In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica Childhoods

  • Introduction
  • Childhood in the Mesoamerican Past: Early Publications
  • Pre-Columbian Childhood Representation
  • Identity and Rites of Passage
  • Daily Life Practices and Activities
  • Children for the Gods: Sacrifice and Ritual among Pre-Hispanic Cultures
  • Funerary Practices

Childhood Studies Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica Childhoods
Héctor Hernández Álvarez
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0247


Research on pre-Columbian childhood refers to all those studies that consider the different evidence and expressions of children in Mesoamerica, prior to the Spanish invasion in the 16th century. Archaeology, understandably by its very focus, has been one of the most prolific disciplines that has approached this subject of study. Currently, archaeological research focuses on highlighting the different social experiences of the past (or multi-vocality) of social identities, such as gender and childhood, and its relationship with material culture. In addition, archaeologists recognize a modern stereotype that considers children as passive or dependent beings and therefore biases childhood research in the past. Consequently, it is necessary to critically evaluate the cultural specificity of past childhood since each culture has its own way of considering that stage of the life cycle. Another problem, in the archaeological study of childhood, is to consider that children are not socially important individuals. It has been said that their activities are not significant for the economy or the social realm of communities and societies of the past. From archaeology, there exists a general perception that children are virtually unrecognizable from the archaeological record because their behavior leaves few material traces, apart from child burials. It has been since feminist critiques within the discipline that the study of childhood became of vital importance in archaeology to understand the process of gender acquisition through enculturation. This process refers to the way children learn about their gender identity through the material world that surrounds them and the various rituals that prepare them to become persons. Thus, the intent of recent studies on childhood has been to call upon archaeologists to consider children as social actors capable of making meaningful decisions on their own behalf and that they make substantial contributions to their families and their communities. In this sense, studies on pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican cultures have focused at the most basic sense on identifying the presence of children in the archaeological record or ethnohistoric sources. Its aim has been to document the different social ages that make up childhood, the ritual importance of Mesoamerican children, funerary practices, and health conditions marked in children’s bones as well as the different material and identity expressions of childhood through art and its associated material culture.

Childhood in the Mesoamerican Past: Early Publications

Studies on childhood in pre-Columbian times include a diversity of disciplinary approaches within archaeology, methodologies, and themes that give meaning to children’s experiences in ancient Mesoamerican societies. The so-called archaeology of childhood, dealing with the construction of childhood in different cultural settings and the cultural process of socialization, has not been present in the study of pre-Hispanic children until recent years. It is interesting to note that although Mexico is a country with an unprecedented cultural richness, studies on children in the different cultures that constituted the country’s cultural mosaic are relatively scarce (Ardren and Hutson 2006 and Márquez Morfín 2010, both cited under General Overviews). However, the rich tradition of Mesoamerican studies shows us that other disciplines such as biological anthropology, linguistics, ethnohistory, epigraphy, iconography, and history have also sought to give voice to the childhood experiences of the past. Beginning in the 1960s, the first attempts were made to address the representations of children in pre-Columbian art. Noguera 1968 provides an example of early research on children representation. The author’s compilation of children images in figurines, stone sculptures, and reliefs addresses the social role of childhood in the Mesoamerican tradition and their symbolic association with ideas of fertility, regeneration, and renewal. In that same period, the images of the so-called baby faces attracted attention, which served to define the artistic style of the then-called mother culture of Mesoamerica: the Olmecs. It was not until the 1980s, based on the criticisms made by feminist archaeology, that scholars of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past turned their gaze to critically address the experience of children in pre-Columbian times using an approach that considers childhood as a sociocultural construct not biologically fixed but temporally determined. During the next decade, more childhood archaeology studies were published regarding the major cultures of Mesoamerica such as the Aztecs, the Maya, the Zapotecs, and the Teotihuacáns. At this time, studies focused mainly on artistic representations of children or the living conditions and diseases that afflicted that section of the population. Similar themes can be found in Storey 1992. The author expanded knowledge on ancient Maya children paleopathologies and nutrition, and her approach had important implications on paleodemography. In addition, extensive studies on child sacrifice rituals were carried out, as in the case of Román Bellereza 1990. The focus was on infant sacrifice and bioarchaeological evidence of this practice within the study of infancy and Mesoamerican childhood archaeology. The increasing excavation of ritual deposits and burials containing infant remains, in addition with studies of artistic representations, were also important contributions on this early phase.

  • Noguera, Eduardo. “La representación infantil en el arte antiguo.” Anales de Antropología 5.1 (1968): 199–211.

    One of the first publications that addresses the artistic representation of infancy in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica. Compiles diverse ancient Mexican art images from different sites and cultures. Shows that in Mesoamerica, infant representations are common in clay figurines, jade statuettes, reliefs, and stone sculptures. In general, human images become more stylized and many represent deities among the predominant cultures from the Postclassic period.

  • Román Bellereza, Juan Alberto. Sacrificio de niños en el Templo Mayor. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 1990.

    Published in collaboration with GV Editores. Bioarchaeological research along with spatial and artifactual analysis are the main focuses in this research in order to contextualize the remains of sacrificed infants located in the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan. This volume synthesizes the findings and the study of the skeletal remains to understand the different antemortem, perimortem, and postmortem rituals performed with children at the end of the pre-Hispanic era.

  • Storey, Rebecca. “The Children of Copan: Issues of Paleopathology and Paleodemography.” Ancient Mesoamerica 3 (1992): 161–167.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0956536100002376

    One of the first studies on infant paleopathology and paleodemography in pre-Hispanic times. Storey presents patterns of infant mortality from infant remains excavated from a residential complex at Copán. Osteological analysis shows that mortality was highest between one and four years of age, while it decreased between ten to fourteen years. Attributes these problems to changes in nutrition that accompanied early childhood life-cycle transitions.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.