Culturally speaking, Mexico seems like a convoluted quilt of languages, dialects and customs. In addition to the best-know groups—the Mayans and the Aztecs, for example—dozens of ethnic groups have over the centuries contributed to the complex fabric of which Mexico is made. As trading partners, allies, and mortal enemies, they have engaged one another on the battlefield and in the market place, exchanging ideas and traditions.
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Evidence of the Olmecs, Mexico’s “mother culture”, has been found both on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, but none of their settlements can be visited in situ. Precursor to the Mayans, the Olmec civilization reached its apogee a thousand years before the Christian era.
They built extensive cities and the structures that preceded the modern pyramid (more accurately called a temple mound). Evidence of these citadels include basalt stone “portrait” sculptures weighing many tons, public buildings, and hieroglyphics-inscribed steles. Ritual objects such as jade jaguar figurines were widely traded and have been found as far north as the Valley of Mexico and south into Central America. Several area museums display artifacts from the Olmec culture. The Parque Museo La Venta shows off, to good advantage, stone thrones, 8- and 9-ton colossal heads (thought to be “portraits” of ancient leaders), jade figurines and an unusual jaguar mask mosaic. Many other priceless artifacts are found at the Museo regional de Antropologia Carlos Pellicer Camara. Both are found in Villahermosa, the business oriented capital of the state of Tabasco.
As the Roman Empire declined and fell, Mesoamerica was entering its Golden Age of enlightenment. The Mayans and the Zapotecs developed written scripts with which to record spoken language. Priests accurately predicted solar eclipses and the appearance of comets; tradesmen specialized in carving, pottery-making and other crafts. Architects built great cities and impressive monuments to the gods at Monte Alban, Teotihuacan, El Tajin, Xochicalco and Cholula.
Although the Purepecha (also called Tarascans) of Michoacán built some large religious structures, many other important groups left no monumental cities or inscribed stones; their histories are pieced together through less grandiose physical evidence and early Spanish reports. Yet their contributions enrich the tapestry. West coast cultures built utilitarian and decorative items of clay; many for the artifacts purchased today in Tlaquepaque or Colima are variations on ancient designs. Along with the Purepecha, the Mixtecs of Oaxaca were among the few Mesoamerican cultures to understand and use metallurgy.
The formidable Aztecs, the best known of Mexico’s many indigenous cultures, were descendants of the less developed Chichimec, of the northern deserts. Migrating to the Valley of Mexico in the 13th century, the Aztecs rose to power and prominence after just a few centuries. They build impressive pyramids to the rain god, Tlaloc, and to Huitzilopochtli, the terrifying god of war. To placate these deities and many others, they regularly sacrificed captive soldiers and unfortunate folk from the lower rungs of society.
The Aztec’s island capital Tenochtitlan amazed the Spaniards with its beauty and ingenuity when they arrived in 1519. Connected to the shores of Lake Texcoco via four causeways and surrounded by floating gardens called chinampas, this kingdom dazzled with its brightly painted palaces, richly dressed lords and ladies and bustling marketplaces full of exotic goods.
At the time of the Spanish invasion, the Aztec nation controlled more than 350 cities and had a standing army of some 150,000 men. Only alliances with some of the Aztecs’ disgruntled subject-states facilitated Hernan Cortes’ surprisingly triumph over this formidable and bellicose nation with an army of just a few hundred men.
Under the Spanish colonialism, many ethnic groups were assimilated and gradually adopted Catholicism, and European law and social structures. Others fled to the realm’s least hospitable places. Isolated for centuries in the Sierra Madre Occidental, for example, the Huichol even today hold on to many of their ancient rites. Other groups like the Otomi of central Mexico and the Tarahumara of the Copper Canyon have blended their own rituals with those introduced by Spain.
Today nearly seven percent of the Mexican population speaks a native language or dialect. While that number is dwindling as communities join the mainstream, many young people still speak the ancient tongues, and their parents employ herbs and perform rituals passed down over generations.