Ancient Mexico

The Aztecs, Toltecs, Mayans, Olmecs, and the other people of Mesoamerica developed the first great city states of North America in ancient times, in places such as Teotihuacan.

Greek Warriors via Costumes of All Nations (1882)
The Civilizations of Ancient Mesoamerica

Turquoise Mask of Xiuhtecuhtli the god of fire; Aztec, 14th Century

The term, Aztec, is a startlingly imprecise term to describe the culture that dominated the Valley of Mexico in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Properly speaking, all the Nahua-speaking peoples in the Valley of Mexico were Aztecs, while the culture that dominated the area was a tribe of the Mexica (pronounced “me-shee-ka”) called the Tenochca (“te-noch-ka”). At the time of the European conquest, they called themselves either “Tenochca” or “Toltec,” which was the name assumed by the bearers of the Classic Mesoamerican culture. The earliest we know about the Mexica is that they migrated from the north into the Valley of Mexico as early as the twelfth century AD, well after the close of the Classic Period in Mesoamerica. They were a subject and abject people, forced to live on the worst lands in the valley. They adopted the cultural patterns (called Mixteca-Pueblo) that originated in the culture of Teotihuacán, so the urban culture they built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is essentially a continuation of Teotihuacán culture.


An Aztec Serpent Jade from Tenochtitlan

The peoples of Mesoamerica distinguished between two types of people: the Toltec (which means “craftsman”), who continued Classic urban culture, and the Chichimec, or wild people, who settled Mesoamerica from the north. The Mexica were, then, originally Chichimec when they migrated into Mexico, but eventually became Toltecs proper.

The history of the Tenochca is among the best preserved of the Mesoamericans. They date the beginning of their history to 1168 and their origins to an island in the middle of a lake north of the Valley of Mexico. Their god, Huitzilopochtli, commanded them on a journey to the south and they arrived in the Valley of Mexico in 1248. According to their history, the Tenochca were originally peaceful, but their Chichimec ways, especially their practice of human sacrifice, revolted other peoples who banded together and crushed their tribe. In 1300, the Tenochcas became vassals of the town of Culhuacan; some escaped to settle on an island in the middle of the lake. The town they founded was Tenochtitlan, or “place of the Tenochcas.”

A life size eagle warrior ceramic effigy

A life size eagle warrior ceramic effigy

Relations between the Tenochcas and Culhuacan became bitter after the Tenochcas sacrificed a daughter of the king of Culhuacan; so enraged were the Culhuacans that they drove all the Tenochcas from the mainland to the island. There, the Tenochcas who had lived in Culhuacan taught urban culture and architecture to the peoples on the island and the Tenochcas began to build a city. The city of Tenochtitlan is founded, then, sometime between 1300 and 1375.

The Tenochcas slowly became more powerful and militarily more skilled, so much so that they became allies of choice in the constant conflicts between the various peoples of the area. The Tenochcas finally won their freedom under Itzacoatl (1428-1440), and they began to build their city, Tenochtitlan, with great fervor. Under Itzacoatl, they built temples, roads, a causeway linking the city to the mainland, and they established their government and religious hierarchy. Itzacoatl and the chief who followed him Mocteuzma I (1440-1469) undertook wars of conquest throughout the Valley of Mexico and the southern regions of Vera Cruz, Guerrero, and Puebla. As a result, Tenochtitlan grew dramatically: not only did the city increase in size, precipitating the need for an aqueduct system to bring water from the mainland, it grew culturally as well as the Tenochcas assimilated the gods of the region into their religion.

Eagle and jaguar warriors from a colonial era manuscript

Eagle and jaguar warriors from a colonial era manuscript

A succession of kings followed Mocteuzma I until the accession of Mocteuzma II in 1502; despite a half century of successful growth and conquest, Tenochca culture and society began to suffer disasters under Mocteuzma II. First, tribute peoples began to revolt all over the conquered territories and it is highly likely that Tenochca influence would eventually have declined by the middle of the sixteenth century. Most importantly, the reign of Mocteuzma II was interrupted by the invasion of the Spaniards under Cortez in 1519-1522.

