Mesoamerican Cultures – What are, examples, characteristics

We explain what the Mesoamerican cultures were and what the Olmec, Zapotec, Mayan, Mixtec, Teotihuacan and more cultures were like.

Mesoamerican cultures uxmal
Mesoamerican cultures left a huge legacy.

What are Mesoamerican cultures?

Mesoamerican cultures or Mesoamerican civilization are the set of aboriginal nations that made up the Mesoamerican Cultural Region, that is to say, that they populated for centuries the territories of present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, part of Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors to America.

It was a vast and complex network of nations, ethnically and linguistically different, but they practiced an economy and a culture with many common points. Their civilization spanned millennia, reaching different highlights in different parts of the geography and history of the region, in a process of mixing and exchange that lasted until the conquest by Spain in the 16th century.

Mesoamerican cultures practically became extinct under European colonization, but they left behind a huge linguistic, architectural, mythological and archaeological legacy that has been rescued and valued in recent times. In addition, many of its traditions and world perspectives survive, mixed with the Hispanic, in the popular sectors of modern nations that arose in its ancient territory.

General characteristics of Mesoamerican cultures

The Mesoamerican nations, although diverse, jointly share numerous characteristics, such as the following:

  • The first signs of its appearance date back to 7,000 BC. C., judging by the agricultural evidence of the time of the Holocene. Nevertheless, It is estimated that its initial development took place between the 15th and 12th centuries BC. C.
  • His was a fundamentally agricultural society, and domesticated cacao, corn, beans, tomato, avocado, vanilla, pumpkin, and chili.
  • Its agricultural economy was complemented by pottery, trade, hunting and gathering. Its technology was mostly lithic, with little (or no) development of metallurgy.
  • They spoke different languages belonging to the Ottomanguean, Mayan, Mixezoquean, Totonac and Uto-Aztec linguistic families.
  • They had a polytheistic religion little unified, but in which gods were transmitted from one culture to another and from one era to the next. They also shared two calendars: a ritual one of 260 days and a civil one of 365.
  • Architecture and crafts flourished and they left numerous abandoned cities, as well as totems and buildings. Today some of them constitute the main archaeological sites in the region: Teotihuacan, Chichén Itzá, Tikal, etc.
  • The main Mesoamerican cultures (or at least the most studied) are the Mexica, the Mayan, the Teotihuacan, the Zapotec, the Mixtec, the Olmec and the Purépecha.

Olmec culture

Mesoamerican Olmec cultures
The head-shaped totems of the Olmec culture are still preserved.

For a long time the Olmecs were considered to be the mother culture of the entire Mesoamerican region, as many of their own traits became typically Mesoamerican and there is archaeological evidence of their presence throughout the region.

They arose around century XIV a. C. and they consolidated like power around XII a. C. Its large settlements were established in La Venta, San Lorenzo and Tres Zapotes (the coast and “rubber region” of Mexico), where his large head-shaped totems still remain. The reasons for its decline are unknown, but could be associated with the flourishing of other rival cultures.

Zapotec culture

It is another of the oldest Mesoamerican cultures: its origins can be traced back to 9000 BC. C., in the settlement of nomadic or semi-nomadic communities in the current Mexican state of Oaxaca. However, its first urban developments took place between the 15th and 14th centuries BC. C., and its flowering between centuries V a. C. and X d. C.

Its great ceremonial center was located in Monte Albán, on top of a hill in the central valleys of Oaxaca, until in the fifteenth century they were displaced by the Mixtecs and, later, both peoples faced the Mexica (Aztecs) for control of trade in the region. The Zapotecs would eventually end up allying with the Mexica themselves, until the arrival of the European conquerors.

The Mayan culture

Mesoamerican cultures Maya Chichen Itza
The Mayans created one of the most important Mesoamerican cultures.

Due to their great development and sophistication, the Mayans created one of the most important Mesoamerican cultures. Inhabitants of the current Mexican southeast (Yucatán, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Chiapas and Tabasco), as well as the current Guatemalan territory, Belize, part of Honduras and El Salvador, administered a region of more than 300,000 km2 Of surface, in which they arose from the year 2000 a. C. its first settlements.

