11 julio, 2024

Pre-Hispanic peoples of Mesoamerica, Aridoamerica and South America

The prehispanic peoples They are a group of cultures that inhabited the continent before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in America. Of these towns, two great civilizations that developed in South America (Incas) and in Central and North America (Mesoamerican) stand out.

The Mesoamerican pre-Hispanic peoples were made up of the Olmec, Zapotec, Mayan, Toltec, Teotihuacana, Mixtec and Mexica cultures. These towns arose and developed between the year 2300 a. C. and 1400 d. C. from the Preclassic period.

Theories suggest that the Clovis culture, which originated between 13,000 and 14,000 years ago, was the ancestor of the civilizations that populated Mesoamerica, but there is no agreement on the origin and antiquity of these first men who populated America.

The so-called «Clovis consensus» establishes that the first humans to reach the continent did so from Asia (Siberia) through the Bering Strait.

The Clovis were basically hunter-gatherer (Paleo-Indian) peoples who inhabited the northern United States. They hunted mammoths on the plains of New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Colorado.

Anthropological studies indicate that the Viking expeditions that reached the American continent from Greenland —at least 500 years before Columbus— did not have as much social influence in the process of formation of the American peoples.

What is certain is that 11,000 years ago the entire continent, from Alaska to Chile, was populated.


Mesoamerican pre-Hispanic peoples

Mesoamerica is a cultural region that includes a large part of the Mexican territory, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, western Honduras, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.


The Olmec culture developed during the Middle Preclassic period, between 1200 and 400 BC. C. It is considered the mother civilization of the Mesoamerican peoples. The Olmec culture is believed to be directly descended from the North American Clovis.

It inhabited the lowlands of the central-southern region of Mexico; that is, the southeast of Veracruz and the western zone of the state of Tabasco.

The Olmecs were great builders who built the ceremonial centers of San Lorenzo, Tres Zapotes and La Venta, although they also performed religious ceremonies in La Mojara and Laguna de los Cerros.

architecture and traditions

One of the main distinctive features of their artistic expressions are their monumental basalt heads, three and four meters high and weighing several tons. Possibly, the Olmec heads represent the consecration of the priestly military caste, which led the tribes and developed thanks to agricultural production.

This culture grew in the vicinity of mighty rivers. The adobe structures they built along with the temple mounds are the forerunners of the pyramids. Their architecture, traditions, and diet suggest that they had a degree of developed social organization.

However, they did not go so far as to establish large cities; on the contrary, they were rather scattered and had a low population density.

On the other hand, apparently they did have an advanced military-religious leadership that enjoyed privileges, this in accordance with their way of eating game animals and seafood, and the monopoly of agricultural production and the trade in luxury items.

The privileged caste had the function of organizing the members of the tribes for the execution of public works and agricultural activities, hunting and fishing.

The Olmecs based their economy on agriculture, their main agricultural items being corn, beans and cocoa. They were a polytheistic people; that is, they believed in various gods. These were the sun, the stars, the moon and natural phenomena. They also worshiped the jaguar, an animal that is abundantly represented in various pieces of art.

The Olmec civilization was the first Mesoamerican culture to develop a hieroglyphic writing system. Traces of this writing have been discovered in archaeological sites dating back to 650 BC. C. and 900 a. C. These hieroglyphs exceed the antiquity of the Zapotec script, another of the oldest in the western hemisphere.

The Olmecs would also have been the creators of the ball game, which became very popular among all Mesoamerican peoples. Its purpose was recreational and ceremonial.

The Olmec model of social structure would have been the prototype of social organization of the other Mesoamerican peoples. Its development and expansion deepened during the Classic period with the Mayans, reaching the level of civilization.


After the Olmecs, the Zapotec culture emerged, which was located in the mountainous territory of the current state of Oaxaca (Central Valley). The Zapotecs lived during the Classic and Late Postclassic periods, between 500 B.C. C. and the year 1521, after the arrival of the Spanish.

The Zapotecs developed two calendars and a logophonetic writing system, which used a separate glyph that served to represent each syllable of the indigenous language. It was one of the first Mesoamerican writing systems.

The calendars of the Zapotec culture were the Yza, of 365 days and 18 months of 20 days each, and it was used for harvests. The other was the Piye calendar, with 260 days spread over 13 months. It was used to choose the name of newborns and was divided into months of 20 days.

