©2009, Charlotte A. Smith, All rights reserved.

Mesoamerican Highlands

The terrain is distinguishable by volcanic landscape of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt with many volcanoes still active today. The vast Valley of Mexico lies 7,000 feet above sea level in what is now Mexico city. Mesoamerican Highlands was the birth place for many advanced societies. A variety of highly sophisticated agricultural civilizations flourished in Mexico from about the time of Christ until the Spanish conquest of the 1520's. These cultures influenced one another through trade and conquest. As a result they share many cultural forms, among them pyramids, calenders and Gods and myths. The earliest of these cultures were the Olmecs, who inhabited the Gulf Coast near what is now Veracruz. Probably more influential were the people that built the city of Teotihuacan, located in the central valley about 40 miles north of where Mexico City is today. The Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan is among the largest in the world, covering slightly more ground than the largest Great pyramid of Giza. It rises only about half as high in order perhaps to imitate the shape of the surrounding mountains. The pyramid lies over a cave that corresponds to ancient belief that humanity first emerged from a hole in the ground. This thesis gets strong support from the fact that the pyramid is aligned to face the sunset on August 12, a date corresponding to the beginning of time in the Maya calender.

Teotihuacán Pyramid of the Sun

Teotihuacan arose as a new religious center in the Mexican Highland and quickly became the largest and most populous urban center in the region. The name Teotihuacan means "place where gods were born" emphasizing the belief that the gods of the world created the universe

here. By the fourth century Teotihuacan influences were felt throughout most parts of Mesoamerica. The first known settlements in Teotihuacán, Mexico were around 500 B.C. And Its citizens disappeared without a trace around 700 A.D

Teotihuacán_Pyramid_of_the_Sun.jpg 2008/03/in-early-first.html Teotihuacan/PyramidSun.jpg

Mexican Highlands civilizations: the Olmecs, the Toltecs and the Aztecs.

The Olmecs

The earliest civilization in Central America, the Olmec people are considered to be the "mother civilization" of Mesoamerica between 1200 and 1000 BC. They originally lived in the Gulf Coast region of southern Mexico, but soon expanded into Guatemala. Olmec society was divided into two groups: the elite group lived in the small urban centers (towns) and the common people lived in the rural areas. The Olmecs were overwhelmingly ancultural people. The most dramatic achievement of the Olmecs were the building of massive stone heads. the Olmecs are the first chain in the development of Mesoamerican culture. Their range of influence extended from the Tuxtlas Mountains in the west, to Contalpa in the eastern Mexican lowlands, around the Gulf of Mexico area. The three largest Olmec cities were la Venta in Tabasco (the eastern sector), dominated the rich coastal estuaries, including the cocao, rubber & salt trade. San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan in Veracruz was at the center of the Olmec civilization, and an important political/religious center, which controlled the vast flood plains of the Coatzacoalco basin and river trade routes. The first drainage system in Mesoamerica was discovered there, consisting of channeled blocks of stone set into the earth, covered with slabs. Their region is also famous for the colossal basalt carved heads, weighing 20-40 tons each. Laguna de los Cerros, also in Veracruz, to the West, controlled the important basalt mines/mountains, important for the manufacture of Metates (stones for grinding food), & monuments.

An Olmec stone head, likely represents one of their early leaders.

The Toltecs

Toltec was a tribe of the Mexica. The earliest we know about the Mexica is that they migrated from the north into the Valley of Mexico as early as the twelfth century AD. They originated the culture of Teotihuacán. The peoples of Mesoamerica often distinguished between two types of people: the Toltec (which means "craftsman"), who focused on urban culture, and the Chichimec, or wild people, who settled Mesoamerica from the north. Their history dates to their beginning around 1168. Their god, Huitzilopochtli, commanded them on a journey to the south and they arrived in the Valley of Mexico in 1248. settled on an island in middle of a lake north of the Valley of Mexico. The town they founded was Tenochtitlan. The Toltec civilization that developed in central Mexico between the 9th and 13th centuries form a bridge between the decline of the Maya and the rise of the Aztecs. During this time of conflict and change, the Toltecs initiated a major new era in the highlands of central mexico, distinguished by architectural innovations and massive carved figures. Their language, Nahuatl, was also spoken by the Aztecs. They originated as a militaristic nomadic people, and they or their ancestors may have sacked the city of Teotihuacan (ca. 750). After they established a more settled existence, the Toltec fused the many small states in Central Mexico into an empire ruled from their capital, Tula (also known as Tollan, or Tolan). They were accomplished temple builders. Their influence spread through much of Mesoamerica in the Post-Classic era of Mesoamerican chronology. The Toltec influence on the Post-Classic Maya of Yucatan is heavy, especially evident at the city of Chichen Itza. Their pottery has been found as far south as Costa Rica. The Toltec empire is believed to have been destroyed around 1200 AD by the nomadic warriors of the Chichimecs. The ruling family of the Aztecs claimed to descend from Toltec ancestry via the sacred city of Colhuacan. Most Toltec history is known from writings of later people, such as the Aztec, written centuries later after a "dark age" in Central Mexico, together with some references by the Maya.


