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 headOlmec head
 Olmec head, Museo de Antropología, Xalapa                                                                                                      Olmec head, Veracruz, circa 1942


    From about 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.
    In the 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.
    Toward 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 son made.
    With 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.

Handball playing field
                                                      Playing field for the sacrificial game at Monte Alban, near Oaxaca

Archeological site of Monte Albán

                                                                 archaeological site of "Monte Alban" near Oaxaca


Temple of Quetzalcoatl
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

                                                                                       Temple of the Sun in Teotihuacán

Eagle on cactus
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.
The 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 soil rich.
Do You Remember?
1.    How did the first people discover Mexico?
2.    How many languages are spoken in Mexico?
3.    What are the characteristics of a civilization? What was the first civilization in Mexico?

4.    What two important contributions did the Olmecs make to Mexico?

5.    Where and when were the Pyraminds of the Sun and Moon built?

6.    How was the history of the Aztec Indians recorded? What language did they speak?

7.    Explain the legend that explains how the Aztecs decided to build their city in Tenochtittlán?

8.    Why did the Aztecs feel they had to sacrifice human beings to the gods?

What Do You Think?

1.    What do you think are some valid causes that could explain how a civilization could disappear?

2.    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 sacrificed!)

3.    Why do you think Teotihuacáan was the largest and most successful city in early Mesoamerica?

4.    With so many languages in early Mexico (and today), how do you think the different tribes communicated to each other?

Introduction Geography History of Olmecs and Aztecs Conquest of Mexico
Culture Education Hispanic Americans Teacher Resources About the Author


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