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Pre-Hispanic The Spanish Independence Post Revolution   Links 

Pre-Hispanic History

The first traces of human habitation in Mexico appeared 20,000 years ago with the first people hunting animals in the highland valleys.  Agriculture began around 6500 BC in the Teohuacan valley with the growing of chile peppers and squash and progressed to a primitive form of corn between 5000 and 3500 BC. 

Mexico ’s first “civilization” appeared on the Gulf coast near what is now known as Veracruz .  These were the Olmecs.  Known for their giant stone sculptures of heads, they had two main centers: San Lorenzo , which flourished from about 1200 to 900 BC, and La Venta in Tabasco , which flourished until about 600 BC. 

By 300 BC village life based on agriculture and hunting was established throughout the southern half of Mexico Monte Alban was the center for the Zapotec people and had perhaps 10,000 inhabitants.  It is suggested that this is where writing and the calendar were invented in Mesoamerica .

The Izapan culture near Chiapas and the Pacific coast flourished from about 200 BC to 200 AD.  The Izapas are considered to be the link between the Olmecs and the Maya. 

Between 100 BC and 700 AD a great civilization arose near present day Mexico City .  Researchers are not certain who built it, but Teotihuacan grew into Mexico ’s biggest city with an estimated population of 200,000.   At its peak, it may have controlled the southern two-thirds of Mexico , all of Guatemala and Belize and parts of Honduras and El Salvador .  In the 7th century, the power of Teotihuacan was destroyed, most likely by rivals in central Mexico , but the spectacular city survives today.

Pre-Hispanic America ’s most brilliant civilization, were the Maya.  They thrived between about 250 and 900 AD and developed a calendar and writing system.  A typical Mayan city functioned as the hub for the surrounding farming hamlets.  Its ceremonial center focused on plazas surrounded by tall temple pyramids and lower buildings called palaces.  Stelae and altars were carved with dates, histories and elaborate human and divine figures.   Religion played a large role in the Maya’s lives, as did their devotion to a ball game most likely played by two teams in an arena with sloping walls.  The purpose of the games is uncertain but games could be followed by the sacrifice of one or more of the players – whether winners or losers, no one is sure.  Mayan cities could be found in the modern-day states of Chiapas ( Bonampak and Palenque ), Campeche (Rio Bec and Chenes) and the Yucatan ( Uxmal ).  The collapse of the Mayan civilization came in the early 10th century probably due to population pressure and ecological damage caused by the large cities.

Another civilization that had great influence, but is not widely understood is the Toltec.  Around the 10th century the Toltecs moved into central Mexico and Tula became their capital, growing to a city of 30,000-40,000.  The Toltecs may have “popularized” mass sacrifices as a way to appease the gods and a king named Tezcatlipoca may have demanded a steady diet of hearts from sacrificed warriors.  It is from Tula that the god Quetzalcoatl fled, vowing to return some day.

The Mayan site of Chichen Itza in northern Yucatan contains many Tula-like features including murals portraying sacrifices and reclining figures holding dishes that may have been receptacles for parts removed during sacrifices.  Many researchers believe that Toltec exiles invaded Yucatan and created a new version of Tula at Chichen Itza .  However there are others that believe Chichen Itza pre-dates Tula , implying that Chichen Itza , not Tula , was the center of the culture.

Around 1427, the Aztecs rose to prominence in the central valley by forming an alliance with two other cultures.  This triple alliance conquered small cultures that had developed to the east and west until their influence spanned from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf coast.  Ultimately the Aztecs controlled a population of 5 million people and kept them under control by utilizing an elaborate societal structure.  This structure ranged from priests to slaves and everyone knew their place and their duty.  Much of the Aztec culture was drawn from earlier Mexican civilizations and great ceremonies were marked by dances, processions and sacrifices.

The Spanish 

In 1519 the Spaniard Hernan Cortes and his troops landed at Veracruz .  The Aztec god/king Moctezuma II Xocoyotzin believed that Cortes might be the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl returned to reclaim his throne so he invited Cortes to meet with him.  This was a grave mistake.  In his march from the sea to the inland empire of Tenochtitlan , Cortes had acquired many allies; people who were opposed to Aztec rule.  Over the course of two more years, Cortes acquired enough allies to outnumber the Aztecs.  In May of 1521, Cortes attacked and razed Tenochtitlan .

