The Olmec

The Olmec to be the an initial major human being in Mexico, lasting from about 1500—400 BCE.

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Key Takeaways

Key PointsThe Olmec stayed in south-central Mexico, with their center in La Venta in Tabasco.Little is known about Olmec religion, despite scholars think there to be eight main deities.People live in tiny agricultural villages exterior of urban centers, which were greatly for ceremonial use.The decline of the Olmec population from 400—350 BCE may have actually been due to environmental changes.Key TermsLa Venta: The key city that the Olmec civilization.Mesoamerican ballgame: an old ritual sport that connected keeping a rubber sphere in play in designated courts. It most likely originated in the Olmec culture.Olmec colossal heads: Basalt sculptures the human encounters wearing huge helmeted headdresses the stand up to 3.4 meter high. This sculptures most most likely represent essential rulers.

The Olmec were the first major civilization in Mexico. They stayed in the dry lowlands the south-central Mexico, in the present-day states that Veracruz and also Tabasco, and had their center in the city of La Venta.

The Olmec flourished throughout Mesoamerica’s developmental period, dating about from as at an early stage as 1500 BCE to about 400 BCE. Pre-Olmec societies had flourished in the area since about 2500 BCE, yet by 1600–1500 BCE, beforehand Olmec society had emerged. They were the very first Mesoamerican civilization and also laid plenty of of the foundations for the people that followed, such as the Maya. Judging from the obtainable archeological evidence it is likely that they originated the Mesoamerican ballgame and feasible that they exercised ritual bloodletting.

The Gulf of Mexico’s lowlands room generally considered the birthplace the the Olmec culture, and remained the heartland that this civilization during that existence. This area is identified by swampy lowlands punctuated by short hills, ridges, and volcanoes. The Tuxtlas hills rise sharply in the north, along the Gulf of Mexico’s just of Campeche. Right here the Olmec created permanent city-temple complexes at mountain Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, La Venta, Tres Zapotes, and also Laguna de los Cerros. Mountain Lorenzo stayed the Olmec capital up until around 900 BCE, when the central city came to be La Venta, i m sorry remained sensible until the death of the Olmec roughly 400 BCE. Possible river or weather changes caused this activity to occur.

Trade and town Life

There room no written records of Olmec commerce, beliefs, or customs, however from the archeological evidence it shows up they to be not financially confined. In fact, Olmec artifacts have to be found across Mesoamerica, indicating the there were comprehensive interregional trade routes. The Olmec period saw a far-ranging increase in the length of trade routes, the variety of goods, and the resources of traded items.

Trading helped the Olmec construct their metropolitan centers of san Lorenzo and La Venta. However, these cities were used predominantly because that ceremonial purposes and also elite activity; most world lived in tiny villages. Individual dwellings had a lean-to and a storage pit nearby. They likewise likely had actually gardens, in which the Olmec would grow medicinal herbs and small crops, prefer sunflowers.


The great Pyramid in La Venta, Tabasco: stays of the last funding of the Olmec society, La Venta, include this religious site whereby elites most most likely performed rituals.

Most agriculture took place exterior of the villages in fields cleared making use of slash-and-burn techniques. The Olmec most likely grew crops such as:

MaizeBeansSquashManiocSweet potatoesCotton


Unfortunately, over there is no surviving direct account the Olmec beliefs, but their notable artwork carry out clues about their life and also religion.


Olmec king: making it through art, favor this relief of a king or chief discovered in La Venta, help carry out clues around how Olmec culture functioned.

There were eight various androgynous Olmec deities, each v its own distinctive characteristics. Because that example, the Bird Monster was illustrated as a harpy eagle associated with rulership. The Olmec Dragon was shown with fire eyebrows, a bulbous nose, and bifurcated tongue. These god were thought to administer the rulers a mandate come lead. Divine beings often represented a natural element and also included:

The Maize deityThe Rain soul or Were-JaguarThe Fish or Shark Monster

Religious activities concerning these divine beings probably had the elite rulers, shamans, and possibly a priest course making offerings at spiritual sites in La Venta and also San Lorenzo.


The Olmec culture was defined and unified by a certain art style, and this proceeds to it is in the hallmark the the culture. Wrought in a large number of media—jade, clay, basalt, and greenstone, amongst others—much Olmec art, such as The Wrestler, is surprisingly naturalistic. Other art expresses terrific anthropomorphic creatures, often highly stylized, making use of an iconography reflective that a religious meaning. Usual motifs include downturned mouths and a slot head, both that which are seen in representations of were-jaguars and also the rain deity.


Olmec hollow baby figurine: realistic ceramic objects, such together this portrayal of one infant, show the extremely skilled creative style of the Olmec culture.

Olmec Colossal Heads

The most striking arts left behind by this society are the Olmec colossal heads. Seventeen monumental rock representations of human heads sculpted from huge basalt boulders have been discovered in the region to date. The heads day from in ~ least before 900 BCE and are a distinctive attribute of the Olmec civilization. All portray mature guys with fleshy cheeks, level noses, and also slightly overcome eyes. However, none of the heads space alike, and each boasts a distinct headdress, which says they represent certain individuals.

The boulders were brought from the Sierra de los Tuxtlas mountains of Veracruz. Offered that the extremely big slabs of rock used in their manufacturing were transported over huge distances, inquiry a an excellent deal of human effort and resources, it is thought that the monuments stand for portraits of an effective individual Olmec rulers. The top were otherwise arranged in lines or groups at major Olmec centers, but the an approach and logistics provided to deliver the rock to this sites stay uncertain.

The exploration of a colossal head at Tres Zapotes in the 19th century spurred the an initial archaeological investigate of Olmec culture by Matthew Stirling in 1938. Many colossal heads to be sculpted indigenous spherical boulders, yet two from mountain Lorenzo Tenochtitlán were re-carved native massive rock thrones. Second monument, at Takalik Abaj in Guatemala, is a throne the may have actually been carved from a colossal head. This is the just known instance from exterior the Olmec heartland.

Olmec head: This sculpture is typical of the colossal heads of the Olmec.

The end of the Olmecs

The Olmec populace declined sharply between 400 and 350 BCE, despite it is unclear why. Excavators speculate the the depopulation was caused by eco-friendly changes, specifically riverine atmosphere changes. These alters may have actually been prompted by the silting up of rivers early out to farming practices.

Another theory for the considerable populace drop relates come tectonic upheavals or subsidence, as argued by Santley and also colleagues who propose relocation that settlements as result of volcanism, rather of extinction. Volcano eruptions during the Early, Late, and also Terminal developmental periods would have blanketed the lands and forced the Olmec to relocate their settlements.

The Mixtec

The Mixtec room a team who resided in modern-day Mexico before the Spanish conquest. Human being still identify as Mixtec today.

Learning Objectives

Distinguish between the Mixtec people and also the Mixtec language and identify when they were many prominent

Key Takeaways

Key PointsThe Mixtec survive today, but reached height prominence in the 11th century CE.The Mixtec language is a collection of as much as fifty languages, and is not to be perplexed with the Mixtec people.The Mixtec are famous in the anthropological world for your codices, or phonetic images in which they wrote their background and genealogies.Key TermsMixtec: indigenous Mesoamerican individuals inhabiting the region known together La Mixteca, which covers parts of the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla.Codices: Phonetic photos painted ~ above deerskin and also folded into books, which tape-recorded Mixtec background and genealogy.Tututepec: A significant city center during the height of the Mixtec state, positioned along the coastline of modern Oaxaca.

The Mixtec are aboriginal Mesoamerican individuals inhabiting the region known as La Mixteca, i beg your pardon covers parts of the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla. Though the Mixtec remain today, they were most influential in the 11th century and also the following years, until they were dominated by the Spanish and also their allies in the 16th century.

Before the arrival of Spanish hostility, a number of Mixtecan city-states competed with every other and also with the Zapotec kingdoms. The significant Mixtec polity to be Tututepec, which rose to prestige in the 11th century under the leadership of Eight Deer Jaguar Claw. This prominent leader to be the just Mixtec king to ever unite the highland and also lowland polities into a solitary Mixtec state. During this era over there were around 1.5 million Mixtecs populating this differed region.

