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Ancient Mexico

This class discusses the great ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica, their cultures, their worldviews, and how these affected their art, politics, economy, religion and the rest of society. 


Class Sections 


  1. Introduction to Mesoamerica

  2. Olmecs

  3. Mayans

  4. Aztecs


A. What is Mesoamerica? 


Begin the class discussion by asking students what they know about Mesoamerica. Assess your students’ answers and share any additional information. 


Mesoamerica is a region and cultural area in the Americas that covers what is now Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica. Numerous peoples and societies have lived in this region. Today we will be talking about the peoples who lived in Mesoamerica before the Spanish arrived in 1519. These include the Olmecs, Mayans, and Aztecs.


What are some things common throughout Mesoamerica ? 


  • Similarity in cultural traits

  • Mountain ranges such as Sierra Madre Oriental, Sierra Madre Occidental and Sierra Nevada

  • Seismically active region with high volcanic activity

  • Agriculture that includes corn, beans, squash, tomatoes and chili peppers

  • Area defined by migration of people, trade, and conquest.


Art in Mesoamerica

The peoples of Mesoamerica highly valued art. Their art included monumental architecture, stone carvings, paintings, poetry, and work in 

 precious materials such as jade and gold. Mesoamerican art can be difficult to interpret due to the different reasons why people in Mesoamerica created and used art.

Periods of Mesoamerican Art 


  • Pre-Classic or Formative: Olmecs (1500 BCE to 400 BCE)

  • Classic: Mayans (300-800 CE)

  • Post-Classic: Toltec and Aztec (1000 to 1521)

B. Pre-Classic/ Formative Period: The Olmecs 


Who are the Olmecs?


The Olmecs are considered Mesoamerica’s “Mother Culture”—the first major civilization in Mexico. They lived along Mexico’s gulf coast, now the states of Tabasco and Veracruz, from approximately 1500 BCE to 400 BCE, when the Olmec culture mysteriously started to decline. There are no records that explain why.

The Olmecs were great traders, warriors, artists and sculptors. They also developed writing systems and calendars. Many consider the Olmecs' greatest accomplishment to be their monumental stonework and sculptures, which were very artistically advanced. Olmec art had both political and religious significance. 

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