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Indigenous Civilizations in Mexico

Mexican Civilizations

Mexican Civilizations. Before the Spanish conquest, Mexico was inhabited by many indigenous civilizations, each with their own languages and traditions.

Before the colonization of the Americas, the area that is now called Mexico was inhabited by many indigenous tribes, each with their own traditions and languages. When the Spaniards took control however, a combination of their oppressive ways, unfamiliar diseases and war decimated the indigenous population. The people that managed to survive gradually incorporated elements of Spanish culture into their own, such as the Catholic religion and the Spanish language. As a result, many of the original traits of the indigenous tribes have now been lost or blended into European-based customs. Today, efforts continue to revive a sense of pride for the Mexican indigenous culture, something that was started around the time of Mexican Independence and even more so since the Revolution.

The Olmec Civilization

The Olmecs are thought to be the one of the oldest civilization in Mexico, since they began before 1000BC. The Olmecs were the first organized civilization in Mexico, relied heavily on agriculture and were the first to introduce ritual bloodletting. We still don't know how Olmec society was structured but it is believed to have been hierarchical. One clue to this are the  huge stone heads that they left behind which are believed to be those of the heads of Olmec rulers. Although there is much that it still not known about the Olmecs, such as how and why their tribe disappeared around 300BC. The Olmec people and culture did not completely disappear; many other tribes incorporated aspects of the Olmec culture into their own including the Aztecs more than 1000 years later.

The Aztec Empire

One of the best know indigenous Mexican groups is the Aztec, which actually absorbed  many individual tribes to become one large group. Primarily Nahuatl speaking, they claimed as their ancestral home a place called Aztlán. Today, the Cerro de Culiacan in Guanajuato state, "150 Leagues" from Mexico City, is believed by some to be this mythical place.

The Aztecs are an agglomeration of different tribes and the Mexica (pronounced me-shee-ka) were considered the most powerful group. After roaming the land they entered into the Valley of Mexico after their leader Huitzilopochtli ordered them to change locations in the 13th century. There, at least 16 other indigenous tribes were occupying this valley also the result of them migrating this area of Mexico. Since the Mexicas were one of the last tribes to arrive in the Valley of Mexico, they found that all of the good land was already occupied. They were forced to keep searching for their own spot until they eventually found a small island in a lake of the valley—where, according to legend, they would see the fulfillment of a vision of an eagle eating a snake while perched on a cactus. This vision was a sign indicating that this was where they should settle. This settlement would later become the famous Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. The Mexica became very skilled in developing their homeland and this helped them to move their way up the social and political ladder of the Aztec Empire, as well as by intermarriage with other tribes.

The Zapotec

Moving further south to the Valley of Oaxaca the Zapotec civilization was flourishing as long as 2,500 years ago. With its beginnings around the 6th century BC, the Olmec civilization continued developing until the Spanish conquest in the 15th century, making their empire much longer lasting than that of the Aztecs. Their civilization was centered around the Zapotec capital of Monte Alban and is known to have been very advanced for its time. There was not one single Zapotec language but instead a variety of Zapotec dialects, which had written and spoken forms. Many have survived to this day with the significantly large Zapotec communities that still live in the state of Oaxaca, as well as other parts of Mexico. Benito Juarez, the first indigenous president of Mexico, was of Zapotec descent. Their survival is likely to be down to the fact that, upon hearing of the defeat of the Aztecs by the Spaniards, they decided not to fight them like the Aztecs did, but there were numerous uprisings against the Spanish up to the 18th century.

The Maya Civilization

The Maya civilization started around 2000 BC although where precisely, is not known. It is generally believed that the first settlements were along the Pacific coast in present-day Chiapas State. What is known is that this empire extended from the the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico all the way south to El Salvador. Maya civilization has 4 clearly marked periods in time starting with the Preclassic Period that dates from the beginning of Maya civilization to around 200 AD. The next period is the Classic (AD 250-900) followed by a Collapse and large scale abandonment of the cities. Finally the Postclassic period (from the 10th to the 16th century) encompasses the decline of Maya civilization and ultimate surrender to the Spanish conquistadores.

The Maya were a hierarchical people that were comprised of city-states with rulers pertaining to each one. Even though trade routes were established between cities, and relations were fluid between cities, warfare appears to have been common between them. Often, this warfare is linked to political control and capturing resources and as populations increased so did the level of violence. No one knows why Maya society collapsed at the end of the first millennium, some think it is due to overpopulation, others think a drought is responsible but one certainty is that it was a combination of environmental and non-environmental factors that caused this collapse and abandonment of many cities.

While many great cities would vanish, in the Yucatan some cities would be spared and continue to flourish like Chichén-Itzá. These cities would remain to greet the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century. One last note regarding the Maya is that they were supremely advanced for their time, sometimes outshining their European counterparts in Science and Math. We mustn't forget that the they were using the zero 800 years before Europeans and the calendar they employed remains equally valid today as it did 2000 years ago.

The result of the combination of indigenous and Hispanic cultures over hundreds of years has resulted in much of the Mexican population being of ‘mestizo’ (mixed) race, but there are still areas where native peoples have mixed little with outsiders even today. Nowadays the Mexican government strives to honor all races and cultures, particularly those of the indigenous tribes which still exist but often times remain out of sight.