Although their lives are shrouded in mystery for 21st century observers, the Mesoamerican civilization was one of the most unique and fascinating cultures to develop on the Earth. Their cultures spanned across Mexico and Central America, and flourished for over a thousand years before contact with Europeans, which unleashed a maelstrom of disease and death. Mesoamerica is one of only three places on Earth where writing developed independently, apart from Sumer and China.
Dia de Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is a festival celebrated by Mexicans and those of Mexican heritage. A celebration of one's ancestors, the practice dates back to indigenous traditions but has today been syncretized with Catholicism in Mexico. Santa Muerta, depicted in this wall tapestry, is a personification of death and celebrated as a folk saint by many.
Several sprawling civilizations rose and fell in these lands, but the Olmec are usually considered to be the mother culture and responsible for the basic tenets of Mesoamerican art. In several ways, Mesoamerican civilizations were presented with unique challenges and overcame them in highly creative ways, most notably the absence of navigable rivers and beasts of burden. Remarkably, these severe handicaps, which would have spelled doom for most peoples seeking to form a large civilization, did little to deter Mesoamericans, who built large, urban settlements, developed complex astronomy, and even fielded large armies and went to war (no mean feat in the absence of a supply train supported by animals).
Although Mesoamerican peoples had no dearth of codified knowledge, much of what we know about pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations today comes from archaeology and epigraphy as a result of the iconoclastic Christianization of the Spanish, which saw large scale destruction of "heathen" Mesoamerican recorded knowledge. Although Christianity eventually replaced the native religious beliefs through a combination of force and diplomacy, Mesoamerican civilizations had a well developed and complex religious worldview, complete with a large pantheon of gods to which new additions were accepted readily.
Silver Aztec chi wind pendant created by traditional artisans from Mexico.
The first distinct civilization to emerge in Mesoamerica was the Olmec, which arose around 1500 BC. Although centred around what is the State of Tabasco today, Olmec culture spread far and wide, as evidenced from architectural discoveries as far as the valley of Mexico and Costa Rica. The Olmecs are seen as having laid the archetype for the typical Mesoamerican civilization, and pioneered practices of ritualistic bloodletting and the Mesoamerican ballgame, hallmarks of cultural practices in the region. Art and architecture flourished under the Olmec, and they were responsible for such cultural artefacts as the colossal head and jade face mask. They were also likely the people who invented Mesoamerican writing and may have independently theorized the mathematical concept of zero (which, in the old world, was developed in India) and the long count calendar.
Cuauhtli, meaning eagle, is the day in the Aztec calendar associated with the God Xipe Totec. This silver pendant was created by traditional artisans from the Taxco region of Mexico.
Mesoamerican writing systems reached their zenith with the Mayans. The Mayan civilization was a collection of city-states boasting high levels of urbanization and complex architecture, held together by equally complex trade networks. These cities usually had a palace complex which housed the King who was a divine interlocutor, pyramid temples, observatories, and ceremonial and administrative structures. The elites among them were literate and frequently prolific writers, although little of their writings survived colonization. Fortunately, Mayan stelae frequently recorded information about their lives, and many examples remain available, despite extensive plundering. The Mayans are perhaps the best known of the Mesoamerican peoples today, because of the extensive evidence of their rule left behind. Large Mayan populations in Mexico and Guatemala today retain several elements of their cultural heritage.
It is important to note that the different groupings of the peoples of Mesoamerica are important to historiography but there were frequent ethnic overlaps between them. The city of Teotihuacan, today just outside of Mexico City, stands a UNESCO world heritage site today. At its height, Teotihuacan housed upwards of 200,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in the world between 100 BC and 750 AD. We do not fully understand whether it was the centre of a large empire or an influential city-state, perhaps of the nature of Venice in Europe.
This Mexico wall sticker bears the outline of the iconic step-pyramid, the Temple of Kukulcan in the ruins of the Mayan city of Chichen Itza, one of Mexico's most popular tourist attractions.
What we do know, however, is that Teotihuacan was a major inspiration to a group that would come to be known as the Aztec. Upon discovering the ruins of this great city, the Aztecs claimed a common ancestry with them and adopted many of their beliefs and practices. Although Teotihuacan fell around the 7th and 8th centuries AD, coinciding with the decline of the Mayans, its influence continued to be felt in the rise of the Aztec. Like the other peoples of Mesoamerica, it is difficult to exactly delineate and define who the Aztec were, and scholars have frequently differed on their definitions.
This polyester printed flag of Mexico bears the coat of arms of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, which today is Mexico City.
At any rate, at the time of Hernan Cortes' arrival in the New World, the Aztecs had formed an empire that dominated large parts of Mesoamerica. The city of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec empire, was a remarkable sight. Built in the middle of a lake, Tenochtitlan boasted architectural prowess that awed the Europeans who first saw it, several of whom had difficulty believing that such a vast and complex city could be built in the middle of the water. Nonetheless, the Aztecs were a highly imperialistic empire and did little to curry the favour of the many peoples that chafed under their yoke. Ultimately, many of these subject people aided the Cortes expedition that brought them down in 1521, combined with the far more deadly effect of European disease, which may have wiped out upwards of 90% of the native population.
The 20th century saw a new art movement take hold in Mexico. The colonial period was dominated by Christian and Spanish influence, and while these remained strong, the 20th century saw an influx of new styles, European and native. Pablo Picasso, whose Spanish Couple in Front of an Inn we are proud to host, was a key influence on the Mexican Diego Rivera, who would go on to be one of the forerunners of the new Mexican Muralism movement.
The arrival of the Europeans did much to irreversibly destroy what was likely a treasure trove of knowledge and creativity, and the dizzying which Mesoamerican civilizations reached, and the ways they got there, are perhaps forever lost to us. Yet much of the legacy of the native peoples of these lands lives on in the evidence left behind to us, and in their own continued survival. Today, Mexico is a vibrant and dynamic nation, a melting pot of New and Old World influences that greatly enriches our shared human experiences.