Portal:Mesoamerica

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Classic Period royal palace at Palenque

Mesoamerica (Spanish: Mesoamérica) is a region and cultural area in the Americas, extending approximately from central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, within which a number of pre-Columbian societies flourished before the Spanish colonization of the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries.

As a cultural area, Mesoamerica is defined by a mosaic of cultural traits developed and shared by its indigenous cultures. Beginning as early as 7000 BC the domestication of maize, beans, squash and chili, as well as the turkey and dog, caused a transition from paleo-Indian hunter-gatherer tribal grouping to the organization of sedentary agricultural villages. In the subsequent formative period, agriculture and cultural traits such as a complex mythological and religious tradition, a vigesimal numeric system, and a complex calendric system, a tradition of ball playing, and a distinct architectural style, were diffused through the area. Also in this period villages began to become socially stratified and develop into chiefdoms with the development of large ceremonial centers, interconnected by a network of trade routes for the exchange of luxury goods such as obsidian, jade, cacao, cinnabar, Spondylus shells, hematite, and ceramics. While Mesoamerican civilization did know of the wheel and basic metallurgy, neither of these technologies became culturally important.

Among the earliest complex civilizations was the Olmec culture which inhabited the Gulf coast of Mexico. In the Preclassic period, complex urban polities began to develop among the Maya and the Zapotecs. During this period the first true Mesoamerican writing systems were developed in the Epi-Olmec and the Zapotec cultures, and the Mesoamerican writing tradition reached its height in the Classic Maya Hieroglyphic script. Mesoamerica is one of only five regions of the world where writing was independently developed. In Central Mexico, the height of the Classic period saw the ascendancy of the city of Teotihuacan, which formed a military and commercial empire whose political influence stretched south into the Maya area and northward. During the Epi-Classic period the Nahua peoples began moving south into Mesoamerica from the North. During the early post-Classic period Central Mexico was dominated by the Toltec culture, Oaxaca by the Mixtec, and the lowland Maya area had important centers at Chichén Itzá and Mayapán. Towards the end of the post-Classic period the Aztecs of Central Mexico built a tributary empire covering most of central Mesoamerica.


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Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio in Palenque, Mexico. An example of text in a Mesoamerican language written in an indigenous Mesoamerican writing system

Mesoamerican languages are the languages indigenous to the Mesoamerican cultural area, which covers southern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. The area is characterized by extensive linguistic diversity containing several hundred different languages and seven major language families. Mesoamerica is also an area of high linguistic diffusion in that long-term interaction among speakers of different languages through several millennia has resulted in the convergence of certain linguistic traits across disparate language families. The Mesoamerican sprachbund is commonly referred to as the Mesoamerican Linguistic Area.

The languages of Mesoamerica were also among the first to evolve independent traditions of writing. The oldest texts date to approximately 1000 B.C.E. while most texts in the indigenous scripts (such as Maya) date to ca. 600–900 CE. Following the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, and continuing up until the 19th century, most Mesoamerican languages were written in Latin script.

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Fray Bernardino de Sahagún

Bernardino de Sahagún (1499 – October 23, 1590) was a Franciscan friar, missionary priest and pioneering ethnographer who participated in the Catholic evangelization of colonial New Spain (now Mexico). Born in Sahagún, Spain, in 1499, he journeyed to New Spain in 1529, and spent more than 50 years conducting interviews regarding Aztec beliefs, culture and history. Though he primarily dedicated himself to the missionary task, his extraordinary work documenting indigenous worldview and culture has earned him the title “the first anthropologist.” He also contributed to the description of the Aztec language Nahuatl, into which he translated the Psalms, the Gospels and a basic manual of religious education.

Sahagún is perhaps best known as the author of Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España (in English: General History of the Things of New Spain (hereinafter referred to as Historia General). The most famous extant manuscript of the Historia General is the Florentine Codex. It consists of 2400 pages organized into twelve books with approximately 2,000 illustrations drawn by native artists using European techniques. The text in Spanish and Nahuatl documents the culture, religious cosmology (worldview), ritual practices, society, economics, and history of the Aztec people. In the process of putting together the Historia general, Bernardino pioneered new methods for gathering ethnographic information and validating its accuracy. The Historia general has been called “one of the most remarkable accounts of a non-Western culture ever composed,” and Bernardino has been called the father of American ethnography.

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Catherwood - Santa Cruz del Quiche - Gumarkaj - Tohil Temple detail 1.jpg
Credit: Frederick Catherwood

Frederick Catherwood and John Lloyd Stephens made a brief visit to the ruins of Q'umarkaj in 1840. While there, Catherwood produced a drawing of the Temple of Tohil



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