Times & Places

Mesoamerica

The terms Mesoamerica and ancient American refer primarily to the ancient cultures that flourished in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans. They are often called “pre-Columbian,” because they were made before the voyages of Christopher Columbus. Mesoamerica, or Middle America, is a vast cultural area that encompasses most of what is today north, central, and southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, the western areas of Honduras and El Salvador, and on to western Nicaragua and northwestern Costa Rica. This region is bordered by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and is blessed with a remarkable range of climates that reflect its varied geography. Towering volcanoes, rugged mountains ranges, and high valleys contrast with dense jungles, swampy lowlands, and desert plains. Many ancient cultures that developed in this area shared certain characteristics: the construction of pyramids and temples, a complex calendar, hieroglyphic writing, a belief system that included multiple gods, human sacrifice and ritual bloodletting, and the ball game played with a solid rubber ball and an I-shaped court.[1]

The culture history of Mesoamerica, which continues to unfold through the discoveries of archaeologists and scholars, is divided into periods of time during which the area as a whole experienced relatively similar developments:

Paleo-Indian period (12000-7000 BCE) Bands of cultivators settled into all parts of Mesoamerica and established networks of long-distance exchange through which all the important plant foods were gradually distributed. By the end of this period, village farming life was common throughout Mesoamerica. Corn, beans, squash, and chilies made up a common diet.

Formative period (1500 BCE-150 CE) The earliest governments appeared during this period, integrating local economies with regional ones and helping reduce the risks of disaster—flood, drought, pestilence—faced by farming societies. By the end of the Formative period (also called the Preclassic), there were grand centers and cities throughout the core of Mesoamerica.

Classic period (150/300-650/900 CE) Highly sophisticated civilizations matured during this period, interacting with each other and sharing a complex economy. The success of the Classic forms of government led to imperial expansion and wars. The mysterious collapse of the great cities, which marks the end of this era, is still a subject of controversy.

Early Postclassic period (650/900-1250 CE) Smaller, quite sophisticated, and militarily ruthless societies emerged in the wake of the Classic collapse to reestablish cities and empires during this period. The artistic traditions of the Mixtec and Huastec flower at this time.

Late Postclassic period (1250-1519 CE) The last great empire of Mesoamerica, that of the Aztecs in highland Mexico, rose just before the arrival of the Spaniards. City life flourished throughout Mesoamerica in this period.

[1] Coe, Snow, and Benson 1986:85.

Drawn from

  • "Head of the rain god Tlaloc," DMA Connect, 2012.

  • Ken Kelsey, Gail Davitt, Mary Ann Allday, Barbara Barrett, and Dana DeLoach, DMA Teaching Packet, 1995.

  • Michael Coe, Dean Snow, and Elizabeth Benson, Atlas of Ancient America (New York and Oxford: Facts on File Publications, 1986).

  • Gallery text [Mesoamerica], A. H. Meadows Galleries.

Related Multimedia

Gallery talk by Adam Herring, Associate Professor of Art History, Southern Methodist University

Web Resources