Mesoamerican History




Mesoamerica was populated by 25 million people at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards in 1519.  Scholars studying the region classify its pre-history into four periods:

The Archaic (8,000 BC – 2,500 BC)

The Formative or Pre-classic (2500 BC-1 A.D.)

Classic (1 -900 A.D.)

Post-Classic (900-1519 A.D.)


"Classic" refers to the pinnacle of Mesoamerican culture.  During this period, extraordinary cities such as Teotihuacán, Tula, Monte Albán, Palenque, Tikal, and others flourished.  Scholars still debate why such cities were abandoned; perhaps it was due to wars or agriculture failures.  Later, other cities emerged.  The Aztecs founded the great city of Tenochtitlán in 1325 on the site of what is now Mexico City.  From there, they established an extensive empire in the two centuries before the Spaniards arrived. Important city-states during the Post-Classic period were Chichén-Itzá (Yucatán) and Mitla (Oaxaca).





Humans probably first arrived between 14,000 – 20,000 years ago, though some dates are much earlier (e.g. 40,000 BP, and even 56,000BP).  Most probably came across the Bering Straits when not ice covered.  Humans reached the southern tip of South America by 12,500 years ago (Southern Chile)


19,OOO BC. Tlapacoya (25 mi. E. of Mexico City) - living site; hearths and imported stone artifacts (obsidian, quartz.


18,OOO BC. Tequixquiac (just N. of old Lake Texcoco) - carved sacrum of an extinct camelid, made to resemble a dog, peccary, or camelid head. 


11,OOO BC. "Peñon Woman" - 26 year old woman – the skull is long and narrow


9,OOO BC. Santa Isabel Iztapan - Imperial mammoth bones with in situ projectile points


8,OOO BC.  "Tepexpan 'man'"  about 5'2" – found under a layer of caliche on the shores off L. Texcoco. 


8,OOO BC Big game died out around  


          a) Overkill by humans, and

          b) Climatic changes. 


Big-Game Hunting tradition gave way to the Desert tradition as new adaptations required.

a) Hunting techniques and tools adapted to smaller animals.  Projectile points became smaller and broader.  Tools included choppers, scrapers, gouges, pebble mullers, mortars, and manos.

            b) People lived in extended family groups, probably with fewer than 25-30 persons.  Engaged in cyclical wandering in search of food; not truly nomadic.

c) Few material possessions needed; remains of basketry and milling stones.



The Chalco Complex

Once a large gap in our knowledge about the time between the Big Game Hunters of 10,000 years ago and the Sedentary Farmers with pottery (c.2,000 – 2,500 BC).  This gap is partly filled by information from Puebla's Tehuacan Valley, with its long sequence of phases, and also by a few other sites in Mexico (e.g. Tamaulipas, Valley of Mexico, Valley of Oaxaca).  Guila Naquitz in Oaxaca shows that maize was being domesticated by c.4200 BC.





ARCHAIC                  1O, OOO - 25OO BC (begins with the decline of big-game hunting and ends with pottery).


PRE-CLASSIC         25OO BC - 1 AD.  (Begins with pottery and ends essentially with the beginning of Classic) (Actually Classic begins 2OO AD in Maya Area):   OLMECS, (MONTE ALBAN) ZAPOTEC


Early Formative      25OO – 14OO BC Pre-Olmec period


Middle Formative    14OO - 4OO BC Olmec period


Late Formative        4OO BC - 2OO AD Epi-Olmec period

                                    Monte Alban,  

                                    Izapa, Kaminaljuyu

                                    El Mirador


CLASSIC                  1 AD - 9OO AD ZAPOTEC / MONTE ALBAN


                                    MAYA / Tikal, Copan, Palenque

                                    EL TAJIN / El Tajin


Proto-Classic          1 AD - 3OO AD (in Maya Area) (Early Classic elsewhere)


Early Classic           3OO - 6OO AD. (Maya Area) (Middle Classic elsewhere)


Late Classic             6OO AD - 9OO AD 


Post-Classic            9OO AD - 154O AD.    TOLTECS,


                                    POST CLASSIC MAYA -  Chichén Itzá






(14OO BC - 4OO BC; southern Veracruz Coast and Isthmus of Tehuantepec.  Also Guerrero (Teopantecuanitlan), Soconusco, Morelos (Chalcatzingo).) 