The Zapotecs were a sedentary people that reached advanced levels as a civilization. They lived in large cities and villages, and their houses were built with resistant materials such as stone and mortar.

The main ceremonial center of the Zapotecs is in Monte Albán and San José Mogote. Its agricultural development was due to the construction of aqueducts and cisterns to transport rainwater. They were a people with great astronomical and mathematical knowledge, and they developed an efficient tributary system that was broader than that of the Olmecs.

It is believed that this culture may have been related to the founding of the city of Teotihuacán during the Classic period.


The Mayan civilization developed in the southeastern part of Mexico, in the states of Yucatán, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and the eastern zone of Chiapas. It also grew within the Peten jungle in Guatemala and in the bordering areas of Honduras and Belize.

The Maya lived in an ecological and geographical environment, which has given rise to many mystical and esoteric speculations.

The oldest Mayan villages were located in the vicinity of the Usumacinta and Belize rivers.

It is believed that the first inhabitants of this culture were families of the Olmec tribes that migrated to this Central American region. Other studies establish that the Mayan culture originated in the Classic period (from 300 BC to 900 AD).

Anthropological theories indicate that, as these peoples developed and their population increased, they began to move into the jungle. Subsistence in such an environment forced them to improve their cultivation techniques, obtaining and storing water.

They had a very rigid social organization divided into three basic social classes. At the top of the pyramid was the Maya chief and his family, the officials of the Maya state, and the wealthy merchants. It was followed by the officials of the Mayan State and specialized workers (artisans, architects, etc.).

At the base of the social pyramid were the workers, peasants and slaves (prisoners of war).

They built aqueducts and other hydraulic works that made it possible to improve the cultivation techniques of corn (their main food), cocoa and squash.

They achieved an extraordinary architectural development that is observed in the truncated pyramids of Tikal: structures that rise 57 meters high in highly planned and equally complex cities.

It is known that they organized large contingents of men to undertake their monumental works. Likewise, they perfected the trade of raw materials from the highlands that did not exist in the jungle. This is how the Mayan State and its system of social hierarchy grew and consolidated.

The Mayan cities came to have a population density similar to that of any European city (250 people per square mile), and they reached a very high degree of civilization.

The Mayans invented a hieroglyphic writing system and obtained very complex mathematical knowledge. This culture invented zero and was capable of extraordinary astronomical observations.

Like the Olmecs and Zapotecs, they too had a calendar, only more exact than the Gregorian one in use today.

As with other pre-Columbian cultures, the Maya had an abrupt collapse that has lent itself to all kinds of speculative theories. It is probable that the degree of development reached has exceeded its carrying capacity in the middle of the jungle.

The construction of its monumental pyramids, which were periodically enlarged, required the progressive deforestation of the jungle. Due to the intensive use of natural resources (such as water) they could have progressively dried up the water tributaries, leaving the cities without the vital liquid.

The tensions between the same towns originated civil wars, the abandonment of cities and the destruction of ceremonial centers. From the emergence and disappearance of these civilizations, the pre-Columbian mythology grew around the beginning and culmination of the solar eras.


There is very little literature and knowledge available about the Teotihuacán culture, founders of the city of Teotihuacán, located northeast of Mexico City. Recent linguistic studies indicate that it could have been built by the Totonacs.

Its origins date back to 1,000 years before the Christian era. The Classic period of Mesoamerican cultures is defined by the heyday of this civilization together with the Mayans. The Mexicas called it the «city of the gods» and it reached its maximum development in the 2nd and 6th centuries AD.

During this period the population of the city reached between 150,000 and 200,000 inhabitants, covering an area of ​​21 square km.

In this pre-Hispanic metropolis, the colossal pyramids of the Sun stand out, with 65.5 m; and the Moon, 45 m high. Specialized artisan workshops that served the ruling elite were also located.

Teotihuacán was not only a splendid city for the time —it still is—, but also a sample of the immense Mesoamerican power. The city was strategically located on a forced trade route between the north and south of Mexico. This allowed him to extend his influence throughout Mesoamerica.

This city also collapsed and was probably abandoned around the middle of the 6th century, in the same period as Monte Albán. Perhaps both cities were linked commercially and politically. The reasons for the abandonment could have been the same as those of the Mayans: the reduction of water sources and indiscriminate felling.



Deja una respuesta

Tu dirección de correo electrónico no será publicada. Los campos obligatorios están marcados con *