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Mexico's Ancient Civilizations


Monte Alban

© Suzanne Barbezat

The Ball Court of the Zapotec Capital, Monte Alban


The civilizations that developed in ancient Mexico, in the area called Mesoamerica, had many traits in common such as: a writing system, calendar, ballgame, the custom of building temples on "pyramids" or platforms, and agriculture (cultivating mainly corn, beans and squash). However, they are distinct in other respects.

The Olmec Civilization:

The Olmecs lived along the Gulf Coast, in the area that is now occupied by the states of Veracruz and Tabasco. This group is sometimes called the "mother culture" of Mesoamerica because it was the first group to develop certain cultural traits that were adopted and further developed by other groups. The Olmecs are known for the giant stone heads found in the area which probably represented rulers.
Olmec sites to visit:

The Zapotecs:

The Zapotecs of Oaxaca were responsible for the construction of the first urban center of Mesoamerica, Monte Alban, around 500 BC. The site is located on a flattened mountaintop in the center of a valley. The Zapotecs had ballcourts, buildings for astronomical observation and a writing system which has not yet been deciphered.
Zapotec sites to visit:


In the center of Mexico, (about 25 miles, or 40 km from Mexico City) lies Teotihuacan, with its imposing Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon. Much is unknown about the city and its inhabitants, including their ethnic origin, which is why they are simply called "Teotihuacanos." This was one of the largest urban centers in the world when it was at its peak, and its influence reached throughout Mesoamerica.

The Maya:

The Maya area covers the states of Campeche, Chiapas, Tabasco, the Yucatan and Quintana Roo, and stretches down into Central America. The Maya are well known for their advanced mathematical and calendrical calculations, as well as their knowledge of astronomy. There is an abundance of Mayan ruins to discover. Discover the Mayan sites of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Maya sites to visit:

The Toltecs:

After the fall of Teotihuacan, around 700 AD, the Toltecs gained dominance of Central Mexico. Their capital city was Tula, North of Mexico City. The statues of "atlantes," or warriors at the site are evidence of the war-like culture characteristic of the Toltecs. According to legend there was a conflict between followers of the god Tezcatlipoca and those of the god Quetzalcoatl. This resulted in a split which eventually led to the fall of the Toltec civilization.

The Aztecs:

The Aztecs, also knows as the Mexica, are perhaps the best known of Mexico's ancient cultures. They dominated Mesoamerica at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards in the early 1500s, but they had only existed as a civilization for some 200 years. The Aztecs were an efficient military power that in a short period came to dominate most of Mesoamerica. They practiced human sacrifice on a large scale. The Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, is effectively buried under the constructions of Mexico City, however, the main temple, the Templo Mayor (Great Temple) has been excavated and is well worth a visit.

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