Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2015
by Donald J. Mabry
People began entering the New World about 25,00 B.C. from Siberia. They kept coming in waves to about the year 35 AD. By 7,000 BC, they had reached the tip of South America, 11,00 miles from the Bering Straits. They were variety of physical types. No B type blood as in the Old World. Like most immigrants, they seem to have resisted the later comers. Often called Native Americans, they are more aptly called Early and Earlier Immigrants since they were just part of the movement of peoples to the New World that continues today.
Number of people in Mesoamerica (Mexico and Guatemala principally) before the Conquest has been estimated at between 12 and 15 million. This is a safe guess. We don't know. Some put the number at 25 million.
First immigrants were probably big game hunters in search of food. From archeological evidence it is clear that they were in Southern Chile by 7,000 BC. After they started entering the New World, small game hunters and seed gatherers began going to the New World between 15,000 and 2,500 BC. Around 7,000 BC, environmental conditions began to favor small game hunters. Changes in the climate meant the demise of much of the big game. Grasslands started to become deserts.
Plant food is the strategic element in the chain of animal life. Around 6,000 BC, begin to get the domestication of plants. First full-fledged farmers appear around 1,500 BC. Meant that it was possible to develop more permanent structures because they didn't move. Also meant a more complex social stratification in societies.
New World agriculture developed independently of the Old World. By 1,400 BC, cultivation was an integral part of mesoamerican existence. Cultivators were completely sedentary. Used stone ax and the wooden digging stick (coa). Slash and burn farming as a means of clearing land. Traded textiles and pottery.
By 900 BC, mesoamerican diet probably achieved standardization--corn, beans, squash, chili pepper, small dog, salt, and pulque (3-5% alcohol).
Around 900 BC egalitarian life of the of the simple farming community begins to become more complex. Farmers produced enough food to allow for specialization of function. Produced pottery for export. Import and export of shells, jade, and turquoise. Burial remains indicate differentiation into social classes. Rise of the priest. Begin to get large-scale construction for religious purposes and the appearance if the Olmec art style. Carved jade. Obsession with the jaguar. The jaguar was associated with Tlaloc--He Who Makes The Plants Spring Up. Jaguar is the symbol of the power that controls the heart of the land.
Humans begin to harness nature--irrigation works. Building of dams, dikes, and canals.
Temple centers come into being. Some mere cathedral towns. There were some real cities, such as Teotihuacán, which contained somewhere between 50,000 and 100,00 people. To sustain a city of that size, had to rely upon something besides slash and burn agriculture and the two-field system. Used terracing, humid bottom lands, irrigation, and chinampas (floating gardens).
Can't prove it was ushered in by technological changes but can be sure that organization of society had undergone a major change. The dominant figure of the new order was the religious specialist. The center of power was the ceremonial center. The center was a scared precinct. Within it, the special apparatus was housed through which supernatural energy was concentrated, stored, and distributed to the common man. Access to this power was in the hands of uncommon men, the priest-ruler, whose special training and esoteric knowledge allowed him to approach the deity and transmit its will. He wore the symbols of divinity. Priests were devotees of the supernatural and of power. They were not only full-time religious practitioners but also specialists in organization.
Murals and pottery of this period show priests not warriors. Little warfare but there was some. The power of the priest was primarily ideological. Priests also performed economic functions: control of the calendar and religious ceremonies so people would know when to plant, irrigate, and cultivate and have the blessings of the gods when they did so. Temples were also depositories. They administered offerings to the deities. Served as storehouses. Launched trade expeditions. Markets were also religious centers.
The temple precinct was the center of this new order. The temples were built in tiers to represent the tiers of the universe or the temple was the navel of the universe.
Specialization in gods: chief god was Tlaloc , sometimes represented as a jaguar, sometimes as a serpent with feathers, sometimes as an owl or a combination such as jaguar- serpent or serpent-butterfly. Had no difficulty with multiple images of their gods. There were other gods besides Tlaloc such as the bat god and the fire god.
The mesoamerican calendar was a way of binding time. Calendar gives rhythm to society. The universe was not one but many. Each universe lived its allotted time and then ended in catastrophe. The basic count combines 13 numbers and 20 signs, such as crocodile, wind, house, lizard, snake, into 260 days. The great calendar had a solar year of 365 days (18 months of 20 days each plus 5 "evil days" at year's end. Same combination occurred every 52 years, which was the end of the cycle. Mayas and other south Mexicans also had a Venus year of 584 days. The Maya had a starting point of 3133 BC. That was clearly imaginary. Calendar originated about 500 BC.
Theocratic Mexican pyramids emphasize horizontal lines. Decorative art. Mexica themes were supernatural abstractions. Teotihuac n was the biggest and most influential center of theocratic times. The word means house of gods. The city grew from a size of 250 acres before 350 AD to 2,000 acres by 650 AD. The oldest dated remains there are at the time of Christ but the Pyramid of the Moon (485 feet by 405 feet at the base and 140 feet high) is probably older. The big temples were built and rebuilt between 12 AD and 25O AD. Teotihuac n was destroyed and abandoned about 800 AD. Not clear why this occurred. Was it the rise of the warriors?
Settlement pattern of Teotihuacán was the Avenue of the Dead which was 60 yards wide with small streets running off it. Largest building is the Pyramid of the Sun which is 689 feet by 689 feet at the base and 210 feet high. Contains about 1.3 million cubic feet of earth. Took 10,000 people 20 years to build it. Different groups built and used Teotihuacan. Theocratic influence was directed towards the east and the southeast.
Among the other pyramids was the Pyramid of Cholula near Puebla, Mexico. It is a series of pyramids, one on top of the other, as new groups covered the former structure with their own in order to assert dominance. In southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras are the pyramids of the Maya surrounded by the buildings which supported them.
Theocratic culture was rich and complex.
A good book on pre-Columbian mesoamerica is Eric Wolf, Sons of the Shaking Earth.
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