World History 1 127 - 8.2.1 Complex Civilizations in Mesoamerica

By the year 1200 BCE, farming had become well established across southern Mexico, especially in the gulf lowland areas where there was sufficient water for irrigation. The many societies there were not exclusively agricultural; they continued to rely on hunting and gathering to supplement their diets. One of them, the Olmec culture, emerged around this time as Mesoamerica’s first complex civilization with its own monumental architecture.

Olmec Culture

The start of the Olmec civilization, at a site known as San Lorenzo in the modern Mexican state of Veracruz, stretches back to about 1350 BCE and the construction of a large earthen platform rising some 164 feet above the flat landscape. Upon this platform, the Olmec built ceremonial and other structures, water reservoirs, a system of drains, numerous stone works of art, and a number of massive sculpted stone heads. One of the structures has become known as “the red palace” because of the red ocher pigment on the floor and walls. It was likely a residence for the elite and included large stone columns and aqueducts. The massive stone heads and other sculptures, some weighing as much as fifty tons, were carved from volcanic basalt that came from as far as ninety miles away and was likely brought by raft for part of the way and on rollers over land.

Because little of the San Lorenzo site remains, we can only speculate about the organization of the Olmec civilization, but it is clear that their civilization shaped those that followed. For example, the great earthen platform and monumental sculptures shaped liked step pyramids attest to a highly sophisticated culture, with a clearly defined elite that could control large labor forces. Relying on pottery fragments and population density estimates, scholars have concluded that most workers were probably free laborers working to accomplish larger goals. They likely lived well beyond the elevated center reserved for the elite, in villages surrounded by gardens and other agricultural zones where the Olmec grew maize, avocados, palm nuts, squash, tomatoes, beans, tropical fruits, and cacao for chocolate.

The stone heads themselves are remarkable (Figure 8.12). Seventeen have been found across all the Olmec sites; some stand eleven feet tall. All are generally similar in form and style, depicting men’s faces with large lips and noses with flared nostrils, but they were likely intended to be realistic portraits of rulers of the sites where they were discovered. Upon their heads are helmets of various styles, some with coverings for the ears. Given the effort required to transport the stone and carve the heads, these works were likely intended to emphasize the power of the rulers, both to the Olmec people and to outsiders.

A picture of a beige stone carving of a head is shown on a gray stone pedestal with green bushes in the background. The stone shows large almond shaped eyes, a flat nose and full, parted lips. There is a helmet on his head that comes down the sides of his head. Small holes litter the stone.
Figure 8.12 Some of the enormous Olmec carvings of heads discovered in Mexico are as tall as eleven feet and weigh as much as fifty tons. (credit: “An Olmec colossal head at the Xalapa Museum of Anthropology, in Veracruz, Mexico” by “Maunus”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Evidence of possible vandalism on some of the heads has led some scholars to suspect an invasion occurred in the tenth century BCE, with desecration of the images as a result. Others, however, believe this is evidence of reworking that was never completed. We may never know for sure, but we do know that during the tenth century BCE, San Lorenzo declined in importance. At the same time, another Olmec site rose in significance, some fifty miles to the northeast at La Venta.

La Venta was built around 1200 BCE on a high ridge above the Palma River less than ten miles from the Gulf of Mexico. By 900 BCE, it had become the dominant Olmec city in the region. At its height, La Venta covered almost five hundred acres and may have supported as many as eighteen thousand people. Its central monuments included several large earthen mounds, plazas, a possible sports arena, several tombs, and numerous stone heads and other sculptures. The complexity of this urban complex reflects a major development in Mesoamerican civilizational and architectural design. It was likely built as a sacred site, with its temples and other complexes organized on a north–south axis believed to enhance the rulers’ authority by connecting them to supernatural environments. This style of urban design was later adopted by other Mesoamerican civilizations like the Maya.

Olmec art depicts numerous deities, such as a dragon god, a bird god, a fish god, and many fertility deities like a maize god and water gods. The Olmec also clearly recognized many types of supernatural mixed beings, like a feathered serpent and the were-jaguar, a cross between a jaguar and a human. These artistic images imply that the Olmec had a sophisticated pantheon of gods who controlled the universe and expected certain rituals be performed, perhaps by Olmec leaders themselves, who may have functioned as shamans empowered to communicate with the spirit world. The rituals were performed in the temples and plazas of the sacred cities like La Venta and San Lorenzo, as well as in sacred natural sites like caves and mountaintops.

