Mesoamerican History and Culture

by Roxanna Brock McDade

The influences of the region known as Mesoamerica can be seen as close by as any kitchen. Words like "avocado," "chocolate," and "tomato" come from the Nahuatl language of Mexico, originating as "ahuacatl," "chocolatl," and "tomatl." The Nahua people of Mexico still speak the Nahuatl language, and you might be familiar with one historical group of Nahua people: the Aztecs, who were also known as the Mexica. They and many other Mesoamerican groups lived in Mexico before the arrival of European explorers.

Aztec Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, Mexico

Where Was Mesoamerica?

The area occupied by modern-day countries like Belie, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Nicaragua makes up what researchers call Mesoamerica. The name "Mesoamerica" was coined by anthropologist Paul Kirchkoff in 1943. The region has a diverse physical geography; found within the borders of the area known as Mesoamerica are coastal regions, deserts, mountains, and tropical areas with high levels of humidity.

Many different civilizations live in this region, but they did share some common characteristics. Their religious practices included multiple deities, and they all used a similar 260-day calendar. They ate a lot of the same foods, including beans, maize, and squash, and they built similar structures. Mesoamerican cultural groups include the Maya, Mixtec, Mexica (also called Aztec), Olmec, Teotihuacan, and Zapotec.

When Was The Mesoamerican Period?

Mesoamerican history is usually divided into different periods. These periods end when the Spanish entered Tenochtitlan (the Mexica capital) in 1519, although some Mesoamerican culture did persist beyond that year.

  • The Pre-Classic Period was from around 1800 B.C.E. to about 250 C.E. Cultures associated with this era include the Maya, Olmec, Tlatilco, Teotihuacan, and Zapotec.
  • The Classic Period spans from 150 C.E. through 650 C.E. The primary cultures active in this period were the Maya and Teotihuacan.
  • The Epiclassic Period started in 650 C.E. and concluded around 900 C.E., with the Maya and Toltec cultures being the most active.
  • The Postclassic Period ran from 900 C.E. to 1519. The Maya, Mexica (Aztec), Mixtec, and Toltec cultures are associated with this period.

Historians and older textbooks sometimes refer to these periods as "pre-Columbian." However, this term is no longer used.

What Language Did People Speak?

The people of Mesoamerica spoke at least 125 languages, not just one. Even in a single civilization, there was linguistic diversity; for instance, the Maya people spoke languages including K'iche and Tzotzil. Meanwhile, the Mexica, who were ethnically Nahua, typically spoke Nahuatl. Other common languages in the region included Chinantec, Huastec, Mazatec, Otomi, and Totonac. Some of these could be grouped into language families, such as Mayan, Mixe-Zoquean, or Otomanguean languages.

Writing

Different Mesoamerican cultures developed different types of writing. For instance, groups like the Mixtec and Nahua adopted rebus writing systems, which were picture-based, much like Egyptian hieroglyphics. Most Mesoamerican languages were written with such pictographic systems, but the Maya developed a type of writing more like ours, with letters representing different sounds that combine to form words.

The 260-Day Calendar vs. the 365-Day Calendar

Mesoamerican cultures used two calendars: a 260-day calendar, consisting of 20 months with 13 days each, and a 365-day calendar, which included 18 months of 20 days each and five extra days at the end. The 365-day calendar was used by farmers, while the 260-day calendar was used to plan religious rituals. Every 52 years, the two different calendars would start on the same day, and this would be an occasion for special rituals. For instance, the Mexica would hold a ritual known as the New Fire Ceremony, which was intended to bring on the start of another 52-year cycle by renewing the sun; if the ritual failed, it was said that the sun and moon would die and the world would end.

Religion and Pantheon of Gods

Mesoamerican religions were polytheistic. Each culture had its own deities, though some did overlap between groups. For example, a feathered serpent god and a rain god exist across many cultures. The Mexica called the rain god Tlaloc, while Quetzalcoatl was the name of the feathered serpent god. However, the Maya called their rain god Chaac, while their names for the feathered serpent god included Kukulkan and Q'uq'umatz. Images of these deities created by both cultures share many similar features.

The religious beliefs of the Mesoamerican peoples were quite complex. Most cultures believed that the universe functioned on two axes; the center point where the two met was the center of the universe, the axis mundi. The horizontal plane splits into four directions, with each associated with different deities or symbols. The vertical plane is divided into three levels: the celestial, terrestrial, and underworld realms.

The Ball Game

A ritual sport now known as the ball game was played across Mesoamerica from the time of the Olmec onward. The ball game was played on courts that were often located in the sacred precinct of a city. It was played by passing a solid rubber ball between players without using your hands; the objective of the game appears to have varied from one culture to the next. The purpose of the game also seems to have varied. Sometimes, prisoners of war would be forced to play against their captors. Other times, a dispute would be settled with the game instead of with warfare. Some games may have been symbolic of the migration of the sun between realms. And some artifacts depict ball games ending with a ritual sacrifice.