Mesoamerican Civilization: 7 Defining Characteristics Throughout History

Mesoamerican civilization saw the rise and fall of many cultures. Read more to learn about its defining characteristics through time.

Jul 5, 2020By Jesus Santillan, BA Anthropology w/ Archaeology Concentration
cultural map mesoamerica
Cultural map of Mesoamerica, National Museum of Anthropology and History, Mexico City


When people talk about Mesoamerican civilization, a lot of topics emerge as it contains a great deal of knowledge obtained from the cultures that inhabited this mythical zone.


This is a cultural area whose name means “Middle or Central America”, which had an approximate area of ​​768,000 km2. The Pánuco River that has its source between the states of San Luis Potosí, Hidalgo and Queretaro was the northern limit. It included some Central American countries such as El Salvador, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, who at the same time represented the southern limit.


This area had a high degree of cultural interaction between all the civilizations that inhabited it since Mesoamerica had its own identity. Such identity was defined by a series of very particular characteristics that will be described below.


1. Hieroglyphic Writing In The Mesoamerican Civilization


dresden codex
The Dresden Codex, one of the most ancient Mesoamerican “books”, 14th-13th century BC, Saxon State and University Library, Dresden


The writing system that the Mesoamericans used, was very similar to the one owned by other ancient cultures such as the Egyptians. They used it to preserve knowledge, like the memories of their rulers and gods, the cycles of time, and outstanding historical events. 

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These Hieroglyphs represented an idea, a concept, or even a number, thus composing a complex writing system. The repertoire at their disposal included a wide range of ideograms that expressed what was happening in their lives. The hieroglyphs used by these cultures were written in materials such as stone, cloth, wood, bone, and ceramics. 


Nobody knows for sure when the Mesoamerican civilization writing system began its development. But some pieces of evidence discovered by archaeologists may have some clues to understand this mystery. “The Cascajal Block ” has one of those clues, as it was discovered in Cascajal, in the state of Veracruz in Mexico. This block seems to indicate that the Olmecs where the first ones to use a writing system around 1200 B.C.


Examples of this writing include the “Pilgrimage Strip” of the Mexicas, which recounts their pilgrimage from Aztlán to the creation of Tenochtitlán. The “Hieroglyphic Staircase” at the site of Copán in Honduras serves as another example, the culture in that place recorded all the rulers who were in charge in that staircase.


2. Polytheistic Religion In Mesoamerica

aztec gods mictlantechuhtli ehecatl
Aztec Gods Mictlantecuhtli (left) and Ehecatl (right) on p.56 of  the Codex Borgia, 1250-1521 AD, Apostolic Library, The Vatican


The cultures that lived in Mesoamerica had a complex system of beliefs that incorporated elements of nature, such as earth, air, and fire. The astral aspects such as the sun, constellations, and stars, were another common element used by them. 


Representations in sculptures with animal and anthropomorphic forms, and with the shape of habitual objects like braziers or molcajetes, were also used by most Mesoamerican civilizations.


The Mesoamerican pantheon included a number of deities that were universally worshiped all over Mesoamerica, sometimes even across time. Recorded texts also show the existence of a worldview shared by all cultures, which included the sequence of ages and spatial symbols such as cosmic trees, birds, colors, and deities. 


Another element that almost every civilization in Mesoamerica had in common was the pyramids. Those megalithic structures played a pivotal role in Mesoamerican religion, as they represented a symbolic form of coming closer to heaven and to their deities. 


Studies on pyramids that have been excavated in Mesoamerica show us that they have been frequently rebuilt, refinished, and enlarged. They seem to follow a pattern repeated across time all over Mesoamerica, which consists of ceremonies associated with the death of a local leader. The ascension of a successor is the event that triggers a consequent architectural modification of those ceremonial buildings.


3. Mesoamerica Had Lots of Agricultural Variety

preserved maize el gigante rock shelter
Preserved Maize from the El Gigante Rock Shelter in the Honduras Mountains


Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Mesoamerican civilizations managed to master different agricultural techniques, derived from a high knowledge of the land they worked. This created for them a surplus of food that was often used as currency in their markets or trading communities.


On the other hand, agrarian tools were something shared all over Mesoamerica, because those tools of the trade were made with simple materials such as flint, wood, or obsidian. 


Archaeological findings suggest that they began their agricultural activities by the Pre -Formative (7000 BC), using simple tools. Among the tools they utilized, we can find flint axes used to liberate farmland, “Coas” (a rudimentary kind of hoe) used for tilling the soil and small blades of obsidian used to sharpen wood.


As for the grains that were planted by the Mesoamericans, we have corn, chili, beans, and squash. As far as their food habit is concerned, each culture had variants in their daily menu, but they shared many customs and characteristics. Some of these costumes included a strict diet based on the grains they grew, and vegetables such as tomato, potato, nopales, and avocado. 


4. Monumental Architecture In Mesoamerica

uxmal archeological site
Archaeological site of Uxmal, Yucatan, Mexico


The architecture of Mesoamerican civilization is one of the most particular ones, since it has its own elements that are not repeated in any other culture around the world. These megalithic structures arose in response to the population boom that each town had at some point in its history.


We can find examples of this architecture in pyramids, temples, houses, and ceremonial buildings. It was the result of an intense cultural exchange between the people that inhabited Mesoamerica.

This is one of the main aspects of this cultural area since such exchange enriched the vision of architects and builders constantly. It wasn’t uncommon to see the influence of one cultural complex in another, as they shared their knowledge constantly. For instance, we can cite the similarities between Teotihuacan architecture and some buildings of the Zapotec culture.


In this regard, the architectural features appreciated in their buildings were determined by mythological or religious meanings, and their designs were aligned with astral events. In some cases, special luminous effects were achieved and can still be appreciated in equinoxes, solstices, or other important dates.


It is impressive that Mesoamericans, without having advanced technology, were able to fulfill immense architectural works. Such works include public squares, waterways, large housing units, pyramids, temples, and palaces throughout Mesoamerica. This was accomplished with abundant laborers and materials such as limestone, adobe, wood, and vegetable mixtures that served as cementing.


5. A State Governmental Organization

olmec head la venta
An Olmec Head from La Venta,Tabasco, Mexico


One of the most distinctive features of Mesoamerica is the presence of a governmental organization like the State. It was an institution that managed to integrate a delimited territory with a population that shared traditions and a hierarchical political structure. At the head of this political structure was a supreme ruler, which was called in many cases “Chieftain” or “Warlord.”


The first form of government for Mesoamerica was found in the Olmec culture around 1200 BC. The constitution of stable political organizations was a persistent topic for leaders of Mesoamerican civilization to fulfill their political or religious agendas. 


They were constantly looking for a way with which they could be able to govern an increasing number of people. This need to find a better way to lead larger amounts of people, was because the cities were growing fast and required greater control.


Each culture had a particular way of governing its people, but it was the same stratified system for all. In this system, the ruler was considered a god or an emissary from heaven, and the people had to pay tribute to him. The way to do this was by bringing him exotic gifts from distant lands, by giving him the best crops of the harvest or human sacrifices in his honor.


6. The Ancient Calendar

maya calendar painting
Painting of the sacred Maya Calendar, Smithsonian Institution


For Mesoamerican civilizations, time was a sacred element, a creation of the gods, who also provided them with a calendar. For instance, among the Mexicas Oxomoco, and Cipactónal were the ones who created the calendar and gave it to mankind. This divine gift allowed the recording of significant moments in their history, their daily life, ritual events, and the agricultural cycle to obtain good harvests.


The Mesoamerican calendar is the combination of 2 calendars, a 365-day cycle called in Nahuatl Xiuhpohualli or count of the year. The other one is a 260-day cycle calendar called in Nahuatl Tonalpohualli or count of the days.


The Xiuhpohualli was the calendar used by the common people, as it kept track of the solar year, and it was related to the cycles of the Sun, the Moon, and maybe the planet Venus. The Tonalpohualli was a “sacred” calendar, as it was used mostly by priests. It is theorized by many investigators that the Olmecs were the creators of the 260-day calendar.


Mesoamerican civilizations had a vast knowledge in mathematics and astronomy, and they used this knowledge to build observatories, in archaeological sites such as Monte Albán or Chichén Itzá. These observatories were used to study the movement of the stars and the trajectory of the planets. With the data obtained from these studies, they were able to do accurate calendar readings and record them in stone, ceramics or cloth.


This knowledge was inherited from generation to generation until today, where it was discovered by various researchers.


7. Trade Between Mesoamerican Civilizations

mercado de tlatelolco
Mercado de Tlatelolco (Tlatelolco Market) by Diego Rivera, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City


This activity could be considered as the most important for all the empires and city-states that resided in Mesoamerica. With war, they managed to expand their territory to form bigger empires and were able to obtain valuable resources. But trade activities contributed more in the long term and gave identity to these cultures because all cities practiced commerce.


Mesoamerican civilizations had at their disposal a wide variety of products. These products were used by citizens to trade in local markets, with neighboring towns or with other civilizations. 


The market of Tlatelolco in Teotihuacan serves as a good example, as it was supposed to be very big and full of merchandise. Hernan Cortés was so amazed by its diversity that he claimed that only a handful of cities in Europe could rival it. 


The cultures were enriched with constant trade, and an amalgam of knowledge and social customs was created. This often gave rise to the cultural developments that we know today thanks to historians and archaeologists who made the records of their findings.


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By Jesus SantillanBA Anthropology w/ Archaeology ConcentrationJesus Santillan is a contributing writer and researcher with an emphasis on Mesoamerican civilizations. His studies include a Bachelor's in Anthropology with a focus on archaeology. In his free time he tutors students and writes independently. Jesus is from Zacatecas, and currently lives in San Luis Potosí, Mexico.