Ancient Mexico

Ancient Mexico

The first humans in the Americas were descendants of northeast Asian nomads who took part in a series of migrations across the Bering Strait perhaps as early as 30,000 B.C. Archaeological evidence testifies to the presence of early hunters and gatherers in Mexico around 10,000 to 8000 B.C. During the next few thousand years, humans domesticated indigenous plants, such as corn, squash, and beans. With a constant food supply assured, people became permanent settlers. Leisure time became available and was used for developing technical and cultural skills. Villages appeared as the number of people and food supplies increased. By 1500 B.C., the early inhabitants were producing handmade clay figurines and sophisticated clayware.

Between 200 B.C. and A.D. 900, Mesoamerica was the scene of highly developed civilizations. Archaeologists have designated this Classic Period as the Golden Age of Mexico. This era was a time when the arts and sciences reached their apex, when a writing system developed, and when a sophisticated mathematical system permitted the accurate recording of time. Religion was polytheistic, revering the forces of nature in the gods of rain, water, the sun, and the moon. The most important deity was Quetzalcóatl, the feathered serpent and the essence of life, from whom all knowledge derived. Metals came into use only by the end of the period, but despite this handicap, impressive architectural structures in the pyramids at Teotihuacán near Mexico City, the Pyramid of the Niches at El Tajín in the state of Veracruz, and the Temple of the Sun at Palenque in present-day Chiapas were built and survive to this day.

These civilizations produced pottery, statuary, and ornate buildings, despite their being supported by a simple agricultural economy based on the cultivation of a few staples. Social stratification produced a ruling class of priests and intellectuals who oversaw the labor and social affairs of the peasant majority.

The three most important Classic sites were Teotihuacán (in central Mexico), Monte Albán (to the south in the state of Oaxaca), and the Mayan complexes (in the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo, as well as in the nearby countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize). The fall of Teotihuacán around A.D. 650 effectively transferred the center of power from central Mexico to the Mayan city states of the Yucatan Peninsula. The lowland Mayan culture flourished from A.D. 600 to A.D. 900 when it abruptly declined. The exact causes of this rapid fall remain unknown, but archaeologists speculate that it might have been because of one or a combination of factors: bad harvests, plague, drought, ecological problems from overpopulation, or pressure from more warlike neighbors. Whatever the factors may have been, they provided the groundwork for the next phase, the Post-Classic period, which would be a radical change from the Classic.

The main characteristic of the Post-Classic period was a sudden surge of militarism. The population underwent great turmoil and numerous migrations; people moved everywhere and anywhere they could find allies to fight their common enemies. Wars ceased to be waged for territorial expansion and became a means for exacting tribute and for capturing prisoners to be sacrificed to the gods. For the first time, architecture centered on defense and fortification. Numerous civilizations rose and fell during this period, including the Toltec in central Mexico and the Zapotec and Mixtec in southern Mexico.

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