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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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Feathered headdress

Mexican feather work, also called "plumería", was an important artistic and decorative technique in the pre-Hispanic and colonial periods in what is now Mexico. Although feathers have been prized and feather works created in other parts of the world, those done by the "amanteca" impressed Spanish conquerors, leading to a creative exchange with Europe. Feather pieces took on European motifs in Mexico. Feathers and feather works became prized in Europe. The "golden age" for this technique as an art form was from just before the Spanish conquest to about a century afterwards. At the beginning of the 17th century, it began a decline due to the death of the old masters, the disappearance of the birds that provide fine feathers and the depreciation of indigenous handiwork. Feather work, especially the creation of "mosaics" or "paintings" principally of religious images remained noted by Europeans until the 19th century, but by the 20th century, the little that remained has become a handcraft, despite efforts to revive it. Today, the most common feather objects are those made for traditional dance costumes, although mosaics are made in the state of Michoacán, and feather trimmed huipils are made in the state of Chiapas.

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Selected biography


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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Ceramic Xipe Totec figurine from the Tehuacan Valley, 1150-1521 AD, in the Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts.
Credit: Daderot

Xipe Totec ("our lord the flayed one") was a life-death-rebirth deity, god of agriculture, vegetation, the east, disease, spring, goldsmiths, silversmiths and the seasons. Xipe Totec flayed himself to give food to humanity, symbolic of the way maize seeds lose their outer layer before germination and of snakes shedding their skin.



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Lintel 24 from Yaxchilan




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