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  Home / Prehispanic Cultures  
     
   
  When Spanish explorers first arrived in Mexico in 1519, an estimated 10 million Indian inhabitants were already here. And they had an organized social structure - a true civilization - that was over 3,000 years old. This civilization was a force to be reckoned with. The Spanish quickly realized that it couldn’t be swept aside. So they built their Colonial empire upon the existing Indian culture. Which is why Mexico's past wasn't erased. Instead, the Indian culture merged with Spain's. The result is that there are over 20 million Native Mexicans here, speaking nearly 60 languages and dialects. And they are all descendants of these ancient civilizations.

 
  Olmecas
 
 

Olmec head Mother Tribe to all Mexican Indians - their name means "rubber", for which they are responsible for discovering. They were a theocratic society - god centered, their main god was a jaguar.

The Olmec were a Pre-Columbian civilization living in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, near the modern-day cities of Veracruz and Tabasco. The first evidence of their distinctive cultural style appears in San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan (1800 -1200 BCE). This site features many stone monuments, including the famous colossal carved basalt heads that have characteristic flat faces, thick lips, and helmet-like headgear. A later Olmec ceremonial center, La Venta (1200-400 BCE), is also marked by large, pyramid-like mounds. The Olmecs developed a wide trading network, and between 1100 and 800 BCE their cultural influence was widespread throughout Central America

The most familiar aspect of the Olmecs is their artwork, particularly the aptly-named colossal heads. In fact, the Olmec civilization was first defined through artifacts purchased on the pre-Columbian art market in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Olmec artworks are considered among ancient America's most striking and beautiful, and among the world's masterpieces.

They also created an advanced calendar that included the concept of zero. From their constructions and monuments it is evident that Olmec society was complex. Olmec stylistic influence disappeared after about 800 BCE. Not all of the Olmec sites were abandoned, but Olmec culture gradually changed, and the region ceased to be the center of Mesoamerica civilization. This culture is particularly mysterious, since we know little about its origin, political structure, or reason for disappearance.


 
  Mayas
 
 

Chichen Itza The Maya is a Mesoamerican civilization, noted for the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas, as well as its art, architecture, and mathematical and astronomical systems. First appearing in about 1200 B.C. this culture developed in three distinct periods, each corresponding to a different region of Central America and Mexico.

The geographic extent of the Maya civilization, known as the Maya area, extended throughout the southern Mexican states of Chiapas, Tabasco, and the Yucatán Peninsula states of Quintana Roo, Campeche and Yucatán. The Maya area also extended throughout the northern Central American region, including the present-day nations of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and western Honduras.

The Mayan are most noted for their prolific city-building and Baroque architecture, leaving an incredible collection of ceremonial centers and ancient cities.

The sacred book of the Mayans "Popul Vuh" The Popol Vuh tells of: creation, flood, monkeys used to be men, the Hero Twins, Xibalba, Ballgames. The sacred tree of the Mayans was the Ceiba tree. The Mayan Calendar is off one day out of every 3,333 1/3 days.

 

The Mayan Number System was a base of 20 Hieroglyphics:

Dot = one
Line or bar = five
Shell = zero

The religious calendar and sun calendar together made up the 52 year cycle - very important in all Indian cultures of Mexico.

Mayan Numerals
Maya Sites

There are hundreds of significant Maya sites, and thousands of smaller ones. The largest and most historically important include:

  • Cancuén
  • Chichen Itza
  • Coba
  • Comalcalco
  • Copán
  • Dos Pilas
  • Kalakmul
  • El Mirador
  • Nakbé
  • Tulum
  • Palenque
  • Piedras Negras
  • Quiriguá
  • Seibal
  • Tikal
  • Uaxactún
  • Uxmal
  • Yaxha
  Aztecas
 
 

Aztec CalendarThe Aztecs were a Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican people of central Mexico in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. They called themselves Mexica. The Republic of Mexico and its capital, Mexico City, derive their names from the word "Mexica".

The capital of the Aztec empire was Tenochtitlan, built on raised island in Lake Texcoco. Mexico City is built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan. The Triple Alliance (Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan) formed its tributary empire expanding its political hegemony far beyond the Valley of Mexico, conquering other city states throughout Mesoamerica. At its pinnacle Aztec culture had rich and complex mythological and religious traditions, as well as reaching remarkable architectural and artistic accomplishments.

This civilization dominated Mexico for nearly 200 years and was flourishing when Spanish conquerors arrived in 1519. The Aztecs used an elaborate system of taxing and patronage to subjugate an enormous empire that stretched well into Central America. They too were master builders and imitators of Mexico's previous cultures. They borrowed heavily from their Olmec, Toltec, and Mayan predecessors to develop a complex linguistic, religious, artistic, architectural and military heritage. The mighty empire came to a sudden and tragic end in 1521, though much of its influence is still evident today in the culture of the Central Plateau region.

In 1521, in what is probably the most widely known episode in the Spanish colonization of the Americas, Hernán Cortés, along with a large number of Nahuatl speaking indigenous allies, conquered Tenochtitlan and defeated the Aztec Triple Alliance under the leadership of Hueyi Tlatoani Moctezuma II; In the series of events often referred to as "The Fall of the Aztec Empire". Subsequently the Spanish founded the new settlement of Mexico City on the site of the ruined Aztec capital.

Aztec culture and history is primarily known through archaeological evidence found in excavations such as that of the renowned Templo Mayor in Mexico City and many others, from indigenous bark paper codices, from eyewitness accounts by Spanish conquistadors such as Hernán Cortés and Bernal Díaz del Castillo, and especially from 16th and 17th century descriptions of Aztec culture and history written by Spanish clergymen and literate Aztecs in the Spanish or Nahuatl language, such as the famous Florentine Codex compiled by the Franciscan monk Bernardino de Sahagún with the help of indigenous Aztec informants.

 
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