Other rituals were connected to a type of ball game played in a special court with balls made from the abundant natural rubber of the region. Sports contests often existed to bring communities together, to allow men to show prowess and strength in times of peace, and to entertain. It is also likely that in times of heightened spiritual need, such contests could take on greater meaning and might have been choreographed to play out supernatural narratives and perhaps connect people to the gods. Like some later civilizations, the Olmec also saw bloodletting as a link to the spirit world. Blood sports may have been used to create pathways to understanding the will of their gods.

Link to Learning

The ritual ball game of the Olmec became a cultural feature of Mesoamerica over the centuries, and various forms of it were played by the Maya, the Aztec, and many others. Read more about the history of the Mesoamerican ball game and see pictures of related artifacts from different Mesoamerican cultures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art website.

The Olmec were clearly in contact with other groups around southern Mexico and Central America. There is evidence of a robust trade in pottery and valued materials like obsidian, magnetite, and shells, likely carried out by merchants traveling across the larger region. Over time, this trade exposed other Mesoamerican cultures to Olmec ideas about religion, art, architecture, and governance. Some scholars thus conclude that Olmec civilization was a “mother culture” for later large and sophisticated Mesoamerican states. Cultural similarities exist among these, such as ritual ball games, deities, and calendar systems. Olmec-style artifacts have also been found at sites as far away as what are now western Mexico and El Salvador. Like much related to the Olmec, however, the extent of their influence is a question we may never answer with certainty. By the time this civilization disappeared around 400 BCE, a number of other Mesoamerican cultures were emerging.

The Zapotec civilization appeared in the valleys of Oaxaca in western Mexico beginning around 500 BCE, with the construction of the regional capital known today as Monte Albán (Figure 8.13). Set on a flattened mountaintop overlooking the larger region, Monte Albán likely had a population of about five thousand by around 400 BCE and as many as twenty-five thousand by around 700 CE. As it grew over the centuries, so too did its stone temples and other complexes. The city exerted influence on the hundreds of much smaller communities scattered across the Oaxaca Valley. The region was highly suitable to maize cultivation, thus allowing for larger populations and monumental architecture. From the defensive walls created around their settlements, it seems the Zapotec lived in a world where warfare was especially common. Monte Albán itself was likely selected for defensive reasons.

A picture of a large expanse of green land is shown with large mountains in the background. In the forefront a rectangle shaped stone is standing upright with drawings etched all over. To the right is a square section of land sitting lower in the ground, surrounded on the inside by stone bricks and grassy walls. Inside the area in the middle is a square flat section of stones with stairs on one side and grass growing over the rest of the stones. At the back of the lower area are stairs that lead up to higher ground where twelve round stumps of stones stand in two rows. Heading toward the back of the photo there are ruins of many square shaped buildings with stairs leading up to the top. One very tall and large half-triangle structure stands in the back left with stairs seen on the front and mounds of dirt and bushes along the top. Trees are scattered behind the structures and one lone large tree is seen in the middle left of the image.
Figure 8.13 Perched on a flattened mountaintop and serving as the Zapotec capital between 500 BCE and 800 CE, Monte Albán in today’s Oaxaca, Mexico, was an easily defensible city. (credit: “Roman architecture ruins” by Andrew McMillan/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The structures built at Monte Albán after 300 CE reflect the influence of another major Mesoamerican civilization about thirty miles northeast of Mexico City. The massive city of Teotihuacán dominated trade in obsidian, salt, cotton, cacao, and marine shells across southern Mexico and greatly influenced cultures like that of the Zapotec. The origins of the Teotihuacán settlement date to about 400 BCE, but major building at the site did not begin until centuries later. By 300, the growing city had a population of about 100,000, making it one of the largest cities in the world at the time (Figure 8.14). It exercised enormous cultural and military influence across large portions of Mesoamerica until it declined in the sixth and seventh centuries CE.

