When scholars use the term Mesoamerica, they are referring to a vast and geographically varied territory unified by a set of cultural traits not shared by peoples living immediately beyond its boundaries. There is some disagreement over the exact limits of this territory, which also changed over time. But the northern boundary can be viewed as a U-shaped line ranging from the Sinaloa River to the northwest to the Soto la Marina River on the Gulf of Mexico, with a dip in the middle reaching south to exclude the desert areas of central Mexico. At the south, the border extends from the Ulúa River in Honduras to the Gulf of Fonseca in El Salvador. Thus a large portion of modern-day Mexico, all of Guatemala, Belize, and El Salvador, and part of Honduras comprise ancient Mesoamerica.
The idea of Mesoamerica as a cultural area was developed by the scholar Paul Kirchoff, among others. They observed that the inhabitants of this area, although ethnically and linguistically diverse, could on one level be viewed as a single, homogeneous culture. All Mesoamerican peoples, for example, subsisted on a triad of crops—beans, squash, and especially maize—that they cultivated using regionally distinct farming techniques. Neither the wheel nor metal tools were ever developed for practical use in Mesoamerica, and draft animals were absent. Most people lived in highly stratified societies ruled by elites from urban centers featuring monumental architecture, most notably stepped pyramids. Extensive trade networks and a market system tied diverse regions together over a wide area.
At least four different Mesoamerican civilizations developed hieroglyphic writing, with information recorded in deerskin or bark books as well as in other media. A complex calendrical system meshed the solar year and a 260-day sacred cycle and is still in use in some areas. The Mesoamericans also were accomplished astronomers. Religion, centering on a complex pantheon of deities, was intimately tied to statecraft. Human sacrifice as well as individual penitential bloodletting were thought to be essential to maintaining harmony in the universe. Ritual games, most notably the rubber ball game, were played over a widespread area, even beyond the traditional boundaries of Mesoamerica.
These traits developed over 3,000 years, from the beginnings of settled agricultural life around 1500 b.c. until the Spanish overthrew the Mexica (Aztec) Empire in a.d. 1521. As noted, some of these traits persist today, particularly in rural areas where indigenous agricultural practices, dress, ritual behavior, and religious beliefs remain largely untouched by the outside world.
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