Early Mesoamerican Civilizations

Mesoamerica is a region that stretches South from modern Mexico to northern Honduras. Several complex societies began here more than 3,000 years ago.

The first civilization in Mesoamerica was that of the Olmec. They lived from 1200-400 BCE. There are very few written records to help historians fully understand this civilization. From what we do know, the Olmec thrived in the fertile lands of south-central Mexico. They were very resourceful and used many of the natural resources in the area including rubber and corn. Their major urban city was San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan. It was located on vast agricultural land with a ceremonial center whose population could have reached 13,000. The Olmec were great traders and engaged with cultures throughout Mexico and Central America. 

The Olmec are known for their stone sculptures with the colossal stone heads being the most famous. The stone head sculptures weighed up to 28 tons. Historians believe that the Olmec sculptures were of their deities and rulers. The Olmec had a rich religion with at least eight gods. The cities were ruled by a shaman class that wielded great power of the people. There is evidence that they practiced human sacrifice.

The Olmecs created a ritual ball game in which opponents had to place a rubber ball through a hole, much like today’s basketball. The losers of the game could have possibly been candidates for sacrifice. The Olmec are considered to be the “mother” civilization in Mesoamerica. Civilizations that followed such as the Mayan and Aztec were heavily influenced by the Olmec’s characteristics. 

The Zapotec civilization came nearly 100 years after the Olmec in 500 BCE and lived to 900 CE. They also lived in the Valley of Oaxaca. They were an agricultural society with many well-developed cities. Their largest city was Monte Alban which housed over 25,000 people. The Zapotec created one of the earliest inscriptions and writing systems in Mesoamerica. They were also artisans and created jewelry for rulers. They had a complex polytheistic religion, with two main gods called Cocijo, the rain god, and Coquihani, the god of light. The Zapotec may have also practiced human sacrifice in their religious rituals. They made use of pyramids that the Aztec and Maya would later adopt.

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