Chapter Summary and Key Concepts

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, students should be able to:

  • describe the impact of varying climate and environments on the development of Mesoamerican civilizations
  • characterize the impact of Mesoamerica’s lack of technology and beasts of burden on the development of civilizations in the region
  • understand the shared elements and diverse cultural traditions in Mesoamerica
  • discuss evidence for the earliest complex social developments in the Preclassic or Formative period
  • describe the rise of the Olmec, and their distinctive architecture and artifacts
  • discuss the development of writing and calendrical systems and their relation to rulership and religion
  • characterize kingship in the various regions of Mesoamerica, and understand how rulers legitimized their power
  • describe and compare the rise of early Preclassic states and the factors leading to their florescence
  • discuss the hegemony of Teotihuacán and theories about the Middle Horizon
  • compare and contrast Classic period Tikal, Monte Albán, and Teotihuacán
  • explain what is known about the collapse of Classic states, differentiating between various regions
  • characterize the Postclassic period and the Toltec culture
  • discuss the Toltec and central Mexican influence over Mesoamerica
  • describe the Puuc and Itza cultures of Postclassic Yucatán
  • trace the origins and rise of the Aztec empire, and what evidence is used to understand this sequence
  • relate the methods by which the Aztec conquered and then ruled a large empire
  • understand the political and economic structure of the Aztec empire and the social structure of its society
  • describe the circumstances surrounding Cortés’ arrival in Mexico
  • explain how the Spaniards and their Mesoamerican allies were able to overthrow the Aztec Empire.

Chapter Summary

Mesoamerican kings and lords ruled over dense populations of farmers and merchants who supported them with taxes and tribute. Stone palaces, temples, and ball courts dominated towns and political centers. Scribes recorded genealogies, histories, and myths. Local societies broadly shared a set of traditions and ideological beliefs but were never ethnically or politically unified.


Mesoamerica stretches from today’s central Mexico to El Salvador, and from the Gulf Coast to the Pacific. By 1519, no hunter-gatherers remained; farmers cultivated many domesticated plants but few domestic animals, limiting exploitable niches.

Mesoamericans were in contact with the Hohokam in the southwestern United States and with Colombia and Panama to the south. Shared cultural traits existed despite high mountains and tropical forests, which stimulated diversity. Mesoamerican societies were technologically simple. No large domestic animals were used for traction or transport, no devices such as pulleys, wheeled vehicles, sails, or machines of any kind existed, demonstrating that civilization can be largely unrelated to technological innovation.


Preclassic (or Formative) Mesoamerica was once characterized as a time of simple farming communities, eclipsed by suddenly emerging Classic cultures after ad 250. Archaeologists now recognize two long evolutionary trends that led to Classic civilization: first, the spread of agriculture, with its social, political, economic, technological, and demographic consequences; second, the emergence of social, political, and ideological complexity.

Only a few of more than 100 domestic plant species contributed heavily to diet, especially maize, which also had ideological and spiritual significance. Maize was domesticated during the Archaic period, before 4300 bc, but it took a long time to trigger changes commonly associated with agriculture: sedentism and pottery.

Use of pottery marks the beginning of the Preclassic at 2500 bc. A later, but important, Preclassic innovation was the prismatic obsidian blade beginning c. 1500 bc.

The first permanent agricultural communities appeared around 1600 bc; small clusters of wattle and daub houses surrounded by gardens, such as at San José Mogote (Oaxaca), where larger structures had specialized communal purposes.


Debate over the dating of Olmec remains occurred until after World War II, when the advent of radiocarbon dating placed the culture between 1200 and 400 bc, predating other civilizations. Olmec influences were widespread during the Middle Preclassic (1000–400 bc) or Early Horizon.

Archaeologists agree that impressive Olmec polities lay in the Gulf Coast lowlands, such as San Lorenzo (c. 1200–900 bc), where elite residence, ceremonial ponds, and spectacular offerings are found, as well as colossal basalt heads and monuments. San Lorenzo’s decline c. 1000–900 bc coincided with the rise of La Venta, which contained an impressive earthen pyramid, colossal heads, stelae, and rectangular thrones. Monuments saw frequent renovations, and rituals include deliberate burial of serpentine slabs arranged to depict supernatural beings. Rich infant burials provide early evidence for inherited rank.

The Olmecs as a “Mother Culture”?

Archaeologists are divided about whether Olmec polities were true states or chiefdoms, and if centers were urban places or chiefly centers. Fueling this controversy is disagreement about the nature and implications of “Olmec” art and symbolism. Either way, Olmec sites display core Mesoamerican cultural traditions, large centers with monumental architecture and sculpture, and the ball game, by the end of the Middle Preclassic, c. 400 bc.

Warfare was also present. Olmec monuments show weapons and militaristic scenes, and a burial at El Portón (Guatemala), c. 500 bc, included trophy heads and sacrificial victims.

West Mexican Polities, c. 1500 BC–AD 400

In western Mexico between about 1500 bc and ad 400, distinctive hierarchically organized societies using vertical shaft tombs emerged in Colima, Nayarit, and Jalisco. Most sites lack monumental buildings, monuments, and calendrical signs, but had possible contact with South America, on the basis of metallurgy and ceramic forms.


The Late Preclassic period saw the first florescence of the Lowland Maya, signalled by ubiquitous red-slipped Chicanel pottery. Population in the Basin of Mexico more than doubled; large polities with impressive centers became common. Monte Albán in Oaxaca and Teotihuacán in the Basin of Mexico were the earliest true cities.

Calendars and Writing

Olmec objects display signs that anticipate mathematical or written symbols; calendrical glyphs appear slightly later. The Long Count originated in the Late Preclassic; the earliest use, at Tres Zapotes, corresponds to 31 bc. The 260-day ritual and the 365-day solar calendars are older. The solar calendar probably also dates to the Epi-Olmec.

Writing seems to have originated more than once in Mesoamerica. Mesoamerican writing can be difficult to decipher, as some glyphs are pictographs, others whole words or syllables.

Kings, Courts, and Cities

Writing, calendars, and monumental art are strongly related to Late Preclassic kingship and the Classic period emergence of urban centers and territorial states. Combined with archaeological evidence, royal genealogies and origins, such as Tikal’s, can be understood.

San José Mogote was largely abandoned by around 500 bc. Some of its buildings were burned, perhaps by enemies from nearby polities. Newly built defensive systems appear simultaneously in the southern valley. Such competition stimulated the sudden founding c. 500 bc of the Zapotec city of Monte Albán. Smaller settlements clustered nearby; more distant sites were fortified. Monte Albán controlled distant areas as well

The Basin of Mexico contained an extensive lake system and fertile soils. Farmers colonized the high, cold region at about 1600 bc. At the end of the Early “Olmec” Horizon c. 400 bc, 80,000 people lived in five or six large polities whose capitals contained mounds, such as Cuicuilco, in the moist southwestern Basin. Few lived in the drier northeastern Teotihuacán Valley, but between 300 and 100 bc it was heavily colonized, and Teotihuacán emerged as a huge urban center. Volcanic eruptions had destroyed the southern and eastern Basin and Cuicuilco; displaced people may have migrated to Teotihuacán.

Teotihuacán was the largest city in the New World, construction started early in the 1st millennium ad and continued for 350 years, including the pyramids of the Sun and Moon. In contrast to Oaxaca, few settlements lay outside the city. The city depended on a huge irrigation system fed by springs and seasonal streams within a day’s walk. The much-later Aztecs regarded the city as sacred.


During its initial Early Classic rise, Teotihuacán governed a region of about 25,000 sq. km (9653 sq. miles) with roughly 500,000–750,000 inhabitants. Between the 4th and 6th century ad the city’s influence reached far beyond central Mexico. Archaeologists call this the Middle Horizon. With a population of 125,000, many apartment compounds display economic specialization, such as manufacture of obsidian objects, ceramics, grinding stones, shell objects, jewelry, and probably materials that left no traces. The lack of inscriptions means that the ethnicity of the Teotihuacános is unknown, and little is known of its social and political structure.

