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First published: October 2000

Civilizations of MesoAmerica

by Michael Sones

A pottery figurine 
                 of a woman holding a dog.MesoAmerica is a term use by archaeologists and historians and refers to those parts of Mexico and Central America where great Indian civilizations developed.

Exactly when humans first settled the Americas remains a source of debate among experts with some saying that it was over 20,000 years ago and others about 14,000. How they arrived is also a mystery. There was a landbridge over the Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia but Australia was colonized by humans over 50,000 years ago and there was never a landbridge between Australia and the Asian continent so early humans must have had fairly adequate boats and been capable sailors. Both sea and land colonization were possible. These newcomers encountered huge herds of herbivores which roamed the grasslands of the Americas. Horses, mammoths, giant bison and camels all would have provided an ample food supply.


As the Ice Age ended the world became warmer as the great ice sheets retreated. Grassland became desert. It is thought that both climatic change and human hunting were responsible for the extinction of the mammoth, horse, giant bison, and camel in the Americas. However, for perhaps more than 20,000 years before agriculture and the domestication of animals the Indians of the Americas were hunter-gathers who, in order to survive, would have had to have an intimate knowledge of their environment both its riches of plant and animal life and its many hazards.

Pottery was introduced into the region about 1800 B.C at the beginning of what is called the Pre-Classic phase which lasted until 250 AD. This pottery is, despite its age, among the most elegant of MesoAmerica. Clay-fired figurines, usually female, were also introduced during this time. It is thought that these figurines are analogous to the 'Venus' and 'Mother Goddess' figurines of Paleolithic and Neolithic Europe though their exact purpose is a matter of dispute. Plants, particularly varieties of maize/corn were first domesticated in Central America.

A variety of different Indian civilizations developed in MesoAmerica over the thirty-five hundred year period from 2000 BC. until the conquest of the Aztecs by the Spanish explorer Cortes and the conquistadors in 1521 AD.

We use categories like "religion", "art", "life" , "death, "sacred" and "secular" to compartmentalize different aspects of our experience. It can be very difficult for us to understand the 'mindset' of peoples for whom these are not separate categories and for whom the natural world is in some real sense, alive, with spirits or spiritual forces everywhere and in everything. Mayan kings and Aztec rulers were seen as divine beings who were an inseparable part of the world of myth, magic and spiritual beings. The boundaries between things were fluid. Gods, ancestors, animals, humans. Life and death-all could change one into the other.

The concept of time of MesoAmerica was cyclical and seems to have been based on the rhythms of nature and the creation and destruction of successive worlds in a struggle between the gods or between the gods and man is characteristic of the creation myths of MesoAmerican peoples like the Mayas and Aztec.

The photos above are copyright Edgar Martin del Campo and used with his kind permission.

Mayan stela

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