Olmec, Maya, Toltec and Aztec civilizations – A brief overview

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Visiting archeological sites was on our to-do list ever since we started planning our trip. There are so many of them and choosing which one to visit would dictate our route going forward. Our route would take us to the Yucatan peninsula, passing through Merida, leave Mexico at Chetumal before entering Belize. This meant giving a miss to a bunch of superb sites located in Calakmul National Park where many beautiful ruins are located in the middle of the jungle. Making choices is part of a trip like this and sometimes it involves missing interesting things.

But before getting into the visits themselves, I think it’s worth explaining the complex and sometimes misunderstood civilizations and cultures that populated Mesoamerica, a region compromising central Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador Honduras, Nicaragua and northern Costa Rica over the last thousands of years.

Olmec iconography sculpture in Tula de Allende

The earliest major civilization to flourish in Mesoamerica is the Olmecs. They occupied the Gulf of Mexico part of today’s Veracruz and Tabasco states in Mexico, appearing around 1500 BCE and survived until around 400 BCE. Apart from the pyramids, drinking of chocolate and animal gods, the most impressive aspect left behind by the Olmecs are those giant heads sculpted on a single boulder. They wear a mysterious hat and some are reaching 3 meters high and weighing 20 tons. The Olmecs were the first to practice a ritual of self-cutting and piercing of individuals and play the Mesoamerican ballgame, a feature of many archeological sites we visited. Subsequent civilizations – the Maya, Toltecs, and Aztecs – derive their culture, religious practices, art and architecture knowledge from the Olmecs. Since rare archeological pieces of evidence have been found about their true origins, the Olmecs remains a mysterious civilization with many mysteries waiting to be discovered.

Mayan sculptures of Chaac in Uxmal

Following are the well-known and probably most famous Maya. Their territory covered southeastern Mexico, all of today’s Guatemala and Belize and western parts of El Salvador and Honduras. The word “Maya” is a collective term referring to people living in those regions. It encompasses different kingdoms established throughout this vast territory, with a different style of art, buildings and religious beliefs. Mayans were master cultivators using a system called the milpa, meaning “maize field”. The milpa allowed them to primarily cultivate maize, beans, and squashes in mass quantity. Mayan expanded their farming fields and lived together to eventually create the first Mayan cities. The first such city was discovered in Nakbe, in the Peten province of Guatemala, dating back to around 750 BCE. The Maya invented the most sophisticated writing system of the time, the logosyllabic script. Visiting a Maya site will almost guarantee a rock with characters of their language sculpted on the surface. Mayan civilization left behind many aspects of their culture to discover and admire, including architectural designs incorporating art and hieroglyphs, mathematical knowledge including the invention of the zero, astronomical system, the famous calendar and rituals around human sacrifices. Mayan people still exist today and still use farming techniques left by their ancestors, women dress in traditional clothes and their Christian religion practices overlays with Mayan deities.

Stone sculptures in Tula de Allende

Around 900 CE, in the regions of Tula and Hidalgo in Central Mexico, the Toltecs started to appear. They incorporated Maya and Olmec’s knowledge into their cultures, establishing their first capital in Tula de Allende where between 30,000 and 40,000 Toltecs lived. The subsequent civilization, the Aztecs, viewed the Toltecs as their cultural and intellectual forefather, describing their culture as the incarnation of their civilization. One controversy surrounding the Toltecs is the iconography and layout of the site at Tula using a grid pattern similar to the Mayan city of Chichen Itza, something today’s scholars are trying to understand.

Stone sculptures in Teotihuacan

Finally, the Aztecs appear around 900 CE in the Central region of Mexico but didn’t flourish before the year 1300. The most famous Aztec site is Teotihuacan, north of Mexico City, where an estimated 125,000 people lived. They spoke the Nahuatl language, also known as the Aztec language. Words like chili, avocado, chocolate, coyote, guacamole, ocelot and mescal are derived from the Nahuatl language. For the Aztecs, death was instrumental in the continuation of life hence human sacrifices were omnipresent in their culture. Many human and animal graves with bones were discovered during the numerous excavations done over the years. By the time Hernan Cortes landed on the coast of Mexico and conquered the region, the Aztecs had a rich and complex mythological and religious tradition with more than 200 deities and their art speaks for itself. The calendar stone, or the Sun Stone, kept at the National Anthropological Museum in Mexico City, might be the most famous Aztec sculpture and work of art known today.

There is so much more to say about those civilizations leaving behind a fascinating history for us to discover. I encourage you to do more research online and visit the links below to know more.

More photos in the Mexico, Guatemala and Belize photo galleries.

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Author: Pascal Lachance

I'm Pascal, cyclist, travel lover, software developer by trade and an enthusiastic photographer. I'm now cycling around the world, take the time to visit as many places as I can!