Mesoamerica refers to the geographic region between Mexico andCentral America. The region developed before Spanish discovery andinvasion during the sixteenth era. Apart from being a geographicarea, Mesoamerica refers to a cultural concept, which is used inreferring to individuals that survived in a defined geographiclocation for a long time. These individuals had similar cultures andlinguistic aspects. Archeologists trace the existence of human beingsin Mesoamerica due to archaeological evidence. The evidence shows theactivities Mesoamericans engaged in, which have been linked to theexistence of human occupation. The paper is a discussion of thearchaeological sequence of Mesoamerica.
Human settlement in Mesoamerica can be categorized into phases.Archeologists separate the sequence of Mesoamerica into periods.These are the “Paleo-Indian period, Archaic, Formative, Classic andPost classic” (Holloway 2011:29).
Paleo-Indian Period – Hunters and Gatherers
The period is characterized by widespread hunting and gathering modeof existence. The period started when the initial foragers settled inwhat is currently known as Central America and Mexico. The mostancient archaeological sites in the region date from 14,000 yearsback (Holloway 2011:29). However, considering the accruing proof forearlier human occupation in different American regions, it ispossible that hunting was practiced much earlier. There is an arrayof archaeological evidence that supports the existence of hunters andgatherers in Mesoamerica. In one of the campsites close to Puebla, itis believed that one of the individuals living during the periodabandoned an elephant bone chiseled with images of mammoths. Also, inthe Mexican Basin is evidence of a carved Pleistocene camelid, whichresembles the image of a dog (Werner 2015:403). The carvings can beassociated to the hunting rituals.
A major topographical theme of Mesoamerica is evident at Loltun,which comprises of caves as well as the underworld. The caves “pockedby caverns, festoomed with stalactites and stalagmites, andhoneycombed with channels once filled by underground rivers”resemble the dark world, which was explained centuries after in PopolVuh (Werner 2015:403). There are few sites that can be accuratelytraced to the Paleo-Indian period in Mesoamerica. The strongestevidence of human activity is Santa Isabel Iztapan. It is evidentthat Mesoamericans were hunters and gatherers owing to the presenceof tools, which involve projectile points, and are linked withmammoth remains (Blanton, Feinman and Kowalewski 1993:38). It issuggested that the tools are from 7000 BC owing to a radiocarbondate.
More archaeological evidence derives from the recovery of a flutepoint at Tlaxcala. The region lies to the east of the Mexican valley.A mammoth’s skeleton found at Zacoalco is linked to a distinctobsidian flake, which might act as an artifact (Blanton, Feinman andKowalewski 1993:38). Remains of extinct animals were discovered atthe Chimalactlan Cave. However, it has not been possible toauthenticate if the remains are an indication of the way of life ofhuman beings. Although a number of mammoth remnants have beendiscovered at Oaxaca, the remains lack any accompaniment to traces ofhumans in that period. A unique projectile point evident at Oaxacamight be fluted, yet the artifact on its own is not used as proof ofhuman activity in the Mesoamerican period (Blanton, Feinman andKowalewski 1993:38).
Evidence of fluted points at the Guatemala highland is suggestive ofhunting and gathering activities. Also, “at Los Tapiales in theQuiche Basin, leaf-shaped projectile points, burins and otherartifacts are dated 10,000-11,000 years ago” (Blanton, Feinman andKowalewski 1993:38). Significant information about the latePleistocene inhabitants derives from excavations close to Tepexpan.The excavations uncovered mammoth skeletons and depict that theanimals were murdered using spears that were fitted using lancelikepoints made of stone. At the same point where the mammoths werediscovered was a human skeleton, which resembled the contemporaryform of an American Indian.
The Mesoamericans environment during the Paleo-Indian period favoredhunting and gathering activities. Volcanoes were active and coveredmany miles with ashes. There were low temperatures whereas glaciersshaped at high peaks. The conditions supported the roaming of grazingmammals in Mesoamerica, specifically within highland valleys, wherethe environment was cool and comprised of wet grasslands. However,following the rise of temperatures and retreating of major ice sheetsfrom northern latitudes, it was no longer possible for Mesoamericansto hunt and gather.
Archaic Period – Incipient Agriculture
Due to the warm and drier climate, Mesoamericans began to practiceagriculture (Werner 2015:404). In the archaic period, individualsstarted to interact with plant species resulting in geneticalterations to the plants. The genetic alteration implied moredependence on human intervention in order for the plant species tosurvive, which in turn led to domestication. The domestication ofplants acted as security by making it possible for Mesoamericans toincrease their food stores, especially during drought. The plantsalso acted as substitute food sources when hunting was unsuccessful.This was achieved through cultivation of plants near camp sites or inregions where the Mesoamericans frequented, which made it simpler toaccess and harvest the crops.
Following the development of the archaic period, plant cultivationcontinued to become significant to Mesoamericans. The dependence oncultivated crops resulted in the establishment of settlements, whichneeded more food, eventually resulting in dependence on domesticationof crops. Archaeological research has resulted in the availability ofevidence on incipient agriculture in Mesoamerica. Most of thisevidence is a result of successful excavation in caves and otherMesoamerican settlements.
