Inca

Administration: Imperial administration was similar to existing political structures and established elite groups.  The hereditary chiefs of ayllus carried out administrative and judicial functions.  As Inca expanded they typically left rulers in place. Inca used a system of hostage taking and the use of military garrisons to prevent rebellion.  The rulers of defeated regions were required to send their heirs to live at the Inca royal court in Cuzco.  Even representations of local gods had to be brought to Cuzco and made part of the imperial pantheon (assimilated local gods).

Royal Family: Claimed descents from the Sun, the primary Inca god.  Members of the royal family lived in palaces maintained by armies of servants. Each new ruler began his reign with conquest.

Achievements: Built buildings out of stone put together without mortar.  

Layout of Urban Center: At the center were the palaces that each ruler built when he ascended to the throne, as well as major temples.

Sacrifices: Textiles, animals, other goods, and small amount of humans

Expansion Effects: Growing economic and political power reduced equality and local autonomy.  

Social Stratification:  Imperial elite isolated themselves from the masses of Inca society.  They royal court held members of the provincial nobility at arm's length, and commoners were subject to execution if they dared to look directly at the ruler's face.

Decline:  In 1525 the death of the Inca ruler Huayna Capac sent the empire into a Civil war that weakened the imperial institutions and ignited the resentment of conquered peoples.

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