Indigenous Civilizations in Mexico

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. 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 gained force during the Revolution.


The Olmecs are thought to be one of the oldest major civilizations in Mexico; their presence in the region dates back to before 1000 BC. The Olmecs 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 that led to this theory are the huge stone heads they left behind (measuring 4 to 11 feet tall), which are believed to represent the heads of Olmec rulers. Much is still unknown about the Olmecs, such as what led to their decline around 400 BC. 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.


One of the best-known indigenous Mexican groups are 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, some believe that Cerro de Culiacan in the state of Guanajuato, "150 Leagues" from Mexico City, is 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.

At least 16 other indigenous tribes were already occupying this valley after they themselves had migrated to this area of Mexico. Since the Mexicas were one of the last tribes to arrive, they found that all of the good land had already been claimed. They were forced to keep searching for their own spot until they eventually found a small island in a lake of the valley. Here, according to legend, they would see an eagle eating a snake while perched on a cactus. This vision would be a sign indicating that this was where they should settle.

The vision was fulfilled, and the settlement which would later become the famous Aztec city of Tenochtitlan was founded. The Mexica became very skilled in developing their homeland, which helped them move their way up the social and political ladder of the Aztec Empire, as well as intermarrying with other tribes.


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 Zapotec civilization continued developing until the Spanish conquest in the 15th century: their empire lasted 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 group of related Zapotec languages and dialects, which had both written and spoken forms.

Many have survived to this day with the significant 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 started around 2000 BC although precisely where 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 Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico all the way south to El Salvador. Maya civilization has four 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 conquistadors.The Maya were a hierarchical people organized into city-states with rulers pertaining to each one. Even though trade routes were established between cities, and relations were fluid between cities, warfare between different cities appears to have been common.

Often, this warfare was 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 was due to overpopulation, others think a drought was responsible, but it was most likely a combination of environmental and non-environmental factors that caused the steep drop in population and abandonment of many cities. While many great cities would vanish, some cities in the Yucatan would be spared and continue to flourish, such as 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 the they were using the zero 800 years before Europeans, and that the calendar they employed remains equally valid today as it was 2,000 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 remain out of sight.