In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Pre-conquest Mesoamerican States

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Classic Period Collapses
  • Warfare, Sacrifice, and Slavery

Latin American Studies The Pre-conquest Mesoamerican States
Andrew K. Balkansky, Nathan J. Meissner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0203


Spanish eyewitnesses from the conquest period of the 1520s described “enchanted visions” and “dreams” upon encountering Mesoamericans for the first time. After reaching the island city of Tenochtitlan, the conquistadors could not believe what they were seeing—a city among the largest in the world that seemed to float on water, causeways radiating out to the shoreline, a massively urbanized central precinct and commercial district of scale and variety unknown in Europe. What was Mesoamerican civilization? How did the geographic and cultural region extending from Mexico to Central America come into being? Archaeologists continue to investigate these questions and have been filling gaps in the historical record as well as accumulating knowledge of times long before the conquest. We know today that the human record in the lands from Mexico to Central America stretches back more than 10,000 years with a continuous sequence of change leading to urbanism and states. This continuity in development makes Mesoamerica one of the most important world areas for understanding remote prehistory and the causes of long-term culture change. This summary of sources on the development of Mesoamerican civilization emphasizes long-term trends or patterns and general explanations of the processes of change. The themes of political centralization and social differentiation, culminating in stratified societies, urbanism, and the state, are prominent in most overviews of prehispanic Mesoamerica. The broad outlines of these developments, their timing and varied manifestations from region to region, find broad consensus among specialists. Explaining the processes of change is another story. Mesoamerican archaeologists are divided among the humanists and the scientists, the excavators and the epigraphers, and the single-site versus the regional specialists. Given this diversity of approaches (and complexity of the information), this article favors sources using multiple lines of evidence and multi-scalar approaches. The best case studies integrate ethnohistorical and archaeological perspectives, material studies and human biology, and past environments and technologies, and they have data points ranging from house to region and macroregion. Explanations tempered by several sources of information have proven to be the more enduring.

General Overviews

Mesoamerica is understood as a culture area, as described in the trait-based description Kirchhoff 1943. The culture-area approach—meaning the identification of societies with shared adaptations, histories, beliefs, and material culture—is used throughout world archaeology. Areas so defined will contain numerous independent states with shared histories, political structures, and technologies. These broad zones are bound via diffused ideas and a shared material culture recognizable to archaeologists. Current approaches to understanding Mesoamerica reflect the ecological and “New Archaeology” approaches from the 1950s and 1960s. William Sanders’ concept of the “central Mexican symbiotic region” and methods (see Sanders 1956) influenced a succession of regional surveys. Central Mexico, according to Sanders, was an exporter of influence and innovation over a broad area and gave successive rise to Teotihuacan, Tula, and Tenochtitlan as super-centers integrating wide areas of Mesoamerica. Kent Flannery’s household excavations in Oaxaca (although concerning pre-urban, pre-state times) are another enduring influence in viewing interaction among houses, villages, and regions in ever-increasing spatial scales (see Flannery 2009). Important reference works that consider this period are Adams 2005 and Blanton, et al. 1993. Study of Mesoamerica as a world-systems composed of competing cores and their peripheries is the most common theoretical approach used today for understanding Mesoamerica. Blanton and Feinman 1984 is an influential early effort to bring world-systems concepts to Mesoamerica. Smith and Berdan 2003 concentrates on the Postclassic (the period from CE 900 until the Spanish Conquest). World-systems models are designed to transcend the region or individual culture as the unit of analysis, and for prehistoric cases often focus on prestige goods exchange (an observation shared in Kirchhoff 1943). The recurrent criticism is that peripheral societies are more active in structuring their exchange relations, and that their economic organizations are more variable, than the world-systems model allows. Mesoamerica was composed of multiple cores (with socioeconomic differentiation rather than core domination distinguishing them), and this does not allow world-systems models to continue to operate unaltered. Marcus 1992 tackles Mesoamerican writing systems. Balkansky 2006 discusses Mesoamerica’s collective survey results. Evans 2013 is a current general reference work.

  • Adams, Richard E. W. Prehistoric Mesoamerica. 3d ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005.

    This volume remains among the best single sources covering all of Mesoamerica. It has the right mix of description and explanation. Useful for students at all levels. Originally published in 1977.

  • Balkansky, Andrew K. “Surveys and Mesoamerican Archaeology: The Emerging Macroregional Paradigm.” Journal of Archaeological Research 14 (2006): 53–95.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10814-005-9001-0

    Critical evaluation with comprehensive bibliography of regional archaeological surveys and their impact on explanations of culture change in Mesoamerican prehistory.

  • Blanton, Richard E., and Gary M. Feinman. “The Mesoamerican World-System.” American Anthropologist 86 (1984): 673–692.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.1984.86.3.02a00100

    A concept borrowed from historical sociology to describe the exchange dynamics of core and peripheral societies that foster the integration of large-scale social systems. In Mesoamerica, the emphasis is on prestige goods rather than bulk-commodities exchange in the broader culture area.

  • Blanton, Richard E., Stephen A. Kowalewski, Gary M. Feinman, and Laura M. Finsten. Ancient Mesoamerica: A Comparison of Change in Three Regions. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

    The regional approach in archaeology, with comparisons among surveyed regions that all return to the same question: “What is Mesoamerica?” Originally published in 1981.

  • Evans, Susan Toby. Ancient Mexico and Central America: The Archaeology and Culture History of Mesoamerica. 3d ed. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2013.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203827512

    Current, densely illustrated, and nearly comprehensive general reference work. Originally published in 2004.

  • Flannery, Kent V., ed. The Early Mesoamerican Village. Updated ed. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2009.

    This “updated edition” contains Jeremy A. Sabloff’s forward, situating this essential contribution in its times but also assessing its influence. The dialogs among the Real Mesoamerican Archaeologist, Skeptical Graduate Student, and Great Synthesizer have been required reading for several generations of graduate students. Originally published in 1976.

  • Kirchhoff, Paul. “Mesoamerica, sus limites geograficos, composicion etnica y caracteres culturales.” Acta Americana 1 (1943): 92–107.

    Entirely descriptive, but still valuable for the beginning student. English translation in John A. Graham, ed., Ancient Mesoamerica: Selected Readings (Palo Alto, CA: Peek Press, 1966).

  • Marcus, Joyce. Mesoamerican Writing Systems: Propaganda, Myth, and History in Four Ancient Civilizations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

    This book compares the major native writing systems of Mesoamerica, namely, the Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya, and Aztec. The time frame is roughly 500 BCE to 1600 CE.

  • Sanders, William T. “The Central Mexican Symbiotic Region.” In Prehistoric Settlement Patterns in the New World. Edited by Gordon R. Willey, 115–127. Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology 23. New York: Viking Fund, 1956.

    The “symbiotic region” concept comes from biology to describe economic specializations in human societies that foster the integration of large-scale social systems. The original view of regions as closed systems is outmoded, but the focus on local-level economic specialization and developmental variation continues to resonate.

  • Smith, Michael E., and Frances F. Berdan, eds. The Postclassic Mesoamerican World. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2003.

    Editors and contributors take an explicit world-systems perspective. The volume’s main virtue is being strongly empirical, with considerable cross-referencing among sites and regions. Among the best single volumes on the Postclassic.

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