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Section 6-1: Civilization of Mesoamerica
Vocabulary words:
Mesoamerica = cultural region made up of Mexico and Central America, where some of
the earliest civilizations of the Americas developed.
maize = Native American name for corn.
Olmecs = earliest American civilization (lasting from 1500 BC to 400 BC) – settled
along the Gulf Coast of Mexico; little is known of them.
stela = sculpted, tall stone monument
Valley of Mexico = valley in the high plateau of Central America; where Aztecs settled
Tenochtitlàn = capital city of the Aztecs; where Mexico City stands today
chinampas = artificial islands made of mud piled atop reed mats that were anchored to
shallow lake-beds with willow trees.
tribute = payment that conquered peoples may be forced to pay their conquerors.
Teotihuacán = Mesoamerican city that dominated the Valley of Mexico from about 200
to 750 A.D. and that influenced the culture of later Mesoamerican peoples; it was wellplanned, with wide roads, massive temples, and large apartment buildings to house a
population of about 200,000. This civilization fell to invaders, but its culture survived and
influenced later people of Mesoamerica, especially the Aztec (e.g., the Aztec believe that
their world was created by the gods in Teotihuacán.
Checkpoint questions:
1. How did early Americans adapt to different environments?
By learning to hunt animals and domesticate animals as well as plants suited to
each environment. Neolithic people in Mesoamerica cultivated a range of crops:
beans, sweet potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, squash, and maize. Over time, farmers
settled into villages, and villages grew into cities.
2. What aspects of Olmec culture have archaeologists uncovered?
Archeologists know little about Olmec culture compared to other civilizations.
We do not know their origin nor the name they called themselves. Temples and
art left behind suggest a culture with a powerful class of priests and nobles that
may have lived in ceremonial centers, while the rest of their society lived in
surrounding villages. Most notable are colossal heads – no one knows how they
were moved to present location without wheeled vehicles or horses – indication of
ingenuity. Also, strong trade and strong influence in the community (jaguars and
serpents that decorate their artwork also decorate artwork of later Mesoamerican
civilizations. Olmecs invented a calendar and carved hieroglyphic writing into
stone. May consider Olmecs the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica.
3. How did the Maya political structure differ from an empire?
Instead of centrally ruled empire, the Maya grew into city-states, each of which
had its own region of influence. They were independent of each other, but larger
ones reigned over neighboring areas, requiring people to pledge their allegiance to
the king of the controlling city-state. The city-states maintained contact with each
other through trade. Class structure included ruler at top; nobles (military leaders
and civic leaders); scribes, painters, and sculptors; merchants; farmers; and some
had slaves.
4. What do Maya arts and writing tell us about their religion?
It was elaborate and central to their culture. Their history was well documented by
scribes through a hieroglyphic writing system. They had a polytheistic religion
(including a creator god, rain god, and sun god) and human sacrifices were a large
part of their religion. They wrote about astronomy and their ritual sacrifices, but
much of what they wrote was destroyed by Spanish conquerors and missionaries.
Only three books survived and exist today. Most of the hieroglyphs that remain
are carved in stone. We know that the Maya had an accurate measure of time,
with a 365-day solar calendar. They invented a number system that included place
values and the concept of zero.
What are some advantages and disadvantages of building a city on an island in a
Some advantages of building a city on an island in a lake are that they had more
farmland, the farmland would get more water (thanks to surrounding presence of
freshwater, the water provided lake creatures for food, and they could be
protected from certain things (safety from enemies).
The disadvantages are that there is a limit of tillable and buildable land; the lake
can overflow and the island can flood, they could go through drought and the lake
would lose water making the crops suffer, and they could still be attacked by
other forces and have fewer avenues of escape. Also, greater costs in creating
How was Aztec society structured?
Aztec society was structured as a pyramid, with a single emperor at the top, layers
of nobles and other officials, a layer of priests, a middle class of merchants, a
majority class of farmers, and a lowest class of slaves.
Had only one ruler (emperor) – unlike the Mayans, who had a ruler for each citystate. There was a council of nobles, priests and military leaders. The priests
were the keepers recorded laws and were teachers. The Aztecs had a hieroglyphic
writing system and a 260-day ritual calendar and a 365-day solar calendar. They
were always in warfare and used POWs as human sacrifices to the gods.
Additional Q: What do chinampas show us about Aztec society?
Aztec society was creative in the ways it adapted to the environment. It was wellorganized enough to undertake large projects.