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Civilizaciones Precolombinas: Home

The Classical Americas

Portrait of a Maya Nobleman
Classic Period, c. 500 CE
(San Antonio Museum of Art)

The written history of what is now Latin America did not begin with Columbus's 1492 voyage. The indigenous Maya civilization of Lowland Guatemala developed a phonetic writing system by about 200 CE at the latest, and likely hundreds of years earlier [PDF]. Several distinct writing systems developed in other parts of Mesoamerica including in what today are the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Veracruz, as well as in and around the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, by about 400 BCE.

About This Course & Guide

En éste curso se estudiarán los aspectos históricos, politicos y culturales de las civilizaciones precolombianas hasta el período colonial.  El curso incluirá la civilización de todos los países hispanoamericanos, Brasil, y la isla de Puerto Rico.  El objetivo del curso es ques los estudiantes se familiaricen con la América Ibérica y logren apreciar una cultura extranjera y distante (por ser parte del “tercer mundo”) a la vez que familiar y cercan (por ser todos productos de la misma civilización occidental-greco-latina).  (Definición del curso por la Professora Diana Rodríguez-Lozano)


Introduction to Ancient Mesoamerica

Ancient Mesoamerica existed for some 3,000 years, or from about 1500 BC to 1521 AD. Within its geographic borders developed numerous distinct cultural traditions. Most well known today are the Olmec, Maya, Teotihuacan, and Aztec civilizations. Each tradition nonetheless shared most or all of the following characteristics, among others:

  • reliance upon an agricultural triad of maize, beans, and squash, as well as "raised fields" (chinampas); the use of cacao (chocolate) in rituals involving the nobility, and/or as a medium of exchange (money)
  • writing in bark-paper books (codices) and on public sculpture/architecture, whose primary function often (but not always) served to aggrandize the nobility
  • philosophical system based on concepts of duality and paired opposites
  • shared pantheon of gods whose attributes transcended local traditions
  • complex calendar based on 52-year "century" and cyclical understanding of time
  • various forms of ritual sacrifice, including of humans
  • the presence of a specific kind of complex socio-political organization, namely the state (or, in a few peripheral areas, chiefdoms); pronounced social stratification and occupational specialization
  • urbanism and urban space as a unifying paradigm for society
  • monumental art and architecture that included:
    • pyramid-temples
    • range-type palaces
    • ball courts for rubber ballgame
    • arcades or marketplaces

Viewed traditionally as Mesoamerica's "mother civilization," many scholars contend that the Gulf Coast Olmec culture set the pattern for later Classic Period developments throughout Mesoamerica. The well-established heartland of this civilization lies in the modern Mexican states of Tabasco and southern Veracruz, and includes such important centers as San Lorenzo and La Venta. Olmec artists executed enigmatic stone masks and sophisticated sculptures in the round.

The many intellectual achievements of the Classic Period Maya civilization continue to fascinate and inspire contemporary observers. Ancient Maya scribes carved or painted their unique hieroglyphic script onto polychrome pottery, limestone stelae, large and small wooden objects, and semi-precious greenstones. Scribes wrote in bark-paper books, only four of which have survived the ravages of centuries, a humid climate, and the Spanish Conquest. Several texts of considerable length remain, as on Copan's famous Hieroglyphic Staircase.

The metropolis of Teotihuacan, located in the Central Mexican Highlands, stands out as being one of the most important examples of state-level development in the Western Hemisphere. During the middle centuries of the first millennium, Teotihuacan ranked among the largest and most splendid cities in the world. The government, economy, religion, art, and architecture of Teotihuacan strongly influenced all contemporary and subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations, including that of the Early Classic-Period Maya.

The Aztec or more properly Mexica civilization of Central Mexico represents the last great culture of ancient Mesoamerica. The Mexica resulted from a blending of earlier Classic Period peoples with (initially) nomadic northern tribes. At its height in the early sixteenth century, the Mexica imperial hegemony loosely ruled over millions of subjects. Known popularly today for their brutal statecraft and ritual sacrifice of humans, the Mexica excelled at urban planning, monumental art and architecture, philosophy, and poetry.

(Thanks to David C. Murray, Paley Library, Temple University.)

Popol Vuh

Sometimes called the "Maya Bible," the Popol Vuh -- available in print from the Phillips Library, and full-text online from Mesoweb -- consists of a series of texts that provide a window into the autochthonous world view and literary traditions of ancient Mesoamerica. You might wish to read more about this critical text in The Popol Wuj: The Repositioning and Survival of Maya Culture by Carlos M. LopézA Companion to Latin American Literature and Culture, c2008.

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