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.

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 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 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 civiliations 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 trade and commerce throughout Central America.

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 influenced reached: for example, does trade in macaw feathers or minerals from fully Mesoamerican areas of Mexico extend the border of Mesoamerica northward?

In summary: Mesoamerica includes

  • most of Mexico,

and all of

  • Guatemala
  • Belize
  • El Salvador
  • Honduras
  • Nicaragua

and at least parts of

  • Costa Rica

You could write a thesis or even a dissertation on how to define the northern and southern borders. 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 enouth to fill my memory cells with the core area.

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 useful glossary terms:
A good introduction to a glossary is to show some of the confusion. I am an iconographer who started first as an archaeologist focusing on architectural history. I then became more interested in the art and entered the study area of iconography. Since there is a lot of art with hieroglyphic inscriptions I am occasionally studying epigraphy, but do not consider myself either an epigrapher or a linguist (since there are scores of already capable individuals in both those fields of Maya research). Yet I study Mayan languages and can speak a few words of Q’eqchi’ Mayan and read many words in Yucatec Maya, plus can write a few hieroglyphs (the easy ones such as jaguar, cacao, etc).

I have also been an ethnohistorian for many years, and presently I am deeply into ethnobotany and ethnozoology, though I do not practice zoo-archaeology (because that is a separate academic research area).

The Maya civilization lasted for several thousand years; even the height of the culture was over a thousand years. The eco-systems varied impressively from both oceans to high volcanic mountains to vast areas of swamps plus karst topography, and lots of savanna areas between Sayaxche and Lake Peten Itza. So the flora and fauna are quite varied, so far our list of utilitarian plants is well over 500 species. To learn even a fraction of these requires a lifetime of study.

Then consider all the insects, birds, reptiles: all these interacted with the Maya on a daily basis. In other words, to really know the Maya it helps to study more than their artifacts. I wish to learn about the actual physical world in which they developed their culture.

So below is a brief introductory glossary of a few of the study areas. You could add another dozen, but lets start with at least a few. If you are a student at a university you will meet many other specialists.

epigrapher, a person who studies epigraphy, or the writing system (usually of an ancient civilization). Scholars who study Mayan hieroglyphic writing are called epigraphers.

ethnobotany, the study of plants of one or more cultural areas, but studying more than just the biology of the plants: ethnobotany involves studying the language of the world area where your plants of interest are located.

ethnohistory, the study of a culture through historical documents. I studied in the Archivo General de Centro America, Zona 1, in Guatemala City for several years. I had a fellowship courtesy of the American Philosophical Society to study in the Archivo General de Indias, in Sevilla, Spain (1971). I specialized in the Cholti Lacandon Maya of Chiapas, Mexico, Peten Ytza of Guatemala, and related Mayan groups.

ethnozoology, the study of fauna from the point of view of the culture and/or language of a specific part(s) of the world. I tend to study more ethnobotany than ethnozoology since flowers and plants are easier to find plus they stay more or less still in one place so I can photograph them more easily.

cosmology, the study of a culture’s perception of their place in the physical, spiritual or their cultural perceived universe around them. This is entirely my personal definition because I am interested in the world view of the pre-hispanic Mayan cultures. My PhD dissertation was on the water-related cosmology of the Classic Maya, a cultural world which I named the Surface of the Underwaterworld. This dissertation is available in a hard-cover coffee-table style book, Monsters and Men in Maya Art. The book is in German but for benefactors we can provide an electronic copy in English.

iconographer, a person who studies iconography.

Iconography, the study of meaning in art. The popular modern equivalent would be symbiologist. But at most universities, in an art, anthropology or archaeology department, only the concept of iconography or iconographer would be used

Maya is both a noun and an adjective. So the correct term is Maya civilization, not Mayan civilization.

Mayan is the word used for the languages, the Q’eqchi’ Mayan language. But to make the jargon even more tricky, the Yucatec people spoke Yucatec Maya Mayan language. Sorry, scientists do this in every field. The Mayan language of the Yucatec is traditionally known as Yucatec Maya.

Pre-Columbian means before the arrival of Columbus.
Pre-Hispanic is the same, before the arrival of the Spaniards.

First posted June 12, 2014

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