History Archive Icon

History Archive

Mesoamerica

Collections > Regions > Mesoamerica Collection

Mesoamerica Collection

History Archive - Mesoamerica Collection

Mesoamerica is a historical region and cultural area in North America. It extends from approximately central Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica, and within this region pre-Columbian societies flourished before the Spanish colonization of the Americas. In the 16th century, European diseases like smallpox and measles caused the deaths of upwards of 90% of the indigenous people. It is one of five areas in the world where ancient civilization arose independently, and the second in the Americas along with Norte Chico (Caral-Supe) in present-day Peru, in the northern coastal region.

As a cultural area, Mesoamerica is defined by a mosaic of cultural traits developed and shared by its indigenous cultures. Beginning as early as 7000 BCE, the domestication of cacao, maize, beans, tomato, avocado, vanilla, squash and chili, as well as the turkey and dog, caused a transition from paleo-Indian hunter-gatherer tribal grouping to the organization of sedentary agricultural villages. In the subsequent Formative period, agriculture and cultural traits such as a complex mythological and religious tradition, a vigesimal numeric system, a complex calendric system, a tradition of ball playing, and a distinct architectural style, were diffused through the area. Also in this period, villages began to become socially stratified and develop into chiefdoms with the development of large ceremonial centers, interconnected by a network of trade routes for the exchange of luxury goods, such as obsidian, jade, cacao, cinnabar, Spondylus shells, hematite, and ceramics. While Mesoamerican civilization did know of the wheel and basic metallurgy, neither of these technologies became culturally important.

+ Read More

Among the earliest complex civilizations was the Olmec culture, which inhabited the Gulf Coast of Mexico and extended inland and southwards across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Frequent contact and cultural interchange between the early Olmec and other cultures in Chiapas, Guatemala and Oaxaca laid the basis for the Mesoamerican cultural area. All this was facilitated by considerable regional communications in ancient Mesoamerica, especially along the Pacific coast.

This formative period saw the spread of distinct religious and symbolic traditions, as well as artistic and architectural complexes. In the subsequent Preclassic period, complex urban polities began to develop among the Maya, with the rise of centers such as El Mirador, Calakmul and Tikal, and the Zapotec at Monte Alban. During this period, the first true Mesoamerican writing systems were developed in the Epi-Olmec and the Zapotec cultures, and the Mesoamerican writing tradition reached its height in the Classic Maya hieroglyphic script.

Mesoamerica is one of only three regions of the world where writing is known to have independently developed (the others being ancient Sumer and China). In Central Mexico, the height of the Classic period saw the ascendancy of the city of Teotihuacan, which formed a military and commercial empire whose political influence stretched south into the Maya area and northward. Upon the collapse of Teotihuacan around 600 AD, competition between several important political centers in central Mexico, such as Xochicalco and Cholula, ensued.

At this time during the Epi-Classic period, the Nahua peoples began moving south into Mesoamerica from the North, and became politically and culturally dominant in central Mexico, as they displaced speakers of Oto-Manguean languages. During the early post-Classic period, Central Mexico was dominated by the Toltec culture, Oaxaca by the Mixtec, and the lowland Maya area had important centers at Chichen Itza and Mayapan. Towards the end of the post-Classic period, the Aztecs of Central Mexico built a tributary empire covering most of central Mesoamerica.

The distinct Mesoamerican cultural tradition ended with the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Over the next centuries, Mesoamerican indigenous cultures were gradually subjected to Spanish colonial rule. Aspects of the Mesoamerican cultural heritage still survive among the indigenous peoples who inhabit Mesoamerica, many of whom continue to speak their ancestral languages, and maintain many practices harking back to their Mesoamerican roots.

