Although there are tantalizing fragments of evidence suggesting
human habitation of Mexico more than 20,000 years ago , there
is no uncontested evidence that humans arrived in Mexico earlier
than ~15,000 BP (Before Present). One of those asserting a
date of 28,000 years is archaeologist Michael D. Coe of Yale
Ancient Mexicans began to selectively breed corn plants around
8,000 B.C. Evidence shows an explosion of pottery works by
2300 B.C. and the beginning of intensive corn farming between
1800 and 1500 B.C.
Between 1800 and 300 BC,
complex cultures began to form. Many matured into advanced Pre-Columbian
Mesoamerican civilizations such as the: Olmec, Izapa, Teotihuacan,
Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec, Huaxtec, Purepecha,Toltec and Mexica
(Aztecs), which flourished for nearly 4,000 years before first
contact with Europeans. The Aztecs gave the area the name Mexihco,
where the x is pronounced as sj, therefore Méjico is
While many city-states, kingdoms,
and empires competed with one another for power and prestige,
Mexico can be said to have had five major civilizations: The
Olmec, Teotihuacan, the Toltec, the Aztec and the Maya. These
civilizations (with the exception of the politically-fragmented
Maya) extended their reach across Mexico, and beyond, like no
others. They consolidated power and distributed influence in
matters of trade, art, politics, technology, and theology. Other
regional power players made economic and political alliances
with these five civilizations over the span of 3,000 years.
Many made war with them. But almost all found themselves within
these five spheres of influence.
The Olmec Civilization
many city-states, kingdoms, and empires competed with one another
for power and prestige, Mexico can be said to have had five
major civilizations: The Olmec, Teotihuacan, the Toltec, the
Aztec and the Maya. These civilizations (with the exception
of the politically-fragmented Maya) extended their reach across
Mexico, and beyond, like no others. They consolidated power
and distributed influence in matters of trade, art, politics,
technology, and theology. Other regional power players made
economic and political alliances with these five civilizations
over the span of 3,000 years. Many made war with them. But almost
all found themselves within these five spheres of influence.
The Teotihuacan Civilization
decline of the Olmec resulted in a power vacuum in Mexico. Emerging
from that vacuum was Teotihuacan, first settled in 300 B.C.
By 150 A.D., it had grown to become the first true metropolis
of what is now called North America. Teotihuacan established
a new economic and political order never before seen in Mexico.
Its influence stretched across Mexico into Central America,
founding new dynasties in the Mayan cities of Tikal, Copan,
and Kaminaljuyú. Teotihuacan's influence over the Maya
civilization cannot be understated: it transformed political
power, artistic depictions, and the nature of economics. Within
the city of Teotihuacan was a diverse and cosmopolitan population.
Most of the regional ethnicities of Mexico were represented
in the city, such as Zapotecs from the Oaxaca region. They lived
in apartment communities where they worked their trades and
contributed to the city's economic and cultural prowess. By
500 A.D., Teotihuacan had become the largest city in the world.
Teotihuacan's economic pull impacted areas in northern Mexico
as well. It was a city whose monumental architecture reflected
a new era in Mexican civilization, declining in political power
about 650 B.C., but lasting in cultural influence for the better
part of a millennium, to around 950 A.D.
The Maya Civilization
with Teotihuacan's greatness was the greatness of the Maya civilization.
The period between 250 A.D. and 650 A.D. saw an intense flourishing
of Maya civilized accomplishments. While the many Maya city-states
never achieved political unity on the order of the central Mexican
civilizations, they exerted a tremendous intellectual influence
upon Mexico and Central America. The Maya built some of the
most elaborate cities on the continent, and made innovations
in mathematics, astronomy, and writing that became the pinnacle
of Mexico's scientific achievements.
The Toltec Civilization
Just as Teotihuacan had emerged
from a power vacuum, so too did the Toltec civilization, which
took the reigns of cultural and political power in Mexico from
about 700 A.D. Many of the Toltec peoples were comprised of
northern desert peoples, often called Chichimeca in Mexico's
Nahuatl language. They fused their proud desert heritage with
the mighty civilized culture of Teotihuacan. This new heritage
would give rise to a new empire in Mexico. The Toltec empire
would reach as far south as Central America, and as far north
as the Anasazi corn culture in the Southwestern United States.
The Toltec established a prosperous turquoise trade route with
the northern civilization of Pueblo Bonito, in modern-day New
Mexico. Toltec traders would trade prized bird feathers with
Pueblo Bonito, while circulating all the finest wares that Mexico
had to offer with their immediate neighbors. In the Mayan area
of Chichen Itza, the Toltec civilization spread and the Maya
were once again powerfully influenced by central Mexicans. The
Toltec political system was so influential, that any serious
Maya dynasty would later claim to be of Toltec descent. In fact,
it was this prized Toltec lineage that would set the stage for
Mexico's last great indigenous civilization.
The Mexica (Aztec) Civilization
the decline of the Toltec civilization came political fragmentation
in the Valley of Mexico. Into this new game of political contenders
to the Toltec throne stepped outsiders: the Mexica. They were
a proud desert people, one of seven groups who formerly called
themselves "Azteca," but changed their name after
years of migrating. Newcomers to the Valley of Mexico, they
were seen as crude and unrefined in the ways of the prestigious
Nahua civilizations, such as the fallen Toltec empire.
