Pre-Hispanic Mexico

By Jessica Chilián
Photography by “La Gran Tenochtitlán” (1945). National Palace of Mexico. Mural. By Diego Rivera.

Reading Time: 4 minutes


The origins of Mesoamerica

Only six places are known in the world where civilization originated. In Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and India, cities grew on the banks of great rivers; in Mesoamerica and the Andes they were founded in the mountainous regions. Mesoamerica stretched from Sinaloa and Zacatecas, in Mexico, to Central America. It is a complex and mountainous area in which all climates and landscapes occur, so that the variety of resources is enormous. In addition, the valleys with fertile land and abundant water are numerous and supported a large number of people. The different regions of Mesoamerica exchanged their typical products; thus, the contact between the various cultures facilitated the diffusion of ideas and discoveries.

As a result of the above, all the people shared similar beliefs and customs about the region, politics, and social organization. For millennia the American man had to overcome great difficulties to reach civilization. Forty thousand years ago, in the Ice Age, man crossed the Bering Strait and colonized the American continent. The retreat of the glaciations gave rise to a new climate with a rainy season and a dry season, for which the human race had to adapt: ​​they based their diet on fruits, herbs and seeds, selected the most productive plants and finally managed to domesticate them. To survive, the man built his houses near his plantations; thus, arose the first villages, in which pottery, commerce, community life, politics and religion developed.

The first civilizations of Mexico

The history of pre-Hispanic Mexico has been divided into three great eras: the pre-classic, the classic, and the post-classic. The Pre-Classic or Formative period lasted from 1600 BC. until the beginning of our era; at that time people who lived in villages and towns began to build the first temples to worship their gods. The classical period (from 1 to 900 AD) was the time of the first cities, during which hieroglyphic writing, markets, palaces, armies and public administration appeared; then religion and the arts flourished throughout Mesoamerica. Tikal, Copan, Palenque, Calakmul and many other cities emerged in the middle of the Mayan jungles; The history of its rulers was captured in its monuments: their birth, their accession to the throne, their marriages and warrior feats.

In central Mexico, the great metropolis of Teotihuacan dominated without rivals. Priests, warriors, artisans and merchants were the basis of his power. In the Gulf of Mexico, in places like El Tajin, Remojadas and others, a particular culture developed known for its smiling clay faces and for the strange sculptures representing yokes, palms and axes. In Oaxaca, Monte Alban was the most powerful site in the region; his conquests spread throughout the state and he had colonial artisans in the city of Teotihuacan. Between 700 and 900 AD, the classical world collapsed: Teotihuacan was abandoned and the Mayan cities swallowed up by the jungle. The survivors of the old cities reorganized, created new kingdoms, and conquered new empires. This second epoch of splendor, known as the Postclassic era, was interrupted by the arrival of the Spanish.

The age of empires

Nobody knows for sure what were the causes that motivated the fall of Teotihuacan or the collapse of the ancient Mayan cities, but the fact is that after 900 AD, the Mesoamerican world began to reorganize itself under new rules. It was a time of general instability; small cities arose and became powerful for a time, then disappeared when conquered by new kingdoms. The populations were located in places of easy defense, they built moats and walls around their houses, temples, and on the top of the mountains they built fortresses. From Yucatan to Sinaloa, images of warriors associated with the cult of Quetzalcoatl – Kukulkan appeared; processions of soldiers and battles adorned the palaces of Tula, Chichen Itza, and Cacaxtla, and representations of human sacrifices became more common. A new warrior ideology spread everywhere. According to her, war and sacrifice were necessary to keep the sun in its daily fight against the forces of darkness and night, while the eagle knights and the tiger knights fought relentlessly to ensure the movement of the stars. In those difficult times, the empires that later would dominate much of Mesoamerica, the Toltec, the Tarascan and the Aztec, were forged; in their proud capitals the arts flourished – such as goldsmithing and codices painting – and schools were established teaching history, religion, warrior arts, singing, and public administration. Meanwhile, the conquered people worked the land and paid tributes to maintain the splendor of the new metropolis.

Upon the arrival of the Spanish people

When the conquerors entered ancient Tenochtitlan, the indigenous people were so amazed they believed they were seeing visions. In the middle of a lagoon a city had been built larger than any other contemporary in Europe, huge temples rose above the water as in a great mirage. Moctezuma, the Mexica ruler, had millions of subjects at his service, and from his vast dominions the most varied products arrived at the great market of Tlaltelolco, perhaps the largest in the world at his time. Temples, canals, roads, palaces, and gardens embellished the Aztec capital.

In the territory of Mesoamerica lived many people with different languages ​​and customs: Mayans, Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Huastecs, Totonacs, Tlaxcalans, Chiapas, etc., organized into hundreds of small kingdoms that only comprised a capital city and some smaller populations. Indigenous people created an original civilization that made great strides in medicine, mathematics, engineering, the arts, and astronomy. Behind the wealth and splendor, were the constant wars, the sacrifices of prisons, and the latent hatred of the subjugated peoples who, conquered and subdued by the great warrior empires, yearned to shake off the yoke that had been imposed on them. The independent manors also suffered constant harassment from the Aztec armies. Upon the arrival of the Spanish, several indigenous kingdoms had in mind the same idea as the conquerors: to defeat Tenochtitlan, their main enemy.


Source: “Viaje por la historia de México”
Author: Luis Gonzalez y González
Publisher: FCE – Fondo de Cultura Económica