The Toltecs were expert miners, and expert traders. images/toltecs.jpg

513px-Toltec-style_Vessel_1.jpg Toltecs style Vessel wikipedia/commons/1/16/T..

The Aztecs

After the dissolve of the Toltec Empire in the Valley of Mexico, around ca.1200. Many invaders tried to establish states in the valley, and the last and greatest were the Aztecs, they called themselves the "Mexica". They were the most powerful Kingdom in Mexico at the time of the Spanish Conquest. They swiftly advanced and transformed within a few generations, from outcasts and servers to mercenaries into masters of their own right in the Valley. Their principal temple was a dual pyramid in honor of the rain god and a war god. At the temple they made human sacrifices of the prisoners they had taken in warfare with neighboring peoples. The Aztecs believed that such sacrifices were necessary in order to honor and recreate the self-sacrifice of the god of the feathered serpent had performed in ancient times in order to ensure the continuation of the world. They believed that this original sacrifice had occurred at Teotihuacan, which they knew as an inhabitant ruin. Their settlements then grew into the Aztec Capitol of Tenochtitlan. Which lie directly beneath the center of modern day Mexico City. Given the enigmatic rise of the Aztecs from obscurity and their role as the dominant influence in Mesoamerica, the quality of their art is staggering. Their Art is a summation of preceding styles. The Aztecs appropriated the greatest artworks and often sparred the lives of talented artists of conquered territories and allowed them to work in Tenochtitlan.

The Arts of the Aztecs

Catalogue # 17, fragment of an anthropomorphic brazier, Aztec, fired clay and pigment, 18 by 22 by 9 centimeters, ca 1300 A. D.
Museo Universitario de Ciencas y Arte, UNAM, Mexico City

Catalogue # 118, Grasshopper, Aztec, carnelian, 19.5 by 16 by 47 centimeters, ca 1500 A.D., Museo Nacional de Anthropologia, INAH, Mexico City

Serpent head, Aztec, stone, 90 by 92 by 155 centimeters, ca 1250-1521 A.D., Museo Nacional de Antropologia, INAH, Mexico City

Eagle Warrior, Aztec, fired clay, stucco and pigment, 170 by 118 by 55 centimeters, circa 1440-1469 A.D., Museo del Templo Mayor, INAH, Mexico City

Aztec temples

The Huitzilopochtli Temple in Tehnochtitlan

While the Aztec cities had many temples, there was one temple which was more important than the rest, and this was the Huitzilopochtli Temple, which was the largest structure in the city. It should also be noted that the sacred site of the city could also be found here. A number of maps show the layout of Tehnochtitlan, and one of the most prominent is the codex mendoza. On the map, the five important directions will be symbolized by a group of triangles that are placed in positions around an eagle which is sitting on a cactus. These maps also tell us a lot about the religious beliefs that the Aztecs held.

Like the Egyptians, the pyramids was sacred to the Aztecs. The Aztec myths reveal that they were told by Huitzilopochtli that they were supposed to build a temple on the site where they saw an eagle resting on a cactus, and it was at this location that the temple was dedicated. It should be noted that this architectural masterpiece was a twin temple. The temple could be found in the center of the city, and it should also be noted that though the Aztecs built pyramids like the Egyptians, their purpose of building them was a bit different.

The Egyptian pyramids were almost always erected as a tomb, a memorial for the Egyptian nobility who died. But Aztec temples were not largely used for this purpose, they were mostly used as sites where human sacrifices could be carried out. In the infamous sacrifice, the victim would be taken to the top of the pyramid, where his heart would be removed, and the body would often be thrown down the steps.


The Spanish Conquest of Mexico

On November 8, 1519, the Spanish conquistadors first entered the great city of Mexico, the metropolis the Aztecs had built on a lake island. Don Hernando Cortes, who was accompanied by six hundred Spaniards and a great many native allies, at last could see for himself the temples and palaces about which he had heard so many marvels. The Spaniards arrived from the direction of Tlalpan, to the south of the city, passing across one of the wide causeways that connected the island with the mainland. When they reached a locality known as Xoloco, they were welcomed by the last of the Motecuhzomas, who had come out to meet them in the belief that the white men must be Quetzalcoatll and other gods, returning at last from across the waters now known as the Gulf of Mexico. Thus Cortes and his men entered the city, not only as guests, but also as gods coming home. It was the first direct encounter between one of the most extraordinary pre-Columbian cultures and the strangers who would eventually destroy it.