An aerial photo is shown of stone ruins of a city. In the front the ground shows a flat, square, stone area. To either side a four-tiered grayish brown structure stands with large stairs on one side leading to the top, which is flat. Next are three more identical structures set back on both sides as well with a large open dark area of ground in between. A square flat pedestal sits in the middle with a set of stairs facing the front. Next on both sides are two, tiered structures, facing forward, set in closer together with a dirt road beginning between them. As the road goes off into the distance, it is lined with the more tiered structures, in single rows, on both sides. Behind these single structures on the right are trees and other building in in the distance. On the left behind the structures are some trees and then a very large pyramid shaped stone structure behind the trees. The rounded, stone top flattens out and no windows or doors are visible. People are scattered in the open area and walking down the dirt road. The far background shows trees, a city, and mountains.
Figure 8.14 The enormous size of the ruins of Teotihuacán, northeast of Mexico City, is enduring evidence of the power of this city in ancient times. This photograph was taken from the top of the Pyramid of the Moon (c. 250 CE) looking down the Avenue of the Dead and toward the Pyramid of the Sun (c. 100 CE) on the far left side. (credit: “View of the Avenue of the Dead and the Pyramid of the Sun, from Pyramid of the Moon (Pyramide de la Luna)” by”Jackhynes”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The Teotihuacanos built numerous stone temples and other structures organized around a north–south passageway known as the Avenue of the Dead. The largest temples are known as the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. Both are multitiered stone structures, 197 and 141 feet tall, respectively. The site also includes a large royal residence known as the Citadel, which includes the elaborate Temple of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent. Elite military leaders and others lived in large apartment compounds decorated with colorful artwork depicting priests, gods, or warriors. The remaining population was spread across the roughly ten thousand square miles that surrounded the city and produced trade goods as well as agricultural products.

The size of Teotihuacán denotes its wealth and regional influence at its height. This wealth came from trading in crafts, agricultural products, obsidian tools, cloth, ceramics, and artwork. The many preserved frescos and murals show the city’s rulers dressed in elaborate clothing, including iridescent quetzal bird feathers from as far away as Guatemala, testifying to Teotihuacán’s long reach. To influence areas so far away, the city wielded power through its control of trade and use of military force and diplomacy. Sculptures at Monte Albán show Teotihuacano diplomats meeting with the Zapotec elite, reflecting mostly peaceful contact between the two civilizations. Evidence from Maya sites also demonstrates that the Teotihuacanos commonly intervened in Maya affairs deep in Central America, sometimes militarily. They may even have orchestrated a coup in the powerful Maya city of Tikal in 378.

Maya Culture

While Maya civilization was clearly influenced by the Teotihuacanos beginning in the fourth century CE, evidence of urban development and rapid population growth in the Maya heartland of Central America dates to before 600 BCE. Village life may go back much further, but in any case, by 600 BCE, the lowlands of Central America were full of small villages, each showing evidence of sophisticated pottery, architecture, irrigation techniques, and religious traditions. By 250 BCE, a handful of powerful Maya city-states had emerged. The major cities of this Early Classic period (250–600 CE) include Tikal, Calakmul, El Mirador, and a few others.

El Mirador was a dominant city before 150 CE, with a population of about 100,000 at its height. But Tikal and Calakmul were equally impressive. All had numerous large pyramid-like structures creating an impressive skyline across the spaces cleared of jungle. Most of the major cities were built next to large, shallow lakes, since access to water for drinking and irrigation was important in the lowlands, where rainfall was often insufficient. The tropical soil in the area is also insufficiently fertile, and the Maya developed a style of slash-and-burn agriculture to raise maize, squash, beans, and cacao for the growing urban populations in these cities.

Link to Learning

Tour the ruins of Tikal by exploring this immersive video.

The Maya were certainly influenced by Olmec civilization, though likely not directly. For example, some examples of Maya art include Olmec-derived features like the were-jaguar. The Maya also played a ritual ball game based on the earlier Olmec variety. Another possible Olmec influence was the Maya calendar. This consisted of two different parts—the 260-day Sacred Round calendar and the 365-day Vague Year calendar—that functioned together to create a 52-year cycle for measuring time and tying the dates for ceremonies to important mythological events performed by the gods.

The Past Meets the Present

Did the Maya Predict the End of the World?

The premise of a 2009 science fiction movie was that the Maya calendar predicted the end of the world would occur in the year 2012. While the film (called 2012) was a commercial success, the idea that the Maya predicted when the world would end has been largely discredited.

The Maya had a sophisticated calendar system evolved from earlier Mesoamerican versions, possibly the Olmec. Because it used two different calendar rounds working together, it revealed important ritual days and cycles over long periods of time (Figure 8.15). For example, one full cycle covered a space of fifty-two solar years, often called a bundle. But to explore longer chunks of time, the Maya relied on what scholars call the Long Count Calendar. This had cycles that included the winal (20 days), the tun (360 days), the k’atun (7,200 days), and the bak’tun (144,000 days). The Great Cycle occurred every thirteen bak’tun, or about every 5,125 years. And this is where the idea of the significance of 2012 comes from.

