Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

I. Major Periods

  1. Periodization of Mesoamerican history is not completely settled
  2. Paleo-Indian and Archaic periods - up to c. 2000 BCE
    1. Amerindian people traditionally believed to be descended from major migration from Asia c.12,000 BCE
    2. Good but inconclusive evidence for earlier waves, perhaps 20,000 BCE or earlier
    3. First evidence of farming in Mesoamerica c. 7200 BCE
    4. First evidence of corn domestication c. 4300 BCE
    5. Village life emerges
      1. kinship bonds, not formal governments, govern society
      2. slash-and-burn-agriculture
  3.  Formative/Pre-Classic - 2000 BCE to 200 CE
    1. Steady improvements in agriculture begin to produce surpluses (particularly after c. 900 BCE), including chinampa agriculture
    2. Shamanistic priesthood emerges
      1. emphasis on ritualistic offerings and feasts
      2. first appearance of feasts to honor spirits of the dead; reflected in modern Day of the Dead (Dia de los muertos)
    3. Emergence of early cities in Mesoamerica
    4. Olmecs appear in Mexican lowlands; establish many key cultural traits of region
      1. develop in Veracruz lowlands, well-established by c.1200 BCE
      2. massive stone sculptures
      3. cities built around ceremonial centers featuring large platforms
      4. emergence of the ball game
      5. first pyramid structure in Mesoamerica
      6. appearance of Quetzalcoatl ("Feathered Serpent"), creator god and wisdom god, and Tlaloc the rain god
      7. Sophisticated jade carvings, traded as far south as Costa Rica, probably major revenue source
      8. These characteristics will be seen in later cultures
  4.  Classic 200-900 CE
    1. Appearance of major powers, widespread development of large city-states.
    2. First major period of Mayan prominence, primarily in the southern lowlands
    3. Two major powers emerge in central Mexico, Teotihuacan and Monte Alban
    4. Teotihuacan c. 100-750 CE
      1. founded in northern part of Valley of Mexico
      2. gains dominance through obsidian trade, major religious shrines, strong agricultural base, control of trade networks
      3. governed by a theocracy
      4. Massive temples, with some 200,000 people living in over 2000 walled compounds
      5. ethnic neighborhoods of migrants (traders? craftsmen? ambassadors?) from other regions
      6. reason for collapse uncertain
    5. Monte Alban c. 500 BCE to 900 CE
      1. founded on high mesa in Valley of Oaxaca by Zapotec peoples
      2. height of power corresponds to period of Teotihuacan's prominences
      3. Powerful monarchy (as opposed to dominant priesthood) collecting tribute from many southern city-states
      4. similar in size to Teotihuacan
      5. Goes into decline after fall of Teotihuacan, hurt by deforestation and water shortages
    6. Mayan city-states in the south decline and fall around the same time of Teotihuacan collapse
  5.  Post Classic 900-1521 CE
    1. In Mexico, dominance of militaristic Toltecs
      1. Northern migrants build Tula in the Valley of Mexico
      2. A warrior-based society, see rivalry between Quetzalcoatl and their own warrior god in competition for control of the Sun, Quetzalcoatl forced into exile
      3. unable to fend off other northern migrant warrior cultures, overrun in 1100s CE
      4. ultimately one of those northern tribes, the Mexica, will rise to power as the Aztec Empire
    2. Cholula appears in southern Valley of Mexico after fall of Teotihuacan
      1. something of a successor state to Teotihuacan, in terms of trade and pigramage
      2. proclaim Quetzalcoatl as god of wealth, build largest pyramid in Mexico in his honor
      3. Merchants and pilgrims converge on the city
    3. Maya re-emerge to prominence in Yucatan until collapse in widespread war, c.1450


II. Mayans
  1. Occupied lower Mesoamerica (Yucatan, Chiapas, Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize.)
    1. Notable for lack of major rivers
    2. During the Archaic and pre-Classic eras, extensive system of villages appeared, with most important political centers in highlands
      1.  virtually every hillside terraced to maximize farmland, a technique still un use
      2. communal land ownership obligated Maya to participate in public works projects, notably for irrigation
    3. During Classic period, lowland city-states come to dominate Mayan culture
      1. well-balanced trade between highlands and lowlands spurred economic growth
      2. further enhanced by extensive system of well-built roads
    4. After Classic-era collapse. major centers re-emerge in Yucatan, c.1200-1450
  2.  Myths of the peaceful Maya and the ceremonial cities.
    1. Archaeologists long held Mayan were without war, used cities only for ceremonies.
    2.  New research proves this is nonsense - very warlike, large, overpopulated cities
  3.  Society based on city-states ruled by hereditary king
    1. Dynastic nobility, the ahau, seen as living gods, dominated by hereditary kings
    2. supervised mass projects, trade, and large-scale agriculture
    3. Nobility paid for prominence with blood sacrifice
    4.  Ritual bloodletting by king thought to be crucial for society to survive
    5.  These rituals used to reinforce power -- without king, city dies. Capture of kings critical as increasingly militarized nobility engages in growing warfare
    1.  Tikal one of the most important city-stated - founded 292 AD
  4.  Society depended on intensive corn agriculture
    1. Primary food stuff
    2.  One creation myth held that humans were born of corn.
    3. Intensive agriculture in the rain forest may have led to severe environmental degradation, contributing to collapse
  5. Economy depended on long distance trade (Spaniards encountered canoes).
  6.  Religion focused on flow of cyclical time and calendrics
    1. Fusion of observed/unobservable, earthly/celestial, time/space - no distinction
    2.  Orderly universe - basic unit of organization is the day (kin)
    3.  The day itself is the basic unit/building block of the universe
    4. Flow of time sacred, seen a a grand series of cycles
      1. series of worlds had been destroyed in floods, with current world thought of as being at least the fourth
      2. As all events are repeatable, each action matter. Maya saw themselves recreating the universe every day, even in smallest actions
      3. Itzamna, god of writing and science (meaning mostly astronomy and math) becomes dominant deity
    5.  Sacrifice and rebirth also a major theme, as seen in the Hero Twins story
      1. One of the best-preserved creation stories involves the Hero Twins
      2.  champion ball players
      3.  sacrificed themselves in order to defeat the gods of death in ball game
      4.  Are reborn, decapitate the death gods
      5.  become sun and Venus - their death and rebirth seen each day
      6.  represents several central ideas in Mayan belief
        1.  that rebirth comes only from sacrifice
        2. that there is a continual struggle between good and evil
        3.  that extraordinary humans could outwit the gods of death
        4.  also a metaphor for the power of the greatest life force - the sun
  7.  Emphasis on time produces emphasis on calendars -- highly advanced
    1. "Calendar Round" balanced a 260 day sacred calendar with a 360 day calendar
    2.   Historical dates depended on the Long Count
      1. days counted from a starting date, most likely August 11, 3114 BCE
      2. Used base-20 system, producing dates that look like this -
        1. read right to left, each unit represents multiples of 20 of the previous unit (except the third, which is only 18 times)
          1. 1 kin=1 day
          2. 20 kin=1 unial=20 days
          3. 18 uinal=1 tun=360 days
          4. 20 tun=1 katun=7200 days
          5. 20 katun=1 bakun=144,000 days
      3. Graphical Mayan calendar converter
      4. This system required use of zero, making Mayans one of two independent inventors of zero (Hindus being the other)