Lecture 28: Olmecs, Mayans and Teotihuacan - Mesoamerica to AD 900

This week we turn to another group of civilizations with traditions radically different from any of the civilizations we have considered so far. These civilizations are called Mesoamerican, because they appeared in an area that extends from southern Mexico through Central America and into Peru. Each civilization we will discuss developed in isolation from civilizations on other continents. Whereas the Mediterranean world, Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East were in regular contact with each other, the civilizations that straddled North and South America had no access to the constant ferment we have traced across Europe, Africa, and Asia. Mesoamerica, thus, went its own way, and the concomitant isolation brought certain handicaps. Mesoamericans never developed the wheel, nor were they able to use draught animals to plow their fields. In addition, some civilizations, as we will see, rose without developing literacy. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that Mesoamerican civilizations did not develop in isolation from each other. Much as we have seen in other areas, there was a constant process of interaction, which included trade, cultural borrowing, war, and domination. Mesoamerican civilizations rose, declined, and fell for many and varied reasons before the first European set foot in the New World.
We will begin understanding Mesoamerica by considering the Continent’s prehistory. Somewhere between 30,000 and 15,000 BC small numbers of people migrated from Asia across a land bridge to North America. The land bridge existed because the world was still at the tail end of its last Ice Age, and the earth’s glaciers held back enough water to lower the sea level. There is sporadic evidence of cave dwellers that may date back as far as 21,000 BC, but by 13,000 BC a large wave of migration from Siberia began and these people dispersed quickly across the entire land mass. There is archeological evidence that by 9,500 BC human beings had reached the southern tip of South America, which amounts to a journey of 17,000 kilometers.
The Americas’ first inhabitants were primarily hunter-gatherers. Indeed, much of humanity’s migration southward was probably due to the constant search for food and game. By 8,000 BC, however, the last Ice Age came to an end and this had important consequences for the people in the Americas. First, as the earth warmed the sea level rose above the land bridge, cutting off the Americas from the rest of the world for the next 9,500 years. Second, the large game animals on which these people relied were unable to survive in the higher temperatures and began to die out. By 7,500 BC most of the large game was extinct and the locals turned to the sea and to agriculture, though there is evidence of mastodon hunting as late as 8000 BC.
By 7,000 BC most of the peoples in Mesoamerica were cultivating crops that have today become standard. Maize, beans, chili peppers, avocados, squashes, and gourds all appeared, becoming fundamental to the Mesoamerican diet. Maize is both an interesting and strange case, because unlike with modern grains, we do not know where it came from, since there are no wild species left. The development of corn cultivation would, nonetheless, be of extraordinary importance, since it is an extremely nutritious crop. Much like rice was to China and Japan, maize became the foundation of empires. As we look forward, archeologists have shown us a gradual transition from hunting and gathering to settled agriculture. By 6,500 BC Mesoamericans living in Oaxaca were growing chili peppers and squash. Between 5000 and 3,500 BC the first signs of modern maize appeared. By 3,500 BC beans appeared in recognizable modern form. These early villagers lived in Neolithic circumstances, weaving cloth, making pottery, and fashioning stone tools. By 4,000 BC pottery appeared in Ecuador and Colombia. And pottery has been found in the Tehuacán valley dating to 2,300 BC. These early villages were small and probably egalitarian in their social structure.
Between 1200 and 900 BC, however, this egalitarianism began to disappear, as the large earthen pyramids and stone sculptures signaled a change in political and social organization. Ceremonial centers appeared, over which a permanent cadre of priests and other members of the ruling elite to presided. The first sign in Mesoamerica of civilization along these lines came with a people we now call the Olmecs. The word Olmec means “the rubber people,” in reference to the rubber trees that grew in the area; we do not know, however, the name the Olmecs had for themselves, since none of their documents has survived. The first Olmec ceremonial center appeared around 1200 BC on the site now occupied by the town of San Lorenzo. San Lorenzo served as the Olmec capital for about 400 years and was replaced by new centers in La Venta (800-400 BC) and, later, Tres Zapotes (400-100 BC). These areas were agriculturally wealthy, thanks to a large annual rainfall. The rain served an organizational purpose similar to the flood of the Nile: in order to live in this area, it was necessary to develop extensive drainage systems. This the Olmecs did, and some of them still function today.
