VISITE MEXICO! Ancient Civilizations of Mexico FROM ‘A’ TO ‘Z’

A ? Aztecs: one of the most important and powerful native civilizations of the Americas. The term “Aztec” is actually a blanket term used to describe the various cultures that spoke the original Nahuatl language (The Mexica were in fact the dominating tribe during the Post-Classical Period.) The group conquered and dominated central Mexico during the Post Classical Period (900 A.D. to 1524 A.D.), after the Mayan era. As city dwellers and aggressive hegemonic warriors, the Aztecs conquered and eventually created the wealthiest empire in Mesoamerica, spanning the Pacific and Atlantic coastlines, with the capital concentrated in Tenochtitlan, known today as Mexico City. In recent years, much has been done to excavate the Aztec city that at one time was destroyed by Spanish conquerors and covered by colonial structures. The Templo Mayor ruins in downtown Mexico City are one of the most important archaeological sites in Mexico and a must see for those visiting the capital city.

B ? Ball game: the ball game was invented about 3,000 years ago by the Olmec civilization. More than 600 ball courts have been unearthed in Mexico alone, and it is believed that countless more have yet to be discovered. The majority of courts have a similar architecture of two parallel walls along the sides of the field. By 800 A.D., stone circles or hoops had been added, attached to the side walls at the center of the court. The ball was not allowed to touch the ground; it was bounced off the walls of the court and off the players themselves. Points were scored by directing the ball through a stone circle hoop much like modern-day basketball. In ancient times, war prisoners were often forced to play, and the winners were beheaded. There are two regions in Mexico where the games are still played today ? in Sinaloa the game Ulama is played, closely related to the Aztec variation of the Olmec ball game, as well as in the valley of Oaxaca.

C ? Chichen Itza: an ancient Mayan city founded in 514 A.D., whose name means “mouth of the well of the Itza.” The area around the city has several wells called cenotes, the most renowned being the Cenote of Sacrifice. During its peak years (between 800 and 1200 A.D.), Chichen Itza was the center of political, religious and military power in Yucatan and all of southeastern Mesoamerica. Its architecture is varied, with Puuc style as well as Mayan Toltec style structures. Originally inhabited by the Itzaes and later the Mayans, today, Chichen Itza is the most visited archaeological site in the Yucatan peninsula. The world famous zone is located 75 miles from the colonial city of Merida.

D ? Dzibilchaltun: famous ancient Mayan city, located just nine miles outside the capital city of Merida in Yucatan State and discovered in the 1940s. The site is arranged concentrically, with white roads leading from the central plaza to the impressive Temple of the Seven Dolls, one of the highlights of this city. The temple was named after the seven small sculptures excavated there. Dzibilchaltun was constructed with such precision that during the spring and fall equinox, the sun shines directly through the temple doorway. The Museum of the Mayan People, one of the most comprehensive museums dedicated to the Mayan civilization on the Yucatan Peninsula, is also located here.

E ? El Tajin: located in the state of Veracruz, it became the most important center in northeast Mesoamerica after the fall of the Teotihuacan Empire. The buildings found in El Tajin are masterpieces of ancient Mexican and American architecture that reveal astronomical and symbolic significance. Its unique architecture is characterized by elaborate carved reliefs on the columns and the “Pyramid of the Niches”, which features 365 niches representing the days of the year. El Tajin was at its peak from the early 9th to the early 13th century, when its cultural influence extended all along the Gulf and penetrated into the Mayan region and central Mexico. El Tajin has survived as an outstanding example of the grandeur and importance of prehispanic cultures in Mexico.

F ? Figurilla: the figurillas de piedra (stone figures) are part of the Mexico?s cultural legacy and one of the most important proofs of life and sources of information about ancient civilizations. In Mesoamerica, an infinite number of figurillas have been found, particularly in the center of Mexico. Most were made out of clay and are believed to come from the Formative period (300 B.C. ? 100 A.D.). Generally molded into a human form or animal like figure, the figurillas were primarily used as religious offerings to the Gods.

G ? Guelaguetza: Gualaguetza is a Zapotec Indian word meaning “offering” and was used by indigenous groups in the state of Oaxaca to describe the ceremony and celebration held each year to propitiate the gods in return for sufficient rain and bountiful harvest. The gods related to water and corn were particularly important, and tribute to them was a lively and colorful celebration of native music, dances and products. When the Spaniards arrived in Oaxaca in 1521, they converted all native groups to Catholicism and the Guelaguetza was converted into a celebration of the Virgin of Carmen. Today, the Guelaguetza is celebrated every year in Oaxaca City in July.

