The Pre-conquest Mesoamerican States
- LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0203
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
- Agricultural Technologies
- Ancient Andean Textiles
- Andean Contributions to Rethinking the State and the Natio...
- Andean Music
- Antislavery Narratives
- Arab Diaspora in Brazil, The
- Arab Diaspora in Latin America, The
- Argentina in the Era of Mass Immigration
- Argentina, Slavery in
- Argentine Literature
- Army of Chile in the 19th Century
- Asian Art and Its Impact in the Americas, 1565–1840
- Asian-Peruvian Literature
- Atlantic Creoles
- Baroque and Neo-baroque Literary Tradition
- Bello, Andrés
- Black Experience in Colonial Latin America, The
- Black Experience in Modern Latin America, The
- Borderlands in Latin America, Conquest of
- Bourbon Reforms, The
- Brazilian Northeast, History of the
- Buenos Aires
- Caribbean Philosophical Association, The
- Caribbean, The Archaeology of the
- Cartagena de Indias
- Caste War of Yucatán, The
- Caudillos, 19th Century
- Cádiz Constitution and Liberalism, The
- Chaco War
- Children, History of
- Chile's Struggle for Independence
- Chronicle, The
- Church in Colonial Latin America, The
- Chávez, Hugo, and the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela
- Cinema, Contemporary Brazilian
- Cinema, Latin American
- Colonial Central America
- Colonial Legal History of Peru
- Colonial New Granada
- Colonial Portuguese Amazon Region, from the 17th to 18th C...
- Contemporary Maya, The
- Costa Rica
- Cárdenas and Cardenismo
- Cuban Revolution, The
- Dependency Theory in Latin American History
- Development of Architecture in New Spain, 1500–1810, The
- Development of Painting in Peru, 1520–1820, The
- Drug Trades in Latin America
- Dutch in South America and the Caribbean, The
- Early Colonial Forms of Native Expression in Mexico and Pe...
- Economies from Independence to Industrialization
- Ecuador, La Generación del 30 in
- El Salvador
- Enlightenment and its Visual Manifestations in Spanish Ame...
- Environmental History
- Era of Porfirio Díaz, 1876–1911, The
- Family History
- Film, Science Fiction
- Football (Soccer) in Latin America
- From "National Culture" to the "National Popular" and the ...
- Gaucho Literature
- Gender in Colonial Brazil
- Gender in Postcolonial Latin America
- Guaraní and Their Legacy, The
- Guatemala and Yucatan, Conquest of
- Guatemala City
- Guatemala (Colonial Period)
- Guatemala (Modern & National Period)
- Haitian Revolution, The
- Health and Disease in Modern Latin America, History of
- History, Cultural
- History, Food
- Honor in Latin America to 1900
- Horror in Literature and Film in Latin America
- Human Rights in Latin America
- Immigration in Latin America
- Indigenous Elites in the Colonial Andes
- Indigenous Population and Justice System in Central Mexico...
- Indigenous Voices in Literature
- Japanese Presence in Latin America
- Jewish Presence in Latin America, The
- José María Arguedas and Early 21st Century Cultural and Po...
- Las Casas, Bartolomé de
- Latin American Independence
- Latin American Urbanism, 1850-1950
- Law and Society in Latin America since 1800
- Legal History of New Spain, 16th-17th Centuries
- Legal History of the State and Church in 18th Century New ...
- Literature, Argentinian
- Machado de Assis
- Magical Realism
- Maroon Societies in Latin America
- Martí, José, and Cuba
- Mestizaje and the Legacy of José María Arguedas
- Mexican Nationalism
- Mexican Revolution, 1910–1940, The
- Mexican-US Relations
- Mexico, Conquest of
- Mexico, Education in
- Migration to the United States
- Military and Modern Latin America, The
- Military Government in Latin America, 1959–1990
- Military Institution in Colonial Latin America, The
- Modern Decorative Arts and Design, 1900–2000
- Modern Populism in Latin America
- Modernity and Decoloniality
- Musical Tradition in Latin America, The
- Native Presence in Postconquest Central Peru
- New Conquest History and the New Philology in Colonial Mes...
- New Left in Latin America, The
- Novel, Chronology of the Venezuelan
- Novel of the Mexican Revolution, The
- Novel, 19th Century Haitian
- Novel, The Colombian
- Oaxaca, Conquest and Colonial
- Painting in New Spain, 1521–1820
- Paraguayan War (War of the Triple Alliance)
- Pastoralism in the Andes
- Paz, Octavio
- Perón and Peronism
- Peru, Colonial
- Peru, Conquest of
- Peru, Slavery in
- Philippines Under Spanish Rule, 1571-1898
- Photography in the History of Race and Nation
- Political Exile in Latin America
- Ponce de León
- Popular Culture and Globalization
- Popular Movements in 19th-Century Latin America
- Post Conquest Aztecs
- Post-Conquest Demographic Collapse
- Poverty in Latin America
- Preconquest Incas
- Pre-conquest Mesoamerican States, The
- Pre-Revolutionary Mexico, State and Nation Formation in
- Printing and the Book
- Prints and the Circulation of Colonial Images
- Protestantism in Latin America
- Puerto Rican Literature
- Religions in Latin America
- Revolution and Reaction in Central America
- Rosas, Juan Manuel de
- Sandinista Revolution and the FSLN, The
- Santo Domingo
- Science and Empire in the Iberian Atlantic
- Sexualities in Latin America and the Caribbean
- Slavery in Brazil
- São Paulo
- Spanish American Arab Literature
- Spanish and Portuguese Trade, 1500–1750
- Spanish Caribbean In The Colonial Period, The
- Spanish Colonial Decorative Arts, 1500-1825
- Spanish Florida
- Spiritual Conquest of Latin America, The
- Telenovelas and Melodrama in Latin America
- Textile Traditions of the Andes
- 16th-Century New Spain
- Transculturation and Literature
- Trujillo, Rafael
- Tupac Amaru Rebellion, The
- United States and Castro's Cuba in the Cold War, The
- United States and the Guatemalan Revolution, The
- United States Invasion of the Dominican Republic, 1961–196...
- Urban History
- Urbanization in the 20th Century, Latin America’s
- U.S.-Latin American Relations During the Cold War
- Vargas, Getúlio
- Venezuelan Literature
- Women and Labor in 20th-Century Latin America
- Women in Colonial Latin American History
- Women in Modern Latin American History
- Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas