Mesoamerican Civilizations: The Olmecs to Cortes

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  • 0:06 What is Mesoamerica
  • 0:31 The Olmec
  • 1:51 The Maya
  • 3:38 The Aztec
  • 5:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Clint Hughes

Clint has taught History, Government, Speech Communications, and Drama. He has his master's degree in Instructional Design and Technology.

This lesson focuses on the early cultures of Mesoamerica. The Olmec, Maya, and Aztecs developed great civilizations in Mesoamerica over millenia. Then, after all of this development and the building of a great empire, the Aztec were quickly defeated by Hernando Cortes.

What is Mesoamerica?

Location of the Mesoamerican civilizations
Mesoamerican Civilizations Map

First, we need to figure out, what is 'Mesoamerica'? 'Meso' means 'middle', and these Mesoamerican cultures are the early advanced civilizations of Mexico and Central America. First, there were many unique groups inhabiting this region over time, but for our purposes, we are going to focus in on the Olmec, the Maya, and the Aztecs.

The Olmec

The first great civilization of Mesoamerica is the Olmec. The Olmec were the first complex society in the region. Their name comes from what the Aztecs refer to them by: 'The Rubber People', or in the language of the Aztecs, 'The Olmec'. The Olmec did in fact grow rubber trees and harvest rubber. One of their uses of the harvest was to make rubber balls for a ritualistic ballgame!

The Olmec inhabited a small area of about 125 by 50 miles in what is today southern Mexico from around 1400 BCE to about 400 BCE. The dates vary amongst research. The Olmecs emerged greatly because the area they inhabited was a great natural habitat. There was good soil and plenty of water! The area's river system made for a similar environment to places like the Nile and the Indus river valleys.

The Olmec created the first Mesoamerican written language
Olmec Writing System

The Olmec developed the first written language and numbering system in Mesoamerica. The Olmec built cities and acquired great wealth. They have left amazing artifacts, like this jade mask and this giant head, which is just one of the many enormous heads left by the Olmec in the region! Being the first civilization of its kind in Mesoamerica, the Olmec greatly influenced other cultures' development in the region. It's looked to as a mother culture of the region.

The Maya

The Maya flourished with their great cities from about 250 CE until around 1400. They covered southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. They had a highly developed written language and mathematics, plus they had an amazing knowledge of astronomy. Their cities were amazing urban centers. They included amazing pyramids, like this from Tikal, one of the largest sites left of the Maya.

The Maya were ruled by an aristocratic nobility - like this guy - and they had elaborate funeral practices. One thing many people might appreciate is that they used cocoa beans as currency. Imagine if we could use chocolate bars as money today! The Maya are greatly known now for their mysteries. But, truth be told, it really isn't that mysterious.

One big one - the first mystery - is the Mayan disappearance. Where did they go? Nowhere. The Mayan people are still all over southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. They did leave their cities, but there are many theories to explain this, the most basic of these being that there was over population the led to famine and disease. The Mayan people are still all over the region, they just ceased being city dwellers for the time being.

A Mayan pyramid located in Tikal
Mayan Tikal Photo

Mystery 2: the Mayan Calendar. Again, this is not very mysterious. The Mayans were incredibly advanced and had incredible knowledge of mathematics and astronomy. They developed seriously accurate calendars. The thing is, calendars always flip over. The mystery is how did this early civilization get so smart? If you are watching this after December 21, 2012…make sure to flip your Mayan long-count calendar!

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