home | 1000 BCE to 500 CE

previous | next

The MesoAmericans

Face in stone from Teotihuacan

Face in stone from Teotihuacan, (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Ruins of Teotihuacan

Ruins of Teotihuacan, a view from the Pyramid of the Moon. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

From 1000 to 400 BCE Olmec civilization was still functioning – an agricultural society and more densely populated than hunter-gatherers. But there was trouble: a conflict of some kind around the year 950 at their political center, today San Lorenzo, left monuments destroyed. They moved their political center to nearby La Venta. The Olmecs extended their influence into the highlands of Mexico, including the valley where Teotihuacán was developing, and to areas that today are Oaxaca and Guerrero. But by 400 BCE, La Venta would be abandoned, and between 400 and 350 BCE the Olmec population in their heartland, which includes La Venta and San Lorenzo, fell precipitously and was to remain sparsely inhabited until the 1800s. Scholars speculate that environmental changes may have ruined farming and that this may have involved agricultural practices that silted rivers. note28


While Olmec civilization was headed for extinction, in central Mexico Teotihuacan was growing. It's power was trade. It had access to obsidian, a dark green volcanic glass found on mountains – a material that could be cut and pierced. And Teotihuacan produced and traded highly polished ceramic figures. With no horses or wheeled transport, it took traders months of walking to cross Teotihuacan's area of influence. It tied together its trading region with relay points and regional distributors, and these settlements became cities. Teotihuacan's culture spread with its goods, north into what is now the United States and south into what today is Guatemala.

In becoming a state power, Teotihuacan formalized its religion. It had numerous temples, and two pyramids faced with stone dedicated to the sun and moon. Its main god was Quetzalcoatl, a feathered snake god of fertility. Amid its religious monuments it had stone carvings depicting people in song and at play amid gardens, streams and fountains.

The Maya

The Maya had been living in around the tropical rain forests to the south of the Olmecs, in Guatemala and Belize. They had small villages of one or two room houses, and they worked plots of land, taking food from trees and other wild plants. They hunted and trapped small animals. They made pots from clay. They made string, ropes and nets and wove cloth. It is estimated that around 900 BCE they migrated into the lowlands on what is now called the Yucatán Peninsula. And there they grew  beans, maize, chili peppers and squash.

The Maya counted in the same manner as the Olmecs: a dot for one and a bar for five. They had a zero as a mathematical symbol, and apparently from the Olmecs they had inherited writing. Their writing was pictorial representation and abstract symbols, and like so many people in the world before contact with the Phoenicians, without an alphabet. As in other early civilizations, their writing was limited to their elite, some of whom wrote poetry. And, like other ancient peoples, their writing was mainly about religious matters.

The Maya had a coherent set of beliefs about the nature of the universe – built upon astrology. Mayan astrologist-astronomers created a sophisticated calendar system based on detailed naked-eye observations of the movements of celestial bodies and an extensive use of mathematics.

They believed, as do astrologers today, that the date of one's birth determined one's fate and was a guide to the actions one should take – like many others not mindful that fate and willful action were incompatible.

They believed in omens, that omens were of crucial importance in determining the suitability and probable outcome of a proposed action.

The Maya saw cycles, and they described the universe as turning in cycles, and from these cycles and the positions of stars they interpreted the past and made prophesies. They believed that in the distant past, cycles had brought cataclysms and rebirths and that eventually cycles would bring another cataclysm in which all the world's inhabitants would perish. Relative to our calendar, they believed that December 21, 2012 marked the completion of the Great Mayan Cycle, and the beginning of a New World Age.

They believed that the cycles they saw were controlled by the gods, and the Maya saw gods in great variety. They saw the sun, moon and the planet Venus as deities, each with its own place in the cyclical calendar of life. Each of their gods was a patron of a unit of time. Each of these gods came into prominence and power over life as its unit of time reappeared. For the Maya it was a complexity that explained the world.

The Maya believed that a great tree supported each quarter of the heavens, that the earth was flat and the heavens layered, with specific deities and celestial bodies occupying each of heaven's thirteen tiers. The place where the spirits of the dead mingled – the underworld – had nine levels, each with its own lord of darkness. The Maya saw most of their deities as having four pairs of opposing attributes: male and female, old and young, good and evil, celestial and underworld.

To demonstrate piety, appease their gods and guarantee fertility and cosmic order, priests performed elaborate rituals and ceremonies, including torture and human sacrifice. Blood was seen as an important ingredient to life, and human blood was thought to nourish the gods. The Maya thought the blood of kings especially in demand by the gods. Captives and defeated nobles and rulers were sacrificed to the gods. Mayan rulers as the intermediaries between their people and the gods had to undergo a ritual bloodletting and self-torture. Mayans showed their devotion to their god by sticking spines through their ears or penis, or dragging a thorn-studded cord across their tongue, drawing blood that was spattered onto bark and sent to the gods in the form of smoke.

ruins of Tikal

Ruins of Tikal at its main plaza. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Mayan villages were linked by trade. The Maya developed their agriculture, and their population increased. By the first century CE their villages had grown in number and their settlements were larger and more complex. Commerce advanced, and networks of trade and communication stretched across the Mayan world and to Teotihuacan. The typical Mayan family had two or three houses in an open area, and the families were grouped into hamlets where water and drained soil were available. A ceremonial center existed for every fifty to a hundred families. By the mid-200s, Mayan cities had become numerous, with temples on tall platforms and their buildings of limestone or coral with plaster interiors. One of the cities, Tikal, was twenty-five miles wide, with a population of around 10,000 and numerous temples, shrines, ceremonial centers, ball courts and plazas.

Private property, a division of wealth and class differences had arisen. The rulers of cities lived in elaborately decorated palaces, and they were buried in grand tombs. And they described themselves as having ties with the divine through their ancestry.


Indians of North America, Harold E Driver, 1961

"Olmec" and "Olmec Religion," Wikipedia

"Maya Civilization," Wikipedia

"Clovis Culture," Wikipedia

A History of the Ancient Southwest, by Stephen H Lekson, 2009

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.