A black and white drawing is shown. At the left the letter “A” is written. Next a curved arrow points to the left with feathers on the end. In curved writing, the following words and numbers are written in curved rows to match the arrows arc: 7 Manik, 6 Cimi, 5 Chicchan, 4 Kan, 3 Akbal, 2 Ik (which is encased in a drawn rectangle), 1 Imix, 13 Ahau, 12 Cauac, 11 Eznab, 10 Caban, and 9 Cib. A zig-zag line follows from the top to the bottom in the same curved arc. Another Zig-zag line follows in the opposite curved arc, beginning further at the top of the paper and running down to the bottom. The zig-zags meet in the middle and cross over each other forming a triangle which is highlighted with vertical lines. This triangle connects to the rectangle box that is drawn around the words “2 Ik.” Curved rows of the following words follow in the same arc as the zig-zag: 5 Pop, 4 Pop, 3 Pop, 2 Pop, 1 Pop, 0 Pop, 4 Uayeb, 3 Uayeb, 2 Uayeb, 1 Uayeb, 0 Uayeb, 19 Cumhu. Next, an arrow with feathers at the end curves in the same direction as the arc and words and then the letter “B” is printed at the right.
Figure 8.15 The two Maya calendar rounds were intended to function together in order to reveal important dates years in advance. (credit: modification of work “Diagram showing engagement of tonalamatl wheel of 260 days and haab wheel of 365 positions by An Introduction to the Study of the Maya Hieroglyphs” by Sylvanus Griswold Morley/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

According to scholars’ calculations, the Maya Great Cycle would have begun in 2012 CE. But did that really mean the Maya thought this was the end of the world? Most historians and archaeologists say the answer is a resounding “no.” Rather, that year would simply have started a new cycle, though the Maya would have seen great importance in the event and celebrated it with major festivities. It appears that only Hollywood and some imaginative modern writers have read an Earth-ending catastrophe into this date.

  • What does the cyclical nature of the Maya calendar system suggest about their rituals and cosmology?
  • Why do you think the concept of an apocalypse occurring in 2012 was so attractive to modern people?

The era of Maya greatness begins with the Classic period, starting around 250 CE and lasting until about 900. During this time, urbanization in the Maya world expanded greatly, with approximately forty different city-states emerging in different areas. Some of the most powerful were older sites like Tikal and Calakmul, along with newer locations like Palenque, Copan, Yaxchilan, and Piedras Negras (Figure 8.16). Each had its own rulers, referred to as “divine lords.” These powerful chieftains exercised their authority over the city-state through their control over religious rituals and ceremonies, the construction of temples, and especially wars they waged with other Maya city-states. Such wars were common for weakening rivals and keeping neighbors in line, and they may even have served important ritual purposes. They also allowed for the exacting of tribute from subdued enemies in the form of animal products, salt, textiles, artwork, and agricultural goods like cacao and maize. Tribute could be paid through labor as well, when defeated enemies supplied workers for the victorious city-state. Only rarely did rulers seek to control conquered city-states, however. These generally remained independent, though they all shared many cultural attributes.

Two images are shown. (a) A map of Central America. The blue area at the north is labeled “Gulf of Mexico” and the “Gulf of Tehuantepec” along the southern middle of the land where it shows a rounded inlet. An area of blue is shown towards the southeast on the land and is labeled “Lake Nicaragua.” A small section of land is highlighted beige at the north and a section of the land northeast and southeast of Lake Nicaragua is highlighted beige. The rest of the land is highlighted green. In the middle of the green highlighted area these cities are labeled, from north to south: Calakmul, Palenque, Tikal, Yaxchilan, Caracol, Dos Pilas, Quirigua, Naranjo, and Copan. (b) A photo shows large, white and gray buildings in ruins set among green trees and grasses, overlooking a city in the far right background. The left foreground of the photo shows a maze of white stones set low to the ground with a three-tiered off-white stone building shown to its left with no roof. No windows or doors are visible. Trees are shown to the right of the maze. People are seen walking on a covered white road in the bottom right forefront of the photo, shaded by trees on the right side. In the middle left of the photo a tall pyramid-shaped tiered stone structure is seen with a domed square on top. No windows or doors are visible. In the middle right a large structure is seen on two raised platforms of stone and green grass covered ground. Stairs and partial stone walls surround the structure as well as arched doorways and entrances. The structure is ruined in some places on the first tier and portions of the second floor can be seen with some doorways and windows visible. A tall three tiered tower stands in the middle with one window seen on each visible side and a domed roof with points on each corner. A large building extends out behind the tower to the right edge of the photo, partially hidden by trees. Doorways can be seen as well as a tiered roof. Some white pathways can be seen beyond the buildings leading into the forested areas.
Figure 8.16 (a) At its height, the Maya civilization included as many as forty city-states. (b) Today the ruins of Palenque and other Maya sites appear ghost-white. But during their heyday in the seventh century, their temples were painted in bright colors. (attribution a: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license; credit b: modification of work “Palenque Palace” by “Candiderm”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