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The Olmecs

A giant Olmec head of a warrior at La Venta

The earliest civilization in Central America—and possibly the earliest civilization in the Americas—was the Olmec civilization which arose sometime between 1200 and 1000 BC. They originally lived in the Gulf Coast region of southern Mexico, but soon expanded into Guatemala. Olmec society was very simple. It was essentially divided into two groups: the elite group lived in the small urban centers (towns, really) and the common people lived in the rural areas. The Olmecs were overwhelmingly an agricultural people. The elite lived off of the agriculture of the common people, but they probably didn’t rule over the agricultural populations. Instead, they carried out religious ceremonies centered in the towns and carried out commercial trade in luxury and artistic items.

The most dramatic achievement of the Olmecs were the building of massive stone heads. We aren’t sure who is represented by these heads, but archaeologists believe that they may be Olmec kings. Around 300 BC, the Olmec vanished for reasons that vanished with them. We do know, however, that much of their culture and social structure was absorbed by other peoples. The Olmecs, as far as we can tell, are the first chain in the development of Mesoamerican culture.

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The Temple of the Sun at Teotihuacan, the largest pyramid in the world

Teotihuacan is an enormous archaeological site in the Basin of Mexico, containing some of the largest pyramidal structures built in the pre-Columbian Americas. Apart from the pyramidal structures, the archaeological site of Teotihuacan is also known for its large residential complexes, the so-called “street of the dead”, and its colorful well-preserved murals.

Teotihuacan was, at its apogee in the first half of the 1st millennium CE, the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas. During its zenith it may have had more than 100,000 inhabitants placing it among the largest cities of the world in this period. The civilization and cultural complex associated with the site is also referred to as Teotihuacan or Teotihuacano. Although it is a subject of debate whether Teotihuacan was the center of an empire, its influence throughout Mesoamerica is well documented; evidence of Teotihuacano presence, if not outright political and economic control, can be seen at numerous sites in Veracruz and the Maya region. The ethnicity of the inhabitants of Teotihuacan is also a subject of debate and possible candidates are the Nahua, Otomi or Totonac ethnic groups. Often it has been suggested that Teotihuacan was in fact a multiethnic state.

The early history of Teotihuacan is quite mysterious, and the origin of its founders is debated. For many years, archaeologists believed it was built by the Toltec. This belief was based on colonial period texts such as the Florentine Codex which attributed the site to the Toltecs. However, the Nahuatl word “Toltec” generally means “craftsman of the highest level” and may not always refer to the archaeological Toltec civilization centered at Tula, Hidalgo. Since Toltec civilization flourished centuries after Teotihuacan, they cannot be understood as the city’s founders.

In the Late Formative period, a number of urban centers arose in central Mexico. The most prominent of these appears to have been Cuicuilco, on the southern shore of Lake Texcoco. Scholars have speculated that the eruption of the Xitle volcano may have prompted a mass emigration out of the central valley and into the Teotihuacan valley. These settlers may have founded and/or accelerated the growth of Teotihuacan.

Other scholars have put forth the Totonac people as the founders of Teotihuacan, and the debate continues to this day. There is evidence that at least some of the people living in Teotihuacan came from areas influenced by the Teotihuacano civilization, including the Zapotec, Mixtec and Maya peoples. The culture and architecture of Teotihuacan was influenced by the Olmec people, who are considered to be the “mother civilization” of Mesoamerica. The earliest buildings at Teotihuacan date to about 200 BCE, and the largest pyramid, the Pyramid of the Sun, was completed by 100 CE.

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The Toltecs

The standing warrior lintels at Tula, the capitol of the Toltecs


Teotihuacán was conquered by northern tribes in 700 AD and began to rapidly decline in its influence over the Mexican peoples. For two hundred years following the decline of Teotihuacán, the region had no centralized culture or political control. Beginning around 950, a culture based in northern Mexico at Tula began to dominate Central America. These people were known as the Toltecs. They were a war-like people and expanded rapidly throughout Mexico, Guatemala, and the Yucatán peninsula. At the top of their society was a warrior aristocracy which attained mythical proportions in the eyes of Central Americans long after the demise of their power. Around 1200, their dominance over the region faded.