H ? Huitzilopochtli: Huitzilopochtli, whose name means “Blue Hummingbird on the Left,” was the Aztec god of the sun and war. He was depicted as a blue man fully armed with hummingbird feathers on his head. His mother Coatlicue became pregnant with Huitzilopochtli when a ball of feathers fell from the heaven and touched her. When he was born, Huitzilopochtli slew his sister Coyolxauhqui and tossed her head into the sky where it became the moon. Aztecs used to offer human sacrifices to Huitzilopochtli ? the victims were usually war prisoners. The sacrifices were intended to secure rain, harvests and success in wars.

I ? Iztlaccihuatl: located just 40 miles southeast of Mexico City in the state of Puebla, this towering inactive volcano is one Mexico?s highest at 17,338 feet. Its name means “sleeping maiden,” as the volcano?s shape resembles a reclining woman. In prehispanic times, volcanoes were considered gods and were worshipped, consulted, and fought over by different tribes for centuries.

J ?Jaguar God: Mayan rulers used the jaguar as a symbol for the divine right of kings. The Jaguar God, the Night Sun, inhabited the Underworld, home of the dead, and was one of the major characters in the Mayan pantheon. Each morning, he became the Sun God, traveling across the sky to the west, where he fell back into the Underworld. To maintain the cycle of night and day, rulers performed rituals to appease the gods.

K ? Kukulcan: Kukulcan, meaning “the feathered serpent,” was the Mayan?s supreme god. He was the god of the four elements, as well as a creator and the god of resurrection and reincarnation. The Aztecs later merged him with their Quetzalcoatl god, and his attributes were each represented by one element ? a maize-ear (earth), a fish (water), lizard (fire), and vulture (air). At the archaeological site Chichen Itza in Yucatan State, the country?s largest pyramid is named after Kukulcan, and thousands gather here every year during the spring equinox to watch the shadow of the serpent god slither down the pyramid.

L ? Lacandons: the indigenous people who have lived for hundreds of years in the Lacandon rain forest in Chiapas, Mexico, and who refer to themselves as the Hach Winik, meaning “True People.” Anthropologists believe that the Lacandons are direct descendants of the classical civilizations of Palenque, Yaxchilan and Bonampak, and that their ancestors came to the jungle of southeastern Chiapas to escape Spanish colonial domination during the 17th and 18th centuries Numbering approximately 500 inhabitants today, they have had to face unprecedented changes in the wake of the massive frontier settlement and deforestation of the Lacandon rain forest since the 1950s.

M ? Mayans: civilization centered in the Yucatan peninsula, and which flourished from 300 A.D. to 900 A.D. The Mayans were highly devoted to their gods, practicing rituals on a daily basis, and famous for their elaborate ceremonial centers. Among their many achievements, it is believed the Mayans invented the concept of zero 1000 years before the Europeans adopted it from the Orient. They also developed a sophisticated writing system of phonetic symbols and pictographs, two calendars based on a solar system and rituals, and could predict eclipses and measure the movements of the moon and Venus with close to perfect accuracy. Today, most of the Mayan ruins can be found in the states of Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Chiapas and Campeche, conveniently located just a short distance from many major tourist attractions. Palenque, Chichen Itza, Tonina, Yaxchilan, Coba, Tulum, Xcaret, Kabah and Sayil are some of the most frequented Mayan sites.

N ? Nahuatl: Nahuatl was the language spoken by the Aztecs. It belongs to a large group of Indian languages which also includes the languages spoken by the Comanche, Pima, Shoshone and other tribes of western North America.

O ? Olmecs: one of the oldest prehispanic civilizations, referred to as the mother culture of Mesoamerica. The Olmecs inhabited the tropic coastal plain of modern Mexico?s Gulf coast, occupied now by the states of Veracruz and Tabasco, between 1300 and 400 B.C. It is believed that the Olmecs were among the first to develop a calendar and a writing system. They are also famous for the heavy carved stone heads which are believed to be carvings of their rulers? faces. La Venta Parque at Villahermosa, the capital of Tabasco State, is a great place to see the enormous heads. Other sites include San Lorenzo and Tres Zapotes in Veracruz, as well as the Temple of the Feathered Serpent at Teotihuacan.

P ? Paquime: Paquime, also known as Casas Grandes ? the great Pueblan community of northwestern Chihuahua ? ascended as a major regional presence during the 13th and 14th centuries, in the midst of a period marked by unprecedented cultural splintering and dislocations in the surrounding areas. Paquime left an extraordinarily rich archaeological record, which began with single-story adobe-walled room blocks early in the second millennium, and culminated in 20 room clusters by the 12th century, all served by a single water control system.