The change from village life to civilization is most apparent in Olmec artistic practice. San Lorenzo is famous for its stone monuments. These monuments weighed as much as forty-four tons and were made from basalt brought from 50 miles away. The labor involved in this work was on a par with the work we have seen in Egypt, and it suggests a centralized politics that could direct resources and people to specific projects. This probably meant that Olmec society was authoritarian, and it is worth keeping in mind when considering some of the beautiful things they left behind. The most striking of Olmec monuments are the famous “colossal heads,” which may show people wearing helmets that were used in public sporting events. (I will talk about them in a minute.) Olmec art also provides a glimpse into its religious structures. The main theme of religious art was a group of deities that was usually a hybrid between a jaguar and human being. There was a variety of gods based on this mixture, ranging from feminine to masculine. This half jaguar/half human theme was central to Olmec art and it was later exported to many other Mesoamerican civilizations. The spread of Olmec art was due in large measure the extensive trading network that it controlled. Olmecs exported goods such as pottery and cloth and imported things such as obsidian from Mexican highlands and Guatemala, as well as jade after 900 BC. The Olmecs were perhaps ancient Mesoamerica’s finest jade artists and their artifacts have been found far and wide. There is evidence that Olmecs sent armed escorts with their caravans, in order to ensure that their goods arrived. This early stage of civilization disappeared quite abruptly, however, around 900 BC. It may be that a tribe invaded San Lorenzo and destroyed many of the Olmecs’ key monuments, though some historians believe, however, that the Olmecs destroyed the city themselves. It is not clear why. Nonetheless, with the decline of San Lorenzo, the power center shifted to La Venta, which was more easily defended. This city flourished until 400 BC, when the Olmecs destroyed and abandoned it. Thereafter, Tres Zapotes took the lead until it finally collapsed around 100 BC.
The Olmec civilization was not only the first great civilization in Mesoamerica but also was fundamental to every later culture in the area. Olmec influence extended across Mesoamerica in terms of art and culture. Let us consider briefly four contributions that persisted in other cultures. The first was writing. The later Mayan script, for example, was based on the Olmec language. Second, Olmec religious ideas persisted. The Olmec tendency to include Jaguars and serpents in their religious imagery persisted up through the Maya, Teotihuacan, and even the Aztecs. If you go to Teotihuacan today you will notice the ubiquity of Jaguar motifs. This is important evidence of Olmec influence, since Jaguars have never lived in that part of Mexico. Third, we have the example of sport. The Olmecs played a rough contact sport that is best described as a mixture between soccer and basketball. Anywhere from 2 to 4 heavily padded players competed on a large court to shoot a hard rubber ball through a stone hoop--and they had to do this without using their hands or feet. This game was extremely popular among the Mayans, as they built stadiums for the event. Finally, there was the Olmec calendar. Actually, it was two calendars, one that marked the solar year and another that marked the ritual year. The Mayans, in particular, proved to be great borrowers of this tradition. Thus, much like the Romans in Europe, or the Chinese in Asia, the Olmecs exerted a strong influence over every later cultural tradition.
Although there were other heirs to the Olmecs, particularly the Zapotecs in Monte Albán, the people in Teotihuacan and the Maya are the two most important successors. Teotihuacan civilization arose in the Mexican highlands. This area was drier than the semi-tropical area in which the Olmecs appeared, but it had several large lakes that were rich in fish and waterfowl. These lakes were drained over the centuries and only small remnants of all the previous waters exist. Teotihuacan was probably a small agricultural village by about 500 BC. The presence of large water supplies allowed the community to flourish and by 200 BC it may have had a population of 50,000 people. It is that this point that Teotihuacan enters its period of ascendancy. By AD 100 its most famous monuments, the pyramids of the sun and the moon, had been built. The pyramid of the sun is the largest structure built in Mesoamerica. It is as broad as the great pyramid at Khufu, though only half as tall. Between AD 400 and 600 Teotihuacan became an enormous metropolis, with 200,000 residents and scores of palaces, temples, and enormous markets.