They were important as transmitters of the culture of Teotihuacán, including religion, architecture, and social structure. Their name, in fact, is not a tribal name (the original Toltec tribal names have been lost to us); the word, toltecatl , simply means “craftsman” in the Nahua languages. Toltec was simply the word used to distinguish the Mexican peoples which retained the culture and much of the urban characteristics of the culture of Teotihuacán from other peoples; even the Aztecs primarily referred to themselves by either their tribal name (Tenochca) or as “Toltecs.”

The Toltecs expanded the cult of Quetzalcoatl, the “Sovereign Plumed Serpent,” and created a mythology around the figure. In Toltec legend, Quetzalcoatl was the creator of humanity and a warrior-god that had been driven from Tula, but would return some day. The Toltecs also originated the Central American ball-game, which was played on a large stone court with a rubber ball. The game was primarily a religious ritual celebrating the victory of god-heroes over the gods of death; as a religious ritual, it involved the human sacrifice of the loser.

The Toltecs conquered large areas controlled by the Maya and settled in these areas; they migrated as far south as the Yucatán peninsula. The culture borne out of this fusion is called the Toltec-Maya, and its greatest center was Chichén Itzá— on the very tip of the Yucatan peninsula. Chichén Itzá was the last great center of Mayan civilization. The Toltec-Maya cultures greatly expanded the cultural diffusion of Mayan thought, religion, and art north into the Valley of Mexico.

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Mexican Religion

An Aztec warrior sacrifice from a colonial manuscript

The Mexica made reference to at least two manifestations of the supernatural: teotl and teixiptla. Teotl, which the Spaniards and European scholars routinely mistranslated as god or demon, referred rather to an impersonal force that permeated the world. Teixiptla, by contrast, denoted the physical representations (idols, statues and figurines) of the teotl as well as the human cultic activity surrounding this physical representation. The Mexica gods themselves had no existence as distinct entities apart from these Teixiptla representations of teotl (Boone 1989).

Veneration of Huitzilopochtli, the personification of the sun and of war, was central to the religious, social and political practices of the Mexicas. Huitzilopochtli attained this central position after the founding of Tenochtitlan and the formation of the Mexica city-state society in the 14th century. Prior to this, Huitzilopochtli was associated primarily with hunting, presumably one of the important subsistence activities of the itinerant bands that would eventually become the Mexica.

The Coatlicue Statue that was uncovered in the Plaza of Mexico

The Coatlicue Statue that was uncovered in the Plaza of Mexico

According to myth, Huitzilopochtli directed the wanderers to found a city on the site where they would see an eagle devouring a snake perched on a fruit-bearing nopal cactus. (It was said that Huitzilopochtli killed his nephew, Copil, and threw his heart on the lake. Huitzilopochtli honoured Copil by causing a cactus to grow over Copil’s heart.) Legend has it that this is the site on which the Mexicas built their capital city of Tenochtitlan. This legendary vision is pictured on the Coat of Arms of Mexico.

According to their own history, when the Mexicas arrived in the Anahuac valley (Valley of Mexico) around Lake Texcoco, the groups living there considered them uncivilized. The Mexicas borrowed much of their culture from the ancient Toltec whom they seem to have at least partially confused with the more ancient civilization of Teotihuacan. To the Mexicas, the Toltecs were the originators of all culture; “Toltecayatl” was a synonym for culture. Mexica legends identify the Toltecs and the cult of Quetzalcoatl with the mythical city of Tollan, which they also identified with the more ancient Teotihuacan.

The Aztec god of death, a rather frightful image to the Spanish

The Aztec god of death, a rather frightful image to the Spanish

For most people today, and for the European Catholics who first met the Aztecs, human sacrifice was the most striking feature of Aztec civilization. While human sacrifice was practiced throughout Mesoamerica, the Aztecs, if their own accounts are to be believed, brought this practice to an unprecedented level. For example, for the reconsecration of Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487, the Aztecs reported that they sacrificed 84,400 prisoners over the course of four days, reportedly by Ahuitzotl, the Great Speaker himself.