The earliest evidence is from maize cob remains in Tehuacan, PueblaMesoamerican caves, which following radiocarbon dating was linked tothe archaic period. Maize cobs have also been discovered at Oaxacadating 9050-8780 B.C (Blanton, Feinman and Kowalewski 1993:42). It isobvious that maize was the most important crop to Mesoamericans asthey started to cultivate. This has been reflected in their ritualsand artwork. There are many stone carvings in caves dated to thearchaic period, which comprise of images of maize. Analysis thatstudies trace elements in human remains depicts immense dependence ongrains, most probably maize among the Mesoamericans (Blanton, Feinmanand Kowalewski 1993:42).
Squash is another crop that links agriculture with Mesoamericansduring the archaic period. Evidence of squash was located at GuilaNaquitz. The cave is located to the north of Oaxaca valley. Theinhabitants of the cave domesticated squash. The presence of squashseeds, which date 7400-6700 B.C, is evidence that indeed the crop wascultivated in Mesoamerica (Blanton, Feinman and Kowalewski 1993:42).The cultivation of squash is further supported by the evidence ofbottle gourd fragments. It is believed that the bottle gourds wereused to store seeds for planting. The gourds were also used forcarrying water.
Also, Mesoamericans appear to have cultivated beans. According toLandon “around 7,000 years ago, agriculture emerged in Mesoamerica,including the domestication of maize, beans and squash” (Landon2008:113). Evidence shows that the crops were cultivated together inthe wetlands. This is because the wetlands provided the ecologicalenvironment during the archaic period needed for maize, squash andbeans to grow (Landon 2008:113). Archaeological evidence shows thatindividuals occupying the Maya Lowlands started the cultivation ofcrops in wet areas during dry seasons. During the rainy seasons theywould build canals to draw water away from the fields. Archaeologicalevidence supports the existence of canals during the archaic period(Landon 2008:113).
Formative Period – Early Village Life
Archaeological excavations in specific regions in Mexico haveresulted in relevant findings on the existence of villages inMesoamerica. Studies on the Gulf Coast, highlands and pacific coast“has produced consistent chronologies that place the transition tosettled village life between 3000 and 1800 BC” (Joyce and Henderson2006:5). Evidence derives from the building of fragile houses,dependence on farming for survival, pottery, and taking part ineconomic exchanges for the purpose of accessing obsidian, which wasused to create sharp-cutting objects (Joyce and Henderson 2006:5).Joyce and Henderson have carried out excavations at Puerto Escondidoresulting in the production of an acknowledged sequence of villagelife in Mesoamerica (Joyce and Henderson 2006:6). The excavationsrevealed a collection of buildings and burial sites that proof theexistence of residential occupation at the site.
Other villages that emerged because of farming were “The Barra (c.1800-1500 BC), Ocos (1500-1200 BC), and Cuadros (1100-900 BC) phasesof the Pacific coasts of Chiapas and Guatemala are good examples ofearly village cultures” (Hagen 2015:1). However, coexisting withthe then agricultural Mesoamericans were the Olmec civilization.Archaeological evidence of this civilization derives from the Olmeccentre, San Lorenzo. The site resembles a compact plateau. It hasdeep ravines, which were man-made, following the building of ridges.Excavations establish that 25 to 35 feet of San Lorenzo’s top wasconstructed by humans. Also, the site has mounds, each suggesting theexistence of houses made from poles and thatch (Hagen 2015:1). Hence,suggesting that the site was a ceremonial centre, where spiritualoccasions were held, as well as a diminutive town.
More evidence on the rise of towns is the La Venta, which isassociated with the middle formative period. At this period,Mesoamericans had completely taken up a settled life. Populationslived in villages, towns and hamlets all over Mesoamerica. The tombof an Olmec ruler is centrally located at La Venta surrounded bymounds. Also, there is evidence of a ceremonial enclosure, which isbordered by various tombs to its north (Hagen 2015:1). Inside thetombs, archeologists found the remains of children as well asornaments. The site is indicative of a form of social order wherethere were rulers. Such order can only exist when people are livingin villages or towns. There is evidence of significant Olmec sitessituated “along what appears to have been a highland route to thewest to obtain the luxury items that seemed to have been needed bythe Olmec elite” (Hagen 2015:1). The sites are close to majorpasses possibly signifying their use as trading centers.Chalcatzingo, Morelos is the biggest of the sites. Cave paintingsassociated with the Olmec are also evident in Guerrero, whichsignifies Olmec civilization.
Classic Period – Increased Civilization
The period is described as the peak of civilization mostlyassociated with the Maya. It was typified by major achievements suchas unique writing as well as calendar structures, public architecturecomprising of pyramids, courts and palaces, vault architecture andpolychrome ceramics. Archaeological evidence of advanced civilizationderives from the discovery of two major pyramids at Teotihuacan citydated at 150 B.C –A.D. 750 (Werner 2015:404). One of the pyramidswas constructed in the northern end of the city, while the other wason the east. Under the second pyramid was a cave, which once had aspring. The Mesoamerican population during the classic periodtransformed the cave to hold four chambers. It is assumed that anexcavator during the nineteenth era discovered children sacrificialburials from the corners of the pyramids. To the south of the city isa smaller pyramid. Its sides are decorated with feathered serpents aswell as sea shells. The pyramids were built to match calendricallyrelevant measurements and in nesting layers (Werner 2015:404).
More evidence of the classic period derives from the presence andutilization of dated monuments. The extensive utilization of datedstela happened as the third century AD was coming to an end. Altarsand stela were used in recording religious, political as well associal Maya history via the use of the Long Count. The Long Countreferred to a calendrical arrangement founded on multiples of a year(Mesoamerican Research Center2015:1). The classic periodcomprised of seven centuries that depicted remarkable advancements inMaya civilizations, which were a result of steady population growth.The foundations of the civilization currently in place wereestablished during the classic period (Mesoamerican ResearchCenter 2015:1).
The classic period is categorized into early and late classicperiod. The two periods are divided by hiatus, a period of markeddecline in construction in specific at Tikal. Research attributeshiatus as a phenomenon strange to the Maya and assumed to have been aresult of a sequence of disparaging military activities (MesoamericanResearch Center 2015:1). The wars were founded on changingalliances between the in power centers. During the late classic,there was tremendous growth in Mesoamerica. Evidence of his growthderives from the existence of El Pillar (Mesoamerican ResearchCenter 205:1). At the period, society was in a better position tomanage the valuable resources located all through the ridge lands.The Maya supported the development of their society through creatinga unique association with their surroundings, in turn resulting inmore civilization.
However, as the classic period was coming to an end, Mayacivilization started to come apart. Increased disagreements were dueto competition for inadequate resources led to a drop in the Mayapopulation. Evidence derives from the lack of maintenance tomonumental centers like El Pillar, the abandoning of Maya settlementsand the falling down of major classic centers from the lowlands(Mesoamerican Research Center 2015:1).
Post Classic Period
The period refers to Mesoamerican civilizations before and afterSpanish conquest. After the collapse of Mesoamerica during theclassic period, the post classic ushered in important procedures.They included increased population, a rise in polities, increasinglong distance trading, economic commercialization, new types ofwriting and methods of stylistic relations (Smith and Berdan 2003:6).In the highland regions of Mesoamerica where there is properdocumentation on the methods of settlement, the regions experiencedremarkable population increase. The rise in population is attributedto a rise in rainfall, bringing to an end the drought that had beenexperienced during the sixth to eleventh centuries. Populationincrease resulted in more agriculture, involving irrigation schemes.Because the population needed more food, they had to invent methodsof increasing their food supply, which explains the intensiveagricultural practices.
The large populations during post classic period were categorizedinto political units, referred to as city-states. They acted as thefoundation for political organization all through the period prior toSpanish take-over. Superiority in the city states depended onmilitary power or symbolic status. Some of these city-states werespecially recognized owing to distinguishing characteristics. Forinstance, Texcoco became the hub for law, education and arts. Cholulaacted as a pilgrimage. Acalan was recognized for the cacao resources(Smith and Berdan 2003:6). The cities and their differentiators werenot merely recognized locally, rather all through the post classicarea. A different and significant feature of the period is increasedtrading activity. The amount of commodities available for trade seemsto have been more compared to earlier periods. Some of these sitesincluded the Yautepee valley in Morelos where ceramics were imported(Smith and Berdan 2003:7).
The economy was more commercialized when compared to prior economicstructures. Archaeological information from different Mesoamericansregions depicts that commercial exchange mainly happened inmarketplaces in post classic period (Smith and Berdan 2003:7). Alsounique about the period were the advent methods of writing as well asiconography. Contrary to former phonetic writing by the Olmec andMaya, writing systems had lesser phonetic glyphs. The benefit of theadvent writing system was that it was possible to uncouple text fromspecific languages. This means that it was possible for speakers fromdifferent language to read and construe meaning from the same text(Smith and Berdan 2003:8). The new method of writing employed colorand was evident in ceramics, paintings and codices. Evidence of thisform of writing derives from the Mixteca-Puebla technique, which waslargely used in the south and central parts of post classic Mexico(Smith and Berdan 2003:8). It was an important method ofcommunication used in long distance communication and during trade.
There was a continued development in Mesoamerica as cities continuedto thrive owing to increased communication. But, Mesoamericans werefacing the challenge of Spanish invasion. Following Spanish intrusioninto Mesoamerica, most of the developments started to collapse. TheSpanish began their invasion of Mesoamerica through establishment of“their base in northern Yucatan by 1546” (MesoamericanResearch Center 2015:1). They started to enforce their ideologieson the Mesoamericans resulted in immense disruption of thepopulation. As a result, Mesoamericans experienced enhancedrepression of their traditions. The Itza kingdom on the south ofMesoamerica was able to uphold their freedom for almost a centuryfollowing the invasion of Spain in the north. However in 1696, theSpanish managed to take over all Mesoamerican city-states(Mesoamerican Research Center 2015:1). Central Maya Lowlandsthat currently involve majority of Belize as well as Peten continueto be home to the Maya population capable of tracing their descent asdemonstrated by the presence of local villagers.
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