Mesoamerican Indian Cultures


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Written by Dr. Ned Eddins

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Archaeologists have established humans were living in rock shelters at the southern tip of South America by 12500 B.C. ...Monte Verde in Chile is dated at 12500 B.C. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond noted, if Native Americans migrated southward from the Plains area of North America eight-miles per year, they would be in Patagonia within a thousand years. Based on this, the earliest arrival at the tip of South America by Paleo-Indians that crossed Beringia Land Bridge would be 10500 B.C.. If the 12500 B.C. dating of Monte Verde is correct, the only way migrating Paleo-Indians could reach there that early was by watercraft, or the Bering Strait Beringia migration was at an earlier period.

Alternate Pre-Historic Indian Migration Routes - Anthropik Network

Evidence of Paleo-Indians in north-central Peru is dated by 3000 B.C. A complex Indian society developed in three small valleys one hundred miles north of Lima, Peru. The Norte Chico civilization consisted of about thirty major population centers. Satellite photos and visual observations from airplanes are showing many large prehistoric Indian sites throughout South America.

Norte Chico

The Norte Chico area stretches from the Andes to the western coastline of central Peru.  Some archeologists refer to Norte Chico as the oldest civilization in the Americas. One hundred and twenty-seven radiocarbon dates firmly establishing a civilization thriving in the Norte Chico region with a mixed economy based on agriculture and seafood. Radiocarbon dates show large-scale communal construction between 3200 and 2500 B.C. The construction was characterized by monumental architecture, large circular ceremonial structures, and housing.

Inhabited between 2627 B.C. and 2020 B.C., the most notable of the Norte Chico cities, Carla, was scattered over about one hundred and fifty acres. Carla was comprised of platform mounds, two plazas, an amphitheatre, and ordinary houses. The population is estimated to have been about three thousand.

The Norte Chico area had multifaceted economies based on cotton, food plants, seafood, and a system of regular exchange between inland and coastal sites. The people of Norte Chico had wide-ranging trade contacts. Cotton was used to make textiles such as fishing nets, carry bags, and clothing. The oldest of these bags dated to 2627 B.C. Textiles were used to trade for seafood from the coast and agricultural products. Two items lacking from the Norte Chico sites were--ceramic pottery and Maize (corn).


Mesoamerica, or Meso-America, is the area of central Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras. 

With the exception of Norte Chico, the key to development of Mesoamerican Indian cultural centers was the acquisition of Norte Chico seafood was the basic staple for developing cultural centers. In order to develop cultural centers, a constant supply of food was required. Archaeological studies indicate that maize (corn) was cultivated by 5600 B.C.. Maize in its present form did not exist as a wild plant. Evidence suggests maize originated as a cross between teosinte and gamma grass…the origin of maize is a subject of heated debate between archeologists. With cross fertilization occurring between teosinte and gamma grass, Indians collected and planted desirable cross-fertilized plants. Mesoamerican Indians selected for the formation of ears, or cobs, on early maize.

The first ears of maize were a few inches long and had only eight rows of kernels. Over the next several thousand years, the corn cob grew in length and size.

Selective Breeding of Tesonite to Corn

In the late Archaic period (Archaic period ~8000 B.C. to 1000 B.C.) prehistoric groups in this area are characterized by agricultural villages and large ceremonial and politico-religious centers. Some of the most complex and advanced cultures of the Americas, and for that matter in the world, developed in Mesoamerica. Three-fifths of the modern world's agriculture comes from plants first domesticated by Native Americans. Mesoamerican Indians were the first to cultivate: corn, Irish potato, sweet potatoes, manioc, several varieties of beans, squash, pumpkins, peanuts, tomatoes, chocolate, rubber, long staple cotton, tobacco, and the use of rubber.

Archaic Mesoamerican Indians grew maize, beans, and squash in what is called a milpa. Milpa agriculture consists of maize and beans being planted together in the same hole while squash is planted between the maize stalks. As the maize stalk grew, the bean vines wrapped around the stalk. Squash covered the ground around the stalks to reduce the amount of weeds and keeps the soil cool and moist from the sun. Planted together these three plants became known down through American Indian history as the Three Sisters.

Three Sisters - Milpa

Milpa agriculture is a form of swidden agriculture which uses slash and burn to create new fields, and is labor intensive. Family plots were usually between five and ten acres.  The plants were scattered across the field, not in rows as corn is planted now....lack of rows made flood irrigation impossible, except in small areas. The majority of the Milpa fields were hand watered. Despite the nitrogen fixing properties of beans, corn depleted the nutritive value of the soil within a few years and crops must be rotated, or new fields cleared for planting.

Archeologists put forth many reasons, especially drought, for the decline of Indian population centers, but the underlying reason was that eventually farmers with stone and wooden tools and no work animals could not produce enough food to sustain the ruling class, religious leaders, artisans, and laborers within the centers. Environmental conditions, or warfare, often triggered the collapse of a culture, but the basic problem was North and South American Indians never acquired the technology to grow, transport, or distribute food to large numbers of people in concentrated population centers. One of the major reasons for this was the Americas lacked animals that could be domesticated for work animals. The lack of work animals limited the ability of farmers to support large populations.

Trade was an important factor affecting growth and social change in Mesoamerica, as well as, North America. A merchant class developed regional trade markets. Objects of trade included agricultural products, silver, gold, jade, macaw and parrot feathers, jaguar skins, cocoa and various food items. Mesoamerican traders had spread into the North American southwest by the end of the late Archaic Period. Anasazi, Hohokam, and Mogollon had corn from Mesoamerica by 500 A.D. Between 1250 and 1700, most  North American Indians had acquired Mesoamerican corn. After European contact with the Americas in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, explorers and traders carried maize back to their country,  and from there, corn spread to other European countries. At the present time, Maize (corn) is the most widely grown crop in the Americas.

Olmec - The Rubber People 1200 B.C. to 400 B.C

The first to develop a complex society in Mesoamerica were the Olmec. The Olmec lived in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, roughly the modern-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco. Olmec sites include San Lorenzo, Laguna de los Cerros, Tres Zapotes, and La Venta. One of the greatest of the Olmec sites, La Venta, existed from 1200 B.C. to 400 B.C. The Olmec centers at La Venta, San Lorenzo, and Laguna de los Cerros, were vibrant settlements with a ruling class, religious leaders, and artisans.

Olmec astronomers and mathematicians are credited with the invention of two basic calendars in addition to the use of the number zero. The concept of a number with no value is one of the most important concepts in scientific history...imagine a world without mathematics. The 260 day calendar had twenty 13 day months for agriculture  and a 365 day calendar (long calendar) with eighteen 20 day months related to the solar year. Each calendar had specific day and month names and when combined on an interlocking wheel produced a 52 year cycle. Each 52 year cycle was equivalent to the modern calculation of a century. The Olmec had both a syllabic and hieroglyphic script. The Olmec signs are similar to the writing used by the Vai people of West Africa.

The Olmec carved enormous helmeted heads out of stone blocks weighing as much as forty tons. Some archeologists have suggested these are the features of Olmec warrior-kings.

Olmec Head - National Museum of Anthropology Mexico City

Stone quarries for these massive heads were as far as eighty miles away from the discovery location. Seventeen of these heads have been found by archeologists. No two heads are alike, but the facial features are similar: flattened nose, wide lips, capping headpiece. The helmets are adorned with personal or group symbols. The Negroid characteristics of the stone heads have led to vigorous debates among scholars. Based on the facial features some have insisted that the Olmec were Africans who had emigrated to the New World. However, the vast majority of archeologists and other Mesoamerican scholars reject any claims of prehistoric contacts with Africa.

Most of the Olmec lived in small villages around the cultural centers. Olmec farmers practiced swidden (slash-and-burn) agriculture to clear the forests and shrubs, and to provide new fields once the old fields were exhausted.

Many archaeologists consider the Olmec as the "mother culture" of Mesoamerica. The traditional view is the Mayan borrowed a number of sophisticated cultural practices, including mathematics, astronomy, writing, and irrigated agricultural from the Olmec. The Toltec and Aztec may not have descended from the Olmec, but were heavily influenced by the Olmec culture.

The Teotihuacán 100 B.C. - 700 A.D.

Anthropological and archeology speculation about the Teotihuacán Indian culture is based on the city of the same name, Teotihuacán. The archaeological site of Teotihuacán is 30 miles (48 km) northeast of Mexico City. The Teotihuacán Indians did not develop a writing systems like the Maya or Olmec. Instead, they developed a system of signs and notations that appear in their sculpture, mural painting, and decorated ceramics. The meaning and purpose of these symbols are obscure.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Teotihuacán was a multi-ethnic city, with distinct quarters occupied by several different Mesoamerican Indian groups i.e., Mixtec, Zapotec, Toltec, and Mayan. The city of Teotihuacán had developed into a cultural center by 200 A.D. By 500 A.D., Teotihuacán was one of the largest cities in the world; the city covered 8 square miles with a population 125,000 people. Teotihuacán contained more temples than any other prehistoric Mesoamerican site. The Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon, and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl were built for religious purposes.

