600 BCE – 1500 CE
Liv Green, Louise Bjerre & Christophe Helmke
University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
Mesoamerica is a cultural and linguistic area that geographically spans from northern Mexico all the way down to Costa Rica. The region is characterized by shared cultural and linguistic traits such as a series of ritual calendars, the cultivation of maize, chili, and squash, different writing systems, and the construction of monumental architecture, to name but a few. The most renowned ancient civilizations of the area are the Maya and the Aztec, but other important cultures such as the Olmec, Zapotec, and Mixtec also thrived in this area.
The Aztec are especially known owing to of their interaction and eventual defeat by the Spaniards. From the conquest (1519-1521) and the decades leading up to this pivotal period, we have a range of texts written by both Europeans and indigenous people, that extensively describes the Aztec, their customs, and traditions. In the centuries before the conquest, the Aztec empire was one of the largest empires in the Americas. Thus, large parts of Central Mexico and beyond was either directly or indirectly under control and drawn into tributary relations with the Aztec state (c. AD 1200-1521).
According to early ethnohistorical accounts, the Aztec traced their cultural inheritance to the Toltec, an earlier culture that had its capital at a place called Tollan. Most scholars today recognize the archaeological site of Tula in Hidalgo, to be the same as the Tollan mentioned in the ethnohistorical accounts. The Toltec state was at its height during the transition from the Epiclassic period (c. AD 600-900) into the early Postclassic period (c. AD 900-1200). Furthermore, the Aztec had a strong cultural connection to the people who inhabited the site of Teotihuacan, just north of the later Aztec capital. Much of Aztec architecture and religious practices can be directly linked to the cultural inheritance from Teotihuacan via the Epiclassic states that flourished after the collapse of Teotihuacan in the sixth century. The metropolis of Teotihuacan had its heyday during the Classic period (ca. AD 150-600) and was known by the Aztec as the place where the gods convened to sacrifice themselves to bring about a new sun of the current creation.