Regional Sub-Divisions

Available Books

Related Images

Image Name
Coleccion General de Laminas de los Antiguos Monumentos de Nueva Espana - Tercer Viage - Lamina 20 (1820)
Le Costume Ancien et Moderne [Amerique] Vol. 1 - L'Amerique representee sous des figures allegoriques (1820)
Le Costume Ancien et Moderne [Amerique] Vol. 1 - Habillement des Esquimaux (1820)
Coleccion de las Antiguedades Mexicanas - Figuras de Piedra y de Barro del Tiempo de los Indios Antiguos (1827)
Mexico To-Day - Cathedral by Moonlight (1883)
Antiquities of Mexico Vol. 9 - Back Cover (1848)
Coleccion General de Laminas de los Antiguos Monumentos de Nueva Espana - Segundo Viage - Lamina 10 (1820)
Voyage Pittoresque et Archeologique dans la Province d'Yucatan - Front Cover (1838)
Mexico To-Day - Obsidian Knives and Arrow Head (1883)
Coleccion General de Laminas de los Antiguos Monumentos de Nueva Espana - Primer Viage - Lamina 1 (1820)
Historia de las Indias de Nueva Espana y Islas de Tierra Firme Atlas - Apendice - Lamina 12 (1880)
Voyage Pittoresque et Archeologique dans la Province d'Yucatan - Etude d'une partie de la Pyramide de Kingsborough (1838)
An Inquiry into the Origin of the Antiquities of America - Plate IV (1839)
Historia de las Indias de Nueva Espana y Islas de Tierra Firme Atlas - Trat: 1 - Lamina 26 (1880)
Vues des Cordilleres et Monumens de l'Amerique - Ruines de Miguitlan ou Mitla dans la province d'Oaxaca; plan et elevation [I] (1813)
Antiquities of Mexico Vol. 3 - Back Cover (1831)
Historia de las Indias de Nueva Espana y Islas de Tierra Firme Atlas - Apendice - Lamina 15 (1880)
Antiquites Mexicaines - 3ème Expedition - Planche XXIV (1844)
Coleccion General de Laminas de los Antiguos Monumentos de Nueva Espana - Tercer Viage - Lamina 12 (1820)
Antiquites Mexicaines - 2ème Expedition - Planche XXXXIX (1844)
Antiquites Mexicaines - Planche Supplémentaire - I (1844)
Prince Izon; a Romance of the Grand Canyon - Miriam before Izon (1910)
Historia de las Indias de Nueva Espana y Islas de Tierra Firme Atlas - Apendice - Lamina 2 (1880)
Viaje Pintoresco y Arqueolojico de la Republica Mejicana - Instrumentos de Musica (1840)
Antiquites Mexicaines - 2ème Expedition - Planche XIII (1844)
An Inquiry into the Origin of the Antiquities of America - Plate IX (1839)
Monuments anciens du Mexique - Pt. XXXI et XXXII - Relief en pierre de l'edifice dit Temple du Soleil, tous deux mutiles [I] (1866)
Description of the Ruins of an Ancient City - Two figures, one seated, one standing (1822)
Antiquites Mexicaines - Planche Supplémentaire - VIII (1844)
Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America - Colossal Head at Izamal (1844)
Le Costume Ancien et Moderne [Amerique] Vol. 1 - Les Mexicaines donnees a Cortes par le Cacique Tabasco (1820)
Mitla. A Narrative of Incidents - Display (1858)
Vues des Cordilleres et Monumens de l'Amerique - Fragmens de peintures hieroglyphiques tires du Codes Telleriano-Remensis [I] (1813)
Mexico To-Day - Aztec Jug in Black Clay (10 inches high) (1883)
Historia de las Indias de Nueva Espana y Islas de Tierra Firme Atlas - Trat: 1 - Lamina 16 (1880)
Monuments anciens du Mexique - Pt. XXVII - Sanctuaire de l'edifice dit le Temple du Soleil (1866)
Coleccion General de Laminas de los Antiguos Monumentos de Nueva Espana - Tercer Viage - Lamina 11 (1820)
Monuments anciens du Mexique - Pt. LIII - Beau jade du Musee de Mexico (1866)
Coleccion General de Laminas de los Antiguos Monumentos de Nueva Espana - Tercer Viage - Lamina 35 (1820)
Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America - General View of Kabah (1844)
Historia de las Indias de Nueva Espana y Islas de Tierra Firme Atlas - Trat: 2 - Lamina 5 (1880)
Le Costume Ancien et Moderne [Amerique] Vol. 1 - Cofre de Perote (1820)
Antiquites Mexicaines - 1er Expedition - Planche I (1844)
Monuments anciens du Mexique - Pt. XII (droite) - Relief en stuc, sans couleurs (1866)
Coleccion General de Laminas de los Antiguos Monumentos de Nueva Espana - Tercer Viage - Lamina 30 (1820)
Le Costume Ancien et Moderne [Amerique] Vol. 1 - Vue de la grande place de Mexico (1820)
Historia de las Indias de Nueva Espana y Islas de Tierra Firme Atlas - Title Page (1880)
Antiquites Mexicaines - 3ème Expedition - Planche XIV (1844)
Antiquites Mexicaines - 2ème Expedition - Planche XXXXIII (1844)
Le Costume Ancien et Moderne [Amerique] Vol. 1 - Calendrier hieroglyphique Chretien en stile Azteque (1820)
Antiquites Mexicaines - 2ème Expedition - Planche XIX (1844)
Le Costume Ancien et Moderne [Amerique] Vol. 1 - Le Rock-Bridge, ou pont de roche (1820)
Mexico To-Day - Pyramid at Cholula and Remains of a Small Pyramid (1883)
