What is Mesoamerica?

Mesoamerica Map
••• © Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 (or Free Art License)

The term Mesoamerica is derived from the Greek and means "Middle America." It refers to a geographical and cultural area which extends from northern Mexico down through Central America, including the territory which is now made up of the countries of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. It is therefore seen as partly in North America, and encompassing most of Central America. 

Many important ancient civilizations developed in this area, including the Olmecs, Zapotecs, Teotihuacanos, Mayas, and Aztecs.

These cultures developed complex societies, reached high levels of technological evolution, built monumental constructions, and shared many cultural concepts. Although the region is very diverse in terms of geography, biology and culture, the ancient civilizations that developed within Mesoamerica shared some common features and characteristics, and were in constant communication throughout their development.

Shared features of the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica:

  • a diet based on corn, beans, and squash
  • similar myths of origin
  • calendar system
  • writing systems
  • ball game played with a rubber ball
  • religious practices of bloodletting and sacrifice

There is also great diversity among the groups that developed within Mesoamerica, with different languages, customs, and traditions.

Timeline of Mesoamerica:

The history of Mesoamerica is divided into three major periods. Archaeologists break these down into smaller sub-periods, but for general understanding, these three are the major ones to understand.

The Pre-Classic period stretches from 1500 B.C. to 200 A.D. During this period there was a refinement of agricultural techniques which allowed for larger populations, division of labor and the social stratification necessary for civilizations to develop. The Olmec civilization, which is sometimes referred to as the "mother culture" of Mesoamerica, developed during this period.

The Classic period, from 200 to 900 A.D., saw the development of great urban centers with centralization of power. Some of these major ancient cities include Monte Alban in Oaxaca, Teotihuacan in central Mexico and the Mayan centers of Tikal, Palenque and Copan. Teotihuacan was one of the largest metropoles in the world at the time, and its influence stretched over much of Mesoamerica.

The Post-Classic period, from 900 A.D. to the arrival of the Spaniards in the early 1500s, was characterized by city-states and greater emphasis on war and sacrifice. In the Maya area, Chichén Itza was a major political and economic center, and in the central plateau. In the 1300s, towards the end of this period, the Aztecs (also called the Mexica) emerged. The Aztecs had previously been a nomadic tribe, but they settled in central Mexico and founded their capital city Tenochtitlan in 1325, and rapidly came to dominate most of Mesoamerica.

More about Mesoamerica:

Mesoamerica is commonly divided into five different cultural areas: West Mexico, the Central Highlands, Oaxaca, the Gulf region, and the Maya area.

The term Mesoamerica was originally coined by Paul Kirchhoff, a German-Mexican anthropologist, in 1943.

His definition was based on geographic limits, ethnic composition, and cultural characteristics at the time of the conquest. The term Mesoamerica is mainly used by cultural anthropologists and archaeologists, but it is very useful for visitors to Mexico to be familiar with it when trying to grasp an understanding of how Mexico developed over time.