Pre Columbian Mesoamerican Civilizations
Let’s turn to talk about the people. What are the key groups of people or key civilizations of Mesoamerica?
There are many, but the three that I thought I’d talk about were the Olmec, the Maya, and the Aztecs. We can look at those in chronological order. One of the earliest Mesoamerican people were the Olmecs who arose during what we call the formative period, from about 1500 BCE to 400 BCE, and they established settlements both in the Mexican highlands and along the coast. And they’re really important — they’re called the Mother Culture of the Americas. They’re associated with a number of characteristics that then later passed on to other Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Maya and the Aztec. These included a lot of things: one was monumental sculpture. The Olmecs are known for their huge carved heads. These were six to fifteen feet high, they weighed tons, and they were very characteristic. They had slanted eyes, sort of squished noses, and flattened lips. If you see one, you know it’s Olmec.
They’re also known for their ceremonial complexes. The Olmecs were the first to build central places for worship with defined avenues. Another thing the Olmecs were known for was constructing some of the first pyramids. Later civilizations also had pyramids, although they looked somewhat different from the Olmec, who were the first.
They were also the first in sports. The Olmecs were the ones who started, or are associated with starting, the complex ball game that Mesoamerican peoples played. You would try to put a rubber ball through high hoops. These civilizations created ball courts for people to sit and watch these games. The first of these ceremonial complexes appears in the Olmecs.
The other thing the Olmecs did was count really well. We used to think it was the Maya, who lived centuries later, who invented the calendar, but now we know it originated with the Olmecs. They invented two calendars, the solar calendar of 365 days and the lunar one of 260 days. And every 52 years, the first day of a lunar and solar calendar coincided. This is critical because Mesoamerican peoples think in 52-year chunks, just as we think in decades or centuries, they think in fifty-two year chunks. So it was, we think, the Olmecs who begin to think about the fifty-two year chunk thinking, which also becomes very important later on for the Maya and even as important for the Aztecs. So this was another thing that they pioneered.
We used to think—the poor Maya are getting dissed here a bit—that the Maya developed writing, but now we know that it began with the Olmec too. These are important reasons, given their architecture, and their ball courts, and the calendar, why they are the Mother Culture of the Americas.
So did the Olmec civilization simply disappear? Did it merge into later cultures? What happened?
Well, when we don’t know. Weknow a series of things that might of happened: peoples revolting, environmental reasons, in this case there might have been a volcanic eruption, there could have been climate change. It’s one of those mysteries we still haven’t solved.
Let’s turn then to talk about the second great group, the Maya. When did they become important, or when did they appear in Mesoamerica?
The Maya appeared around 0 BCE, and they were a pre-contact civilization, which is important, through 800, but unlike the Olmecs, the Maya continue to exist today. In modern Guatemala, in Mexico, in Yucatan, in Belize, and Honduras there are still people who descended from the Maya and who still speak Maya dialects.
And were they similar to the Olmecs? You talked about things that we thought were originated by the Maya, but were in fact older.
Yes. As I said, the Olmecs are the Mother Culture, but then later civilizations, like the Maya, also picked up some of these characteristic things. For example, just like the Olmec (perhaps even more impressive than the Olmec), the Maya built ceremonial centers. These are now, of course, important tourist sites like Uxmal and Chichen Itza and Tikal. However, the Maya pyramids are very distinctive from other Mesoamerican pyramids because they’re really steep and really narrow. But the Maya also had the same ball courts or had ball courts like the Olmec and they also used the same version of the Mesoamerican calendar. They too had this view of time and divided their chronology into these fifty-two year cycles. They innovated though in that they developed a way of counting back. So they counted each individual fifty-two year cycle as it went back. This is something called the long count, which made it possible for them to count back thousands of years in their history. And, of course it was these kinds of cycles and counting that we associated a few years ago with false worry that the Maya calendar predicted that the world was going to end in 2012. It was part of these cyclical counts that that idea arose.
Twin Tollans: Chichén Itzá, Tula, and the Epiclassic to Early Postclassic Mesoamerican World, Revised Edition (Dumbarton Oaks Pre-Columbian Symposia and Colloquia)
Book (Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection)