Mesoamerica - Venice High School
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OLMEC – MAYA –TEOTIHUACANTOLTEC - AZTEC
The Olmecs were the first real civilization in the Americas. Beginning around 1200 BCE, they lived in the Gulf Coast of southern Mexico. Olmec society was based on agriculture and had two groups: The elite group lived in small urban
centers. They were priests and also traded in luxury items The commoners lived in rural areas and were primarily farmers.
Around 300 BCE, the Olmecs vanished and no one knows why.
The Olmec are famous for carving huge stone heads. Archeologists believe the heads were of Olmec kings. The Olmec were the first main group in the history of Mesoamerican culture. The map shows their location.
The Maya lived from 300AD to 900AD in urban religious centers. In about 900AD, they left their great stone cities and went back into the jungle. They are still there today. The Maya lived in central Mexico, in the Yucatan peninsula and into Guatemala and Honduras. They were farmers and warriors, and were unusual for having a society in tropical rainforest.
The Maya were a very advanced and sophisticated people: As mathematicians, they invented zero. As astronomers, they had a very complex and
accurate calendar, as accurate as anything we have today. They had a written, hieroglyphic alphabet, much like the ancient Egyptians.
Many historians consider them to be quite similar to the ancient Greeks. The Mayan language is still spoken widely in central America.
Teotihuacan is the name of a great city very close to modern Mexico City, it is not the name of a tribe. It is an Aztec word that means “the place where men become Gods.” It’s culture started in 200 BC and lasted almost 1000 years Most of the people were farmers, who were ruled by a priest class. At its height, it had 100,000 people and was the greatest civilization in Mesoamerica. Its pyramids are famous today all over the world. Around 700AD, the people vanished; scholars think the city was invaded for there is much evidence of fire.
The Toltec were warriors. Their culture began in 950AD, two centuries after the fall of Teotihuacan and lasted till 1200AD. The Toltec conquered much of central Mexico, the Yucatan and Guatemala. They spread the culture of Teotihuacan throughout the areas they conquered. They expanded the mythology and worship of Quetzalcoatl (the sovereign plumed serpent).
The Toltecs conquered large areas controlled by the Maya. The most famous Mayan-Toltec city is Chichen Itza on the Yucatan peninsula. Both the Maya and the Toltec practiced human sacrifice to please the gods.
The Aztec legend says they came from the north, from Aztlan. About 1168, the Sun God told them to go south until they found an eagle, perched on a cactus, killing a snake. This is the symbol on the Mexican flag Here, on lake Texcoco, they built the great city of Tenochtitlan which was the capital of the Aztec empire, the greatest of all the empires in Mesoamerica.
They did not call themselves Aztec, they were called the Mexica (hence the name Mexico.) If the Maya were the Greeks of Mesoamerica, then the Aztec were the Romans. They were farmers, traders, skilled engineers, and fierce warriors who conquered all of the tribes around them and made them pay tribute, which did not make them popular with their neighbors, and this led to their downfall. In 1519AD, Hernan Cortez and a group of Spanish Conquistadores contacted the Aztec.
The Spanish soldiers had never seen a city as beautiful as Tenochtitlan, they were awed by it. But they were horrified by the Aztec practice of human sacrifice. Thousands of victims were sacrificed in a single day. This, and their quest for gold, led the Spanish to join with the tribes the Aztec had conquered and whom hated the Aztec, and defeated the Aztec and destroyed Tenochtitlan. The Aztec had never seen horses or guns and cannons. By 1522, the Aztec were gone as a power in Mexico The ruins of Tenochtitlan are still being discovered under Mexico City.