Ancient America - Mesoamerica

Topic 1: Ancient America - Mesoamerica

  • The term Mesoamerica means "Middle America", and refers to the area that now forms the countries of Mexico (from Mexico City south), Guatemala, Belize, and western Honduras. This region was home successively to three major cultures, each of which left a significant artistic legacy. The Olmec flourished on the Gulf Coast in the first millennium B.C.E., the Maya ruled in the Yucatan peninsula and what is now Guatemala, Belize, and western Honduras during the first millennium of the Common Era, peaking in the centuries before European contact (millions of people in this region today keep the Mayan language and culture alive). The Mexica - more commonly known as the Aztec, after the empire of which they were part - emerged in central Mexico shortly before European contact and quickly came to dominate the rest of the region.

  • Mesoamerica was home to complex agriculturally based societies; chocolate, vanilla, tomatoes, avocados, and maize were among the Mesoamerican crops later introduced to the outside world. The Maya and Mexica had written languages, though Mayan hieroglyphics have only recently been decoded by scholars; our newfound ability to read the inscriptions that play a key role in Mayan art has revolutionized our understanding of the Maya world.

  • The cultures of ancient Mesoamerica, like the cultures of the ancient Near East and Egypt, are known for their construction of pyramids, though Mesoamerican pyramids feature stepped layers, rather than smooth sides. Some of the earliest and most significant of these pyramids were created around 500 C.E. in central Mexico at a place now known as Teotihuacan; little is known of the culture that created them.

  • As in the ancient Near East, these pyramids were often topped by temples which served as locations for ritual, along with the public plazas below. The art which adorned these and other structures consisted of stone carvings, often brightly painted. The content of this art was primarily religious and political, often depicting shamanic rituals and visions and glorifying the achievements of local rulers. Art was also lavished on the underground tombs of rulers, emphasizing the role of art as a connection to other planes of existence.

  • Cosmic cycles - especially the movement of planets across the heavens -- and the passage of time were major Mesoamerican preoccupations. Mayan temples were aligned with the stars, and among the most important Mexica artifacts is the calendar stone found in the ruins of the Templo Mayor in what is now the middle of Mexico City.

  • Mesoamerican art frequently depicted the human figure, but often combined it with stylized decorative motifs derived from the natural world, especially animal forms. Gold and jade were among the most prized materials, as were the feathers of certain birds, while the art of ceramics was highly developed. Artists and artisans were generally anonymous, but some signed works have survived. In the Maya world, the second sons of rulers often worked as artists, suggesting the high status of art and its makers.

Related Links:
Indigenous Americas Quiz
Ancient America - Andean South America
AP Art History Quizzes
AP Art History Notes