The earliest settlers arrived in Mexico after crossing the Bering land bridge between Asia and Alaska some 20,000 years ago. By 2000 BC, farming villages were beginning to spring up. Sometime around 1500 BC, the first prominent culture, the Olmecs, was established on the hot and humid south Gulf coast. The Olmecs built ceremonial centers rather than cities, and their earthen pyramids suggest a centralized government capable of mobilizing extensive manpower used to raft heavy basalt blocks downriver and carving them into massive heads and other sculptures. The Olmecs also produced ceramic and exquisite jade figurines.
However, during the first millennium BC, Olmec centers declined and were the scene of systematic destruction by unknown marauders, and the Olmec civilization faded into obscurity. The Olmec “mother culture” spawned several subsequent groups of people, including the Mayans. Maya settlements began to appear in what is now the Mexico-Guatemala border region by around 500 BC, and their culture reached its zenith in the “classic period” of 200-900 AD. Numerous cities with elaborate temples surrounded by residential and agricultural areas developed at that time, as the Classic Maya pursued a ritual life and practiced sophisticated art, including a remarkable mathematical and astronomical knowledge. Once thought of as pacifistic, the Mayans actually engaged in conquest and warfare between cities regularly. Stone carvings from the period depict victories of great Maya rulers, who warred, allied, intermarried and patronized the arts in the same fashion as later princely families like the Medicis in Renaissance Italy.
By around 800 AD, though, the Classic Maya faced such crises as overuse of resources, and several centers were destroyed and abandoned, perhaps as victims of epidemics or peasant revolt.
Among the largest city-states was Monte Alban, a hilltop city in Oaxaca with a population of about 25,000 by the eighth century AD. When Monte Alban began to decline, Mitla and other lesser towns sprang up in Oaxaca. The biggest city of the first millennium AD, however, was Teotihuacan. Located just north of what is now Mexico City, Teotihuacan eventually was home to 125,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in the world. However, the same troubles that led to the decline and fall of the Mayan Empire beset Teotihuacan. As its population increased, so did the amount of poverty and discontent, and invaders from the north attacked and partly burned Teotihuacan in around 650 AD.
That began a decline in the seventh century that brought about Teotihuacan’s eventual downfall. In the wake of the demise of the early cultures, it would be centuries until the establishment of the next great Mexican empire, the Toltecs.
NEXT WEEK: Toltecs, Aztecs and Conquistadores