Avenue of the Dead - Teotihuacán

Pyramid of the Sun - Teotihuacán

Pyramid of the Moon - Teotihuacán

Temple of Quetzalcoatl

Mounting evidence suggests the Teotihuacán Indians were involved in trade relationships as far away as the Mayan lowlands, the Guatemalan highlands, the Gulf Coast of Mexico, northern Mexico. The Indians of Teotihuacán dominated Mesoamerica for about six centuries.

The Teotihuacán civilization was destroyed in what may have been a class struggle between inhabitants. Teotihuacán was virtually abandoned in the seventh and eighth centuries A.D. Temples were burned and upper class homes and religious icons were destroyed. The destruction of Teotihuacán appeared to be an effort to erase the symbols of the city. Outside forces may have been involved as well.

The Toltec maintained they were the builders of Teotihuacán. The Aztecs supported the Toltec claim, but the Toltec claim has not been corroborated by archaeological findings. The pyramids of Teotihuacán were uncovered by the Aztecs around 1000 A. D., and they adopted the ruins of Teotihuacán as their own. During Aztec times, Teotihuacán was a place of pilgrimage and identified with the myth of Tollan...the place where the sun was created. At the present time, Teotihuacán is among the most visited archeological site in Mexico. It is easy to confuse the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan with the earlier Teotihuacán.

The Zapotec 500 B.C. - 600 A. D.

The Zapotec lived in the largest expanse of relatively flat land in southern Mexico. About 500 B.C., the Zapotec built Monte Albán on the flat-topped mountain in the center of the Oaxaca Valley. Monte Albán was the first urban center in Mesoamerica. Monte Albán covered an area of 2.5 square miles and its population grew from 5,000 to 25,000 inhabitants. Lasting for about a 1,000 years, Monte Albán became the dominant power in southern Mexico.

Monte Albán had the first centralized political system with the population divided into social classes. The Zapotec were ruled by nobles with a strong military force. Lacking a strong agricultural base, the Zapotec economy was based on collecting tribute from surrounding groups. By the 7th century A.D. most of the Zapotec's power was gone.

Monte Alban - Zapotec ~ 500 A.D.

The Toltec

The Toltec Empire appeared in the Central Mexico area in the 10th century with the establishment of Tula. Many archeologists believe the Toltec were refugees from the northern Teotihuacán culture and migrated to the Hidalgo area after the fall of Teotihuacán in 700 A.D. is an ongoing debate whether at any point in Mesoamerican history the Toltec formed an actual ethnic group, or were as the Aztec believed scientists and artists who formed a society to explore and conserve the spiritual knowledge and practices of the ancient ones.

Tula, Hidalgo, was the capital city of the Toltec. The ruins are forty miles northwest of present day Mexico City. The city ruins are characterized by giant stone warriors placed at the temples by the Toltec. The city rose to power after the collapse of Teotihuacan, and by 968 A.D., the Toltec controlled the valley of Mexico .

Tula - Toltec Warriors Gods

Tula's maximum size and power was achieved between 950 A.D. and 1150 A.D. with a population between 40,000 and 60,000 people.

Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli - Temple of the Morning Star

The Toltec used a military force to dominate its neighbors. The Toltec spread across most of Mexico, Guatemala, and as far south as the Yucatan. Tula was at least partially abandoned by 1200 A.D. Aztecs plundered the Tula ruins for building materials for their nearby capital, destroying most of the historical evidence that remained. Much of what is known about the Toltec comes from legends of other Indian cultures. Many future rulers of the other cultures, including Mayan leaders and Aztec emperors, claimed to be descended from the Toltec.

After abandoning Tula, the Toltec integrated with the  Mayan of the Yucatán Peninsula. Some archeologists refer to the new culture as Toltec-Mayan with Chichén Itzá being the principal city.

Chichén Itzá Temple

Chichén Itzá is located around the junction of the Rio Rosas and Rio Tula rivers. The remains of other buildings extend for some distance in all directions. In the residential areas streets were laid out in a grid pattern. Distinctive Toltec features at Chichén Itzá included terraced pyramids, colonnaded buildings, and relief sculptures.  

The Maya

Mayan culture developed in three regions in Mesoamerica. Originating in the Yucatan around 2600 B.C., the Maya rose to prominence around 250 A.D. in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, western Honduras, El Salvador, and northern Belize. By far the most important and most complete urban developments occurred in the lowlands in the "central region" of southern Guatemala. The principal city in this region was Tikal, but the spread of urbanization extended south to Honduras; the southernmost Mayan city was Copan in northern Honduras.