Cortes rebuilt the city and named the new colony Nueva Espana ( New Spain ).  By 1524 virtually all the Aztec empire was under Spanish control.  The new colony was noted for its poor treatment of the native population, virtually enslaving them.  However harsh treatment was not the worst thing the Spanish brought, it was disease.  The Indian population of Nueva Espana fell from an estimated 25 million in 1521 to 1 million by 1605.

In 1523 missionaries from Spain began arriving.  By 1560 they had built more than 100 monasteries, and had carried out millions of conversions thus ensuring the power of the Catholic Church.

Over time, discontent began to grow between the top-rung Spanish-born colonists (called peninsulares) and second-rung people born of Spanish parents in Nueva Espana (called criollos).  Many criollos had grown rich and wanted equal political power.

By the late 1700’s, the Spanish crown was so worried about how powerful the Catholic Church had become in Nueva Espana, that King Carlos III expelled the Jesuits from the colony and transferred many church assets to the royal coffers.  This put financial pressure on the peninsulares and criollos and created more tensions.  Additionally in 1808 Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Spain and effectively ended direct Spanish control over Nueva Espana.  Thus opened the door for rebellion.


On September 16th 1810 , Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the parish priest from the town of Dolores issued a call to rebellion.  The call was accepted and fighting continued over many years.  But in 1821 a royalist general named Agustin de Iturbide defected and conspired with the rebel leader Vicente Guerrero to declare independence from Spain .  A constitution was written and the incoming Spanish viceroy agreed to Mexican independence.  Iturbide ascended himself to the throne as emperor in 1822.

Iturbide by deposed in 1823 however by Antonio Lopes de Santa Anna and a new constitution drawn up, establishing a federal Mexican republic of 19 states and four territories.  Political instability followed as the presidency changed hands 36 times, 11 times to Santa Anna.  In 1836, settlers in what was known as Texas declared independence.  Santa Anna went north and wiped out a settlement called the Alamo , but lost at the San Jacinto River a few weeks later.  Santa Anna was ousted for good in 1855 when he lost Texas , California , Utah , Colorado , New Mexico and Arizona in the Mexican-American war and the Gadsden Purchase .

After a brief occupation by France in the mid-1800’s, Porfirio Diaz took over as president in 1876 and remained in the position for 33 years.  Diaz brought Mexico into the industrial age, launching public works projects throughout the country.  He kept Mexico free of the civil wars that had plagued it, but at a cost.  Political opposition, free elections and a free press were banned.  Land and wealth became concentrated with a small minority and the country was kept quiet by a ruthless army and the feared police. 

Post Revolution

Violent suppression of the people led to the Mexican revolution in 1910 but ten years of civil war cost an estimated 2 million lives and shattered the economy.  Numerous presidents over the years attempted to re-distribute the land and rebuild the country, but infighting, politics and assassinations hampered efforts. 

In 1934, Lazaro Cardenas was elected president and stepped up the redistribution of land through the ejido system.  Ejidos are tracts of land owned and generally farmed cooperatively.  World War II helped expand Mexico ’s economy and after the war development continued with the building of hydroelectric plants, irrigation projects and expansion of the road system.

Since World War II, Mexico was beset with problems ranging from a huge surge in population to an oil glut to devaluation of the peso.  Drug trafficking has also taken a toll by adding a new level of corruption to politics and the police force.  New economic policies have attempted to quell discontent, however not everyone agrees as to their benefits.  The middle class has benefited but the poor have not.  This led to an uprising in the state of Chiapas in 1994.  The Zapatista National Liberation Army was fighting to end decades of discrimination in their poor state.  About 150 people were killed in the uprising.  Since 1994 the Zapatistas have forcibly taken over hundreds of estates, farms and ranches.   Though the current President, Vicente Fox, has promised to right the wrongs of the past, not much has happened to appease the poor.   Mexico still finds itself mired in problems with drug trafficking, illegal immigration and the economy.


Mexican Embassy

MexExperience Complete Guide to Mexico

Pre-Columbian History  

History Timeline

Colonial Towns




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