Few archaeologists believe that Teotihuacán had a conquest empire. Quasi-military intrusions as at Tikal, Kaminaljuyu and Becán may reflect displaced or out-of-favor noble factions seeking new areas to establish themselves. Trade and commerce increased interregional connections, perhaps involving professional merchants. Outright colonization of strategic locales, such as in the Gulf Coast, seems likely, and cultural emulation may be responsible for the adoption of dress, weapons, political and military imagery, and ritual.

The Demise of Teotihuacán

Teotihuacán collapsed amid violence, as deliberate burning and destruction occurred at temples along the Street of the Dead, in the Ciudadela, and elsewhere. No nearby polities were strong enough to conquer, nor are invading foreigners apparent. Internal, factional conflict is more plausible.


A series of local polities rose during the Epiclassic period, a term only used west of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and dated there to ad 600–900. Cantona prospered, as did El Tajin on the Gulf Coast. Closer to Teotihuacán, Cacaxtla developed a palace-like complex protected by a dry moat. Cholula was probably defeated by Cacaxtla, but still survived as an urban center.

Xochicalco, contemporary with Cacaxtla, had large architectural complexes built on five hills, with earthworks, ramparts, and terraces for defense. Despite poor agricultural conditions, 10,000 to 15,000 people lived on the hillsides, producing crafts and trading. Around ad 900 the site was suddenly and violently destroyed.

None of Teothihuacan’s successor states was strong enough to reestablish Classic-type order and prosperity. Only Tula, founded after ad 700 some 80 km (50 miles) northwest of Teothihuacan came close.


The early sophistication at Nakbé, El Mirador, and Tikal took hold in the southern lowlands after a widespread Late Preclassic crisis. Royal and ritual texts inscribed on altars and stelae chart a network of interacting kingdoms; Yucatán developed in somewhat different ways.

By the early 6th century ad, Tikal led a coalition at odds with an alliance led by Calakmul. The period is called the “Hiatus” due to related population decline and political crisis. Caracol and Copán continued to prosper, so crisis was not universal. Maya society was reorganized; monuments after ad 600 presented kings in highly personalized ways, with new titles, and increasingly emphasized warfare.

Late Classic Maya society, between ad 700 and 800, is documented through 15,000 texts. The linear Long Count, used everywhere, gives chronological context. The Late Classic phase began as Teotihuacán declined, which did not disrupt Maya culture.

Maya Society

Maya social and political organization was hierarchical and centered on the royal families who bore the ancient ajaw title. Succession was through the royal patriline, but women could serve as regents or occasionally as queens in their own right. Kings were expected to be warriors; monuments describe capture and sacrifice of enemies. Commoners, the bulk of whom were farmers, paid taxes in kind or labor, probably served in war, and lived in modest households, some practicing swidden agriculture, others more intensive systems with terraces and drained fields. Warfare was constant, in contrast to an old theory that the Maya were a uniquely peaceful civilization.

By the late 8th century ad populations reached unprecedented densities, and spectacular building projects were initiated. Underlying stresses soon led to a collapse of Maya civilization.


Before radiocarbon dating, Maya Long Counts appeared to indicate crisis between ad 800 and 1000, extrapolated to provide dates for a “Mesoamerican Postclassic,” when societies were supposedly unsophisticated and “decadent.” We now know this is erroneous. There was no sudden florescence and decline across Mesoamerica. Teotihuacán and Monte Albán lost power centuries before the Maya, and Postclassic societies were extraordinary civilizations.

The Rise of the Toltecs

Tula lies just outside the Basin of Mexico northwest of Teotihuacán. Around ad 700, civic structures appeared and artifacts indicate that Tula was founded by migrating Tolteca-Chichimeca peoples. Tula matured into a huge city between ad 900 and 1200, with a population of 60,000. Sometime around ad 1150–1200 Tula violently collapsed, indicated by burning and looting of principle buildings. Many people continued to live in the region and a reoccupied urban zone was later subject to the Aztecs.

The Postclassic Maya

Maya polities in the northern Yucatán weathered and even benefited from the southern Maya collapse. Early in the 8th century ad, population expansion occurred in the fertile Puuc region. Puuc prosperity was short-lived; the centers collapsed, their hinterlands heavily depopulated c. ad 1000 or a little later. Migrants to the northern Yucatán plains created Puuc-type settlements where the next regional power soon appeared.