However, most experts consider these numbers to be overstated. For example, the sheer logistics associated with sacrificing 84,000 victims would be overwhelming, 2,000 being a more likely figure. A similar consensus has developed on reports of cannibalism among the Aztecs.

An accurate reconstruction of ancient Aztec jaguar warrior armor

An accurate reconstruction of ancient Aztec jaguar warrior armor

In the writings of Bernardino de Sahagún, Aztec “anonymous informants” defended the practice of human sacrifice by asserting that it was not very different from the European way of waging warfare: Europeans killed the warriors in battle, Aztecs killed the warriors after the battle.

Accounts by the Tlaxcaltecas, the primary enemy of the Aztecs at the time of the Spanish Conquest, show that at least some of them considered it an honor to be sacrificed. In one legend, the warrior Tlahuicole was freed by the Aztecs but eventually returned of his own volition to die in ritual sacrifice. Tlaxcala also practiced the human sacrifice of captured Aztec warriors.

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The Maya

The Castillo at Chichen Itza


Unlike the cultures of the Valley of Mexico, the only period in which the urban centers were important to the Mayas was during the Classic period from 300 to 900 AD. The culture of the Mayas, however, has little changed from the classic period to the modern period, for Maya culture was largely tribal and rural all throughout the Classic period. What distinguishes Classic from post-Classic Maya culture was the importance of urban centers and their structures in the religious life of the Mayas and the extent of literate culture.

The Mayas were never a “true” urban culture; the urban centers were almost entirely used as religious centers for the rural population surrounding them. Therfore, the decline of the urban centers after 900 AD did not involve titanic social change so much as religious change; it is believed by some scholars that the abandonment of the cities was primarily due to religious proselytizing from the north. Nevertheless, the Classic period saw an explosion of cultural creativity all throughout the region populated by the tribes we call “Mayan.” They derived many cultural forms from the north, but also devised many cultural innovations that profoundly influenced all subsequent cultures throughout Mesoamerica. Much of Maya culture, particularly the religious reckoning of time, is still a vital aspect of Native American life in Guatemala and Honduras.

Classic Maya culture developed in three regions in Mesoamerica. By far the most important and most complete urban developments occurred in the lowlands in the “central region” of southern Guatemala. This region is a drainage basin about sixty miles long and twenty miles wide and is covered by tropical rain forest; the Mayas, in fact, are only one of two peoples to develop an urban culture in a tropical rainforest. The principal city in this region was Tikal, but the spread of urbanization extended south to Honduras; the southernmost Mayan city was Copan in northern Honduras. In the Guatemalan highlands to the north, Mayan culture developed less fully. The highlands are more temperate and seem to have been the main suppliers of raw materials to the central urban centers. The largest and most complete urban center was Palenque. The other major region of Mayan development was the Yucatan peninsula making up the southern and eastern portions of modern-day Mexico. This is a dry region and, although urban centers were built in this region, including Chichen Itza and Uxmal (pronounced “Oosh-mal”), most scholars believe that this was a culturally marginal area. After the abandonment of the Classic Mayan cities, the Yucatán peninsula became the principal region of a new, synthetic culture called Toltec-Mayan which was formed when Toltecs migrating from the north integrated with indigenous Maya peoples.

The Maya civilization shares many features with other Mesoamerican civilizations due to the high degree of interaction and cultural diffusion that characterized the region. Advances such as writing, epigraphy, and the calendar did not originate with the Maya; however, their civilization fully developed them. Maya influence can be detected as far as central Mexico, more than 1000 km (625 miles) from the Maya area. Many outside influences are found in Maya art and architecture, which are thought to result from trade and cultural exchange rather than direct external conquest. The Maya peoples never disappeared, neither at the time of the Classic period decline nor with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores and the subsequent Spanish colonization of the Americas. Today, the Maya and their descendants form sizable populations throughout the Maya area and maintain a distinctive set of traditions and beliefs that are the result of the merger of pre-Columbian and post-Conquest ideologies.

