Home > Areas of Specialisation > Mesoamerican Archaeology

Mesoamerican Archaeology

By: Grahame Johnston - Updated: 25 Jul 2018 | comments*Discuss
Mesoamerica Mexico Central America Aztec

Mesoamerica is archaeologically defined as the geographical area of central and southern Mexico and other parts of Central America such as Guatemala, where numerous ancient states emerged after long periods of established farming practices in more primitive village cultures. The most famous people group of this region was unquestionably the Aztecs.

A 260-day Calendar

The transition from rural agricultural to urban development created a number of notable achievements. For one, the Mesoamericans established and developed a universal 260-day ritual and religious calendar system that was not superseded until the arrival of the Spanish Julian calendar with Columbus.

The Ziggurats

Other monumental accomplishments included spectacular stepped pyramidal structures that usually housed a temple on their highest point. The Great Pyramid of Cholula, in Mexico, is the world’s largest pyramid by volume.

Apart from monumental architecture the Mesoamericans are also noted for their complex mathematical formulations, a progressive hieroglyphic writing system, and team sports involving fast paced ball games.

The Three Ages of Mesoamerica

Mesoamerican history can be divided into three age related categories: Olmec, Maya, and Aztec.

The Olmec People

The Olmec Indians were located all along the Gulf Coast of Mexico and the term Olmec, archaeologically speaking, defines not only the people but their culture and especially their style of art that was associated with this equatorial region.

The Olmec period is the earliest on the Mesoamerican timeline. It is regarded as the ancestral forerunner to the great Mesoamerican civilizations that developed later. Major developmental characteristics of this period include enormous carved basalt stone heads. Archaeologists have discovered a great number of these impressive lithic artworks that most likely represent religious figures or ruling emperors.

Olmec sites that have been excavated include the complex earthen pyramid systems at San Lorenzo. The Olmec civilization is believed to have lasted about 1500 years up until the first century AD.

The Mayan Civilization

The Mayan peoples appear to have risen from the dust of the Olmec. Persisting for only about half as long as their Olmec forefathers, the Mayan Mesoamerican civilization sprang up around AD 250 and, in the north, lasted for over 750 years in some places.

Early Mayan sites include the Yucatan region of Mexico, Belize and the lowlands of Guatemala. In the Guatemala area, the earliest of the sites is at El Mirador while at Tikal the Mesoamerican classic period is represented with several large pyramid complexes.

Archaeological discoveries of writing artefacts have permitted us to know the names of the Mayan rulers and the associated history of the ebb and flow of differing centres of political governments and power bases.

By using sophisticated remote sensing methods, archaeologists have made it possible to recognise the lowland’s extensive raised field complexes that permitted sufficient agricultural production to support the growing populations of the Mesoamerican combined states.

The Aztec Indians

The final great civilization in Mesoamerica first came to the Valley of Mexico in 1325 and established their capital at Tenochtitlan on swampy ground that is now the modern Mexico City.

The waterlogged soils caused them to construct raised agricultural beds known as chinampas and divided them up into farming plots. The swampy conditions also hampered transportation. To allow swift access in and out of the impressive capital, causeways were built and by the time of the Spanish conquests in the 16th century the Aztec Empire was well developed through its own regional conquests and alliances.

Early historians portrayed the Aztecs as a nature loving, peaceful people that were brutally exploited by Spain’s marauding gold thieves. However, it is now understood that Cortez found the Aztec system of power to be one that kept the native Indians slaves through deprivation, savagery and human sacrificial religion.

Only 20 years after Cortez landed in Mexico more than nine million enslaved Indians had converted to Roman Catholic Christianity and the Aztec savagery and its human sacrifices ended.

Modern Mesoamerica

The modern Mesoamericans are descended from the Maya and Aztec Indians. Although the great empire declined after the Spanish arrival the people continued to speak several of their native languages.

The Mexican government, through the National Archaeology Programme, funds investigative research, reconstruction projects, and archaeological excavation at numerous sites.

Archaeo-tourism is a principal staple of the Central American economy. There are many archaeological sites open to the public and souvenir vendors are happy to sell reproductions of the famous stone and gold artefacts that have been discovered across Mesoamerica.

You might also like...
Share Your Story, Join the Discussion or Seek Advice..
Hi - I have a clay figure, possibly Mayan, that I inherited.It isn't something I want to keep but I don't know it's value and the best way to get it into the hands of someone who would enjoy posessing it.I've attached pictures.Do you know who could tell me exactly what this is, it's possible value and who find folks who would wanat it?
Molly - 23-May-12 @ 2:45 PM
Hi, I recently purchased a Mayan cylinder seal or stamp. I was looking to find a little history about it. I would like to send you a picture of it and maybe you can tell me what you think. Any info would be helpful. I was told it was made from volcanic ash, if this helps. Thank you
Joey83 - 11-Jul-11 @ 11:55 PM
Share Your Story, Join the Discussion or Seek Advice...
(never shown)
(never shown)
(never shown)
(never shown)
Enter word:
Latest Comments
  • Majid
    Re: Stone Tool Experts
    Sir i have alot of stone in my village every stone has good symbols.i want your help about that and also i have pic of the antimaps on rocks
    20 May 2019
  • Holly
    Re: Be a Volunteer Archaeologist
    Hi, I am currently studying for my A-Levels and plan to study archaeology at university. I am looking for summer work experience…
    18 May 2019
  • Curiosity
    Re: Pottery Experts
    I have an earthenware plate, blue and white, flowers and leaves round rim, no markings, has spiderings throughout and a few imperfections in the…
    18 May 2019
  • tri
    Re: The Megalithic Sites of Carnac
    Carnac, - (Karnak ?) - rays of Sun, or movements of the Moon, centred on one underground point. Ancient Technology ? Ancient…
    10 May 2019
  • Ani
    Re: Be a Volunteer Archaeologist
    I am currently a student in archaeology, but i am study througj distance learning. Thus i would love the oppertunity to get dirty…
    8 May 2019
  • Zoof
    Re: Be a Volunteer Archaeologist
    I would love the opportunity to help out in Pompeii. I have been involved in the building industry for over 35 years. Tony
    6 May 2019
  • JesseM
    Re: Stone Tool Experts
    https://photos.app.goo.gl/6GZBo4BAzwSwrdEK9 Hopefully this allows a picture to be seen. Sorry for the inconvenience
    5 May 2019
  • JesseM
    Re: Stone Tool Experts
    Hey I have what I believe is a native American tool however I would like to here others opinions and any info on the stone used would be…
    5 May 2019
  • Cam
    Re: Be a Volunteer Archaeologist
    I will be traveling to Egypt in October and would like to volunteer on a digging site. Please email info. Thank you
    5 May 2019
  • BUBS
    Re: Be a Volunteer Archaeologist
    Hello . I’m available from august 17 to 25 . I’m used to working with intricate things as I’m a dental technician . I’m 46 ,6ft 7…
    2 May 2019