Mexico        Rêve Mexicain en français
History : the classic
 Page updated on 03.10.2015
Print        Share on : facebook   twitter   google   myspace 

Pre-hispanic Mexico


view of TeotihuacánTeotihuacán - « the city of Gods » in Náhuatl

In parallel with the Olmecs civilization, other cultural forms developed in different regions of the country. In the highlands, close to the Valley of Mexico City, a group specializing in the work and trade of obsidian took place in Teotihuacán. The first constructions, from second or third century BC reveal a complex and powerful society. Soon after, they started to build the urban group that survived until now. It is oriented North-South, located between two big pyramids, and called the pyramid of the Sun and the Moon.

Left picture : view of Teotihuacán (sources: INAOEP)

From the time of the Christ, the fast expansion of the city because of the growth of the population, forced the development of agricultural activities. Soon, the irrigation works covered soon the whole valley. The constructions of so many temples could be explained by the crowd of dealer-pilgrims who visited regularly the city.

The first imperialism

sculptures on the Temple de Quetzalcóatl (Teotihuacán) From the second century AD, the expansion of the economic activities adopted an imperialism model. On the one hand, the metropolitan region extended beyond the valley of Teotihuacán and covered the valleys of Mexico City and Puebla; its influence covers also a big part of the actual State of Hidalgo where there were important obsidian beds. On the other hand, we can find the influence of Teotihuacán in very remote regions, in the valley of Oaxaca, Veracruz and the highlands of Guatemala, in Kaminaljuyu, Belize and maybe further south.

     Right picture : sculptures on the Temple de Quetzalcóatl      (Teotihuacán)


The city extends itself

The city kept growing according to the same plan designed during the previous age. The three elements, temple, palace and market, defined the character of the power of Teotihuacán. They defined and conserved the principle of the construction, grounded on “talud” and “tablero”, meaning the “inclined plane and vertical plane”. It was the main architectural innovation in Teotihuacán.

Around the huge group of the Avenue of the Dead, were found remains of the neighborhoods where worked the artisans specializing in ceramic, obsidian, flint, etc… Other groups of workshops, like the ones of the cabinetmakers, the weavers or the basket makers, disappeared without leaving a trace. They also found the neighborhoods of the foreign people with different funeral rituals and warehouses with objects from far away countries. The city became a real metropolis and covered a surface about 8 sq miles (20 km2) where about 100, 000 persons lived.

Pyramid of the Sun in TeotihuacánThe apogee

The following period, covering 3 centuries until 650, reinforced the situation. The city didn’t spread in surface but became denser, with 200,000 inhabitants. Compared to Rome where there were only 10,000 inhabitants, Teotihuacán was a huge city. Most of the constructions still visible now date from this period because they never were covered. The amazing vitality of this period left traces throughout Guatemala (in Kaminaljuyu and Tikal) and in Salvador. It was not a question of colonization in the roman style but commercial shackles maybe supported by troops from which radiated the technical and religious influences.

Left picture : Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacán

The fall

Pyramid of the Moon in TeotihuacánThe fall of Teotihuacán was slow. It was the result of a series of setbacks, inside as well as outside. The region of Puebla seemed to free itself, cutting communication with Oaxaca and the South. The deforestation of the valley seems to have caused long periods of dryness that sapped the agricultural production, which created the dissatisfaction with the population against the government, and finally, the Otomis were the ones who delivered the coup de grace. Teotihuacán was burned and plundered. Because of the fall, the political and economical imbalance had disastrous consequences, not only on the Mexican highlands but also in Oaxaca where Monte Albán had been abandoned at the end of the eighth century and also in the Maya cities, which were destroyed and abandoned in the ninth century.

Right picture : Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacán

See special chapter about Teotihuacán

MONTE ALBÁN - Imposing center of ceremonies at the top of a hill looking down upon the vast valley of Oaxaca

The region of Monte Albán was populated at least since the Christ’s age with Zapotecs. A few sites were completely excavated. Monte Albán, the most important, is used as a reference. Since the twelfth century, it was under the influence of the Olmec civilization but it knew very soon how to impose its own characteristics. Between 650 and 200 BC, a first stage was built on the hilltop looking down the valley, in Monte Albán. There were hypothesis to explain the meaning of the carved steles, known as the “Dancers”. It could be representations of the villages, obedient and humiliated by the defeat. The power of Monte Albán appears by the extent of the works put in hand. The summit of the hill was leveled to make a vast horizontal place covered by a layer of stucco. They drew the plan of the whole site and built the first constructions with vertical walls made of huge blocks. There were more hieroglyphic inscriptions on the steles than before and the numbers seems to indicate dates of some events.
The period that inherited the Olmec influences from Chiapas and Guatemala stopped with the “Dancers” of Monte Albán and the players of Ball from Dainzu. Then a new period started : the one of Teotihuacán.

Monte Albán was isolated

view of Monte Albán Until the seventh century, the Meso-American world lived its golden age. The nascent splendor of Teotihuacán was penetrating in Monte Albán. Some shapes of pottery were drawn from the ones of the highlands while conserving at the same time the local characteristics. However, this influence was rapidly eliminated and the Zapotec civilization started its independent evolution. Step by step, the valley became isolated from the other regions. The number of objects made outside went down, and then disappeared completely, meaning the interruption of the commercial relations. In the valley, more villages appeared and 18 of them could be considered as important. The population reached 35,000 inhabitants in Monte Albán. The sides of the mountains were arranged in terraces in order to increase the cultivated surfaces.

