Origins of Civilization

Origins of Civilization

The term “Mesoamerica” refers to a geographical area occupied by a variety of ancient cultures that shared religious beliefs, art, architecture, and technology that made them unique in the Americas for three thousand years – from about 1500 B.C. to A.D. 1519 – the time of European contact.

Mesoamerica is one of our planet’s six cradles of early civilization. Many aspects of the ancient cultures of Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and México continue to the present and several of these cultural inventions and traits have spread throughout the world.

Some important definitions to keep in mind before we start with Mesoamerica is that of dating.  We will come back to this in the next section but for now please remember that the term Prehistory is determined differently in the Western civilizations .  You might remember that:

Prehistoric refers to societies which have not developed writing, reflecting the idea that history is something we write.  They are also called  Stone Age, because people made tools from stone–they had not yet figured out how to make metal.

Archaeologists divide the Stone Age into three stages, based on where people got their food:

  • Paleolithic (from the Greek for old and stone): people gather wild plants and hunt animals.
  • Mesolithic (from the Greek for middle and stone): people begin to plant food crops and live with animals.
  • Neolithic (from the Greek for new and stone): people farm and raise animals for food.

We will see how this definition is altered in the Mesoamerican civilization in the next section.


The principal factors that contributed to the origins of Mesoamerica’s civilizations are debated by scholars working throughout the region today but most believe that the inequalities between rulers and ruled, a condition of all early civilizations, developed with the consolidation of social power by chiefs who coordinated agricultural labor and supervised the storage and redistribution of crop surpluses that ensured group survival against drought and other natural calamaties.

Between 15,000 and 5,000 B.C., human populations subsisted largely as migratory hunters and foragers until the domestication of plants, especially maize, beans, and squash, provided them with surpluses that enabled year-round settlements to thrive.

Anthropologists tend to think of early tribes as egalitarian societies who restricted the accumulation of personal wealth by continually circulating food and materials through reciprocal exchange networks. But while food-sharing and gift-giving may have promoted trust and bound tribal members together, the ability to generate surpluses with plant cultivation would have created status differences. Ambitious individuals could begin capitalizing on a basic primate condition, the most successful long term leaders are not necessarily the strongest, but the most generous.


Once foods had been domesticated as staples, they would have been available to any population interested in shifting from foraging to agriculture and sedentary life. Agriculture can support large populations but it demands ever more intensive forms of cultivation. Mesoamerican people met the challenge by developing a wide variety of agricultural techniques, from terracing mountain sides to digging canals or even creating artificial wetlands. Mesoamericans domesticated dogs and turkeys, but wild animals like deer were naturally drawn to gardens where they could be easily captured and tethered. The cultivation of fruit trees attracted a wide variety of tropical birds whose colorful plumage was coveted for displaying wealth and prestige.


Image – Figure 1 Early cultigens probably appealed to tribal curers as medicines, but were later nurtured as special feast foods by enterprising tribal leaders seeking to enhance their social status. Grains of incipient maize derived from a simple grass like teosintle were too small to constitute a staple. At first, they were probably selected to make something comparable to tesguino, a mildly intoxicating beverage. The western hemisphere is renowned for its diversity of hallucinogenic plants. Many were believed to facilitate communication with the supernatural. Gods and ancestors were consulted to learn the sources of disease in this way. Click on Image for more detail.

Image – Figure 2 The successful development of agricultural intensification allowed Mesoamerican civilizations to build surpluses that not only insured themselves against catastrophies like drought but also led to social specialization and ultimately to the creation of specialized classes of merchants, warriors, artisans, and aristocracies of kings. Nowhere in the world was so much energy invested in domesticating plants and the tremendous variety in our own diet, much of which we take for granted today, is largely due to Indian ingenuity.

Image – Figure 3 Mesoamerican peoples were sufficiently impressed with their accomplishments as agricultural engineers that they even commemorated foods, like squash for example, in artistic masterpieces of precious greenstone.

Image – Figure 4 As “big men” were called upon to sponsor tribal feasts, they enlarged their own quarters and expanded the open yards surrounding their dwellings to accommodate more of their clients. Eventually prestige came to be marked by house size, and chiefs used their dwellings to display their elevated status by literally raising their homes on artificial platforms and restricting surrounding space to specialized ritual activities. From these humble beginnings came the magnificent palaces, temples, and plazas that continue to awe us today.