Chichén Itzá was the greatest Postclassic capital, rising during the 8th century ad in northern Yucatán near a huge cenote that became a pilgrimage center. Chichén Itzá’s inscriptions and dates are confined to the 9th century ad. Warrior and sacrifice imagery abounds, related to conflicts with other Puuc centers. For several centuries it was a state capital and mercantile emporium trading in salt and other commodities. Around ad 1200 or 1250, Chichén Itzá declined although remaining a pilgrimage center even after the Spaniards arrived.


After Chichén Itzá and Mayapan fell, hundreds of small polities emerged, ruled by hereditary leaders called batabs, each with a few thousand subjects. Despite lack of integration, these societies were complex, and retained Classic patterns, with large towns, temple pyramids, public plazas, elaborate houses, rituals, books, and calendars. Nobles were supported by taxes and engaged in long-distance trade. Most people grew maize, fished, or produced salt. Slaves were war captives or debtors. After skirmishing with the Maya, Cortés moved on to confront the Aztecs.

The Aztecs and the Late Horizon

Early 16th-century people believed their ancestors had migrated to the Basin of Mexico from the northern fringes of Mesoamerica, beginning when Tula collapsed, or earlier, linked to climatic change and political instability. Among those people were Aztec ancestors.

None would have called themselves Aztecs; they called themselves Mexica-Tenochca (the founders of Tenochtitlán), Acolhua, Tepaneca, or Chalca. Others came from a mythical homeland called Aztlan (thus the label “Aztecs”). One band, the Mexica, eventually were driven as despised refugees (or led by their god) onto small islands in Lake Texcoco, surrounded by enemy polities. Here, in ad 1325 the Mexica founded their capital, Tenochtitlán.

At the end of the 14th century, several dozen warring city-states lay in the Basin of Mexico. In response to a falling out in ad 1428, the Mexica, aided by the Texcoco and Tlacopan states, overthrew the Tepanec. The Mexica king Itzcoatl and his followers became dominant and powerful, promoting the Mexica tribal god. This set the stage for the empire under the Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlán, Texcoco, and Tlacopan for 91 years. This short interval is called the Late Horizon.

The Aztec Empire in 1519

By 1519 the Aztec empire dominated 400 previously independent polities over an area of about 200,000 sq. km (77,220 sq. miles), including the Gulf Coast, the Valley of Oaxaca, parts of western Mexico, and the Pacific coast of Guatemala, with subjects numbering between 6 and 10 million people.

Aztec Society

Each city-state (altepetl) in the Basin of Mexico shared language, diet, technology, religion, customs, and political organization. One or more hereditary king (tlatoani) ruled each altepetl. Nobles received land as a reward for service. Commoners paid taxes to their own tlatoani and his overlord. Most were farmers or artisans, living in neighborhoods with their own leaders, schools, and temples, contributing corvée labor and serving in the army. The pochteca, or professional merchants, led trading expeditions, becoming rich and enjoying upward social mobility. The mayeque were tied to the estates of kings and nobles, paying taxes only to their immediate lords. Many, originally free, became serfs through conquest. At the bottom were the tlacotin, who owed service through debt or criminal acts.

The Spanish Conquest

In 1519, Hernan Cortés and his 500 men appeared. By coincidence, they arrived on the day that Aztec diviners prophesied the return of Quetzalcoatl. Cortés marched inland seeking the riches he had heard of. Accompanied by indigenous allies, Cortés entered Tenochtitlán, where Motecezuma received them, but was soon placed under Spanish “house arrest.”

Eventually, Motecezuma was killed during fighting in 1520, after Spanish desecration of the main temple. The allies of Tenochtitlán fell away, most damagingly, Texcoco, a former imperial partner. After months of fierce fighting, the Spaniards destroyed Tenochtitlán in 1521. Most of Mesoamerica was in Spanish hands by 1550, but the Itzá Maya held out for another 150 years until 1697.