     Above picture: view of Monte Albán

The city was abandoned

They enlarged the main place in the Mesoamerican way, meaning with a new layer of bigger and more sumptuous constructions with bigger underground tombs. There were many more Gods represented on the urns. The urns made the fame of this civilization. Everything indicates a growing power of the priestly class. But the fragile balance between the production, the demographic growth and the needs of the clergy absorbing always more resources, was not long to break. And the decline of Monte Albán started at the beginning of the eighth century. The fall of Teotihuacán was maybe one of the unknown reasons of the fall of this metropolis as it was abandoned about 750, leaving no traces of fire or vandalism.
Maybe the cause was the isolation with no possible exchanges, choking the economy and increasing the influence of the dominant class.

See the special chapter about Monte Albán

LES MAYAS - Contemporaneous civilization of Teotihuacán -

The culture of the Mayas was so close to the culture of the Olmecs that some researchers would affirm that not only were they their heirs but they would have constituted an only people. The Mayas developed the pyramids, the places, the steles, the ball courts, the jaguar God and the jades, the hieroglyphs, the mathematics and the chronologies based on “long serials”, invented by the Olmecs.

Symbols of Maya writing (source: presidency of Mexico)     Right picture : Symbols of Maya writing

However, a cultural gap separated the last Olmec manifestations from the first Maya ones. Between the second century BC and the third century AD, nothing indicated the presence of civilized people in the region where the Maya culture developed except some dated steles and monuments found in the Pacific Coast of Chiapas and Guatemala (Izapa, BI Baul).

The Maya civilization developed in a vast unity of city-sanctuaries, maybe grouped as confederations.

The territory itself is divided in 4 regions :

The central zone covered the Petén (Guatemala), Belize and the valley of Motagua up to Honduras. The main sites are Tikal, Uaxactun, Quirigua, Copán…

The Valley of Usumacinta in Chiapas, with Palenque, Bonampak, Yaxchilan, Piédras Négras

the lowlands of the North covering the whole Yucatán Peninsula, with the sites Chichén ltzá, Uxmal, Coba,


view of the warriors temple in Chichén Itzá (Yucatán) The south, covering the highlands of Guatemala.


     Right picture: view of the warriors temple in Chichén
     Itzá (Yucatán)


  Nice video of ten minutes about the Maya culture

The splendor of the city-sanctuaries

Maya relief showing the King Pakal and his mother in Palenque.People were living in this territory before the construction
of the first urban sanctuaries and might have developed some kind of regional cultures under the influence of the Olmecs.

     Right picture : Maya relief showing the King Pakal and his mother       in Palenque

Under the influences of the civilizations of Teotihuacán and Monte Albán, the Maya civilization reached its peak in the third century, especially in the central region. Tikal is the most important group. The center of this metropolis, covering 16 km2 (about 6 square miles), has more than 3,000 constructions. The highest one, the Temple IV, reached 70 m (230 feet).
The crests overhanging the temples were decorated with big motives made of painted stucco. At the foot of these huge units, rows of steles, painted or decorated with stucco or sculpted, and round altars seem to indicate the existence of a cult of important people. And there were also rows of glyphs and dates from 292 to 879. It looks like there was a slack season in the seventh century. Some elements, representations of the God TIaloc and platforms “talud and tablero”, indicate a sure influence of Teotihuacán in the fifth century.

representation of Tlacol, god of rain

Left picture: representation of Tlacol, god of rain (source: presidency of Mexico)

The Maya developed a very complex system of writing using 300 to 500 pictographs and phonetic symbols. This system was at last deciphered in the eighties and it was a big progress in the understanding of this civilization. On the Maya calendars, used by other pre-Hispanic populations, the Mayas even noted celestial and earthly events imagining the solar eclipses and the trajectories of the moon and Venus.





Mayan calendarThe valley of Usumacinta

In this valley crossing the state of Chiapas in Mexico, you can see the influences of Teotihuacán and Petén on some sites like Piedras Negras and Yaxchilan. But the necropolis city of Palenque, because of its architecture style and sculpture, keeps a specific particularity. Located at the edge of the jungle, on the foothills of the sierra, it dominates a vast savanna with numerous farming villages. The prosperity of this region and the number of the inhabitants allowed the accomplishment of fantastic works, which, like the paintings of Bonampak and the treasure of the tomb in Palenque, are glories of the Mayan art.
For unknown reasons, it looks like Palenque was abandoned by its inhabitants and occupied by strangers at the end of the ninth century.


      Right picture : Mayan calendar



Its regions underwent diverse influences, among them the styles Rio Bec, Chen and Puuc. The most known is the last one with sites like Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil and Labna. Puuc architecture has several predominant features, most notably constructions with a plain lower section and a richly decorated upper section. The friezes are always richly decorated with geometric designs and more elaborate figurative sculptures with many representations of Chaac, God of rain.

See special chapter about Uxmal and the region Puuc

The mystery of the abandon of the Mayan cities

The classic period saw its decline in the ninth century. In some regions like the valley of Usumacinta, especially in Palenque, as well as in Petén, marks of violence and destruction have been discovered. Change of climate, epidemics, revolutions and invasions : every supposition has been proposed but nothing explains yet the definitive abandon of the big Mayan cities of the classic period. These Mesoamerican phenomena will remain unexplained for a long time. In the region Puuc, it looks like the transition went smoothly and you can see in the post classic period an harmonious mix of the influences of the Mexican high lands with Mayan elements.




Your comments about the content of this page
  • posted on 12/12/2011 - 15:12 by Purva  0 votes   
    hi, i have been doing some research work on Mexico recently as a work of Cultural studies. Loved the information, just wish the videos provided would have been in English! would have been just a superawsome page then!
  • Tourimex