historical region and cultural area in southern North America and most of Central America
Travel topics > Cultural attractions > Indigenous cultures of Mesoamerica

Mesoamerica, today being made up of southern Mexico and the Central American states of Belize, Guatemala, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador, has been populated since at least 11,000 BC.

Mexico historical travel topics:
MesoamericaColonial MexicoMexican War of IndependencePost-Independence MexicoMexican RevolutionModern Mexico

Understand edit

The indigenous cultures of North America and the indigenous cultures of South America have had a long and diverse history both before and after the Columbian exchange of 1492.

The Mesoamerican cultures have been recognized for their cities, their rich monumental architecture, their complex societies with organized religion and specialized labor, the independent development of agriculture, as well as long-distance trade of crops and other commodities. This stands in contrast with the indigenous cultures of today's United States and Canada, which were less urbanized, and lived in farming villages or nomadic tribes, with less hierarchical organization.

Indigenous cultures seldom fit neatly into modern political maps, and that is certainly the case with Mesoamerica, which does not include the northern third to half of Mexico, nor does it include the southern countries of Central America.

Geography edit

Map of Mesoamerica

The Mesoamerican civilizations differed sharply from their northern and southern neighbors. At the time of the Spanish conquest, there were two major civilizations in Mesoamerica: the Aztec in what is today Central Mexico, and the Maya in what is today the Yucatan and northern Central America. (There were also dozens of less influential civilizations.) In the map shown here, green is the Aztec realm of influence and yellow is the Maya realm of influence. Gray areas were dominated by other, less influential or more isolated civilizations, including the Purepecha, Zapotec, Tlaxcala and other peoples.

Peoples edit

The Mexican government recognizes more than 60 indigenous groups and a similar number of indigenous languages, most of which are off-shoots of three language families: Mayan, Aztecan, and Manguen. Mayan languages are spoken in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and in Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. The Huastec people of eastern Mexico are a Mayan people whose language is also a branch of the Mayan family. The Aztecan family of languages (Uto-Aztecan to linguists) includes several languages spoken in Central Mexico, but the dominant one is Nahuatl (the language of the Aztec civilization). The last major language group is formally called Oto-Manguan by linguists, and includes the languages of the Otomi, Zapotec, and Mixtec people.

Major indigenous groups in Mesoamerica include:

  • Maya: arguably the largest and most advanced of the Mesoamerican civilizations, the Maya dominated the Yucatan Peninsula as well as the highland mountains and lowland jungles of what is today Guatemala and Belize. Mayan political power was distributed via city-states, the largest of which had vassal city-states that paid tribute, but no city-state held power or influence over large territories. The Maya had strong religious institutions with a pantheon of about 20 gods. They had developed sophisticated mathematics with a base-20 arithmetic system, an accurate calendar, and a knowledge of advanced calculus that they used in conjunction with astronomical observations. Travelers will enjoy dozens of major sites throughout the region including Chichen Itza, Palenque, Tikal. See also Maya civilization.
  • Aztec: these were the empire builders of Mesoamerica with a strong central political structure and a goal of economic and military domination over neighboring civilizations. They had a sophisticated culture with strong religious traditions based on a pantheon of gods. When they were conquered, the Spanish set out to destroy its civilization and there are few surviving Aztec sites, though myriad relics. Today, descendants of the Aztec identify as Nahua (sometimes Mexica) and their language (Nahuatl) is one of the most spoken indigenous languages in the Mesoamerica region. Travelers will find the best Aztec sites in Mexico City, particularly the Templo Mayor.

Other significant indigenous groups include:

  • Olmec - culturally extinct, but hugely significant historically in that it is the oldest major civilization in Mesoamerica (at its peak around 1200 BC) and is regarded as the first to develop the ball game, the first to develop a pictorial-based writing system, and the first to develop a unique artistic style (represented by the famous giant "Olmec heads"). The civilization was based in southern Veracruz and Tabasco. Other Mesoamerican civilizations are thought to have originated as offshoots of the Olmec.
  • Purepecha - fierce warriors who vehemently resisted Aztec attempts to invade areas west of Mexico City. The Purepecha (sometimes referred to as Tarascan) remain a vibrant culture today with a large number of language speakers and strong cultural traditions. Purepecha people live mostly in the state of Michoacan near Lake Patzcuaro. Their historic capital was Tzintzuntzán.
  • Tlaxcalan - another fierce society that never buckled to Aztec domination. Their culture was centered on today's modern state of Tlaxcala.
  • Otomi - about half a million people today identify as indigenous Otomi and their language is used in several highland towns of Central Mexico, mostly in the states of Hidalgo, Mexico State, and Queretaro.
  • Zapotec - old civilization with ancient roots, centered in the state of Oaxaca. The civilization peaked between 500 BC and 1521 AD. The most significant sites for travelers include Monte Alban and Mitla. Many of Mexico's tastiest culinary traditions stem from Zapotec dishes commonly found in rural markets of Oaxaca. About half a million people today identify as indigenous Zapotec and most speak Zapotec (of one dialect or another).
  • Mixtec - another old civilization that peaked from 1500 BC to 1521 AD. The Mixtec occupied similar areas as the Zapotec in Oaxaca, and today, also have significant populations in the states of Puebla (state) and Guerrero.

Destinations edit

Map of Indigenous cultures of Mesoamerica

Museums edit

  • 1 Museo Indígena (Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas), Mexico City. Mexico's first museum dedicated to living indigenous cultures (as opposed to archaeological relics).
  • 2 National Anthropological Museum (Museo Nacional de Antropologia), Mexico City. One of the largest and most extensive anthropology museums in the world. Enormous complex with permanent exhibits on the cultures of Aztecs, Mayan, Toltec, Olmec and many other indigenous cultures. Allow several hours to a full day to see everything.
  • 3 Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico City. This excellent four-story museum sheds light on the Aztec culture as it showcases the many artifacts found on the Templo Mayor site. Highlights include the Coyolxauhqui disc.  
  • 4 Museo Antropologia de Xalapa (MAX), Xalapa, Veracruz (state). Regional anthropology museum on the campus of the University of Veracruz, general exhibits about indigenous cultures of Mexico with some of the best artifacts and exhibits on the Olmec and Huastec cultures.
  • 5 Museo Popol Vuh, Guatemala City. Collection of archaeological artifacts from Mayan sites in Guatemala. Explanations are in English and Spanish.    

See also edit

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