Which cultures existed in Mesoamerica and when?

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Many different cultures thrived within the region we call Mesoamerica, both well-known and lesser known.

Here’s a brief summary:

“The Big Three”

  • Olmec (1500 – 400 BC, bottom right in image below): Lived along the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Evidence of this artistic style has been found throughout the rest of Mesoamerica, including Central Mexico and the Pacific Coast of Mexico and Guatemala.
  • Maya (1500 BC – 1521 AD, bottom left in image below): The Maya lived in eastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador.
  • Aztec (1100 – 1521 AD, left in image below): Settled the Basin of Mexico in the center of the country. Also known as the Mexica, they were latecomers to the scene but quickly became a large empire.
“The Big Three”. Image property of Mesoamerican Studies Online.

Other lesser-known (but just as important) civilizations or groups:

  • Teotihuacanos: Located in the Basin of Mexico, just to the northeast of Teotihuacan.
  • Zapotec & Mixtec: Two cultures from Oaxaca, along the southern coast of Mexico.
  • Toltec: The Toltec culture was centered in what is known today as the state of Hidalgo, just to the north of Mexico City.
  • Huastec: A culture located along the upper Gulf Coast of Mexico, which appears to have been influenced by both Central Mexico and the Maya.
  • Western Mexico: This region is found to the west of Mexico City, encompassing the states of Jalisco, Nayarit and Colima.

Mesoamerica was a culturally varied region, and each of the groups mentioned above had unique characteristics that set them apart. However, archaeological evidence suggests that they also interacted with each other. Trade routes running throughout the continent ensured that these cultures, despite their differences, maintained contact with each other throughout the centuries.

For more information on Mesoamerica and the cultures that lived in it, check out my free downloadable booklist recommendation PDF, “Mesoamerican Studies Library Essentials”.


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