Q ? Quetzalcoatl: Quetzalcoatl, an Aztec word meaning “the feathered serpent,” was the Serpent God of Mexico, a god of such importance and power that nearly no aspect of everyday life seemed to go untouched by him. Symbolizing learning, culture, philosophy, fertility, holiness and gentility, he was the best known of the pantheon of gods who appeared throughout pre-Colombian archaeology. In the days after the fall of the Toltecs, Quetzalcoatl became the symbol of legitimate authority, a kind of coat of arms for any ruler who pretended to power beyond the circuit of his own walls. The Aztecs considered themselves the descendents of this political tradition, even if Huitzilopochtli had become their primary tribal god.

R ? Ranas: an archaeological site located in the state of Queretaro, nestled in the southwestern part of the Sierra Gorda mountain range, in which significant cultural developments took place during the prehispanic era.

S ? Sacbeob: stone-paved roads and a part of every Mayan city that has been discovered. Archaeologists have found extensive sacbeobs in the Coba site and surroundings. The longest runs approximately 60 miles from the base of Coba’s great pyramid Nohoch Mul to the Mayan settlement of Yaxunan. It is believed that forty sacbeobs passed through Coba at one time.

T ? Toltecs: an empire whose influence was felt in all parts of central and eastern Mexico. Appearing in central Mexico during the 10th century A.D., and reaching nearly 40,000 inhabitants, the Toltecs established their central city of Tula, dominating the center of Mexico for nearly 300 years until the arrival of the Aztecs. The ceremonial center of Tula included a pyramid where religious rituals were practiced in honor of two deities: Quetzalcoatl, symbolizing learning, culture, philosophy, fertility, holiness and gentility; and his rival Tezcatlipoca, known for his warlike nature and tyranny. Both deities remain important figures in indigenous culture today. Located only 40 miles from Mexico City, the city of Tula, with its 15-foot high warrior statutes, offers an opportunity to enjoy the remains of the Toltec Empire.

U ? Uxmal: one of the most renowned Mayan cities, and rated by many archaeologists as the finest. The name Uxmal means “thrice-built” in Mayan, referring to the construction of its highest structure, the Pyramid of the Magician. The Mayans would often build a new temple over an existing one, and in this case five stages of construction have been found. Uxmal was one of the largest cities of the Yucatan peninsula, and at its peak was home to about 25,000 Mayans. Like the other sites of what is now known as the Puuc route, located 70 miles from Yucatan?s capital city of Merida, it flourished in the Late Classic Period (around 600-900 A.D.) and speculations indicate that its rulers presided over the nearby settlements in Kabah, Labna and Sayil, as well.

V ? Voladores de Papantla: one of the most treasured rituals that Mesoamerica inherited from the Totonacs is the dance of the Voladores de Papantla, a religious ceremony performed primarily during holiday events, which is believed to be a dialogue between the natural elements and humans. The birdmen, as the voladores are often called, launch themselves from the top of a pole as tall as 100 feet high, and slowly descend as the ropes around the pole unwind. Four voladores perform in honor of their four primary Gods: Sun, Wind, Earth and Water. The voladores circle the pole 13 times before reaching the ground, for a total of 52 turns, representing the total number of years in the Mesoamerican century. The dance can be viewed every Sunday at the El Tajin archaeological site, and is also performed at many Mexican tourist sites and events.

W ? Wall of Skulls: Tzompantli, otherwise known as the “wall of skulls” at Chichen Itza, was the sacrifice platform where the Mayans displayed the heads of their dead enemies, representing the glory of military conquest and serving as a warning to potential invaders. Clues also indicate that ritual human sacrifices were carried out at this site.

X ? Xochicalco: archaeological zone located southwest of the state of Morelos, 18 miles from the city of Cuernavaca. Meaning “in the place of the house of flowers,” Xochicalco was built on a range of hills ? La Bodega, La Malinche and Xochicalco ? and was founded during the Epiclassic period (650 ? 900 A.D.). The area flourished in part as a result of its proximity with Teotihuacan.

Y ? Yaxchilan: known for its numerous fine engraved monuments, this Mayan archaeological site lies half hidden in the thick jungle next to the Usumacinta River in Chiapas State. Yaxchilan was inhabited between 200 A.D. and 800 A.D., rising to prominence in the 8th century. The native architects, following the natural lay of the land on the banks of the river, arranged the buildings in an east-west direction along the south side of a broad plaza. Today, the site is reachable only by river or by air.

Z ? Zapotecs: the Zapotecs were concentrated in the region of the Oaxaca State, and archaeological evidence reveals that the existence of their culture dates back 2,500 years. The Zapotecs shared cultural commonalities with the Olmecs, reflected in their art, architecture, religion, mathematics and calendar. The Zapotecs were city dwellers and strong warriors during their time. The most famous Zapotec personality in modern times was Benito Juarez, generally regarded as one of Mexico?s greatest presidents. Important Zapotec sites include the city of Monte Alban, Lambityeco, Yagul and Zaachila.