Its main cities arose around the year 750 a. C., and towards the year 500 a. They had a monumental architecture, with large temples, palaces and facades, some of which still remain as archaeological sites: Tikal, Chichen Itzá, Calakmul, among others.

The Mayans developed a complex culture, with a unique hieroglyphic writing system in pre-Columbian America, and they cultivated astronomy, architecture, history, and mathematics. Their society was monarchical and vertical, and their polytheistic and pantheistic religion, in which human sacrifices were common.

Mixtec culture

The pre-Hispanic ancestors of the current Mixtec people took their first steps as an organized society between the 15th and 12th centuries BC. C., in which populated the mountainous region of the current Mexican states of Puebla, Oaxaca and Guerrero, and its decline occurred around the XV century d. C., with the arrival of the Spanish conquerors.

Theirs is one of the most extensive and well-known chronologies of Mesoamerican civilization, and many of its cultural traits were shared with their Zapotec neighbors, with whom they even shared the meaning of their name, which can be translated as “people of the clouds.”

However, unlike their neighbors, the Mixtecs preferred to build smaller populations and fewer individuals. Because, its heyday and cultural flowering did not occur until the thirteenth century AD. C., under the government of the famous chieftain Ocho Venado Garra de Jaguar, founder of the kingdom of Tututepec and initiator of an expansive policy in the region.

Finally, Mixtecs and Zapotecs fought together against the Aztec EmpireBut this paradoxically fueled enmity between neighboring nations, eventually leading the Mixtecs to defeat. Thus, when the Spanish conquerors began their invasion, many of the Mixtec leaders voluntarily submitted to vassalage and retained certain privileges during the initial stages of European colonization.

Teotihuacan culture

Mesoamerican cultures Teotihuacan
Teotihuacán was home to 200,000 inhabitants.

Teotihuacan culture is a mystery, because It is unknown who built the city that gives it its name, Teotihuacán, located northwest of the Valley of Mexico, 78km from present-day Mexico City. The name of the city is the Nahuatl toponym long after the decline of its original inhabitants, of which there is not much linguistic evidence.

It is known that Teotihuacán was built around the beginning of the Christian era, and that had its heyday between the 3rd and 4th centuries (AD). It came to house about 200,000 inhabitants and was probably a commercial and cultural emporium in the central Mexican region.

In fact, there is evidence to suggest close ties to other cities of Mayan origin in the south. Nevertheless, towards the seventh century the decline of the city took place, coinciding with a time of political and climatic instability in the northern region of Mexico.

The Purepecha culture

The Purépecha or Tarascan Empire was the peak of the organization of the Purépecha, pre-Columbian ancestors of the current settlers of the same name. There is archaeological evidence of its existence dating back to 1800 BC. C.

The Purépechas or Michoacanos settled in an extensive region both Mesoamerican and Aridoamerican, which included the current Mexican states of Michoacán and Jalisco, as well as the south of Guanajuato, Guerrero, Querétaro, Colima and the State of Mexico. Between the years 1300 and 1500 they gave rise to the second largest empire in the region for the time of arrival of the Spanish conquerors.

Ruled by a monarchical and theocratic government, which nevertheless ended up falling to the Europeans in the 16th century, the Purepecha they were great enemies of the Aztec Empire, against which they fought on numerous occasions.

Mexica culture

Mesoamerican cultures Mexica Aztec Tenochtitlan
The Mexica or Aztecs were fierce warriors.

The Mexica or Aztecs were a Nahua people from the Mesoamerican North, who at the beginning of the 15th century they founded México-Tenochtitlán, on an islet in Lake Texcoco, where Mexico City sits today.

That city soon It was the capital of the Aztec Empire, the largest and most powerful state in the region and the main military rival of the Spanish colonizers. Allied with other peoples of the lake basin of the Valley of Mexico, the Aztecs subdued the other neighboring peoples and earned their fierce enmity, which is why many of them allied with the Spanish against the Aztec Empire during the war of conquest. .

The Mexica were fierce warriors and, unlike other peoples, practiced a sophisticated pre-Hispanic metallurgy based on the handling of gold, silver and bronze, although more for ornamental than military purposes. Yours it was a complex culture, which measured time through astronomical calendars and that he used a pictogrammatic writing to document facts and make calculations of architectural works.