Antiquities of Mexico Vol. 6 - Book Display II (1831)
Antiquites Mexicaines - 2ème Expedition - Planche LVII (1844)
Historical Researches on the Conquest of Peru, Mexico - Montezuma (1827)
Vues des Cordilleres et Monumens de l'Amerique - Histoire hieroglyphique des Azteques (1813)
Antiquites Mexicaines - 1er Expedition - Planche II (1844)
Nombres Geograficos de Mexico [Atlas] - Front Cover (1885)
Le Costume Ancien et Moderne [Amerique] Vol. 1 - Volcan de Jorullo (1820)
Le Costume Ancien et Moderne [Amerique] Vol. 1 - Idoles Azteques (1820)
Le Costume Ancien et Moderne [Amerique] Vol. 1 - Etablissemens des habitans du Port des Francais (1820)
Viaje Pintoresco y Arqueolojico de la Republica Mejicana - Idolos y Ornamentos de Barro (1840)
Historia de las Indias de Nueva Espana y Islas de Tierra Firme Atlas - Trat: 2 - Lamina 3 (1880)
Antiquites Mexicaines - 2ème Expedition - Planche XXVII (1844)
Historia de las Indias de Nueva Espana y Islas de Tierra Firme Atlas - Apendice - Lamina 11 (1880)
Antiquites Mexicaines - 1er Expedition - Planche XV (1844)
Coleccion General de Laminas de los Antiguos Monumentos de Nueva Espana - Segundo Viage - Lamina 28 (1820)
Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America - Book Display III (1844)
Antiquites Mexicaines - 2ème Expedition - Planche VII (1844)
Onomatologia geografica de Morelos - Lamina II (1888)
An Inquiry into the Origin of the Antiquities of America - Plate V (1839)
Antiquites Mexicaines - 2ème Expedition - Planche XII (1844)
Antiquites Mexicaines - 2ème Expedition - Planche XXIV (1844)
Mexico To-Day - Hill of Estrella (1883)
Le Costume Ancien et Moderne [Amerique] Vol. 1 - Les ruines de Miguitlan ou Mitla [I] (1820)
Vues des Cordilleres et Monumens de l'Amerique - Volcan de Cayambe (1813)
Viaje Pintoresco y Arqueolojico de la Republica Mejicana - Interior de Zacatecas (1840)
Mitla. A Narrative of Incidents - Mexicans Near the Hacienda del Valle (1858)
Coleccion General de Laminas de los Antiguos Monumentos de Nueva Espana - Tercer Viage - Lamina 4 (1820)
Coleccion General de Laminas de los Antiguos Monumentos de Nueva Espana - Segundo Viage - Lamina 37 (1820)
Historia de las Indias de Nueva Espana y Islas de Tierra Firme Atlas - Trat: 1 - Lamina 32 (1880)
Six Months Residence and Travels in Mexico - A Plan of the City of Mexico by Lt. Col. Don Diego Garcia - AD 1793 (1824)
Vues des Cordilleres et Monumens de l'Amerique - Sommet de la montagne des Organos d'Actopan (1813)
Prince Izon; a Romance of the Grand Canyon - Front Cover (1910)
Coleccion General de Laminas de los Antiguos Monumentos de Nueva Espana - Primer Viage (1820)
Nombres Geograficos de Mexico [Atlas] - Plate XXXVII (1885)
An Inquiry into the Origin of the Antiquities of America - Back Cover (1839)
Description of the Ruins of an Ancient City - Six abstract designs (1822)
Nombres Geograficos de Mexico [Atlas] - Plate XXVI (1885)
An Inquiry into the Origin of the Antiquities of America - Plate I (1839)
Historia de las Indias de Nueva Espana y Islas de Tierra Firme Atlas - Apendice - Lamina 14 (1880)
Monuments anciens du Mexique - Pt. LV - Quatre cassolettes en poterie du Musee de Mexico (1866)
Viaje Pintoresco y Arqueolojico de la Republica Mejicana - Book Display (1840)
Le Costume Ancien et Moderne [Amerique] Vol. 1 - Vue de la place du marche a Philadelphie (1820)
Le Costume Ancien et Moderne [Amerique] Vol. 1 - Habillemens des habitans du Canada No. 2 (1820)
Coleccion General de Laminas de los Antiguos Monumentos de Nueva Espana - Tercer Viage - Lamina 8 (1820)
Antiquites Mexicaines - 3ème Expedition - Planche VII (1844)
Antiquites Mexicaines - Back Cover (1844)
Coleccion General de Laminas de los Antiguos Monumentos de Nueva Espana - Tercer Viage - Lamina 34 (1820)

Related Maps

Map Name
Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America - Outline Map of Central America (1844)
Voyage Pittoresque et Archeologique dans la Province d'Yucatan - Carte de la Province de Yucatan (1838)
Six Months Residence and Travels in Mexico - Ancient Mexico from the original map made by order of Montezuma for Cortes (1824)
Six Months Residence and Travels in Mexico - A Plan of the City of Mexico by Lt. Col. Don Diego Garcia - AD 1793 (1824)
Le Costume Ancien et Moderne [Amerique] Vol. 1 - Carte geografique de L'Amerique (1820)
Historical Researches on the Conquest of Peru, Mexico - The World on Mercator's Projection (1827)
Historical Researches on the Conquest of Peru, Mexico - Anahuac in the Year 1521 Containing the Empire of Mexico (1827)
Monuments anciens du Mexique - Carte de Yucatan, dressee par M. de Waldeck (1866)

Regions

View All Regions