Mesoamerica is an area that stretches from southern Mexico through Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. The region is exceptionally diverse geographically, biologically, and culturally, and gave rise to several of the New World’s most complex societies, including the Olmec, the Aztecs, and the Maya.
Of course, it is impossible to describe the variety of Mesoamerican cultures through a single list of shared traits, no matter how comprehensive the list may be. Today the recognition of cultural diversity within the region is as important as understanding its broader commonalities. However, Kirchoff was essentially correct in seeing these ancient civilizations and their descendants as participants in a wider cultural dynamic, one that continues leave a lasting mark on the heritage and historical awareness of people across the globe.
Archaeology and History
Beginning well over four thousand years ago, this densely populated region gave rise to several different but related civilizations. Today it remains the home of many vibrant indigenous peoples who take pride in their cultural heritage. The archaeological past of Mesoamerica is divided among different periods or stages. Though these do vary somewhat among regions, the general framework is as follows: Paleo-Indian (ca. 12,000- 8,000 BCE) and Archaic (ca. 8,000-2000 BCE), Preclassic or Formative (ca. 2,000 BCE- 250 CE), Classic (250-900 CE), Postclassic (900-1519 CE), and the overlapping Post-Conquest (1519-1697 CE) and Colonial periods (1525-1821 CE). Scholars divide the more recent history of the area into smaller time frames, which vary according to more localized events and geography.
Originally based on the belief that all Mesoamerican cultures rose together towards a single pinnacle and subsequently fell, this framework of linear evolution has since proven to be a misconception. Scholars now recognize the extraordinarily complex history of Mesoamerican cultures, which rose and fell at different times and places throughout the region’s history. Therefore, while the above terminology is still the most widely used in academic circles, it no longer carries the connotation of a single pan-Mesoamerican rise to a Classic-period peak and a subsequent decline.
Mesoamerican populations comprise a large and complex patchwork of different subcultures, communities and languages. The best-known are the Aztec (or Mexica), the Maya, the Mixtec, the Olmec, the Toltec, the Zapotec, and the ancient inhabitants of Teotihuacan, though many other complex cultures also thrived in the area (including the Pipil, Huastecs, and Totonacs). t is important, however, to recognize that our scholarly labels for historic groups do not necessarily reflect how individuals within those groups may have identified themselves.
Within the broader label of “the ancient Maya,” for instance, are grouped diverse populations who spoke related, though often mutually unintelligible, languages and may not have considered themselves part of a broader “Mayan” world. The same is true for the even larger label “Mesoamerica,” which is a region determined through academic enquiry rather than self-identification by indigenous groups.
Although they belong to a single linguistic area, Mesoamerican languages are impressively diverse. Seven major linguistic families (including Uto-Aztecan, Mayan, Oto-Manguean, Mixe-Zoquean, and Totonacan) are further subdivided into several hundred individual languages and dialects. Though many languages are now extinct and many are threatened, the linguistic richness of Mesoamerica is still remarkable. For instance, there are still some 6 million native speakers of Mayan languages living in Mesoamerica today.
From sandy beaches, to swamps and jungles, to soaring volcanic peaks, Mesoamerica is one of the most geographically and topographically varied regions on earth. The climate is just as diverse, ranging from grasslands to tropical rainforests, to dry arctic zones in some of the higher mountains. Rainfall varies from some 20 inches per year in Southern Yucatan to as much as 100 inches per year in the Maya Highlands. Great rivers snake through much of the region, except in the Yucatan Penninsula, which is a limestone shelf. Here subterranean river systems meet the surface in cenotes and lakes instead.
Generally speaking, Mesoamerica is divided into highland areas (1,000+ meters above sea level) and lowland areas (between 1,000 meters and sea level). Lowland areas tend to be hot and tropical, while highland regions are generally much cooler. Mesoamerica is further divided into five major geographic areas: the Maya area, the Oaxacan zone, the Central Highlands, West Mexico, and the Gulf region.
FLORA AND FAUNA
Although much of the flora and fauna of Mesoamerica has suffered as a result of the 16th century conquest and the subsequent centuries of population growth and urban expansion, the biodiversity of the area is still exceptional. Vegetation ranges from the pine trees of the highlands to the thorn forests of Guerrero and the palms of the Caribbean beaches, while agricultural production varies from yucca and agave in the hot lowlands, to cacao and coffee in the highlands. Beautiful wild orchids are found throughout the highlands as well. The diversity of the fauna of Mesoamerica is equally rich and includes such species as jaguars, iguanas, monkeys, deer, quetzals, parrots, bears, ocelots, coatamundis, peccaries, pumas, and tapirs.
In fact, several animals, plants, and food crops that we now take for granted across the globe either originated in Mesoamerica or were first domesticated there. These include maize, chilis, cacao (chocolate), turkeys, tomatoes, amaranth, most of the world’s squashes and beans, vanilla, maguey (also known as the agave or century plant), and avocadoes. Even our words for many of these derive from indigenous Mesoamerican languages, including cacao (from the Maya kakaw), and both chilis and tomatoes (from the Nahuatl chilitl, and tomatl). Without the influence of Mesoamerican agriculture, many of the best-known features of more distant cultures like chili-spiced Thai food and Italian tomato sauce, would never have existed.
Mesoamerica has played and continues to play an enormous role in the agricultural production, economies, and cuisines of cultures across the globe. With its vibrant contemporary culture, rich archaeological past, complex history, and geographical and biological diversity, Mesoamerica cannot help but fascinate scholars and laypeople alike. It is the hope of the Mesoamerica Center to bring this cultural diversity and richness to the University of Texas at Austin and the broader community of people and scholars who hope to learn more about and contribute to our understanding of this part of the world.