Teotihuacan was a highly organized city and civilization. Unfortunately, we do not know much about its organizational structure, since its written records disappeared when the city declined. The remaining archeological records suggest, however, that Teotihuacan was a theocracy, with priests determining when planting and harvesting was to take place. Priests calculated the calendar, which allowed the people to know where they were in time. Teotihuacan was also an important merchant hub. It included artisans, merchants, and farmers. The artisans were famous for their orange pottery and the work they did with obsidian. The resulting goods moved throughout Mesoamerica, as is evidenced by Teotihuacan’s wares appearing as far south at Guatemala City and as far north as Durango.
Teotihuacan remained mainly a farming community until about AD 500. Its influence seems to have been spread through commerce and its cultural reputation. The Mayan settlement of Kaminaljuyú, for example, came under Teotihuacan’s influence in the fourth century without any evidence of conquest. After AD 500, however, Teotihuacan came under military pressure from other peoples. This is suggested by changes in artistic styles. Until this time Teotihuacan’s artisans rarely depicted warlike scenes. After AD 500, however, this art comes to included eagles, coyotes, and jaguars, which were normally associated with war and military conquest. After AD 650, Teotihuacan entered a period of decline, and around AD 750 invaders sacked the city and burned it, destroying most of the records. After this attack the inhabitants deserted the city and it fell into ruin.
The Mayans, perhaps the greatest of Mesoamerican civilizations, appeared further south in the area that is today Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. The Guatemalan highlands, in particular, provided fertile soil and sufficient rain for a rich agriculture. During the third century BC small villages began to appear in and around the area, the most important of which was Kaminaljuyú, which was located near modern Guatemala City. Kaminaljuyú was a ceremonial center, rather than a traditional city, as those who worked the land returned to their villages after participating in the center’s ceremonial life. The city center was a major consumer of labor: it probably took 12,000 to 15,000 workers complete its major monuments. By the fourth century AD, however, this city came under Teotihuacan’s sway and lost much of the influence it had over other Mayan settlements.
After Kaminaljuyú’s relative decline, Mayan society’s center moved to lowland areas, which were not quite as agriculturally productive. In order to deal with the poor soil, the Maya developed an extensive terrace network that trapped tropical topsoil, thereby increasing crop yields. In this way the Maya produced the maximum amount of food possible, including crops such as maize, cotton, and cacao, which was highly prized and even became a form of currency. From about AD 300 to 900 the Maya built more than 80 large ceremonial centers in and around the Yucatan peninsula. Some of these centers turned into cities, with thousands of inhabitants. One of the most famous of the cities was Tikal, which between AD 600 and 800 had a population of around 40,000 people. Tikal had large plazas and was full of temples, pyramids, and every other form of public building. The Mayans organized themselves into a series of small kingdoms. Tikal was the most important, though other major kingdoms centered on Palenque and Chichén Itzá. These kingdoms were constantly at war with each other. The purpose behind this warfare was not, however, to destroy the enemy, but to take captives, because captives became either slaves, or human sacrifices.
Mayan society was ruled by kings and a large class of priests who oversaw the ritual sacrifices and other ceremonies that Mayan religion deemed necessary for perpetuating civilization. The Maya built on the religion that they had borrowed from the Olmecs, devising both a sophisticated calendar and complicating Olmec forms of writing. The Maya were great astronomers and mathematicians. Not only could they plot the course of the planets, but they also invented zero and were able to use it mathematically. Indeed, Mayans could predict eclipses centuries before anyone in Europe could do the same. Mayan priests used these skills to find the Mayans’ position within a complicated calendrical system. The Mayans had two calendars, on that was based on the 365-day solar year and another that was based on a ritual calendar of 260 days. By finding out where the Maya were within these two calendars, the Maya believed that each day could be ascribed a particular meaning.
In spite of the Maya’s great achievements, by about AD 800 the people began to desert their cities. Only Chichén Itzá, among all the others, continued to flourish. No one knows why this happened. We only know that the monuments the Mayans put up every two years to mark time’s passing stopped appearing around AD 800. It may have been problems with the weather, foreign invasion, or disease; but by the ninth century Mesoamerica’s greatest civilization was disappearing. This decline, together with the destruction of Teotihuacan would open the door to other, small civilizations. We will trace the rise of these others next time, and we will also discuss Mesoamerica’s other great centers for civilization that appeared in the Andes.

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