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Mayan Codices

A detail of the Dresden Codex, one of only 6 Mayan codices , or painted books, to survive the Conquest

Maya codices (singular codex) are folding books stemming from the pre-Columbian Maya civilization, written in Maya hieroglyphic script on Mesoamerican paper, made from the inner bark of certain trees, the main being the wild fig tree or Amate (Ficus glabrata).

Paper, generally known by the Nahuatl word amatl, was named by the Mayas huun. The folding books are the products of professional scribes working under the patronage of the Howler Monkey Gods. The Maya developed their huun-paper around the 5th century, the same era that the Romans did, but their paper was more durable and a better writing surface than papyrus. The codices have been named for the cities in which they eventually settled. The Dresden codex is generally considered the most important of the few that survive.

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Mayan Art

A Mayan vase

One aspect of Mayan art is often overlooked, and that is the tremendous variety of excellence in style and design that it contains. Ancient Greek vase paintings are equally excellent but in comparison to the Mayan are monostylistic. Mayan art gave almost free reign to the artist, who was not required to produce a product that fit “the canon of the culture” in every way. In its encouragement of individual genius and its variations from one workshop to another, the products of which were intended in good part to be given or sold to the royalty of other cities, Mayan vase paintings are more akin to the art of the modern period than the art of any other pre-modern people. The principal valuation seems to have been on artistic quality rather than adherence to standardized forms. Furthermore, like Greek and Chinese artists, Mayan painters and sculptors sometimes signed their work. Accordingly, their work was not a “cultural product” or a “city’s product” but a person’s product. It appears that literacy was confined to the elite (as in all pre-modern cultures) and artists and the literate were of the same class; indeed, it is probable that Mayan artists were often the younger sons and daughters of the ahaus, the rulers, of Mayan cities.

The Maya had specific techniques to create, inscribe, paint, and design pottery. To begin creating a ceramic vessel the Maya had to locate the proper resources for clay and temper. The present-day indigenous Maya, who currently live in Guatemala, Belize and southern Mexico still create wonderful ceramics. Prudence M. Rice provides a look at what the current Guatemalan Maya use today for clay. Highland Guatemala has a rich geological history comprised mainly from a volcanic past. The metamorphic and igneous rock, as well as the sand and ash from the pumice areas provide many types of tempering. In the area, there are a range of clays that create varied colors and strengths when fired. Today’s Maya locate their clays in the exposed river systems of the highland valleys. It is hypothesized that the ancient people obtained their clay by the same method as today’s Maya. The clays are located in exposed river systems of the highland valleys. Most likely, due to the climatic similarities over the last millennia it is likely that these same deposits or similar ones could have been used in early times.

A Mayan Jade pendant

A Mayan Jade pendant

Once the clay and temper were collected, pottery creation began. The maker would take the clay and mix it with the temper (the rock pieces, ash, or sand). Temper served as a strengthening device for the pottery. Once worked into a proper consistency, the shape of the piece was created.

A potter’s wheel was not used in creating this pottery. Instead, they used coil and slab techniques. The coil method most likely involved the formation of clay into long coiled pieces that were wound into a vessel. The coils were then smoothed together to create walls. The slab method used square slabs of clay to create boxes or types of additions like feet or lids for vessels. Once the pot was formed into the shape, then it would have been set to dry until it was leather hard, then it was painted, inscribed, or slipped. The last step was the firing of the vessel.

Like the Ancient Greeks, the Maya created clay slips from a mixture of clays and minerals. The clay slips were then used to decorate the pottery. By the fourth century, a broad range of colors including yellow, purple, red, and orange were being made. However, some Mayan painters refrained from using many colors and used only black, red, and occasionally cream. This series of ceramics is termed the “Codex-style”, it being similar to the style of the Pre-Columbian books.

From the 5th century AD onwards, post-firing stucco was adopted from Teotihuacan. By preparing a thin quicklime, the Maya added mineral pigments that would dissolve and create rich blues and greens that added to their artistic culture. Many times this post-fire stucco technique was mixed with painting and incising. Incising is carving deeply or lightly into partially dried clay to create fine detailed designs. This technique was mostly popular during the Early Classic Period.


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