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one, the Mesoamericans established and developed a universal 260-day ritual and religious calendar system that was not superseded until the arrival of the Spanish Julian calendar with Columbus.
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.
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.