In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Archaeology of Mesoamerica

  • Introduction to Mesoamerica
  • General Overviews
  • Origins of Hereditary Inequality and Chiefly Societies
  • The Rise of States
  • Balkanization and the Appearance of Petty States
  • The Aztec Empire
  • The Spaniards Arrive in 1519 ce

Latin American Studies The Archaeology of Mesoamerica
Joyce Marcus
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0263

Introduction to Mesoamerica

Mesoamerica was home to many civilizations, including the Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec, Toltec, Tarascan, and Aztec. These civilizations developed without any influence from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, or the Andes, and can therefore be seen as an independent series of case studies for comparative purposes. The Mesoamerican civilizations first became known to the Western world in 1519 CE when the Spaniards reached Mexico. In the decades that followed, the literati of Europe began to read eyewitness accounts describing the people and cities of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. Assigning all these high cultures to a region called “Mesoamerica” recognized their shared tradition and similar practices, including (1) the use of a 260-day calendar combining twenty different days with thirteen numbers; (2) a reliance on maize, beans, squash, tomatoes, chiles, and avocados; (3) the use of ballcourts; (4) the use of a vigesimal system (based on multiples of twenty unlike our decimal system); and (5) the circulation of jade, marine shell, obsidian (volcanic glass), chocolate, feathers, cloth, jaguar pelts, and copal (aromatic incense and tree resin). Archaeologists have divided Mesoamerica’s 17,000-year pre-Hispanic history into (1) an era of hunter-gatherers and incipient agriculturalists (15,000–1800 BCE); (2) the first sedentary villagers (1800–1200 BCE); (3) the development of hereditary inequality, hieroglyphic writing, and chiefly societies (1200–50 BCE); (4) the rise of cities and states (50 BCE–600 CE); (5) the collapse of early expansionist states and their replacement by smaller polities (600–1200 CE); (6) the rise of Aztec, Tarascan, and Mixtec polities (1200–1500 CE); and (7) a century of contact, when interaction between the Spaniards and multiple indigenous groups changed both societies in profound ways (1519–1619 CE).

General Overviews

Seven of the informative overviews of Mesoamerica are by Adams and MacLeod 2000, Evans 2013, Manzanilla and López Luján 2000–2001, Nichols and Pool 2012, Sabloff 1981, Smith and Masson 2000, and Wauchope 1964–1976. These handbooks, readers, and encyclopedia include useful summaries, maps, and chronology charts that provide a timeline of major developments. Although Mesoamerica—as defined by Kirchhoff 1966 [1943]—includes multiple countries, using the term “Mesoamerica” draws attention to the region as one culture area. Publications on Mesoamerica have surged during the last two decades as the result of new excavations and fruitful collaborations among archaeologists, linguists, epigraphers (those who decipher writing systems), art historians, social and biological anthropologists, and ethnohistorians. New publications discuss the peopling of Mesoamerica, the era of hunters and shellfish collectors, the gradual transition from a nomadic life to the first villages, the emergence of differences in social status, hereditary inequality, chiefly societies, hieroglyphic writing, urbanism, capitals, states, and empires. Recommended reading on these topics can be seen in other sections of this entry. Key articles and overviews have appeared in Spanish or English in several journals, including Ancient Mesoamerica, Arqueología Mexicana, Estudios de Cultura Maya, Estudios de Cultura Náhuatl, Journal of Archaeological Research, Journal of Field Archaeology, Latin American Antiquity, and Revista de Arqueología Americana.

  • Adams, Richard E. W., and Murdo J. MacLeod, eds. The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, Vol. 2, Parts 1 and 2: Mesoamerica. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    Provides an overview of the archaeology and history of several sites and cultures, including the Tarascan, Maya, Olmec, Aztec, Mixtec, and Zapotec. Broad geographic and chronological coverage from the earliest preceramic settlements to the era following the arrival of Europeans in Mesoamerica.

  • Evans, Susan Toby, ed. Ancient Mexico & Central America: Archaeology and Culture History. 3d ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013.

    Well-illustrated with eighty-one color and more than four hundred black/white images. Excellent regional maps and syntheses of major sites and political developments. Themes range from ecology, foragers, and farmers to cities, states, and empires. This edition has new material, especially on the Aztec and its population, politics, female deities, and religion. This edition’s extensive bibliography is so helpful for future research.

  • Kirchhoff, Paul. “Meso-America.” In Heritage of Conquest: The Ethnology of Middle America. Edited by Sol Tax, 17–30. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1952.

    This chapter, which provides the traits that defined “Meso-America” as a distinct area, has encouraged scholars to compare Mesoamerica to other culture areas. Such comparative analyses have advanced our knowledge of Mesoamerica as well as that of other world regions.

  • Kirchhoff, Paul. “Mesoamerica: Its Geographic Limits, Ethnic Composition, and Cultural Character.” In Ancient Mesoamerica: Selected Readings. Edited by John A. Graham, 1–10. Palo Alto, CA: Peek Publications, 1966.

    Kirchhoff gives the geographic limits and characteristics of “Mesoamerica” that define it as a culture area. Still considered a pivotal and influential article. Originally in Spanish in Acta Americana 1.1 (1943): 92–107.

  • Manzanilla, Linda, and Leonardo López Luján, eds. Historia Antigua de México. 4 vols. 2d ed. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología, 2000–2001.

    An impressive collection of chapters covering all of Mesoamerica. Volume 1 covers the first villages and the domestication of animals. Volume 2 features the cities and states of many regions at their political peak. Volume 3 discusses the era of multiple smaller polities following the collapse of first-generation states. The chapters in Volume 4 focus on astronomy, writing, religion, literature, art, trade, and other topics.

  • Nichols, Deborah L., and Christopher A. Pool, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Mesoamerican Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    Includes more than seventy chapters on an impressive variety of topics, from ancient ritual and hieroglyphic writing to contemporary concerns such as heritage and the impact of archaeology on today’s culture and modern economics.

  • Sabloff, Jeremy A., ed. Supplement to the Handbook of Middle American Indians, Vol. 1, Archaeology. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

    Features archaeological projects not covered in earlier Handbook volumes (Wauchope 1964–1976). Key chapters include new survey and excavation data on the Basin of Mexico, Monte Albán, San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, Dzibilchaltun, and Teotihuacan.

  • Smith, Michael E., and Marilyn A. Masson, eds. The Ancient Civilizations of Mesoamerica: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

    This collection of twenty-three articles supplies broad coverage of Mesoamerica over time and space. A useful addition to Latin American history and anthropology courses.

  • Wauchope, Robert, gen. ed. The Handbook of Middle American Indians. 16 vols. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964–1976.

    A sweeping synthesis of the natural environment, languages, archaeology, and ethnohistory of Mesoamerica, with an extensive bibliography up to the 1970s. See also Sabloff 1981, the Supplement to the Handbook, for survey and excavation projects conducted after these Handbook volumes were published.

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