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A Concise History of Mexico (Cambridge Concise Histories) ( PDFDrive )

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distinguishes Mexico and the Indo-Ameri-
can cultures from Europe: they are not simply European societies
transported to another continent, but complex mixtures (and con-
flicts) of many cultures of remote historical origins.
In contrast to the United States and Argentina, Mexico was never
a country of large-scale immigration. That in itself helps to explain
the continuing impact of the pre-Columbian world and the strong
22 A concise history of Mexico
Indian presence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.Mexico, it
is correct to say, has received immigrants, but more as manual
workers like the Chinese of the late Díaz era, or as specific groups
such as the SpanishRepublican exiles of the late 1930s.None of this,
however, altered either the structure of the population or the pre-
vailing culture.
23Mexico in perspective
The pre-Columbian era
Controversy accompanies discussion of the earliest inhabitants of
the Americas. The peoples referred to by Europeans as ‘Indians’,
who appear to have crossed from Asia some 12,000 years ago, may
not have arrived first. With the extinction of the hunted mastodons
around 8000 BC, seed for food crops and the domestication of
animals began. The cultivation of maize developed in the Valleys of
Tehuacán and Oaxaca between 8000 and 5000 BC. In relative
terms, this would comparewith the cultivation of wheat in Syria and
Mesopotamia around 9000 BC and 8000 BC, respectively, and the
development of barley in the Indus Valley around 7000 BC. In this
increasing reliance on plant food, women played the crucial role of
cultivators. During the Meso-American Archaic Period (7000–1500
BC), village farming and networks of exchange over distance
emerged. By 3000–2000 BC, settled villages, cultivating maize and
other cereals and making pottery, had appeared over large areas of
the olmecs
There is an ongoing debate concerning whether Olmec culture,
which flourished between 1200 and 300BC in the tropical lowlands
of the Gulf of Mexico, represented the base from which later cul-
tures developed in different geographical directions, or whether it
was simply a culture parallel to others which flourished contempor-
aneously. Although the Olmecs never apparently formed a great
empire, their political organisation and religious system, long-
distance commerce, astronomy, and calendar reached sophisticated
levels. Their linguistic group was probablyMixe-Zoque, which was
related to the Maya languages. Although Olmec influences may be
found across central and southernMesoamerica, no evidence exists
for any political control beyond the Gulf base area. Olmec culture
flourished from different sites for a period of some six hundred years
from c. 1200 BC, a chronology established by radiocarbon tests in
the mid-1950s. The Olmecs appear to have been the first to con-
struct large-scale ceremonial sites. Their name is a misnomer, based
on the later Aztec name for the southern Gulf zone – Olman (the
land of rubber) – and first applied to them in 1927. Having vanished
for over two millennia, evidence of Olmec culture slowly began to
re-emerge from the swamps and forests into which it had sunk. In
1862, the first gigantic Olmec head was uncovered in the Veracruz
district of San Andrés Tuxtla. Axes and jade figures followed at later
dates. Then, in 1925, Frans Blom and Oliver La Fage made further
decisive discoveries in the Laguna de Catemaco, a crater lake near
the volcano of Pajapan. The heads were carved from basalt boulders
flung from erupting volcanoes: a fiery birth from the centre of the
earth. Transporting these immense boulders and then transforming
them into ritual shapes dignified the Olmecs and demonstrated the
power they derived from their relationship to supernatural sources.
It has become evident that the core of the Olmec culture lay in the
area of the Papaloapan, Coatzacoalcos, and Tonalá Rivers. In the
Early Formative Period (1500–900 BC), urban areas with many
specialised buildings and a social stratification emerged out of a
previously egalitarian farming society. The sculptures had a ritual
and symbolic significance, which arose immediately from local agri-
cultural and artisan society. Although naturalistic rather than ab-
stract, they frequently portrayed a spiritual state rather than a
specific physical condition, and were executed by skilled craftsmen,
evidently spiritually prepared for the task, in highly polished jade,
jadeite, or serpentine.
Shaman-kings, emerging from the elite, interpreted the cosmos,
creation, and the cycle of human life. Since the ceremonial sites
required the organisation of a large labour force, a state organisa-
tion became necessary, and took the form of chiefdoms exercising
control over limited territories. The focal points were the San
25The pre-Columbian era
Plate 4 Olmec sculpture in the Jalapa Museum of
Anthropology, Veracruz (author’s photo).
Discovered in 1945 at the San Lorenzo site in the southern
Veracruz district of Texistepec, south-west of Minatitlán, this
and other basalt heads date from 1200–1000 BC. San
Lorenzo, an artificial mound with a gigantic platform, was
one of the oldest Olmec sites.
Lorenzo and La Venta sites, which flourished from 1200–900 BC
and 900–600 BC, respectively. Michael D. Coe worked on the
former site in 1964–67: San Lorenzo consisted of an artificial mound
about 1200 m long with many monuments on it raised above the
swamps. The site was the nexus of a series of small villages and
shrines beyond its circumference. Alfonso Caso and Ignacio Bernal
(Director of the National Institute of Anthropology and History
[INAH] from 1968 to 1971) worked onOlmec sites during much of
the 1960s; Bernal suggested linguistic links with the early Zapotec
culture of the Valley of Oaxaca. In chronological terms, Tres
Zapoteswas the last significantOlmec site, though it was researched
in 1938–39, before San Lorenzo and La Venta.
The Olmec belief system pointed to a cosmos in which all el-
ements and creatures were infused with a spiritual power. This
energy gave the universe its momentum. Olmec art formed an ex-
pression of this power. Humans sought the means of gaining access
26 A concise history of Mexico
to spiritual power through discipline, fasting, meditation, and muti-
lation in the form of blood-letting. They sought access, for instance,
to animal spirits, such as the power of the jaguar, in order to
transcend human consciousness, often by means of hallucinogenic
drugs, such as ritual snuff powders. Shamans were sometimes por-
trayed in the sculpture in the process of taking on the jaguar spirit.
This transformation process explains the widespread use of masks,
often carved from jade, which combined jaguar and human features,
and conveyed a state of spiritual ecstacy. Contorted facial expres-
sions portrayed the strain of passing from one reality into another.
The jaguar held especial significance as the creature which lived in
the jungle, swam, and hunted both by day and by night, thereby
encompassing land, water, and air, and light and darkness at the
same time. The American eagle was the jaguar of the sky. The
pyramid of La Venta, a symbol of Pajapan, reached into the sky, and
thereby gained access to the heavens. The earth and sky were linked
by special deities, which combined aspects of both. Olmec sculpture
portrayed a flying jaguar, with a human passenger, or winged jag-
uars bearing the earth on their backs. In the jungle trees was the
poisonous snake, the fer-de-lance, which had a crested brow: since it
struck from above rather than from below, it combined the proper-
ties of the earth and the sky, and became symbolised as the serpent of
the skies, the forerunner of the Plumed Serpent of Teotihuacan, with
the attributes of rain and wind.
Virtually all Mesoamerican cultures attached great religious sig-
nificance to a ritual ball-game with specially laid-out courts at the
monumental sites. From at least Olmec times, human sacrifice,
which accompanied the ball-game ritual,