Mesoamerican Civilization
El Caracol
El Caracol, named for the winding staircase within the cylindrical structure (aka the "Observatory" because of its resemblance to an astronomical observatory)
among the ruins at the Mayan site of Chichen Itza, dating to the tenth century; photo credit Edit Grof Tisza
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Mesoamerica was yet another world location for the emergence of an early civilization, but Mesoamerican societies were not necessarily connected to a single famous river (like the Nile) as the other early civilizations were, though there were plenty of rivers in the New World.  Because of the physical separation from Europe, Asia and Africa, large-scale civilization in the Americas tended to emerge somewhat later than elsewhere (maybe 1000 bce versus 3000 bce in Mesopotamia), and Mesoamerican did not benefit as much from the exchange of ideas and objects that accompanied contact between civilizations on the other three continents.  There have been complicated geophysical arguments put forward--to explain the differences between what happened in Eurasia versus Mesoamerica--about the ease of material and intellectual exchange in an east-west direction, such as from Beijing to Paris, and the difficulty of such exchanges taking place in a north-south direction, across different climactic zones, such as between Chicago and Rio de Janeiro.

In addition, civilization in Mesoamerica did not have the cultural unity like that enjoyed by, for example, Egypt or China. There were several different societies in Mesoamaerica that rose and fell over time, (most widely known were the Olmec, Zapotec, Toltec, Mixtec, Mexica, Aztec, Inka). In this respect, Mesoamerica most closely resembled what happened in Mesopotamia where one after another they appeared, spread, and then decayed. It was the initial emergence of the Olmec along the Gulf coast (1200 - 400 bce) that set many of the patterns of future civilization in Mesoamerica.

Though isolated, it is clear that Mesoamerican civilization achieved some very impressive mathematical, architectural, engineering and calendrical advances.  In terms of urban population, for example, the city of Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico (not too far from present-day Mexico City) reached a size of well over 100,000 by 100 ce; that size easily rivaled anything that had existed anywhere else in the ancient world.  (Note that there are still scholarly disputes over details who actually inhabited the city, maybe the Olmecs, before the city's decline by 8th century.)

One feature that Mesoamerican society had in common with its Near Eastern and later West European counterparts was a proclivity to violence.  There was almost continuous violence as societies rose and fell; again very much like he history of Mesopotamia.

Some similarities to pre-1500 civilizations:

  • Writing existed; Mayan script was hieroglyphic based like in Egypt or China
  • A priestly temple class was a very powerful element in society such as in Egypt, Mesopotamia or India. Quetzalcoatl, the most important god, was usually portrayed as a plumed serpent (a snake with feathers)--it is pretty interesting trying to figure out exactly what he meant and his role in religious myth. One difference of Mesoamerican religions was the prominent role of human sacrifice (Yet that is also anther point on which there is much controversy.)
  • Monumental architecture (pyramid and temple construction such as in Egypt, Mesopotamia and India)
  • Sedentary agricultural villages which eventually evolved into massive cities such as Teotihuacan, Chichen Itza, Cuzco, Tenochtitlan.

Starting in approximately 1500 ce, Mesoamerican society confronted the arrival of Europeans. Initially that was Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors, but eventually French, British and Dutch also made their way to the New World. The latter three had much less of a presence in Central and South America. The Spanish and Portuguese motive was quite simply plunder; it took decades and centuries for the conquistadors to control societies in Mesoamerica, and in the course of those centuries Spanish/Portuguese and native American cultures fused into a new hispano-Mexican-Central American culture. The year 1500 was not a sharp break point in the development of American culture; it was the introduction of a new culture that would take a lot of years to assimilate. Note that I say nothing here about the population disaster that befell Mesoamerican societies. (This is controversial issue and one on which there is no scholarly consensus, the wiki entry is as good as any for a starting point for further investigation. Note that some estimates put a population decline of as high as 80% in the immediate century following the initial contact with Europeans.)

The past and present live side by side in much of present day Mexico, Central and South America. The reminders of the past are everywhere from the preserved remnants of Mesoamerican society to the linguistic merger of native dialects and Spanish. The inhabitants also struggle to find different meanings in the past (and actually to discover the true past). For example, what does the encounter between Hernándo Cortés and Moctezuma II mean for Mexicans today?

Please feel free to review my lecture notes (*.pdf file) on early Mesoamerican history.  You may send me any suggested corrections or additions.

Some recommended online lectures and websites:

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