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The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas
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The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, Volume II: Mesoamerica (Part One), gives a comprehensive and authoritative overview of all the important native civilizations of the Mesoamerican area, beginning with archaeological discussions of paleoindian, archaic and preclassic societies and continuing to the present. Fully illustrated and engagingly written, the book is divided into sections that discuss the native cultures of Mesoamerica before and after their first contact with the Europeans. The various chapters balance theoretical points of view as they trace the cultural history and evolutionary development of such groups as the Olmec, the Maya, the Aztec, the Zapotec, and the Tarascan. The chapters covering the prehistory of Mesoamerica offer explanations for the rise and fall of the Classic Maya, the Olmec, and the Aztec, giving multiple interpretations of debated topics, such as the nature of Olmec culture. Through specific discussions of the native peoples of the different regions of Mexico, the chapters on the period since the arrival of the Europeans address the themes of contact, exchange, transfer, survivals, continuities, resistance, and the emergence of modern nationalism and the nation-state.


‘It is profoundly reassuring that this kind of scholarly publishing continues to flourish at the start of a new millennium, and it is even more profoundly to be hoped that these books acquire the wide readership that they deserve.’

Source: The Journal of The Royal Anthropological Institute

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  • 1 - Introduction to a Survey of the Native Prehistoric Cultures of Mesoamerica
    pp 1-44
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    This chapter provides a short historical background as well as a description of the basic theoretical underpinnings of American archaeology. The basic theoretical structure of American archaeology is derived from its association with anthropology as well as parts derived from Western scholarly and traditions in general. The fundamental theoretical structure of archaeology has been under attack by scholars who have established something that they call postprocessualism. Archaeology has three basic elements, as G. R. Willey has often pointed out. These are time, space, and data. Chronological organization of the information on ancient prehistoric cultures in the geographic space defined as Mesoamerica is a good example of the use of these components. A number of the sixteenth-century expressions of Mesoamerican civilizations are relatively well known: the Aztec, Tarascan, Maya, Zapotec, and Mixtec. Studies of Mesoamerican writing systems have undergone a transformation from a generalized and iconographic interpretation of texts to quite explicit decipherments.
  • 2 - The Paleoindian and Archaic Cultures of Mesoamerica
    pp 45-121
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    Lithic or Preceramic are the descriptive terms alternatively attached to New World archaeological sites of this first prehistoric era, reflecting die fact that stone tools make up the bulk of the artifacts found and that pottery was not yet part of the cultural assemblage. The Lithic/Preceramic era is further divided into two periods: an initial Paleoindian period, followed by the Archaic. Beyond the various chronological complications, attempts at reconstructing the first periods of Mesoamerican prehistory are adversely biased as a result of their disproportionate dependence on archaeological data derived from interior highland regions of the area. The idea of a big-game hunting tradition implies not only a technological capability but also the development of new organizational strategies to successfully pursue a large and potentially lethal quarry. A better understanding of the process of early agricultural development might be gained by paying more attention to the role of intergroup social interaction during the Late Archaic.
  • 3 - The Preclassic Societies of the Central Highlands of Mesoamerica
    pp 122-155
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    This chapter focuses on the Basin of Mexico and its immediate southern neighbor, the state of Morelos. Those areas have received more archaeological attention than other regions of the central highlands, and present a more complete picture of Preclassic society and lifeways. The Preclassic period in the central highlands is the stage classified elsewhere in the world as fully Neolithic, in that it is characterized by the presence of agriculturally based societies living in small settled villages and utilizing a ceramic technology. Zohapilco provides the earliest conclusive date for ceramic utilization by agricultural communities in the Basin. That early ceramic assemblage includes a vessel form more common in lowland areas of southern Mesoamerica at that same time, the tecomate. The wide distribution of certain ceramic styles, such as red-rimmed tecomates, among disparate early farming societies provides some of the earliest archaeological evidence for the spread of ideas, beliefs, and stylistic preferences across regional, ethnic, and linguistic boundaries.
  • 4 - The Precolumbian Cultures of the Gulf Coast
    pp 156-196
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    The Gulf Coast lowlands form one of Mesoamerica's richest and most diverse regions. The equally rich and distinctive precolumbian societies that occupied the region played a crucial role in the development of the Mesoamerican cultural tradition. The outstanding cultural developments of the region's cultures and the desires of its neighbors to control its wealth are not surprising, and these two recurrent themes account for the area's tremendous importance in precolumbian times. This chapter looks at the archaeological record of precolumbian cultures and traditions. It focuses on the cultural and linguistic groups observed by Europeans after the Conquest. The chapter employs the generalized Mesoamerican chronological framework used by most investigators, with the caveat that many placements depend more on faith and accepted wisdom than on archaeologically verified information. This generalized cultural sequence is divided into eight time periods: the Paleoindian and Archaic, Early Formative, Middle Formative, Late Formative, Early-Middle Classic, Late Classic, Early Postclassic, and Late Postclassic.
  • 5 - The Maya Lowlands: Pioneer Farmers to Merchant Princes
    pp 197-249
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    The Maya Area forms the eastern part of Mesoamerica, defined by the distribution of archaeological sites with the distinctive material culture of Classic Maya civilization and by the historical distribution of Mayan-speaking peoples. The Classic period was held to follow on from a Preclassic or Formative, during which village farmers laid the foundations for subsequent developments. The beginning of the Preclassic, and the end of an assumed Archaic phase during which a gathering-and-hunting rather than agricultural economy supported the sparse population of Mesoamerica, was placed around 2000-1500 BC. Intensive screening and flotation of occupation deposits yielded numerous carbonized plant remains, including seeds, fruits, roots, and wood charcoal. Although most of the goods documented in Classic long-distance trade have been functional in a social sense rather than economically vital the local workmanship demonstrable or inferrable suggests both merchant artisans processing their raw materials on commission and retained craftsmen working within an established design tradition.
