Mesoamerica is a pre-Columbian cultural area of Mexico and Central America influenced by presence or major trade with the Olmec, Maya, Teotihuacan, Toltec, or Aztec.

Archaeologists, ethnographers, ethnohistorians, and other scholars need a reference term other than “Central America” since geographically most of Mexico is in North America. “North America” extends to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec; then Central America starts (where “Central America” starts and ends is another mish-mash of scholarly jargon).

Mesoamerica, to me as a researcher of cultures of both Mexico and Central America, is the area occupied and significantly influenced by any of the core Mesoamerican civilizations, specifically the Olmec, Maya, Teotihuacan, Toltec, and especially the Aztec, before the arrival of the Spaniards.

The Olmecs are one of the “Mother Cultures” of Mesoamerica. Several of the deities of the later Maya, and aspects of the hieroglyphic writing of the Maya, and some words in Mayan languages, come from the Olmec.

The Olmec maintained active trade route contacts down into Central America, especially through the coastal plains of Guatemala southward. The Olmec probably wanted the colors of jade found more often in Costa Rica than in Mexico or Guatemalan jadeite sources.

The Teotihuacan civilization, which I prefer to designate as the Teotihuacan empire (due to its extensive almost colony-like outposts throughout Guatemala and into Honduras) also spread Mexican influence far southward. Teotihuacan impact was especially noticeable during the 4th through 6th centuries, to the extent that the Classic Maya were still occasionally flaunting Teotihuacan symbols and the deity Tlaloc during the Maya Late Classic, 7th through 9th centuries.

The Maya areas were from Tabasco at their “north” though Chiapas, Yucatan, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Guatemala, Belize and into portions of western El Salvador and Honduras. But the Maya had trade networks north through Cacaxtla, Puebla (not far from Mexico City) and the Maya also traded southward past Honduras.

The Toltec and related pre-Aztec peoples also influenced areas of Guatemala as did several other core Mexican cultures: Coatzumalhuapa is the area you can see the cultural mixture in Guatemala (you may begin to notice that Guatemala was a major intermediate point in trade from the imperial civilizations of the central areas of Mexico as they set up trade routes as far as Costa Rica).

Then came the Aztecs. Although their empire only began a few hundred years before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Aztecs really did a lot of long-distance trade and commerce throughout Central America. Although quetzal feathers and cacao have been found in southwestern USA, none of these areas are considered part of cultural or geographical Mesoamerica.

You could spend days, weeks, months, learning about how far south, and how far north, Mesoamerican influence reached. But the point is that when you discuss the geography of the pre-Hispanic civilizations, much of the area is technically in “North America:” all of the homelands of the Olmec, Teotihuacan, Toltec, and Aztec are in the central third of Mexico, which geographically is part of “North America.” Only the Maya had their homeland clearly, fully, and specifically in Central America (though they traded on a regular basis with substantial areas of lower North America.

So we prefer to use the cultural concept of Mesoamerica, especially to include much of Mexico. Best if scholars of far northern Mexico and adjacent southern USA debate how far Mesoamerican influence reached: for example, does trade in macaw feathers or minerals from fully Mesoamerican areas of Mexico extend the border of Mesoamerica northward?

 

Definition of Mesoamerica for creating a map of Mesoamerica

In summary: Mesoamerica (for archaeologists) includes

  • most of Mexico,

and all of

  • Guatemala
  • Belize
  • El Salvador
  • Honduras
  • Nicaragua

and at least parts of

  • Costa Rica

Since I work with the Olmec, Teotihuacan, and especially the Maya, I tend to focus on “Central Mexico” southward into western Honduras and western El Salvador. I am aware that all three of the cultures I enjoy learning about had trade routes deeper into southern Mesoamerica, but in 50 years of research so far I find more than enough to fill my memory cells with the core area.

 

Suggested Reading for Mesoamerica Map and Definition of Civilizations

The scholar who is traditionally credited with emphasizing the concept of “Mesoamerica” is  Paul Kirchhoff.

KIRCHHOFF, Paul
1943 Mesoamérica. Sus Límites Geográficos, Composición Étnica y Caracteres Culturales". Acta Americana 1 (1): 92–107.

Other web pages on Mesoamerica
www.FLAAR-Mesoamerica.org (home page) and introduction.

Glossary of Words used by Maya archaeologists, epigraphers, iconographers

To see an annotated glossary of terms related to Mayan archaeology, hieroglyphic writing, iconography, etc, we now have a new glossary page.

 

Botanists describe Mesoamerica for plants totally differently

www.tropicos.org, the botanical web site of the FLORA MESOAMERICANA project, describes Mesoamerica as: …estados del sureste de México (incluyendo la península de Yucatán) y en todas las repúblicas de Centroamérica…
(www.tropicos.org/Project/FM).

The Mesoamerican Ethnobotanical Database does not have a formal definition or any map (http://emuweb.fieldmuseum.org/botany/search_mesoamerican.php). They seem to include Panama, and all of Costa Rica. For Mexico they make no mention (on this page) what parts of Mexico they include and what parts are outside their concept of Mesoamerica.

It seems that Smithsonian botanists also consider Panama as part of Mesoamerica (www.dicyt.com/news/smithsonian-botanist-discovers-new-ground-flowering-plant-in-panama).

It is unfortunate that botanical web sites and monographs do not explain why they define the area of Mesoamerica differently than archaeologists, though obviously a botanical area is based on plants and a cultural area is based on culture.

But now we are one of the few web sites to point out the differences between botanical Mesoamerica and archaeological Mesoamerica.

 

Updated March 2020
First posted June 12, 2014

 

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