The first humans in the Americas were descendants of northeast Asian nomads who took part in a series of migrations across the Bering Strait perhaps as early as 30,000 B.C. Archaeological evidence testifies to the presence of early hunters and gatherers in Mexico around 10,000 to 8000 B.C. During the next few thousand years, humans domesticated indigenous plants, such as corn, squash, and beans. With a constant food supply assured, people became permanent settlers. Leisure time became available and was used for developing technical and cultural skills. Villages appeared as the number of people and food supplies increased. By 1500 B.C., the early inhabitants were producing handmade clay figurines and sophisticated clayware.
Between 200 B.C. and A.D. 900, Mesoamerica was the scene of highly developed civilizations. Archaeologists have designated this Classic Period as the Golden Age of Mexico. This era was a time when the arts and sciences reached their apex, when a writing system developed, and when a sophisticated mathematical system permitted the accurate recording of time. Religion was polytheistic, revering the forces of nature in the gods of rain, water, the sun, and the moon. The most important deity was Quetzalcóatl, the feathered serpent and the essence of life, from whom all knowledge derived. Metals came into use only by the end of the period, but despite this handicap, impressive architectural structures in the pyramids at Teotihuacán near Mexico City, the Pyramid of the Niches at El Tajín in the state of Veracruz, and the Temple of the Sun at Palenque in present-day Chiapas were built and survive to this day.
These civilizations produced pottery, statuary, and ornate buildings, despite their being supported by a simple agricultural economy based on the cultivation of a few staples. Social stratification produced a ruling class of priests and intellectuals who oversaw the labor and social affairs of the peasant majority.
The three most important Classic sites were Teotihuacán (in central Mexico), Monte Albán (to the south in the state of Oaxaca), and the Mayan complexes (in the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo, as well as in the nearby countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize). The fall of Teotihuacán around A.D. 650 effectively transferred the center of power from central Mexico to the Mayan city states of the Yucatan Peninsula. The lowland Mayan culture flourished from A.D. 600 to A.D. 900 when it abruptly declined. The exact causes of this rapid fall remain unknown, but archaeologists speculate that it might have been because of one or a combination of factors: bad harvests, plague, drought, ecological problems from overpopulation, or pressure from more warlike neighbors. Whatever the factors may have been, they provided the groundwork for the next phase, the Post-Classic period, which would be a radical change from the Classic.
The main characteristic of the Post-Classic period was a sudden surge of militarism. The population underwent great turmoil and numerous migrations; people moved everywhere and anywhere they could find allies to fight their common enemies. Wars ceased to be waged for territorial expansion and became a means for exacting tribute and for capturing prisoners to be sacrificed to the gods. For the first time, architecture centered on defense and fortification. Numerous civilizations rose and fell during this period, including the Toltec in central Mexico and the Zapotec and Mixtec in southern Mexico.
Throughout its long history of human habitation, the Valley of Mexico drew people from Mesoamerica who were attracted by its abundant sources of water, easy communication, and plentiful game and vegetation. The valley was a corridor through which many migrating groups passed and sometimes settled. During the pre-Columbian era, the valley was in constant turmoil except when central authority and political hegemony existed.
The last nomadic arrivals in the valley were the Mexica, more commonly known as the Aztec. Although recent linguistic and archaeological work suggests the Aztec may have come from northwest Mexico, their origins are obscure. According to legend, the Aztec came from Aztlán, a mythical place to the north of the Valley of Mexico around A.D. 1100. They were said to have made their way to the valley guided by the chirps of their sun and war god Huitzilopichtli (meaning "hummingbird on the left"). The inhabitants of the valley viewed the new arrivals with suspicion and tried to prevent their settlement. After much wandering and a few wars, in the early 1300s, the Aztec reached the marshy islands in Lago de Texcoco (site of present-day Mexico City), where they saw an eagle perching on a cactus tree and holding a snake in its beak (an image reproduced on the modern Mexican flag). According to Aztec legend, this was a sign indicating where they should build their new capital city. Tenochtitlán was eventually built on an island in Lago de Texcoco and gradually became an important center in the area. Drinking water came from Chapultepec hill on the mainland, and causeways connected the island to the shores of the lake. The Aztec established a monarchy in 1376, naming Acamapichtli as their first king. By the early sixteenth century, Aztec domination reached into most of central and southern Mexico (with the exception of the Mayan areas in the southeast).
Before the settlement at Tenochtitlán, Aztec society was quite simple in its organization and was composed of peasants, warriors, and priest-rulers. Afterward, and with a much larger population, there was an increasing division of labor and a more complex social structure. The emperor was selected according to merit from among the ruling dynasty. The nobility was composed of the high priests, the military, and political leaders. The merchant class lived apart in the city and had its own courts, guilds, and gods. Commoners, the largest segment of society, were farmers, artisans, and lower-level civil servants. The lowest rung of society was composed of conquered peoples brought to Tenochtitlán as slaves.
The political structure of the Aztec empire was based on a loose coalition of city-states under the fiscal control of Tenochtitlán. The main objective of Aztec expansion was to exact tribute from conquered peoples. Tributes were in kind; cocoa, cotton, corn, feathers, precious metals and stones, shells, and jaguar skins were among those sent. The towns also had the obligation to provide soldiers and slaves and to recognize Aztec supremacy and the supremacy of the Aztec god Huitzilopichtli. Otherwise, towns were basically free to conduct their internal affairs, and Aztec hegemony was never fully consolidated--a fact that eventually became a major element in the fall of the empire.
Data as of June 1996