  • 6 - The Central Mexican Highlands from the Rise of Teotihuacan to the Decline of Tula
    pp 250-317
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    This chapter focuses on the great ancient city of Teotihuacan, which flourished from about 150 BC to around AD 650. Teotihuacan seems markedly different from many other Mesoamerican societies, and in some ways rather strange compared with non-industrialized complex societies in general. In the neighborhood of Teotihuacan there is an abrupt shift away from the Cuanalan-phase settlement. The chapter discusses the Coyotlatelco and Mazapan occupations of the Basin of Mexico. Recently discovered Cacaxtla murals show the distinctively Maya God L as a merchant and other figures with strong Venus connections. The archaeological site of Tula lies just north of the modern city of Tula de Allende, in Hidalgo. Tula was an important central Mexican city that first rose to prominence after the decline of Teotihuacan, and in turn declined well before the Mexica rose to power. The civic art of Tula is mainly derivable from central Mexican antecedents, but ceramics show many outside affinities.
  • 7 - Western and Northwestern Mexico
    pp 318-357
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    Western and Northwestern Mexico had been regarded as a backwater of Mesoamerica. Robert C. West has described the major tectonic areas and natural regions of Mexico. Recognizing these geographical divisions and combining them with the known archaeological data led to the designation of the archaeological regions within Western and Northwestern Mexico. The regions include Western Mesa Central, Central Mesa Central, Balsas-Tepalcatepec Basin, Coastal West Mexico, Sonora and Northern Sinaloa, and Sierra Madre Occidental and Western Mesa del Norte. The central Mesa Central region of Western and Northwestern Mexico is important mainly because of the development of Tarascan culture in the Late Postclassic. In considering the culture history of Western and Northwestern Mexico, archaeologists have been struck by both its similarities and its differences to what has been regarded traditionally as Mesoamerican culture. One way of interpreting this similar-different phenomenon has been to see periods of greater and lesser Mesoamericanization in Western and part of Northwestern Mexico.
  • 8 - Cultural Evolution in Oaxaca: the Origins of the Zapotec and Mixtec Civilizations
    pp 358-406
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    The archaeological sites of both Mixtec and Zapotec cultures have superb preservation of wattle-and-daub structures, adobe walls, cut stone masonry, human burials, plant remains, and animal bones. Each archaeological region of Oaxaca has its own set of chronological periods. This chapter refers simply to generic periods such as Early Formative, Middle Formative, Late Formative, Protodassic, Early Classic, Late Classic, Early Postclassic, and Late Postdassic. This chapter discusses small egalitarian communities spreading over the river valleys of highland Oaxaca wherever conditions were favorable for agriculture. One of the most significant events in Oaxaca prehistory was the founding of Monte Alban, the mountaintop city that was to be the capital of the Zapotec for more than one thousand years. The Zapotec had reached what anthropological theorists call a state level of political organization. The chapter also talks about the origins of urbanism and Mixtec and Zapotec civilizations at the Spanish conquest.
  • 9 - The Southeast Frontiers of Mesoamerica
    pp 407-448
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    This chapter focuses on the southeastern Mesoamerican frontier models. A large number of models, or interpretive frameworks, have been used by scholars to try to understand cultural dynamics in this zone of contact between Mesoamerican and Intermediate Area peoples. Acculturative approaches offer the opportunity to study political, social, economic, and religious components of culture within a regional perspective. Acculturation and frontier studies can be used as complementary approaches. Both can be used as dynamic processual approaches that do not assume equivalence of societies in contact. In the area of Middle America that now is El Salvador and Honduras, the southeastern frontier of Mesoamerica has expanded and contracted into the Intermediate Area a few times in prehistory. Understanding culture process in Mesoamerica's southeast is dependent upon understanding the emergence of chiefdoms and states in Mesoamerica and their interactions with less complex Intermediate Area societies.
  • 10 - The Maya Highlands and the Adjacent Pacific Coast
    pp 449-499
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    This chapter refers to the Maya highlands and Pacific coastal plain collectively as the southern Maya Area. Archaeological research in the southern Maya Area has long lagged behind that conducted in the Maya lowlands to the north. The greatest environmental diversity is found in the highlands to the north of the coastal plain. The evidence for the evolution of complex societies comes from a chain of archaeological sites along the south coastal plain. The chapter looks at the evidence for the origins of Maya writing and sculpture. It examines the role of writing and sculpture, along with other factors, in reinforcing political and religious authority within Maya society. The cultural development of the southern Maya can be seen as a crucial ancestral component of Classic Maya civilization. The available evidence from the Late Classic indicates that this was a period of continued growth in most regions of the southern area.
  • 11 - The Aztecs and Their Contemporaries: The Central and Eastern Mexican Highlands
    pp 500-558
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    The pattern of Teotihuacán-derived city-states within the Basin and the development of militaristic, warring, competitive city-states in many of the surrounding areas provided the matrix within which the new forms of state organization and expansion developed. The political fragmentation and economic decentralization that followed Teotihuacán in Central Mexico was resolved first through the militaristic state of Tula and then, following a second period of political fragmentation after Tula's demise, by the expansion of the Aztecs. The end of Tula as a major integrative regional state in the Central Mexican Symbiotic Region (CMSR) marks the beginning of the last phase of indigenous cultural evolution in Central Mexico. The accidental, particularistic, succession problems, and resolutions, that emerged by AD 1428 provided a context in which the Mexica Aztecs, and their allies, could capitalize on their military, demographic, and organizational structure to fulfill on a grand scale the model of a militaristic tributary city-state with Toltec antecedents.


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