Latecomers to Mexico's central plateau, the Mexica (or Aztecs
as they were subsequently labeled by European anthropologists)
never thought of themselves as heirs to the prestigious civilizations
that had preceded them, much as Charlemagne of France did with
respect to the fallen Roman Empire.
1428, the Mexica-Aztecs led a war of liberation against their
rulers from the city of Azcapotzalco, which had subjugated most
of the Valley of Mexico's peoples. The revolt was successful,
and The Mexica, through cunning political maneuvers and ferocious
fighting skills, managed to pull off a true "rags-to-riches"
story: they became the rulers of central Mexico as the head
of the Triple Alliance.
This Triple Alliance was composed of the city-states of Tenochtitlan,
Texcoco, and Tlacopan. At their peak, 300,000 Aztecs presided
over a wealthy tribute-empire comprising around 10 million people,
almost half of Mexico's present 24 million population. This
empire stretched from ocean to ocean, and extended into Central
By 1519, the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, was the largest city
in the world with a population of around 350,000 (although some
estimates range as high as 500,000). By comparison, the population
of London in 1519 was 80,000 people. Tenochtitlan is the site
of modern-day Mexico City.
Allies of the Mexica
In the formation of Triple
Alliance empire, the Mexica established several ally states.
Among them were Cholula (the site of an early massacre by Spaniards),
Texcoco (the site of a major library, subsequently burned by
the Spanish), Tlacopan, and Matatlan. Also, many of the kingdoms
conquered by the Mexica provided soldiers for further imperial
campaigns such as: Culhuacan, Xochimilco, Tepeacac, Amecameca,
Coaixtlahuacan, Cuetlachtlan, Ahuilizipan. The Mexica war machine
would become multi-ethnic, comprising soldiers from conquered
areas, led by a large core of Mexica warriors and officers.
This same strategy would later be employed by the Spaniards.
In 1519, the native civilizations
of Mexico were invaded by Spain, and two years later in 1521,
the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was conquered by an alliance
between Spanish and tlaxcaltecs (the main enemies of Aztecs).
Francisco Hernández de Córdoba explored the shores
of South Mexico in 1517, followed by Juan de Grijalva in 1518.
The most important of the early Conquistadores was Hernán
Cortés, who entered the country in 1519 from a native
coastal town which he renamed "Puerto de la Villa Rica
de la Vera Cruz" (today's Veracruz).
Contrary to popular opinion, Spain did not conquer all of Mexico
when Cortes conquered Tenochtitlan in 1521. It would take another
two centuries after the Siege of Tenochtitlan before the Conquest
of Mexico would be complete, as rebellions, attacks, and wars
continued against the Spanish by other native peoples.
Role of religion in the
fall of the Aztec Empire
The Aztecs' religious beliefs
were based on a great fear that the universe would cease functioning
without a constant offering of human sacrifice. They sacrificed
thousands of people on special occasions. This belief is thought
to have been common throughout nahuatl people. In order to acquire
captives in time of peace, the Aztec resorted to a form of "ritual
warfare", or flower war. Tlaxcalteca and other Nahuatl
nations were forced into such wars, and not particularly liking
the idea of being a perpetual source of human sacrifices they
willingly joined the Spaniard forces against the Aztecs. The
small Spanish force, consisting of about 600 men schooled in
European warfare and equipped with steel weapons and armor,
was reinforced with thousands of indigenous Indian allies. Their
use of ambush during indigenous ceremonies allowed the Spanish
to avoid fighting the best native warriors in direct armed battle,
such as during The Feast of Huitzilopochtli. The Spanish were
also greatly helped by the outbreak of smallpox (one of many
new diseases brought over by the Spaniards) at about this time,
which killed hundreds of thousands of the Aztecs.
Plagues and Epidemics
in Colonial Mexico
Another important factor
for the fall of Mexico-Tenochtitlan (Aztec Empire Capital) were
the plagues and epidemics brought to the Americas by sick Spaniards
and African slaves brought by the Spanish. Smallpox,Flu, Bubonic
plague, Measels, and syphilis and several others took the lives
of hundreds of thousands of Aztecs and other natives in a few
weeks. These epidemics may have killed over half the approximate
8,000,000 natives who lived in Mexico in the course of a few
years time. The Spaniards benefited greatly from this because
the disruption in social structure left a power vacuum for them
The Spanish defeat of the Mexica in 1521 marked the beginning
of the 300 year-long colonial period of Mexico as New Spain.
After the fall of Tenochtitlan Mexico City, it would take
decades of sporadic warfare to pacify the rest of Mesoamerica.
Particularly fierce were the "Chichimeca wars" in
the north of Mexico (1576-1606).