At the heart of Maya religious practices was the veneration of family ancestors, who were considered bridges between heaven and earth. Homes had shrines for performing ritual bloodletting and prayers directed to the ancestors, and deceased family members were typically interred beneath the floor. Indeed, the large stone temples themselves were in some ways grander versions of these family shrines, usually with large tombs within them, and deceased kings were effectively ancestors for the entire city-state. Ritual practices were tied to the complicated Maya calendar, and gods could act in certain ways depending on the time of year and the location of certain heavenly bodies. Shamans and priests guided rituals like bloodletting, which allowed for communication with the ancestors by releasing a sacred essence in the blood called chu’ulel. The same principle applied to the human sacrifice of war captives and especially captured rival leaders.

While we can only speculate about how the Olmec played their ritual ball game, we know more about the Maya and later versions (Figure 8.17). The intention was to reenact aspects of Maya mythology, and the game held a significant place in religious practice. Two teams of four wore ritual protective padding and passed the ball to each other without using hands or feet on long I-shaped courts flanked by sloping walls. The object appeared to be to move the ball through a stone ring without letting it hit the ground. As the use of padding indicates, the game could be quite dangerous; the ball was solid rubber and could weigh more than seven pounds. But the true danger came at the end, when losing team leaders or sometimes the entire losing team could expect to be sacrificed to fulfill the game’s ritual purpose.

A photo is shown of gray and white stone structures set on green grassy lands with some trees visible at the edges and in the far background. In the top right a large six-tiered pyramid-shaped faded gray and white structure is shown with an angled section running along the left side. In front of the structure two rectangular-shaped gray stone structures lay parallel to each other low to the ground. Stairs can be seen at the front and the top tier is smaller than the bottom tier. A white path is seen running along the front of the photo in front of the two structures. Grasses grow atop the structure on the right as well as a lone tree with no branches. In the top left background small rectangle stones are seen on the ground. Heading into the back left of the photo a wide staircase laid into the ground leads to a flat area with a multi-tiered gray building with some domed and flat structures on the various levels. Many staircases and doorways can be seen. Some brown huts with beige roofs are shown within the structure.
Figure 8.17 Maya ball court designs varied from city to city, but like this one in front of a pyramid in Peten, Guatemala, all had the same I-shaped layout. (credit: “Tikal Ballcourt“ by Gary Todd/Flickr, Public Domain)

One of the reasons we know so much about the Maya is that, unlike some other Mesoamerican civilizations, they created a writing system that scholars have been able to decode and read (Figure 8.18). This system was phonetically based, with complex characters, and was far more developed than any other writing system discovered in Mesoamerica. It allowed the Maya to record their own history in stone monuments, including invaluable political histories, descriptions of rituals, propagandistic records of battles, and genealogies.

A photo of an orange stone is shown with twelve raised and rounded squares, four across and three down. The flat part of the stone is swirled orange colors. The raised portions are paler orange colored and decorated with various images. Some faces can be seen with large noses, open and closed eyes, beards and moustaches, and large mouths on the squares. Other designs include swirls, circles, squares, notches, and lines.
Figure 8.18 The phonetically based Maya script baffled researchers for years and was decoded only after decades of careful work. These stucco characters are from Palenque and were likely created between the fifth and eighth centuries BCE. (credit: “Maya stucco glyphs displayed in the museum at Palenque, Mexico” by “Kwamikagami”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Classical Maya civilization entered a period of decline in the ninth century CE and then deteriorated rapidly. Over a period of about a century, alliances broke down, conflicts became more common, the production of luxury goods slowed to a stop, and cities went from thriving urban centers to depopulated shells. The reason for this collapse has been a topic of debate among historians and archaeologists for many years, and much remains uncertain. Among the proposed causes are epidemic diseases, invasions, natural disasters, internal revolutions, and environmental degradation. Several of these may have been influential; it is unlikely there was a single cause.

For example, studies over the last few decades have pointed to the environmental problems created by demographic growth. This growth led to large-scale deforestation, which in turn produced soil erosion. Large populations that required high agricultural yields made Mayan civilization more vulnerable to variations in climate or a string of bad harvests caused by crop disease. Such problems would have put enormous pressure on elites and commoners alike and contributed to disorder, war, and perhaps internal revolts. However it happened, by 900 CE the Classic period of Maya civilization had come to an end. But this was not the end of the Maya. In the Yucatán Peninsula, well north of the old centers of power, Maya civilization would experience a rebirth that extended into the sixteenth century and the arrival of the Spanish.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax