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Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

Books, computer games, comic book stories and even movies have considered the Mesoamerican civilizations and its people as a very good source of inspiration for stories. It is because of the incredible state of life they have lived and the features of this life. One of the most interesting place and time in the history of the world wherein art, astronomy, agriculture and social life sprung forth with immense intensity that it has influenced the rest of the world even if it was detached from the influences of the old world, is the Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

The Mesoamerica is a collection of neighboring civilizations and groups of people who are living their life; while Europe, on the other side of the world, was alternately flourishing and crumbling. These includes popular groups like the Mayas, the Aztecs, the Olmecs and other native Indian social groups inside this cluster of civilizations that gave the world so much of a lot of things.

The pre Columbian Mesoamerican people, the civilizations and the socio-cultural features of these groups have been heavily studied. Efforts to understand these people, especially their socio cultural lives prior to the entry of European conquerors, are still being studied until today. This is because of the fact that there is just too much information about the Pre Columbian Mesoamerica.

This is true even with the fact that much of the writings of the Mesoamerican civilizations were destroyed by burning after the European conquerors arrived in the region. This research paper will aim at putting forward some of the significant characteristics of the Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations and the characteristics that these groups shared as a whole that defined what Mesoamerica was about as a collective entity.

From political characteristics to the discussion of art and other important aspects, this research paper will discuss these significant vestiges of the Mesoamerican civilizations as characteristics of a selected group of people that were not yet influenced by the ideas of the western old world, which makes this a genuine reflection of the roots and origins of a particular group of people and civilizations. In the discussion of the pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, it is important to focus on the main civilizations found in this particular area.

It is in these major civilizations that the major and significant characteristics of the pre-Columbian Mesoamerica can be found and is reflected. These civilizations are the Toltec and the Teotihuacan civilizations – considered as “the pinnacle of classic Mesoamerican urbanism (Drennan, Fitzgibbons, Dehn 174)”, the Maya and the Mexica (or Aztec) civilizations, and lastly, the Olmec civilization, which traced its roots in the Gulf of Mexico where it started.

These groups and civilization shared similar characteristics in different aspects of social life. These similarities allow for the creation of generalized Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican characteristics, particularly in politics, economy and culture. One of the characteristics shared by the Mesoamerican people prior to the arrival of Europeans is the social feature of a political system wherein members of the society, especially those who are considered as leaders, are identified and placed in the respective positions based on the hierarchy.

It is largely similar to the present day political system, wherein there are political leaders that lead the people towards the formation and maintenance of social actions, norms, values and decisions that the society has to make as a . “Concepts of social order, manifest in Mesoamerica as early as the Formative period, structured the actions of later social agents (Hendon, Joyce 5). ” Similar to the present day political structure of the society, the political set up of the Mesoamerican civilizations also feature leaders from different social echelon (i. e.

political leaders coming from the military and the soldier kings; while there are also leaders from the field of religion and astronomy, etc) that all act upon the needs of the society and influence each other in the decision making process in the different aspects of the society (i. e. religious practices, war, hunting and agriculture, territorial expansion, treatment of slaves from other tribes and civilizations, etc). This social feature of the Mesoamerican people started close to the middle and end of the Middle Formative period. Here, there is also the present of election for positions on socio-political leadership.

“The families of Mesoamerican chieftains were polygynous, and in many of these, including the Aztec royal family, political succession was decided by election (Zantwijk 103). ” The presence of different social echelons as significant socio-political feature in the Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations grew and developed. By the year 300-900 AD, this feature became even more pronounced. The rise of the elite social class also came to being, characterizing the socio political design of the pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The nobility was identified among the people.

They possess particular privileges not accorded to ordinary individuals. Another political characteristic shared by the Mesoamerican civilizations is that during the rise of this particular civilizations individually, they all underwent the stage of being primarily a “chiefdom” before developing into a more complex social structure (Hunters, Villagers, and City Dwellers 6), like becoming empires and city states. “Chiefdoms, rank and chiefly societies represent the socio-political context within which calendars and calendrical cycling emerged as key geopolitical devices in Mesoamerica (Rice 8). “

An important characteristic of the economics of the Mesoamerican people and the civilizations inside it is that even without contact from the market and trade style from the Old World, it has managed to show a sense of organization for its trade and market activities that characterize and affects the Mesoamerican economies. They have an organized set of trade practices and an organized market as well (Coe, Koonitz 1). “The centrality of certain economic practices to Mesoamerica is equally important (Hendon, Joyce 5)”. This contributed to the stabilization of the local economy of the different Mesoamerican civilizations.

The interdependence of the different groups of Mesoamerican people are also reflected in barter and trade. “External economic relationships are often taken to be critical factors in the development of complex societies, not only in Mesoamerica but in other parts of the world as well (Drennan, Fitzgibbons, Dehn 174). ” The market is filled with traders who are bringing in different items for sale or trade – from livestock and harvest/produce to other things, like obsidian and magnetite and even shells from the sea and the spines of stingrays (Hunters, Villagers, and City Dwellers 6).

“The Early and Middle Formative periods in Mesoamerica… are characterized by… a network strategy emphasizing access to exotic trade goods available only in certain locations (Rice 8). ” The interdependence on many things, including food, as well as other everyday supplies and necessities during that time, allowed trade to flourish and impact the economy in a positive way, all of these things happening inside Mesoamerica even before the era of the European invaders.

Trade and economics was also the same reason and the same vehicle that allowed for other non-material things to be transferred from one group of people to the other, thus allowing the influence of cultures and in the long run the creation and sustenance of cultures that has become similar to one another because of features and characteristics shared and transferred to and from one another. “Trade linked the diverse cultures and regions together and contributed to the spread of the basic Mesoamerican economic and religious ideas (Smith, Masson 2). “

“The term Mesoamerica is usually applied to a culture area (Smith, Masson 2). ” The Mesoamerican culture is characterized by features that the civilizations inside this collective geographic division shared, like the creation and presence of a method, as well as devices used to identify time and day and the cycle of years. There is also the presence of the ability to create hieroglyphic writing; the passing of idle time by playing a team game that uses a rubber ball played and the design of the designated playing court. It is often reserved for the members of the nobility or privileged elite (Jeffrey, Wilkerson 45).

The wheel is considered as one of the important inventions man has made because of the many things that it has done and positively affected since its creation. Oddly, the Mesoamerican people knew what the wheel was, but did not see any utilitarian use for it. They rarely have beasts of burden to use as source of power to drive the wheels, although the wheels are already seen in toys and later will find other uses especially in the construction of structures inside Mesoamerica. This relationship with the wheel is another cultural characteristic that is shared by the people and the civilization of Mesoamerica.

There is no one civilization that has proven capable of harnessing fully the potential and use of the wheel. For most part, wheel is mostly an accessory of toys among Mesoamerican people. The different Mesoamerican civilizations also share another similar attribute: the presence of religion, like the polytheism among Aztecs, for example (Caso 7). This is an important social aspect/factor, even before the arrival of the Europeans. Like religion, the Mesoamerican people also shares similarities when it comes to the idea of sacrificing humans in the name of religion.

But the more chilling note is that the sacrifices that were made during the time among Mesoamerican civilizations weren’t all justified by religious needs. Rather, some of the acts of sacrifice of humans and the killings of captives, prisoners and other individuals selected for particular reason (i. e. skin color) are actions of humans justified by the need to constantly reaffirm concepts like power (Jeffrey, Wilkerson 51). There is also the practice of war, which is an integral activity because of the purpose it serves (Coe, Koonitz 1).

Lastly, there is also the cultural aspect of these civilizations spending much of their energy and attention to astronomy, art and architecture. This aspect of the socio-cultural life of the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican people has been one of the very important aspects about these groups of people. If anyone would come forward today and say that the leadership of a great political leader will fall and that this assessment was based on the sighting of a falling star or comet, then the people, most probably, would take that person for a fool.

This is because such superstition does not have a sound scientific foundation to be true or to have real bearing. But during the time of the pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, that is not the case. If the same situation happened during that time, people would take the person seriously. This was similar to one of the experiences of one of the Mesoamerican civilizations. Moctezuma, and his empire, was believed to be in the brink of falling apart, a belief based on the sighting of a comet. This underscores the importance of astronomy in the lives of the Mesoamerican people, prior to the entry of the European conquerors.

This is just one example that shows the significant influence and role of astronomy among the Mesoamerican people. There are still other proofs, like the strict chronicling of the rising and setting of sun and moon, and the presence of observatories in Tlaxiaco according to the Bodley Codex and many other proofs. Professional historians and archaeologists believe that the beginning of the significance of astronomy in the lives of the people of Mesoamerica began sometime during the 1000-300BC.

This was followed by the developments in the Mesoamerican society that are still focused or connected to astronomy like the creation of the number of days in a one-year cycle. From this point on, Mesoamerican civilizations, collectively, has had high regards for astronomy and the study of the celestial bodies that even their socio-political leaders, like their kings, involve themselves in the exercise and discussion on astronomy. One very good example of this is the King of Texcoco, Netzahualpilli. Leaders, as well as ordinary people, are very much involved in astronomy and very much affected by it.

In AD 1496, the Aztec people were engulfed in fear during an eclipse. They felt that eclipse was an omen about bad things that will happen. They slaughtered humans and sacrifice them in the belief that this particular event was the expression of the desire of the gods or the evil spirits around them. The penchant for astronomy by the people of the Mesoamerican civilizations did not just put in large slabs of stones and wood about what they believe and know about astronomy like their belief about the sun, moon and the stars; it was also reflected in the writings of these people.

Unfortunately, very few artefacts containing what these people wrote survived. This is largely because of the practice of the conquering Europeans to destroy and burn these materials in the belief that they contain formula for witchcraft and other things heretic in nature. For those items that were fortunately saved from the mindless burning and destruction of knowledge by the puritan and religious white men setting foot in the New World, many things were discussed. Astronomy is one of the significant topics in these codices.

This is a proof that astronomy indeed was a very important aspect in the life of the Mesoamerican people that they saw fit to chronicle astronomy and write what they know about it to immortalize it. One example of this is the Madrid Codex, which was created by the Mayan Civilization which reflects the fact that astronomy was a central aspect in the Mesoamerican life. The codices, like the Codex Mendocino, explain another role of astronomy for the Mesoamerican people, particularly for the Aztecs.

The illustrations found in this particular codex explains to the people the presence of a particular individual who ascertains the time of the night and another person who announces this time of the night through the use of the drum known as teponazth. These roles are important because among the Aztecs, there are certain times of the night that are allotted for particular farming and agricultural chores. This makes astronomy not just a religious-political aspect but also utilitarian as well. One of the things that observers are still debating is the use of the crossed sticks which are very prominent in illustrations pertaining to astronomy.

Professionals believe that this may actually be a measuring device for the celestial bodies found in astronomy. The cross stick image was very prevalent. It was seen in the images found in different codices, including the codices Bodley, Muro and Selden; while in the Vienna Codex, several different celestial bodies are significantly represented, including the star, the idea of constellations, the sun and even the planet Venus. Venus was, in fact, a very important celestial body among the Mesoamericans; Quetzalcoatl was known as the Venus God. There is a symbol identifying the planet Venus.

One of the many proofs is the many different paintings found in Cacaxtla. It is known by names like “The Lord of Dawn”, “Ancient Star” and “Great Star”. Humans are sacrificed to the planet Venus, which they believe is capable of bringing both good and bad luck (like the belief of the Yucatan people) to the people. The Dresden Codex of the Mayan civilization reflected the passion for Venus by the Mesoamerican people that they recorded the times during the night and day when they saw Venus in the sky. The Mesoamerican art can be discussed as a whole. This is largely because of the fact that they shared similarities.

The similarities that are found between the different civilizations are proof of the fact that the civilizations influenced each other. For example, it was considered that the Olmec art was a significant influence, not just in Mayan art, but also in the civilization of Maya as well. One of the characteristics of the Mesoamerican people’s art and architecture is the penchant of these people in stone carving and the building of infrastructure using slabs of stone. All around the area known as Mesoamerica, there are several hundred different stone structures, as well as stone sculptures done by the Mesoamerican people.

All of these possess artistic qualities, and at the same time, socio-political purposes. Olmec, believed to be one of the starting point in the Mesoamerican art and architecture, is rich in stone sculptures and artworks created in/from stone, may it be decorative sculptures or utilitarian architecture. Olmec architecture are found in places like in La Venta as well as in San Lorenzo One aspect of the art of the Mesoamerican people, which they collectively share, is that mostly, their art form was a way to be in touch and get closer to the celestial bodies and to the celestial entities like gods.

The pyramids and ceremonial complexes are proofs of Mesoamerican architecture done in an artistic and stylistic manner often hides the mystic and sometimes horrific reason for its creation. Some are actually places where people are sacrificed to honor the gods, to communicate to the gods and to ask the gods for favour. While the pyramids and other architecture were created by the Mesoamerican people to achieve certain goals in astronomy, like infrastructures used to allow the astronomer to look gaze heaven-wards, as well as to take a look at the horizon.

Just as Mesoamericans were popular because of their architecture and the immense number of structures that they have created prior to the entry of Europeans in the continent, they are also very good in pottery. In fact, pottery is one of the oldest crafts among many different Mesoamerican civilizations; unearthed and catalogued today in many different museums are different creations of Mesoamerican pottery artists.

Capacha is important in the creation and development of the culture of pottery among Mesoamericans, especially during the Pre-classic Era or the Formative Period. One of the reason why some of the people inside the Mesoamerican region became stable even after they stopped being nomadic is because of food and food sources, particularly their ability for farming and agriculture which they discovered and enhanced over time. “In Mesoamerica, food production may have begun very early (Werner 387).

” What the Mesoamericans enjoyed and had bountiful of especially during good harvest seasons are vegetables and fruits especially since the location and the features of the land covering Mesoamerica is suitable for the growth and plantation of different kinds of plants that can be a source of edible fruits and vegetables. But despite the ability for farming, they, nonetheless, maintain the practice of trading with people from other tribes and/or city states because interdependence was still an important factor inside Mesoamerica, especially when it comes to food supply. There is interdependence between civilizations for food (Coe, Koonitz 1).

This cooperation was sustained because of the need to survive by the groups involved. Vegetables and fruits are not the only source of food. The Mesoamericans are adept in hunting in the forests, as well as in water sources for meat and fishes. “The primary sources of animal protein suggested by archaeological remains of animal bones were land animals such as deer and peccary, hunted with blowguns, snares and nets; birds, especially waterfowl such as ducks; and fish (Hendon, Joyce, 2003, p 5). ” Some people even learn how to keep turkeys and dogs since these animals are considered by these people as source of meat for food (Coe, Koonitz 5).

“Domesticated animals were limited to the dog and turkey, the latter introduced rather late in Mesoamerican history from further north (Hendon, Joyce 5)”. The Madrid Codex illustrated how the people of the Mesoamerican civilizations were learned in the art of creating traps and snares for animals they hunt and eat and consider as source of meat for food. Corn was one of the significant food items among the people of Mesoamerica. In fact, in the article “Historical, Ethnographic and Ethnological Background for Native American Astronomy”, the author explained that it was the plantation of corn (Historical, Ethnographic 1).

It was considered as one of the first agricultural system that the once nomadic Mesoamerican people established (Historical, Ethnographic 1), leading to the creation of a more fixed and stable communities, and later on, cities and city-states, as well as empires inside Mesoamerica. There was a shift in the living pattern from being nomadic to being able to stay put in one place. An important aspect for this change was influenced by agriculture and food sustenance, particularly the ability of the people to raise corn to feed the population.

The ability to raise corn was followed by the practice of planting and harvesting other kinds of vegetables including beans and squash (Coe, Koonitz 1). Corn was an important part of the Mesoamerican diet, and so are beans as well as squash and even peppers (Coe, Koonitz 1). Besides corn, chocolate, as well as other vegetables, are important in the farming and diet of the Mesoamerican people, and sometimes, even for trade especially when they use harvests as currency to trade for other things they need.

For example, chocolate beans were used as legal tender (Coe, Koonitz 1), much as like the purpose of dollar bills and minted coins today in trade and in the buying and selling of things. “During the Aztecs’ heyday, cacao beans were also used as money (Lieber, Monroy, Summa, Spurrier, Tavel 677). ” Cacao, an important ingredient in the creation of modern day chocolate, and the earliest forms of chocolates, traces its origin to Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, particularly in the Olmec civilization and in Yucatan as well as in Maya civilization.

“The Maya were the first people to have harvested cacao beans around 250 A. D. (Lieber, Monroy, Summa, Spurrier, Tavel 677). ” Known as Food of the Gods, Mesoamerican practice proves that this is literally true because one of the offerings that they give the god Tlaloc is chocolate, strengthening the importance of chocolate among the Mesoamerican people. “They clothed the rain god with golden rings, jewelled necklaces, and feathered crowns, and offered him the blood of a sacrificial victim as well as tamales, stews and chocolate (Pilcher 14). ” Bibliography Caso, Alfonso.

The Aztec People of the Sun. University of OK Press, 1958. p 3-14. Chapter One. Hunters, Villagers, and City Dwellers. PDF Coe, Michael D. , and Koontz, Rex. Mexico from the Olmecs to the Aztecs. New York: Thames & Hudson. 5th Edition, 2002. Do You Want To Know Where Cacao and Chocolate Come From? Mexican Traditions Online. 2007. 13 July 2009 <http://www. mexican-traditions-online. com/cacao. html>. Drennan, Robert D. , Fitzgibbons, Philip T. , and Dehn, Heinz. Chapter 8. Imports and Exports in Classic Mesoamerican Political Economy. The Tehuacan Valley and the

Teotihuacan Obsidian Industry. The Ancient Civilizations of Mesoamerica. Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated, 2008. Halperin, Rhoda H. (2007). The Political Economy of Mesoamerican States. An Economic Ethnographer’s View. The Political Economy of Ancient Mesoamerica. University of New Mexico Press. Hendon, Julia A. , and Joyce, Rosemary A. Mesoamerican Archaeology. Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated, 2003. Jeffrey, S. , and Wilkerson, K. Chapter 3. And Then They Were Sacrificed: The Ritual Ballgame of Northeastern Mesoamerica Through Time and Space. PDF.

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