The first inhabitants of Mexico traveled into North America across the
Bering Strait between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago. During the last Ice
Age, lower temperatures caused the Bering Strait to freeze over, thus allowing
a bridge of ice to connect the two continents. This allowed people to cross
from Asia to North America. It was a rare and unique opportunity that began
the population of North America. The nomads made their way down into Mexico
and were isolated from the rest of humankind. These first Americans developed
corn and their villages grew into towns and then into empires. These empires
began trading with other empires and slowly the country of Mexico became
populated with numerous groups of Indians, each speaking their own language.
It is hard for us to imagine 200 different languages spoken in Mexico.
It would be similar to the United States having a different language for
every state. Can you imagine how hard it would be to communicate with people?
Olmec head, Museo de Antropología, Xalapa
Olmec head, Veracruz, circa 1942
1500 B.C. to 200B.C. the first stratified civilizations appeared in Mexico.
They were the Olmecs and the people of Monte Albán. A civilization
means an urban society possessing a complex social organization of labor,
politics, and religion as well as the ability to write. There has been
much debate as to which group was the "first" civilization in Mexico. The
most popular view is that the Olmecs were probably the first civilized
people in Mexico. They settled in what are now the modern states of Tabasco
and Veracruz. Their citites appeared around 1200 B.C. They were at the
height of ther power between 700 and 400 B.C. Since the influence of the
Olmecs was limited to the vicinities of their cities, there was probably
not a centralized political organization. They practiced a form of hieroglyphs,
which was a pictorial form of writing important in creating a writing system.
Olmec civilization, two art forms became very important indicators of a
stratified society. One art form was a large stone head measuring nearly
nine feet in height and weighing nearly 40 tons each. The other was a figurine
made of jade. These artifacts were made of jaguar faces combined with human
bodies to create "were-jaguars". the jaguar represented a complex array
of religious beliefs associated with the gods of rain and fertility. The
wide-spread discovery of the "were-jaguar" indicates that this imagery
spread throughout Mexico.
the middle of the first millennium B.C., the Olmecs mysteriously disappeared.
Their disappearance was due to either another group gaining control over
them or changes in the climate could not support their needs for food.
However, the Olmecs played a very important role in shaping the civilizations
that followed. Many adopted thier ideas, practices, and values. Jade became
more valued than gold. A ritual handball game became an important component
of future civilizations. It is believed the Olmecs practiced human sacrifice.
This handball game was one way of selecting those victims to be offered
to the gods. The game was played between two teams. The ball could not
be touched with the hands, only with the knees or hips. The captain of
the team who won the game had the honor of being sacrificed to the gods.
His family was forever more honored and respected for the sacrifice their
the decline of the Olmec civilization, came the the rise of the people
of Monte Albán. This civilization was located on top of a large
mountain outside of the present day city of Oaxaca City. This group had
many similarities to the Olmecs and it is thought that some form of trade
was taking place between the Olmecs and the people of Monte Albán.
Playing field for the sacrificial game at Monte Alban, near Oaxaca
archaeological site of "Monte Alban" near Oaxaca
Temple of Quetzalcoatl
The most important and largest city of this era emerged in the Valley of
Mexico (just south of present-day Mexico City). It was called Teotihuacán
and the Aztecs referred to it as “the place of the gods”. Its location
made it important for trade or military purposes. Around 600 B.C. the early
residents of the city began construction of what was to become the most
spectacular city in ancient Mexico. They built the Pyramids of the Moon
and Sun, and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. By the time of Teotihuacán,
Quetzalcoatl had become the most dominant deity in Mesoamerica and was
worshipped by many. This god was believed to have instructed the ancient
peoples in agricultural practices. Quetzalcoatl was revered as a benevolent
god, but did not support the practice of human sacrifice. Yet, the people
of Teotichuacan did practice human sacrifice.
By the fifth or sixth century A.D. Teotihuacán had a huge population
of approximately 200,000. The priests and kings were at the top of the
social order. It was truly a city. There is evidence of trade with the
people of Monte Albán and the people of the Yucatán. But,
eventually the city collapsed and the cause is a mystery, much like the
Olmec civilization. It seems the city lost power over its neighbors. As
it lost power politically and economically, the military grew. It is possible
that the city was a target for other civilizations. It is certain that
the city was overrun in the 8th century. Buildings were burned and torn
down. Perhaps the people became disillusioned with their gods because many
ceremonial centers were targets of destruction. Or possibly, the agricultural
techniques could not keep up with the growing population. At any rate,
the city of Teotichuacán remains important to the history of Mexico.
Temple of the Sun in Teotihuacán
Eagle perched on cactus
One of the most well-known civilizations in Mexico is that
of the Aztec Indians, or the Mexica. Much of the history of this group
comes directly from them as they rewrote their history in the early days
of their empire to justify their dominant role in the Valley of Mexico
and their practice of human sacrifice. They appeared sometime in the twelfth
century in what is now Mexico City. Their language was Nahuatl, one of
the Amerindian languages. The Aztecs had a very bad reputation for stealing
women from other tribes and practicing human sacrifice. For this reason,
they were nomads in their early years. However, they were fierce warriors
and were often hired by neighboring groups.
The center of the Aztec empire was called Tenochtitlán. The re-founding
of this city is surrounded by conflicting legends. The long-standing story
has it that the Aztecs were wandering aimlessly when they spotted an eagle
perched on a cactus holding a serpent in his beak. According to the Aztecs,
the eagle was seen at the site of Tenochtitlan.
The religious beliefs of the Mexica are very interesting and only practiced
in Mesoamerica. The Aztecs felt the world had previously existed in periods
divided into "suns". During the last four suns, human beings had appeared
and food products and animals had been available for human consumption.
Each period had produced a stronger group of humans.
Mexica believed the fifth sun was due to collapse. So, they were desperate
to establish practices to further the life of the sun. Since they felt
their gods had made sacrifices to create the sun, the Aztecs felt they
needed to provide an equally valuable sacrifice to the sun in return. The
Aztecs understood the importance of human blood to provide human life and
so it made sense to them to offer human blood as a sacrifice back to the
sun to sustain it. So, they regarded their victims as messengers to their
gods who would express the sincerity and reverence of the Mexica people.
Interestingly enough, many times the Aztecs practiced the ritual of war
in order to acquire people to sacrifice.
The Aztecs have a bad reputation as being very barbaric and cruel. But,
their intent was to keep their gods happy by offering them the most valuable
gift they could. Many times their victims were shot with arrows so that
the blood could drip down on the ground symbolizing falling rain and making
How did the first people discover Mexico?
How many languages are spoken in Mexico?
What are the characteristics of a civilization? What was the first civilization
What two important contributions did the Olmecs make to Mexico?
Where and when were the Pyraminds of the Sun and Moon built?
How was the history of the Aztec Indians recorded? What language did they
Explain the legend that explains how the Aztecs decided to build their
city in Tenochtittlán?
Why did the Aztecs feel they had to sacrifice human beings to the gods?
Do You Think?
What do you think are some valid causes that could explain how a civilization
Many early civilizations played a handball game to determine which tribe
member would be sacrificed to the gods. If you were the ruler of
the empire, how would you determine which person was to be sacrificed?(Don't
forget it was an honor to be
Why do you think Teotihuacáan was the largest and most successful
city in early Mesoamerica?
With so many languages in early Mexico (and today), how do you think the
different tribes communicated to each other?