During the colonial period, which lasted from 1521 to 1810,
Mexico was known as "Nueva España" or "New
Spain", whose claimed territories included today's Mexico,
the Spanish Caribbean islands, Central America as far south
as Costa Rica, an area comprising today's southwestern United
States, and the Philippine Islands. Spaniards had the habit
of claiming all lands they walked across and all the land
drained by the rivers they saw. Needless to say, many of these
claims were mostly hot air since they, as a rule, did not
conquer or develop any territories that did not have significant
sedentary Indian populations they could take over. They walked
over a good part of North America looking for treasures and
subsequently claimed all the land--then they walked or rather
rode home. Finding no treasures or sedentary Indian tribes
they could control they retreated back to their ranchos and
haciendas in Mexico and stayed there. The result was a lot
of closely guarded maps that showed a lot of territory, but
not much else. The Indians who lived there were mostly ignored
or savagely used if they got in the way or had something the
war of independence
After Napoleon I invaded Spain and put his brother on the
Spanish throne, Mexican Conservatives and rich land-owners
who supported Spain's Bourbon royal family objected to the
comparatively more liberal Napoleonic policies. Thus an unlikely
alliance was formed in Mexico: liberales, or Liberals, who
favored a democratic Mexico, and conservadores, or Conservatives,
who favored Mexico ruled by a Bourbon monarch who would restore
the old status quo. These two elements agreed only that Mexico
must achieve independence and determine her own destiny.
Taking advantage of the fact that Spain was severely handicapped
under the occupation of Napoleon's army, Miguel Hidalgo y
Costilla, a Catholic priest of Spanish descent and progressive
ideas, declared Mexico's independence from Spain in the small
town of Dolores on September 16, 1810. This act started the
long war that eventually led to the official recognition of
independence from Spain in 1821 and the creation of the First
Mexican Empire. As with many early leaders in the movement
for Mexican independence, Hidalgo was captured by opposing
forces and executed.
Prominent figures in Mexico's war for independence were Father
José María Morelos, Vicente Guerrero, and General
Agustín de Iturbide. The war for independence lasted
eleven years until the troops of the liberating army entered
Mexico City in 1821. Thus, although independence from Spain
was first proclaimed in 1810, it was not achieved until 1821,
by the Treaty of Córdoba, which was signed on August
24 in Córdoba, Veracruz, by the Spanish viceroy Juan
de O'Donojú and Agustín de Iturbide, ratifying
the Plan de Iguala.
In 1821, Agustín de Iturbide, a former Spanish general
who switched sides to fight for Mexican independence, proclaimed
himself emperor officially as a temporary measure until
a member of European royalty could be persuaded to become
monarch of Mexico (see Mexican Empire for more information).
A revolt against Iturbide in 1823 established the United Mexican
States. In 1824, "Guadalupe Victoria" became the
first president of the new country; his given name was actually
Félix Fernández but he chose his new name for
symbolic significance: Guadalupe to give thanks for the protection
of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Victoria, which means Victory.
After independence, many
Spanish possessions in Central America which also proclaimed
their independence were incorporated into Mexico from 1822 to
1823, with the exception of Chiapas and several other Central
American states. The mostly vacant northern claims of the Spanish
were claimed by Mexico and almost totally ignored, since little
wealth could be extracted from them and the fledgling governments
had neither money nor inclination to develop them.
Soon after achieving its independence from Spain, the Mexican
government, in an effort to populate some of its sparsely-settled
northern land claims, awarded extensive land grants in a remote
area of the northernmost state of Coahuila y Tejas to thousands
of immigrant families from the United States, on the condition
that the settlers convert to Catholicism and assume Mexican
citizenship. It also forbade the importation of slaves, a
condition that, like the others, was largely ignored.
government of the newly independent Mexico soon fell to rogue
republican forces led by Antonio López de Santa Anna
and others. The first Republic was formed with Guadalupe Victoria
as its first president, followed in office by Vicente Guerrero
who won the electoral vote but lost the popular vote (The
Mexican constitution was at that time very similar to the
US constitution; but was largely disregarded by the majority
of the population.The conservative party saw the opportunity
to control the government and led a revolution under the leadership
of Gen. Anastacio Bustamante who became president from 1830
to early 1832. The federalists asked Gen. Antonio López
de Santa Anna to overthrow Bustamante and he did, declaring
General Pedraza (who won the electoral vote back in 1828)
as the "true" president. Elections took place, and
Santa Anna took office on 1832. Constantly changing political
beliefs, as president (he was president seven different times),
in 1834 Santa Anna abrogated the federal constitution, causing
insurgencies in the southern state of Yucatán and the
northernmost portion of the northern state of Coahuila y Tejas.
Both areas sought independence from the Mexican government.
After negotiations and the presence of Santa Anna's army eventually
brought Yucatán to again recognize Mexican sovereignty,
Santa Anna's army turned to the northern rebellion. The inhabitants
of Tejas, calling themselves Texans and led mainly by relatively
recently-arrived English-speaking settlers, declared independence
from Mexico at Washington-on-the-Brazos, giving birth to the
Republic of Texas. Texan militias defeated the Mexican army
and won independence in 1836, further reducing the claimed
territory of the fledgling republic. In 1845, Texans voted
to be annexed by the United States, and this was agreed to
by Congress and signed into law by President John Tyler.