The Mayan existed in a multitude of separate states with a common cultural background--not a unified empire. The Mayan were religiously and artistically a nation of politically sovereign states. Building on earlier civilizations, the Mayan developed a complex writing system,  mathematics, and astronomical observations. Mayans are regarded as the inventors of many aspects of Mesoamerican cultures. The Mayan's complex calendar and hieroglyphics were based on the Olmec's versions. Archeologists have not settled the relationship between the Olmec and the Mayan.

The elaborate writing of the Mayan was developed to record the transition of power through the generations. The hieroglyphs were formed through a combination of different signs representing whole words or single syllables. Maya writing was composed of recorded inscriptions on stone and wood. Priests followed the ruling class in importance, and were instrumental in the recordings of history through hieroglyphs.

Mayan cities were ceremonial centers--not urban culture areas. A priestly class lived in the cities, but for the most part, the Mayan population lived in small farming villages in a tropical rain forest. Mayans were skilled farmers, clearing large sections of tropical rain forest and, where groundwater was scarce, building sizeable underground reservoirs for the storage of rainwater...large cisterns stored water for the dry season. The Mayan were equally skilled as weavers and potters.

Tropical rain forests are poor agricultural land requiring a scattered population of farmers. The principal food of the Maya was maize. Maize production was the central economic activity of the Maya. By the ninth century A.D., Mayan lowland cities did not have sufficient agriculture to support the population and many Mayans migrated to the Yucatán peninsula.

The Mayans raided their neighbors for land and captives. Some captives were subjected to a double sacrifice where the victims heart was torn out for the sun and head cut off so the blood could nourish the earth. Wars were fought between rival Mayans groups over territory until the region was conquered by the Spanish. Mayan cities were in to decline when the Spaniards arrive in the Yucatán Peninsula.

Ruins of a Mayan Temple

At the present time, millions of Mayan descendants reside in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador; they speak the Mayan language and observe its rituals.

The two last great civilizations in Mesoamerica and South America were destroyed by Spanish Conquistadores. The Aztec established Tenochtitlán in central Mexico around 1300 A.D. The Aztec culture flourished for two-hundred years before Hernán Cortés and Spanish conquistadores arrived in 1519. With the capture of Tenochtitlán, August 1521, the Aztec Empire was gone. Cortés renamed Tenochtitlán, Mexico City. Within two years, Spanish conquistadors and European disease had destroyed the Aztec Empire.

Fernando Pizarro with 106 foot-soldiers and 62 horsemen attacked the Inca army in the Battle of Cajamarca in November, 1532, and Pizarro capture the Inca ruler, Atahualpa. Despite Atahualpa filling one room (22 feet  by 17 feet ) with gold and two with silver, Atahualpa was garroted in July, 1533. Pizarro sealed the conquest of Peru by taking Cuzco in 1533. In less than a year, Pizarro and Spanish conquistadores, aided by European disease, destroyed one of the greatest empires in the world.

Spanish conquistadores and European diseases destroyed the Aztec and Inca empires marking the end of over 2,000 years of  the greatest cultures in the Americas. Some of which rivaled the greatest cultures of Europe. The actual number of American Indians killed by European disease is unknown--but in terms of percentages, the number killed could approach seventy to eighty percent. Of the European diseases, smallpox was the most deadly.

The Mesoamerican article was written by O. Ned Eddins of Afton, Wyoming. Permission is given for material from this site to be used for school research papers.

Written by Dr. Ned Eddins

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About the author.

O. N. Eddins is a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine by profession. He was born and now resides in Afton, Wyoming, which is near Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons-a landmark for the Indian and Mountain Man. The majority of Mountains of Stone was written in a secluded camp near an old Indian trail from Jackson Hole and the Tetons to the Snake River plains. By horse and pack string, Dr. Eddins has ridden many of the trails described in Mountains of Stone. His campfires have been built in the same places as those of mountain men and explorers one hundred and ninety years before him.

As a serious student and historical critic of the mountain man fur trade and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, he is well qualified to write a novel on Native American Indians and how they were impacted by the first explorers and mountain men to reach the upper Missouri, Rocky Mountains, and the Oregon Country.

During the summer of 2009, a TV crew from Germany came to Wyoming and stayed in the Salt River camp to interview Dr. Eddins on John Jacob Astor and the Astorians for German and French public television. Dr. Eddins is a 2011 contributor and a peer reviewer for the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade Journal, and teaches history workshop classes for the Western Wyoming Community College. Dr. Eddins was an approved judge of the American Quarter Horse and the American Paint Horse associations, as well as, a certified ski instructor in Park City, Utah.

The Council for Indian Education wrote this about his book Mountains of Stone, "...a fascinating story...well researched with good descriptions of various tribes and their cultures."

Dr. O. N. Eddins website is maintained through the sale of his two historical novels.

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