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Edgar Mendoza

SPAN 307
SP 2014

Pre-Columbian Mexico
The history of Mexico does not begin with Nueva Espaa. Before
Cristopher Columbus set foot in this country, Mesoamerican civilization was
well and thriving. The history of people in this country goes back almost
13,000 years ago to the time when its first immigrants cross the Bering
Strait. Mexico was the homeland for a variety of Mesoamerican civilizations
long before the downfall of the Aztecs. The history of Pre-Columbian Mexico
could best be divided into five periods: Archaic, Pre-classic, Classic,
Epiclassic, and Post-classic.
During the Archaic Period, little could be found in the way of civilization
all across the continent. This time period is characterized by groups of
hunter-gatherers and a nomadic lifestyle. To the North of the country, the
arid climate made it impractical for farming to take place, it was in the center
and the South that we see agriculture taking hold. The domestication of
animals and plants paves the way for the beginning of the Pre-classic Period
around 1400 BC.
During the Pre-classic Period, we begin to see villages like Tlatilco and
Mezcala spring up. Most of these sites are associated with the Olmecs. The
first civilization that left its name in writing was the Olmecs. Olmec loosely
means people of rubber, the trees near this area in present day Veracruz
are used in the production of rubber. This civilization left a mark in present
day society via the Long Count Calendar. Contrary to popular theories
prophesizing the end of the world, it is the Olmecs, not the Mayans, who
created a calendar whose end would come on December 2012, and needless
to say the world didnt end.
From 250-650 AD is considered to be the golden age of Ancient Mexico.
This time period is referred to as the Classic. It is during this time that the
mythical city of Teotihuacan was built. Teotihuacan was truly an urban center
that rivaled any of its contemporary counterparts in the Old World. Recent
studies have proven it to be an economic trade center for places as far away
as Peru and Central America. Several cultures will be influenced by the
architecture at Teotihuacan, the Maya, Toltec, and Aztec will borrow elements
from the city and implement them at a later time. The Classic was also a
golden age for the flourishing cultures of the South, such as, the Zapotecs
and Mixtecs. Monte Alban became an important city in the area, today it is
visited by thousands of tourists every year.
Around 650 AD, the great civilizations had been steadily declining and
large population centers had already been all but abandoned, a shadow of
their former glory. This time is known as the Epiclassic. The Maya civilization

Edgar Mendoza
SPAN 307
SP 2014

was also in decline, urban centers like Tikal and Palenque had been almost
deserted. Many theories hypothesize that the downfall of the Maya was due
to water quality in the cities or unsustainable farming techniques for large
The early Post-classic begins around 900 AD and its hallmark is the
power of city-states. At this time, we begin to see the Toltecs take control of
population centers like Tula and a resurgence of the Maya in the South at
sites like Chichen Itza. In the North, Chichimeca (barbarian) tribes begin to
find permanent homes and adapt to an increasingly sedentary life. Tribes for
various nations, one such nation that maintains a very close knit community
and is well and alive today is that of the Tarascans. Perhaps the most wellknown of the civilizations of Ancient Mexico sprang up during this period.
The Aztec people arrived in the Valley of Mexico in 1244. Their stories
say that they came from the North, a place known as Aztlan. They were
guided by Huitzilopochtli, their patron of war. Through battle and conquest
the tribe grew to a modest size. In 1343 they founded Tenochtitlan, a city
that would become the seat of power for their empire and amaze even the
first Europeans who set their eyes on it. By no means was Aztec rule a period
of peace and prosperity for all Mesoamericans. They held key alliances with
neighboring tribes and demanded tribute from captured enemies from far
and wide. When Cortes arrived in 1519, he found some subjects of the Aztecs
more than willing to shed their oppressors and try their luck with the
outnumbered white men.
The rule of the Aztecs may have ended with the Conquest but their
cultural influence is well and alive today. Historians like Guillermo Bonfil
Batalla call for Mexicans to embrace their Indian heritage and not to forget
their roots. Today, the legacy of the Pre-Columbian civilizations is a source of
pride for Mexicans and a reminder of the greatness that can be achieved.