Portal:Mesoamerica

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Classic Period royal palace at Palenque

Mesoamerica (Spanish: Mesoamérica) is a region and cultural area in the Americas, extending approximately from central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, within which a number of pre-Columbian societies flourished before the Spanish colonization of the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries.

As a cultural area, Mesoamerica is defined by a mosaic of cultural traits developed and shared by its indigenous cultures. Beginning as early as 7000 BC the domestication of maize, beans, squash and chili, as well as the turkey and dog, caused a transition from paleo-Indian hunter-gatherer tribal grouping to the organization of sedentary agricultural villages. In the subsequent formative period, agriculture and cultural traits such as a complex mythological and religious tradition, a vigesimal numeric system, and a complex calendric system, a tradition of ball playing, and a distinct architectural style, were diffused through the area. Also in this period villages began to become socially stratified and develop into chiefdoms with the development of large ceremonial centers, interconnected by a network of trade routes for the exchange of luxury goods such as obsidian, jade, cacao, cinnabar, Spondylus shells, hematite, and ceramics. While Mesoamerican civilization did know of the wheel and basic metallurgy, neither of these technologies became culturally important.

Among the earliest complex civilizations was the Olmec culture which inhabited the Gulf coast of Mexico. In the Preclassic period, complex urban polities began to develop among the Maya and the Zapotecs. During this period the first true Mesoamerican writing systems were developed in the Epi-Olmec and the Zapotec cultures, and the Mesoamerican writing tradition reached its height in the Classic Maya Hieroglyphic script. Mesoamerica is one of only five regions of the world where writing was independently developed. In Central Mexico, the height of the Classic period saw the ascendancy of the city of Teotihuacan, which formed a military and commercial empire whose political influence stretched south into the Maya area and northward. During the Epi-Classic period the Nahua peoples began moving south into Mesoamerica from the North. During the early post-Classic period Central Mexico was dominated by the Toltec culture, Oaxaca by the Mixtec, and the lowland Maya area had important centers at Chichén Itzá and Mayapán. Towards the end of the post-Classic period the Aztecs of Central Mexico built a tributary empire covering most of central Mesoamerica.


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An Aztec woman blowing on maize before putting in the cooking pot, so that it will not fear the fire. Florentine Codex, late 16th century.

The most important staple of Aztec cuisine was maize (corn), a crop that was so important to Aztec society that it played a central part in their mythology. Just like wheat in Europe or rice in most of East Asia, it was the food without which a meal was not a meal. It came in an inestimable number of varieties varying in color, texture, size and prestige and was eaten as tortillas, tamales or atolli, maize gruel. The other constants of Aztec food were salt and chili peppers and the basic definition of Aztec fasting was to abstain from these two flavorers. The other major foods were beans and New World varieties of the grains amaranth (or pigweed), and chia. The combination of maize and these basic foods would have provided the average Aztec with a very well-rounded diet without any significant deficiencies in vitamins or minerals. The processing of maize called nixtamalization, the cooking of maize grains in alkaline solutions, also drastically increased the nutritional value of the common staple.

Water, maize gruels and pulque, the fermented juice of the century plant, were the most common drinks, and there were many different fermented alcoholic beverages made from honey, cacti and various fruits. The elite took pride in not drinking pulque, a drink of commoners, and preferred drinks made from cacao. It was one of the most prestigious luxuries available; it was the drink of rulers, warriors and nobles and was flavored with chili peppers, honey and a seemingly endless list of spices and herbs.

The Aztec diet included an impressive variety of animals; turkeys and various fowl, pocket gophers, Green iguanas, axolotls (a type of water salamander), shrimp, fish and a great variety of insects, larvae and insect eggs. They ate various mushrooms and fungi, including the parasitic corn smut, which grows on ears of corn. Squash was very popular and came in many different varieties. Squash seed, fresh, dried or roasted, were especially popular. Tomatoes, though different from the varieties common today, was often mixed with chili in sauces or as filling for tamales.

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Morley at the Maya site of Copán, in Honduras (ca. 1912)

Sylvanus Griswold Morley (June 7, 1883 – September 2, 1948) was an American archaeologist, epigrapher, and Mayanist scholar who made significant contributions toward the study of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization in the early 20th century.

Morley is particularly noted for the extensive excavations of the Maya site of Chichen Itza that he directed on behalf of the Carnegie Institution. He also published several large compilations and treatises on Maya hieroglyphic writing, and wrote popular accounts on the Maya for a general audience.

To his contemporaries, "Vay" Morley was one of the leading Mesoamerican archaeologists of his day. Although more recent developments in the field have resulted in a re-evaluation of his theories and works, his publications, particularly on calendric inscriptions, are still cited. In his role as director of various projects sponsored by the Carnegie Institution, he oversaw and encouraged many others who later established notable careers in their own right. His commitment and enthusiasm for Maya studies helped inspire the necessary sponsorship for projects that would ultimately reveal much about ancient Maya civilization.

Morley also conducted espionage in Mexico on behalf of the United States during World War I, but the scope of those activities only came to light well after his death. His archaeological field work in Mexico and Central America provided suitable cover for investigating German activities and anti-American activity at the behest of the United States' Office of Naval Intelligence.

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Monolito de Coatlicue (con colores).JPG
Credit: El Comandante

Coatlicue, (Classical Nahuatl: Cōhuātlīcue [koːwaːˈtɬiːkʷe], is the Aztec goddess who gave birth to the moon, stars, and Huitzilopochtli, the god of the sun and war. She is also known as Toci (Tocî, "our grandmother") and Cihuacoatl (Cihuācōhuātl, "the lady of the serpent"), the patron of women who die in childbirth.



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