In the area of former Olmec civilisation, mostly Mixe-Zoquean languages are now spoken. 


M-Z time depth is 35OO years (i.e. l5OO BC) which, correlates with the first glimmerings of Olmec civilization.  M-Z languages have given connections to Otomian, Zapotecan, Mayan, Xincan, and Lencan languages among others.  


First ball court, bar and dot numbers, monumental stone architecture, stone drains (Guerrero).  Latest known survival of written records with prognostications involving both the 26O-day almanac numbers and the 365-day 18-month agricultural calendar and using corn grains for counting is at San Juan  Guichicovi in the eastern Mixe region of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.


(5OO BC - 7OO AD. Oaxaca Valley)


 Rise of Zapotec civilization (mainly at Monte Alban) follows decline of the Olmec civilisation.  The Zapotecan family has 24OO years time depth and includes several Zapotec languages (with c.l7OO years time depth) and Chatino.   Kaufman identifies Zapotec loans in Huastec and Yucatec (dog, woven mat [HUA], dog, deer [YUC]) and therefore suggests a wider extension for Zapotecan 2OOO years ago than at present.   


Writing (4OO-5OO BC) Calendar with day names, months; numbers.  Ball courts.




(4OO BC - 1 AD   Chiapas Soconusco)


Erection of stone monuments follows on the decline of the Olmec Civilisation.  We don't know for sure what language was spoken at Izapa, but a good guess is Mixe-Zoquean.  No writing here, but cosmic iconographic motifs.  Iconography is essentially the same as that of the same period at Kaminaljuyu (Guatemala City).  Area is an outstanding producer of cacao.




(1OO BC - 6OO AD. Central Mexico)


This civilisation arose in Central Mexico after the decline of the Olmecs.  Aztecan (including Pochutec) has a time depth of about l4OO years, and so might have been the builders of Teotihuacan.  Their civilisation was destroyed by outsiders around 6OO AD.  These outsiders we can identify as Aztecans, who around 6OO AD entered Central Mexico from the West (Jalisco).  There were few burials as bodies were usually cremated.  Therefore there is little burial evidence for status differences.  Though recent finds in the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (servants killed for the burial of a great ruler, apparently) suggest that much interesting information is yet to come.  Although there are many murals, the iconography (and lack of stele) suggests that individual rulers used neither to legitimate their claims to power.








(850-1100 AD; Central Mexico)


Two or three centuries after the end of Teotihuacan civilisation, Toltec civilization arose in Hidalgo and Central Mexico.  It sent out people into southern Mexico and Central America as early as 900-1100 AD.  The 'Pipil' varieties of Aztec found in the Mayan area and further south have the appropriate time divergence from Central Mexican Aztec.  The Toltecs were presumably Aztecan-speaking, and Aztec loans are found in most Middle-American languages, although some of these are undoubtedly due to Tenochtitlan and not Toltec influence.  Toltec capital is the legendary Tula.  Chichen Itza, with the right architecture and the right time frame seems to have been strongly Toltec influenced.




Pre-Classic 1OO BC - 2OO AD

 Classic 2OO - 9OO AD

Chiapas, Yucatan, and Guatemala


Pre-Classic Maya civilisation arose in the Mayan linguistic area after the decline of the Olmec civilisation.  Classic period measured by erection of dated stone monuments (stele).  Distributions and sub-groupings, suggest that Yucatecans have been in Yucatan since about 1OOBC.  In 9OO-lOOOAD. Central Mexican (Toltec-Pipil) influence (and conquest?) occurred in Yucatan.  The time depth of the Yucatecan group is no more than 1OOO years.   




(1250 - 1519; Central Mexico)


Mexica/Aztecs entered Valley of Mexico around 1250, wandered around in service of other Nahuatl speakers, found signs indicating island in Lake Texcoco as new home. 


Tenochtítlan Civilisation arose in Mexico City around 1325, was Aztec-speaking (Nahuatl-speaking), and in control of most of Central Mexico by the time of the Spanish conquest.  By l5l9 the Aztecs were the most powerful people in Mesoamerican, and given another century or two to themselves might have unified Mesoamerican politically; after that, with anything like the Inca model, Mesoamerican might eventually have become largely Aztec-speaking.  Since Aztec was used as a language for keeping records during the early colonial period, it is clear that some loans from Aztec in Mesoamerican languages may post-date the conquest; others have entered indigenous languages via Spanish.