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Classic Period royal palace at Palenque

Mesoamerica (Spanish: Mesoamérica) is a region and cultural area in the Americas, extending approximately from central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, within which a number of pre-Columbian societies flourished before the Spanish colonization of the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries.

As a cultural area, Mesoamerica is defined by a mosaic of cultural traits developed and shared by its indigenous cultures. Beginning as early as 7000 BC the domestication of maize, beans, squash and chili, as well as the turkey and dog, caused a transition from paleo-Indian hunter-gatherer tribal grouping to the organization of sedentary agricultural villages. In the subsequent formative period, agriculture and cultural traits such as a complex mythological and religious tradition, a vigesimal numeric system, and a complex calendric system, a tradition of ball playing, and a distinct architectural style, were diffused through the area. Also in this period villages began to become socially stratified and develop into chiefdoms with the development of large ceremonial centers, interconnected by a network of trade routes for the exchange of luxury goods such as obsidian, jade, cacao, cinnabar, Spondylus shells, hematite, and ceramics. While Mesoamerican civilization did know of the wheel and basic metallurgy, neither of these technologies became culturally important.

Among the earliest complex civilizations was the Olmec culture which inhabited the Gulf coast of Mexico. In the Preclassic period, complex urban polities began to develop among the Maya and the Zapotecs. During this period the first true Mesoamerican writing systems were developed in the Epi-Olmec and the Zapotec cultures, and the Mesoamerican writing tradition reached its height in the Classic Maya Hieroglyphic script. Mesoamerica is one of only five regions of the world where writing was independently developed. In Central Mexico, the height of the Classic period saw the ascendancy of the city of Teotihuacan, which formed a military and commercial empire whose political influence stretched south into the Maya area and northward. During the Epi-Classic period the Nahua peoples began moving south into Mesoamerica from the North. During the early post-Classic period Central Mexico was dominated by the Toltec culture, Oaxaca by the Mixtec, and the lowland Maya area had important centers at Chichén Itzá and Mayapán. Towards the end of the post-Classic period the Aztecs of Central Mexico built a tributary empire covering most of central Mesoamerica.


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La Venta Monument 1

Olmec colossal heads are a distinctive feature of the Olmec civilization of ancient Mesoamerica. The first archaeological investigations of Olmec culture were carried out by Matthew Stirling at Tres Zapotes in 1938, owing to the discovery there of a colossal head in the 19th century. Seventeen confirmed examples of stone heads are known, all from within the Olmec heartland on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, in the states of Veracruz and Tabasco. Most colossal heads were sculpted from spherical boulders but two from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán were recarved from massive stone thrones. An additional monument, at Takalik Abaj in Guatemala, is a throne that may have been carved from a colossal head. This is the only known example outside of the Olmec heartland.

Dating of the monuments has proven difficult due to the movement of many from their original context. Most of the heads have been dated to the Early Preclassic (1500-1000 BC) and some to the Middle Preclassic (1000-400 BC). The smallest examples weigh 6 tons, while the largest is variously estimated to weigh 40 to 50 tons, although this was abandoned unfinished near to its quarry.

Olmec colossal heads were sculpted from large basalt boulders quarried in the Sierra de los Tuxtlas mountains of Veracruz. They were transported over large distances, although the method used for transportation is not clear. Finished momuments represented lifelike portraits of individual Olmec rulers, each wearing a distinctive headdress, and heads were variously arranged in lines or groups at major Olmec centres.

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Matthew Williams Stirling (August 28, 1896 – January 23, 1975) was an American ethnologist, archaeologist and later an administrator at several scientific institutions in the field. He is best known for his discoveries relating to the Olmec civilization.

Stirling began his career with extensive ethnological work in the United States, New Guinea and Ecuador, before directing his attention to the Olmec civilization and its possible primacy among the pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica. His discovery of, and excavations at, various sites attributed to Olmec culture in the Mexican Gulf Coast region significantly contributed towards a better understanding of the Olmecs and their culture. He then began investigating links between the different civilizations in the region. Apart from his extensive field work and publications, later in his career Stirling proved to be an able administrator of academic and research bodies, who served on directorship boards of a number of scientific organizations.

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Toniná 6.jpg
Credit: Simon Burchell

The goals and motives of Maya warfare are not thoroughly understood. Evidence of warfare includes fortified defenses around structure complexes, artistic and epigraphical depictions of war, and weapons such as obsidian blades and projectile points. Some scholars have suggested that the capture of sacrificial victims was a driving force behind warfare.


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North side of Temple V at Tikal




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