Cortes landed on the coast at Veracruz on Good Friday, April 22, 1519; the Aztec capital surrendered to him on August 13, 1521. The events that took place between these two dates have been recounted in a number of chronicles and other writings, of which the best known are the letters Cortes wrote to King Charles V and the True History of the Conquest of Mexico by Bernal Diaz del Castillo. These two works, along with a few others also written by Spaniards, until now have been almost the only basis on which historians have judged the conquest of one of the greatest civilizations in pre-Columbian America.


This was the route taken by The Spanish Conquistadors, led by Hernando Cortes who landed on the Gulf shore of Mexico on Friday, April 22, in 1519. The expedition first arrived in Cempoala were Cortes faced little or no resistance. Then marched through Jalapa, headed towards Tlaxcala. At first the Tlaxcalans fought back but were unsuccessful in defeating the Spanish Conquistadors, but ultimatly became their most important Ally.

Mesoamerican architecture

Mesoamerican architecture is often designed to align with specific celestial events. The Pyramids and temples, were designed to achieve special lighting effects on the equinoxes. A famous example is the "El Castillo” at Chichen Itza, the stairway catches the light so that the carved serpents at the ends of the staircases of the pyramid appear to twist.
El Castillo

Head of serpent column

My name is Moktar, i was born in Alexandria,Egypt . I moved to the United States at a young age and i've been here for the past 10 years. I major in Studio Art which is far different then an Anthropology major. But what i discovered is that Anthropology is intwined with Art History since Art has been mankinds earliest way of communicating and expressing ones emotions and thoughts. My website is, as an artist i am interested in learning about various cultures through out the ages. That 's a reason why i chose this class and the Mexican Highlands group topic. A culture that is very rich both in Art and Architecture.

Module 13
Archaeology and the Aztec Empire
Author(s): Michael E. Smith and Frances F. Berdan
Source: World Archaeology, Vol. 23, No. 3, Archaeology of Empires (Feb., 1992), pp. 353-367
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
Stable URL:

This article provides two explanations for the relative lack of archaeological evidence for the existence of the Aztec empire. First, the nature of Aztec imperial strategies and organization did not lead to extensive patterned material remains in provincial areas. Second, archaeologists have been slow to address issues of Aztec expansion with problem-oriented fieldwork projects. We describe new ethnohistoric and archaeological research on the Aztec empire outside of the Basin of Mexico and show how both kinds of information are needed to provide an adequate account of Aztec imperialism and its effects in Postclassic Mesoamerica.

Module 14

The Ecological Basis for Aztec Sacrifice
Author(s): Michael Harner
Source: American Ethnologist, Vol. 4, No. 1, Human Ecology (Feb., 1977), pp. 117-135
Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
Stable URL:


The Aztec emphasis on ritualized human sacrifice and the sheer quantities of victims involved have long been recognized as apparent extremes of cultural behavior in the world ethnographic record. This paper proposes an ecological and evolutionary theory to explain why the peculiar development of the Aztec sacrificial complex was a natural consequence of concrete subsistence problems that were distinctive to Mesoamerica, and especially to the Valley of Mexico.

Module 9
Mayan Linguistics: Where are we Now?
Lyle Campbell and Terrence Kaufman
Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 14, (1985), pp. 187-198
Published by: Annual Reviews

Module 10
The Aztec Indians were a Mesoamerican natives that lived in central Mexico between the 14th and 16th century. Their culture sparked one of the most enigmatic histories in the ancient world. Their Origins is believed to be in Aztlan in thenorth of the Valley of Mexico and the birth place of the Aztec Empire, but it is also claimed by some experts to simply be a mythical place. However, since Aztlan can be translated to the "place of the Origin", it is widely believed to the birth place of the Aztecs.

This image describes the seven tribes that lived in Chicomoztoc or "the place of the seven caves". Each cave symbolizing one of the Tribes.án

Module 6: wikispaces assignment

I've always admired the free flow of information in wikipedia. Although not all data is accurate, most often come from the same sources we all seek for information. Whether its books or documents, in the Global World we live in today information is shared and viewed by millions. Editing in wiki always changes and there's always new information added from different reliable sources.

Module 12