Box Features

Key Controversy: Were the Olmecs Mesoamerica’s “Mother Culture”?

Key Controversy: Who Invented Mesoamerican Writing?

Key Controversy: Metallurgy in Mesoamerica

Key Controversy: The Teotihuacán Writing System

Key Controversy: Mesoamerican Urbanism

Key Controversy: The Collapse of Maya Civilization

Key Discovery: The Mesoamerican Ball Game

Key Discovery: The Mesoamerican Calendar

Key Site: Paso de la Amada and the Emergence of Social Complexity

Key Site: Teotihuacán

Key Site: Classic Monte Albán

Key Site: Tikal

Key Site: Tenochtitlán: The Aztec Capital

Key words and terms

  • central Mexico on the northwest to El Salvador on the southeast
  • Basin of Mexico
  • Valley of Oaxaca
  • Mexican Gulf Coast
  • Pacific Coast
  • Yucatán Peninsula
  • Highlands of southern Mexico and Guatemala.
  • Gulf of Honduras
  • Motagua River (Guatemala)
  • Tuxtla Mountains
  • Gran Despoblado (“Great Wilderness”)
  • Isthmus of Tehuantepec
  • Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley
  • Puuc region of northwest Yucatán
  • Lake Texcoco
  • Lake Patzcuaro

Subsistence species

  • maize
  • beans
  • agave
  • amaranth
  • chia
  • blue-green algae
  • deer, rabbits, quail


  • Nahua
  • Mixe-Zoque
  • Mayan
  • Mixtec
  • Zapotec

Ancient/Historic people

  • Hernan Cortés
  • Bone Rabbit
  • Siyaj K’ak
  • K’inich Janaab’ Pakal
  • Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl
  • Kukulkan
  • Cocom lineage
  • Xiu lineage
  • Itzcoatl
  • Motecezuma II


  • Quetzalcoatl
  • Tezcatlipoca

Periods, Phases, Horizons, Cultures

  • Preclassic (Formative) 2500 bc–ad 250
  • Early Preclassic period 2500–1000 bc
  • Middle Preclassic period 1000–400 bc
  • Late Preclassic period 400 bc–ad 250
  • Early Classic period ad 250–600
  • Late Classic period ad 600–800
  • Terminal Classic period ad 800–1000
  • Early Postclassic period ad 1000–1250
  • Late Postclassic period ad 1250–1519
  • Olmec 1200–400 bc
  • Early Horizon
  • Epi-Olmec period
  • Teotihuacán
  • Middle Horizon
  • Western Mexican polities 1500 bc–ad 400 (Colima, Nayarit, Jalisco)
  • Cholula, Cantona, and Teuchitlan
  • Mixtec
  • Zapotec
  • Maya
  • Puuc culture
  • Early Classic “Hiatus”
  • Toltec
  • Chichimec
  • Mexica-Tenochca
  • Acolhua
  • Tepaneca
  • Chalca
  • Aztlan
  • Late Horizon
  • Aztec
  • State of Texcoco
  • State of Tlacopan
  • Tarascans
  • Tlaxcallan confederation
  • Quiché and Cakchiquel Maya kingdoms
  • Itzá Maya of northern Guatemala