Modern Mixtec People

Today there are approximately 800,000 Mixtec human being in Mexico, and also there are also large populations in the unified States. In current years a big exodus of indigenous peoples indigenous Oaxaca, such as the Zapotec and also Triqui, have emerged as among the most numerous groups the Amerindians in the united States. Together of 2011, an approximated 150,000 Mixtec world were living in California, and 25,000 to 30,000 to be living in new York City. Big Mixtec neighborhoods exist in the border cities of Tijuana; Baja California; mountain Diego, California; and Tucson, Arizona. Mixtec communities are generally described as trans-national or trans-border due to the fact that of their capacity to maintain and reaffirm society ties in between their indigenous homelands and also diasporic communities.

Mixtec Language

The word “Mixtec” is regularly used come refer no to the team of world of Mixtec ancestry, however to the household of languages that have developed alongside the group. Over there is no much longer one solitary Mixtec language; some estimate that there space fifty unique languages in the Mixtec family, consisting of Cuicatec and also Triqui.

Mixtec’s area: The historical geographical area lived in by the Mixtec, consisting of the important polities, such together Tututepec.

Mixtec History

Important old centers of the Mixtec include the old capital that Tilantongo, as well as the web page of Achiutla, Cuilapan, and also Yucuñudahui. The Mixtec likewise erected major constructions in ~ the old city of Monte Albán, which had originated as a Zapotec city before the Mixtec gained manage of it.


The west next platform at Monte Albán: This old city continued to be a religious site for centuries, and was more sparsely populated throughout the climb of smaller sized Mixtec polities. However, spiritual sites were frequently reused by Mixtec elites.

At the height of the Aztec empire (between 1428 and also 1521 CE) many Mixtec polities were required to salary tribute. However, plenty of Mixtec polities remained totally independent of the threatening empire, even as it expanded outward. The smaller Mixtec polities additionally put increase resistance come Spanish pressures led by Pedro de Alvarado until the invaders gained control of the region and destroyed any type of attempt in ~ a rebellion in 1521. Disease, weaponry, and local politics fractures likely aided the Spanish take on of the area.

Mixtex Art

The occupational of Mixtec artist who produced work in stone, wood, and also metal to be well concerned throughout old Mesoamerica. Mixtec artists were well-known for their superior mastery that jewelry, in i m sorry gold and also turquoise figured prominently. The intricate metalwork the Mixtec goldsmiths formed an important part that the tribute the Mixtecs had to salary to the Aztecs throughout parts of your history.


Mixtec funerary mask: Mixtec art consisted of the use of turquoise, gold, and carved stones, and exemplified artistry before the arrival of the Spanish.


The Mixtec are famed in the anthropological civilization for your codices, or voice pictures, in i beg your pardon they composed their history and genealogies in deerskin in the “fold-book” form. The best-known story that the Mixtec codices is that of mr Eight Deer, named after the work on i beg your pardon he was born, whose personal name to be Jaguar Claw, and whose epic history is related in number of codices. He properly conquered and also united most of the Mixteca region.


A web page from the Codex Bodley: This codex speak the story the the Tilantongo and Tiaxiaco dynasties.

Codices have the right to be review from ideal to left and also often measure plenty of feet long. The Codex Bodley procedures twenty-two feet long and also contains facility explanations of necessary family lineages and creation stories, such as the war of Heaven, that directly refer ago to upstream dynasties. The conservation of these exceptionally rare Codices paints a distinct picture of Mesoamerica right prior to the arrival of Spanish forces.


Teotihuacan was a city founded exterior of contemporary Mexico City in 100 BCE and was recognized for the pyramids.

Key Takeaways

Key PointsTeotihuacan was founded approximately 100 BCE and also reached that is peak population around 450 CE.Teotihuacan was a multi-ethnic city, with unique quarters occupied by Otomi, Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya and also Nahua peoples.The geography layout the Teotihuacan is a an excellent example the the Mesoamerican heritage of plan cities, settlements, and also buildings together a reflections of their check out of the Universe.Key TermsThe great Goddess: This deity was one of the main icons of Teotihuacano spiritual culture. She appears in painted murals with images associated with the underworld, birth, death, and creation.Teotihuacan: A huge precolumbian Mesoamerican city known for its archeological significance.Pyramid of the Sun: The largest building in Teotihuacan, which measures 246 feet high and 736 feet wide.

Just 30 mile from modern day Mexico City lies the precolumbian Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan. That is well known for that pyramids and collection of accompanying residential compounds, yet was once much much more than one archaeological and tourist site.

Archaeological evidence argues that Teotihuacan to be a multi-ethnic city, with distinctive quarters occupied by Otomi, Totonac, Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya, and also Nahua peoples. In 2001, Terrence Kaufman presented etymological evidence arguing that critical ethnic team in Teotihuacan to be of Totonacan or Mixe–Zoquean linguistic affiliation. Other scholars maintain that the largest populace group must have actually been that Otomi ethnicity, because the Otomi language is well-known to have actually been talked in the area approximately Teotihuacan both before and also after the classic period and not during the center period.

Although that is a subject of debate whether Teotihuacan to be the center of a state empire, its affect throughout Mesoamerica is fine documented; evidence of Teotihuacano presence have the right to be viewed at numerous sites in Veracruz and also the Maya region. Plenty of Maya murals represent Teotihucuan and also the leaders of the city throughout its zenith. The Aztecs were also heavily affected by the architecture, culture, and also lore that this ancient city, claiming typical ancestry through the Teotihuacanos and also adopting few of their artistic and architectural styles.

Founding the the City

The city and culture, which have the right to be described as Teotihuacan or Teotihuacano, is thought to have been established around 100 BCE, with major monuments consistently under building and construction until around 250 CE. It started as a new religious facility in the mexican Highland and a large population was attracted to the city end a couple of centuries. The may have lasted till sometime between the 7th and 8th centuries CE, yet its major monuments were sacked and also systematically burned roughly 550 CE. At its zenith, approximately the very first half the the first millennium CE, Teotihuacan to be the biggest city in the pre-Columbian Americas, v a populace estimated in ~ 125,000 or more. It’s varied population made it, at minimum, the sixth largest city in the human being during that epoch. The city eventually had multi-floor apartment compounds built to accommodate this huge population.

Mysterious Founders and also Religion

The founders of this religious and populated city continue to be a secret to scholars of the area. Some have speculated that the Xitle volcano, which is located southwest of contemporary Mexico City, may have actually prompted a fixed emigration the end of the central valley and also into the Teotihuacan valley. These displaced settlers may have founded, or in ~ least aided grow, the city.

An alternating explanation is the the Totonac people, that still stay today, established Teotihuacan. There is likewise evidence that at least some of the people living in Teotihuacan immigrant from those locations influenced by the Teotihuacano civilization, including the Zapotec, Mixtec, and also Maya peoples.


Mural the the an excellent Goddess of Teotihuacan: This an effective goddess was connected with darkness, mystery, death, and also creation. She was often shown with owls, jaguars, and spiders, all creatures that the earth, darkness and also the underworld. This mural is indigenous the Tetitla compound at Teotihuacan.

As a religious center, Teotihuacan presented its most significant gods and also goddesses in murals and also architecture. The great Goddess the Teotihuacan appears to it is in the most significant of these deities, and she likely represented the underworld, war, creation, water, and the earth. Evidence of human sacrifices to respect the perfect of structures or distinct times that year has additionally been uncovered by archeologists. Captives from wars were decapitated, had actually their understanding removed, were bludgeoned, or were buried alive to commemorate this momentous occasions.


Pyramid that the Sun: This giant pyramid dwarfs the smaller platforms bordering it and also was the largest structure at Teotihuacan.


The city’s broad main avenue, dubbed “Avenue the the Dead” (a translation indigenous its Nahuatl name Miccoatli), is flanked by outstanding ceremonial architecture, consisting of the immense Pyramid the the sunlight (third biggest in the human being after the an excellent Pyramid of Cholula and the good Pyramid of Giza) and the Pyramid of the Moon. Along the avenue of the Dead are countless smaller talud-tablero platforms. The Aztecs thought they to be tombs, motivating the Nahuatl surname of the avenue.


Pyramid of the Moon: This pyramid is the second largest in Teotihuacan.

Further down the way of the Dead is the area well-known as the Citadel, include the destroyed Temple that the Feathered Serpent. This area was a large plaza surrounding by holy places that created the religious and political center of the city. Many of the common human being lived in big apartment structures spread throughout the city. Numerous of the buildings contained workshops where artisans created pottery and other goods.

Teotihuacan City Plan: The layout of Teotihuacan illustration Mesoamerican urban planning

The geography layout of Teotihuacan is a great example that the Mesoamerican heritage of plan cities, settlements, and also buildings as a have fun of the Universe. Its metropolitan grid is set to precisely 15.5º eastern of North. One theory says this is as result of the reality that the sun climbed at that exact same angle throughout the very same summer day every year. Settlers offered the alignment to calibrate their feeling of time or together a marker for planting crops or performing certain rituals. An additional theory is the there room numerous ancient sites in Mesoamerica the seem to it is in oriented v the tallest mountain in their given area. This appears to be the case at Teotihuacan, back the hill to which that is oriented is not visible from within the Teotihuacan complex due to a closer hill ridge. Pecked-cross circles throughout the city and in the neighboring regions indicate just how the human being managed to preserve the city grid over long distances. It also allowed them come orient the Pyramids come the remote mountain that was the end of sight.

Fall the Teotihuacan

There is an recurring debate around why Teotihuacan collapsed and the populace abandoned this city center. Evidence of climate changes, which led to severe droughts roughly 535 CE, imply there to be a general population decrease in the region. In fact, archeological digs have revealed juvenile skeletons with signs of malnutrition, i m sorry probably required populations come move and also caused inner social strife. More archeological proof reveals that only the buildings connected with the elites follow me the path of the Dead were sacked and burned. This form of task suggests there might have been internal unrest and also possibly a revolt against the elite strength structure, which caused the collapse of the city.

The Zapotec

The Zapotec civilization occurred in modern Mexico and also lasted from approximately the sixth century BCE to the 16th century CE.

Key Takeaways

Key PointsThe Zapotec civilization originated in the three main Valleys the Oaxaca in the late 6th Century BCE.There are five distinct Zapotec periods, denoted Monte Albán 1–5 (after the ar of origin).The Zapotec to be polytheists who emerged a calendar and also logosyllabic writing system.Key TermsMitla: The main religious city the the Zapotec culture. Intricate buildings and also artwork display screen the wealth of spiritual life because that the Zapotec elite.Monte Alban: The ar of origin for the Zapotec civilization.Cocijo: The lightning and rain god the the Zapotec civilization. He was the most necessary of the religious figures and also was believed to have developed the universe v his breath.

The Zapotec people originated in the three main Valleys that Oaxaca in the late sixth Century BCE. The valleys to be divided in between three different-sized societies, be separated by no-man’s-land in the middle, today inhabited by the city of Oaxaca. Archaeological evidence native the period, together as shed temples and also sacrificed captives, says that return the three societies shared linguistic, cultural, and religious traditions, they also competed versus one another.


Panorama from Monte Albán: The see from the website of beginning of the Zapotec rulers that increased power beyond the central Valleys that Oaxaca.

Five Phases

The Zapotec state created at Monte Albán. This consolidation that power began outward politics expansion throughout the so late Monte Albán 1 step (400–100 BCE) and throughout the Monte Albán 2 phase (100 BCE–200 CE). Zapotec rulers native Monte Albán seized manage of provinces exterior the valley of Oaxaca through their remarkable military and political clout, which conveniently overtook less-developed local entities. By 200 CE, the end of the Monte Albán 2 phase, the Zapotecs had expanded their influence, from Quiotepec in the phibìc to Ocelotepec and Chiltepec in the South. The spiritual and cultural city the Monte Albán had come to be the largest city in what room today the southerly Mexican highlands. This powerful city maintained this standing until about 700 CE.

Monte Albán phases: historical Monte Albán phases and also the expression of every phase.

Expansion and Decline

Between Monte Albán phases 1 and 2 there was a significant expansion the the populace of the valley of Oaxaca. Together the populace grew, so did the degree of social differentiation, the centralization of political power, and also ceremonial activity. Another effect the this population boom and also the political expansion of the military throughout Monte Albán 1–2 was the development of fragmented, independent states. These areas developed local centers of strength with distinct leaders and also linguistic dialects. However, the Zapotec rulers retained control over vast swaths the the region. Some archeologists argue that the building centered top top the key plaza that Monte Albán has depictions of fancy heads, which represent the rulers of overcame provinces.


Jade warrior mask native Monte Albán: This jade replica illustrates the fierce armed forces presence the initially expanded the Zapotec holdings during Monte Albán phase 2.

The Zapotecs to be ultimately destroyed by Spanish invaders. Having actually lost militarily come the Aztecs in war from 1497–1502, the Zapotecs tried to protect against confrontation with the Spaniards, and also hopefully the tragic fate that the Aztecs. The Spaniards took benefit of this pacifist stance and ultimately defeated the Zapotecs after 5 years of campaigns ending in 1527. The come of new diseases and steel weapons likewise weakened any attempts in ~ a rebellion from the Zapotec population. There to be some subsequent uprisings versus the new rulers, however for all intents and purposes, the Zapotecs to be conquered. However, the seven Zapotec languages, and also hundreds the Zapotec dialects, still make it through with populations that have actually spread throughout Mexico and also Los Angeles, California.

Zapotec Writing and also Religion

The Zapotecs occurred a calendar and also a logosyllabic device of composing that supplied a separate glyph to stand for each of the rate of the language. This writing mechanism is thought to be among the an initial writing equipment of Mesoamerica and also a predecessor the those occurred by the Maya, Mixtec, and Aztec civilizations.

Like most Mesoamerican religious systems, the Zapotec religious beliefs was polytheistic. Two major deities contained Cocijo, the rain god (similar to the Aztec god Tlaloc), and Coquihani, the god of light. This deities, together with many others, centered approximately concepts that fertility and also agriculture. The is likely that the Zapotec practiced human sacrifices come these god of fertility, and additionally played elaborate and also ritualistic ball gamings in the court at Monte Albán. They likewise practiced dedication rituals, which cleansed a brand-new space. Fine pieces of rare jade, pearl, and obsidian were uncovered in a cache in Oaxaca, and also were probably used to cleanse spiritual sites or temples upon the perfect of construction.


The ball court in ~ Monte Albán: A spiritual ball video game utilizing a rubber sphere was exercised throughout Mesoamerica by young males playing because that sacred, and often sacrificial, purposes.

According come historic, as well as contemporary, Zapotec legends, their ancestors arised from the earth or native caves, or rotate into world from trees or jaguars. Their governing upstream apparently believed that they descended from mythological beings the lived among the clouds, and also that upon fatality they would return to the exact same status. In fact, the name by which Zapotecs are recognized today results from this belief. The Zapotecs that the main Valleys contact themselves “Be’ena’ Za’a”—the Cloud People.

A funerary urn in the shape of a “bat god” or a jaguar: c. 300–650 CE. Height: 9.5 in (23 cm).


Evidence that the main role of religion in the Zapotec cultural hierarchy is pronounced in ~ the spiritual city that Mitla. The is the 2nd most important archeological website in the state the Oaxaca, and the most important of the Zapotec culture. The website is situated 44 kilometers indigenous the city of Oaxaca. When Monte Albán to be most vital as the politics center, Mitla was the main spiritual center, as evidenced by the fancy buildings and artwork throughout the city. The name “Mitla” is acquired from the Nahuatl surname “Mictlán,” which was the place of the dead or underworld. That is Zapotec name is Lyobaa, which way “place the rest.” The name “Mictlán” to be Hispanicized come “Mitla” through the Spanish.


Fretwork top top a building in the religious capital of Mitla: This complex fretwork illustrates the spiritual importance that this ancient city in the Zapotec culture.

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What renders Mitla unique amongst Mesoamerican website is the elaborate and also intricate mosaic fretwork and geometric designs the cover tombs, panels, friezes, and even whole walls. This mosaics space made v small, carefully cut and also polished rock pieces, which have actually been fitted together without the use of mortar. No other site in Mexico has this.