Pre-Hispanic Mexico (History & Highlights)

The history of Mexico can be broadly divided into two eras: before and after the Spanish conquest that began with the arrival of Hernán Cortés in 1519. Prior to the arrival of the Conquistadors, Mexico was a collection of city-states that arose as formerly nomadic peoples developed agriculture, which allowed them to organize into sophisticated civilizations that eventually spread throughout Mesoamerica (the region including present-day Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Costa Rica).

This page summarizes the history of pre-Hispanic Mexico and the photos at the right offer the highlights of the various historical sites I have visited. The photos present the sites in roughly chronological order. For more detail (and more photos) about a particular site, visit one of the "Related Pages" listed below.

Among the earliest of the pre-Hispanic civilizations was the Olmec, who flourished from about 1500 to 600 BCE in the what are now the Mexican states of Tabasco and Veracruz. The Olmec developed mathematics, created a calendar based on observation of the planets, and are believed to be the source of many of the architectural, religious and cultural influences adopted by later Mesoamerican civilizations. By 400 BCE, the major Olmec sites had been destroyed.

As Olmec civilization declined, others arose in the highlands of Mexico. Around 500 BCE, the Zapotec people began building a religious center and capital at Monte Albán, in what is now the state of Oaxaca. At its height, about 500 CE, the city had a population of approximately 25,000 people. The Zapotecs also developed one of the earliest systems of writing in the western hemisphere. (There is some debate whether the Zapotecs or Olmecs first developed writing, but it is generally agreed that the writing developed in Mesoamerica is one of only four systems in history to develop independently of outside influences – the other systems being Sumerian, Egyptian and Chinese.)

Between 100 CE and 650 CE, the great city-state of Teotihuacán, about 25 miles northeast of modern-day Mexico City, rose to become a powerful and important cultural, commercial and religious center. At its height it had a population of about 125,000, making it one of the largest cities in the world at the time. Teotihuacán boasted  many monumental structures, including the Pyramid of the Sun, which reached more than 200 feet high.

Meanwhile, in southern Mexico and Central America, the great Maya civilization entered its Classic period that lasted from about 250 CE to 900. During this time, the Maya built large religious centers at Tikal in Guatemala, Palenque in southern Mexico and Copan in Honduras that included ball courts, homes, and temples. They developed a hieroglyphic style of writing and recorded mythology, history, and rituals in inscriptions carved and painted on stone slabs or pillars known as stelae. In addition, the Maya developed a calendar that was the most accurate in the world until the development of the Gregorian calendar in 16th-Century Europe.

About 900 CE, the Maya centers in southern Mexico and Central America were mysteriously abandoned and some Maya migrated to Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. During this "Postclassic" period from 900 until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, the Yucatán became the center of Maya civilization. During this period, Chichén Itzá, with the influx of Itzá traders and seamen from the south, developed into a large and vibrant city that supported some 35,000 people by the 11th century. Because Chichén Itzá shares so many architectural, religious and artistic influences with the Toltec capital of Tula, archaeologists long believed that the militaristic Toltecs had invaded and overwhelmed Chichén Itzá, bringing their architecture and religion with them. Most archaeologists, however, are now convinced that Tula was in reality one of many cities with which Chichén Itzá traded and that the common influences flowed along this trade route from Chichén Itzá to Tula.

Tula, about 50 miles north of present-day Mexico City, was the capital Toltec civilization that flourished between 900 CE and 1150. The Toltec civilization declined and eventually collapsed in the 12th century when they were overwhelmed by people from the north fleeing pervasive droughts.

A century later several Nahuatl-speaking tribes, led by the Mexica tribe, moved south into the Valley of Mexico and established what would become the Aztec Empire. According to legend, the Aztecs established their settlement on the site where they observed an eagle with a serpent in its grasp on top of a cactus. The eagle and the serpent are the state symbol of modern Mexico and are depicted on the nation's flag and currency. Mexico itself takes its name from the Mexica tribe.

As Aztec civilization grew, it established powerful military and civil organizations. Their capital, known as Tenochtitlán, was built in the middle of large lake on an island that could be reached by long causeways. Tenochtitlán grew from a small village of huts into a large city of adobe houses and stone temples. It is estimated that at the time of the Spanish invasion in the early 1500s, the city was one of the largest in the world and supported a population of about 200,000 people. As Aztec military strength increased, they extended their influence throughout the entire Valley of Mexico. By the 15th century, the Aztecs had become the preeminent power in central and southern Mexico. They controlled territory west to the Pacific Ocean, east to the Gulf of Mexico, and south nearly to the modern-day border with Guatemala.

One of the few pre-Hispanic civilizations to resist the Aztec juggernaut was the Purépecha (later called Tarasca by the Spanish) city of Tzintzuntzan in the modern-day state of Michoacán near the city of Pátzcuaro.

Part of the reason the warlike Aztecs extended into new territories was their insatiable need for a fresh supply of victims for human sacrifice to appease the Aztec gods of earth, sun and rain. Aztec priests offered the gods human hearts and blood from just-killed victims, who were often male prisoners captured in battle and brought to the top of a ceremonial pyramid for sacrifice. Aztec religion also included worship of the feathered serpent Quetzalcóatl, the god of wind and learning. According to Mesoamerican legend, the fair-skinned Quetzalcóatl had been deceived and disgraced by another god and departed to the east, promising to return in a certain year (one of 52 in the Mesoamerican 52-year calendrical cycle) and destroy those who worshiped his enemies. By the early 1500s, word of the arrival of the fair-skinned Spaniards in the Caribbean Sea reached the Aztec capital, triggering rumors that an angry Quetzalcóatl had returned to exact his revenge. As it happened, the Spanish arrived in the exact year foretold by the prophecy, a 1 in 52 (less than 2%) probability.

Several factors conspired to allow a small band of Spaniards to conquer the mighty Aztec empire. First, as noted, the Aztecs at first believed the Spanish represented the return of the vengeful god, Quetzalcóatl. Second, in broadening their empire, the Aztecs had created bitter enemies among the surrounding tribes, many of whom were easily persuaded to join the Spanish in their attacks on the Aztecs. Third, the Spanish had already established bases in the Caribbean, particularly in Cuba, that allowed them to launch expeditions into Mexico, confident that a short retreat would return them to safety if need be. Finally the Spanish had several weapons their adversaries lacked: guns, artillery, metal armor and, the most deadly of all, European diseases such as smallpox and measles to which the indigenous peoples of the New World had no natural immunity. In August 1521, Tenochtitlán fell after a long and brutal siege. The Spanish were firmly implanted in Mexico.

The Spanish systematically destroyed virtually all traces of Tenochtitlán and built what would become modern-day Mexico City in its place. Over the centuries, the lake was filled in and all that remains today of the mighty Tenochtitlán is a small excavation in the center of Mexico City known as the Templo Mayor. Pre-Hispanic civilizations were destroyed throughout Mexico (and later South America) and the local people were often forced into slavery. By some accounts, within the first 100 years of Spanish occupation, more than 90% of the indigenous population died from smallpox, measles or slavery in the mines.

Related Pages: Chichén Itzá, Teotihuacán, Tula, Tzintzuntzan.