  • San Jose Mogote (Oaxaca)
  • Chalcatzingo (Central Mexican Highlands)
  • Tres Zapotes (Mexican Gulf Coast)
  • La Venta (Mexican Gulf Coast)
  • San Lorenzo (Mexican Gulf Coast)
  • El Portón (Guatemala)
  • Monte Albán (Oaxaca)
  • Teotihuacán (Basin of Mexico)
  • Kaminaljuyu (Guatemala)
  • Tikal (Guatemala)
  • Nakbé (Guatemala)
  • El Mirador (Guatemala)
  • Lamanai (Belize)
  • Cerros (Belize)
  • Cuello (Belize)
  • Becán (Campeche)
  • Dainzu (Oaxaca)
  • Cuicuilco (Basin of Mexico)
  • Teotihuacán (Teotihuacán Valley, Basin of Mexico)
  • Tula (Basin of Mexico)
  • Copán (Southern Lowlands)
  • El Peru (Guatemala)
  • Altun Ha (Belize)
  • Acanceh (Yucatán)
  • Chunchucmil (Yucatán)
  • Matacapan (Tuxtla Mountains, Gulf Coast)
  • Alta Vista (northwest Mexico)
  • El Tajin (Gulf Coast)
  • Cantona (Central Mexican Highlands)
  • Cholula (Central Mexican Highlands)
  • Cacaxtla (Central Mexican Highlands)
  • Xochitecatl (Central Mexican Highlands)
  • Xochicalco (Central Mexican Highlands)
  • La Quemada (northern Mexico)
  • Calakmul (Southern Lowlands)
  • Piedras Negras (Southern Lowlands)
  • Caracol (Southern Lowlands)
  • Palenque (Southern Lowlands)
  • Quirigua (Southern Lowlands)
  • Yaxchilan (Southern Lowlands)
  • Bonampak (Southern Lowlands)
  • Tula (fringe of the Basin of Mexico)
  • Casas Grandes (northern Mexico)
  • Sayil (northern Yucatán)
  • Kabah (northern Yucatán)
  • Labna (northern Yucatán)
  • Uxmal (northern Yucatán)
  • Chichén Itzá (northern Yucatán plain)
  • Coba (northeastern Yucatán)
  • Mayapan (northern Yucatán plain)
  • Tenochtitlán (Basin of Mexico)
  • State of Texcoco (Basin of Mexico)
  • State of Tlacopan (Basin of Mexico)
  • Tzintzuntzan (Patzcuaro Basin)
  • Nojpeten (Guatamala)

Artifacts, features, buildings, structures

  • Olmec
  • Red Palace
  • El Manati
  • colossal stone heads
  • buried serpentine slab patterns, stelae
  • pyrite mirrors, obsidian
  • blue-green jade carvings
  • huge rectangular thrones
  • basalt column tombs


  • red-slipped Chicanel pottery
  • the Hauberg Stele (ad 197)
  • defensive walls at El Mirador
  • earthworks at Becán
  • El Chayal obsidian source
  •  “god bundles”
  • Puuc architectural mosaic sculptures of gods, humans, and geometric
  • the House of the Governor and the Nunnery (Uxmal)
  • Chichen Itza: cenote, the Castillo Pyramid, the Monjas Palace, Puuc and Toltec architectural affinities


  • Danzante warrior frieze
  • “conquest slabs” in Building J
  • skull racks


  • Street of the Dead
  • Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon
  • apartment compounds
  • Great Compound
  • Merchants Barrio
  • Tetitla compound
  • Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent
  • Ciudadela
  • Pachuca obsidian
  • skull racks

Central Mexican polities

  • Teuchtitlan shaft tombs, monumental circular buildings
  • Xochitecatl polychrome murals
  • Xochicalco - Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent


  • warrior figure pillars

Terms, concepts

  • writing – emerged c. 600–300 bc
  • glyphs
  • codices
  • stelae
  • shamanism
  • Long Count
  • 260- and 365-day calendars
  • reverence for jade and other green stones
  • human sacrifice
  • four cardinal directions associated with particular colors
  • Mesoamerican ball game – as early as 1400 bc
  • metallurgy – after about ad 600–800
  • no large domestic animals for traction or transport
  • no devices such as pulleys, wheeled vehicles, sails, or complicated machines
  • Early Horizon – Olmec art; symbols, and ideologies were widely shared
  • kingship
  • royal ajaw title
  • Middle Horizon – coincides with Teotihuacán’s mature urban phase
  • Teotihuacán-style pottery and architectural elements
  • pulque
  • chinampas (artificial fields constructed in a shallow lakebed)
  • drained fields
  • agricultural terraces
  • swidden (slash-and-burn) agriculture
  • archaeomagnetic dates
  • sajal or aj k’uhuun
  • autosacrifice
  • batabs
  • Triple Alliance (Tenochtitlán, Texcoco, and Tlacopan)
  • Late Horizon – time of Triple Alliance dominance
  • altepetl
  • tlatoani
  • pipiltin
  • pochteca
  • mayeque
  • tlacotin