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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Matthew Williams Stirling (August 28, 1896 – January 23, 1975) was an American ethnologist, archaeologist and later an administrator at several scientific institutions in the field. He is best known for his discoveries relating to the Olmec civilization.

Stirling began his career with extensive ethnological work in the United States, New Guinea and Ecuador, before directing his attention to the Olmec civilization and its possible primacy among the pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica. His discovery of, and excavations at, various sites attributed to Olmec culture in the Mexican Gulf Coast region significantly contributed towards a better understanding of the Olmecs and their culture. He then began investigating links between the different civilizations in the region. Apart from his extensive field work and publications, later in his career Stirling proved to be an able administrator of academic and research bodies, who served on directorship boards of a number of scientific organizations.

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Olmec - Infantile Figure - Walters 20092064 - Three Quarter.jpg
Credit: Walters Art Museum

Olmec figurines were produced by the Preclassic inhabitants of Mesoamerica. Although not all were produced in the Olmec heartland, they bear the hallmarks and motifs of Olmec culture. Most are simple in design, often nude or with a minimum of clothing, and made of local terracotta. More durable and better known by the general public are those carved from jade and other stones.


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Ceramic figurine from Jaina Island

  • ... that Jaina Island, a Maya necropolis, contains over 20,000 burials, with every one excavated having one or more ceramic figurines (example pictured)?



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