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History of Mexico


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A Brief History of Mexico


Part One: Before the Conquest


By Steven Alexander

Long before the Spanish discovered the “New World,” Asian nomads and explorers had migrated to the Americas and developed some of the most impressive civilizations that the world has ever known. While there may be some evidence of humans living in the Americas as long as 30,000 years ago, the more provable anthropological theory puts the date of the first of these migrations at roughly 17,000 years ago, when a mini ice age formed upon the planet. As more and more of the water content of the planet was deposited as ice and snow on the land, ocean levels fell, exposing a land bridge across the Bering Straight between Siberia and Alaska. Mammoths, bison, musk oxen and human beings all migrated across this land bridge to the Americas.


The beginning of a civilization is defined as the point where a group of nomadic hunters and gatherers begins to establish permanent living sites. In the Americas, corn made this possible. By cultivating corn crops, the people had a permanent food source in one place. They no longer needed to be nomads, following the game herds. They settled into villages that eventually grew to cities…civilization arose. The scientific evidence indicates that these native people began to cultivate corn about 7000 years ago in Central America. According to the mythology of the native people, corn was a gift from the creators and came with a stipulation that these people who received the gift of corn were to share it with all the other people in the world. They did a good job of this. The gift of corn was spread throughout North America and as far south as Peru by the native people and then throughout the rest of the world by the Europeans.


The first of these corn-based civilizations to leave an archeological record were the Olmecs. Their civilization arose from the jungles of southern Mexico and Central America and flourished some 3000 years ago. They laid the foundation for all successive civilizations in the Americas until the invasion of the Europeans. In addition to the cultivation of corn, the Olmecs maintained the long-count calendar of 26,000 years, built earthen pyramids and played the ceremonial ball game. They also practiced human sacrifice. No one knows what became of this civilization. Perhaps they were destroyed by war or drought or disease. Perhaps they just merged into the next successive civilization.


That would be the Mayans. They arose as a civilization some 2000 years ago in much the same area as the Olmecs. The Mayans refined what they inherited from the Olmecs, building great cities and stone pyramids. They built stone-paved roads through the jungles and complex irrigation systems to water their crops. They also made paper and developed a system of hieroglyphic writing The Mayan civilization was in a state of decline at the time of the European conquest. But despite the best efforts of the Spanish to destroy them, the remnants of the Mayan civilization survive today in the highlands of Central America. Today, over five million people speak Quiche Mayan and still practice many of the ancient customs of their people.


The Mayans were obsessed with time. They religiously maintained the long-count calendar they inherited from their Olmec forebears. The long-count calendar corresponds to what is called the “precession of the equinoxes” in astronomy. As the earth rotates and tilts on its axis, it wobbles a little, much like a spinning top. This wobble is predictable, completing a full cycle every 26,000 years. The Mayans built observatories to confirm the planet’s movement through the cycle and judiciously recorded and predicted this movement in books know as codices. They believed that the planet goes through a period of great turmoil, upheaval and change as it makes the transition from one cycle to the next. Time will soon tell how correct they were in this prophecy since the end date of the current cycle corresponds to 2012 in our modern calendar.


Successive waves of immigrants continued to cross over from Asia. Among these were the Nahua. According to Nahua legend, one of their tribes, the Mexicas, where tasked by the spirits to travel south until they found an eagle sitting in a cactus plant. Once they found the eagle, they were to build their city and civilization on that spot. Somewhere around 1200 A.D. the Mexicas found an eagle sitting in a cactus plant on a swampy island in Lake Texcoco, in what is now called the Valley of Mexico. It is here that they built the city of Tenochtitlan. Since the Mexicas came from a place known as Aztlan, they were also known as Aztecas. The word Mexico is taken from the tribal name of these people and the national symbol of Mexico is a picture of an eagle sitting in a cactus plant.


At its peak of development, Tenochtitlan was a spectacular place. The Aztecs built the city on artificial islands connected to the mainland by long causeways up to 45-feet wide. A series of canals made it possible to bring in goods and take out the trash on small shallow-draft boats. Fresh mountain water was supplied through an elaborate system of aqueducts. There were row upon row of brightly painted villas and palaces as well as row upon row of lush gardens. In the city center stood two massive stone temples rising from a huge plaza. By 1500 the population had grown to 250,000, more than twice the size of any European city of that time.


To support such a lavish lifestyle, the Aztecs turned to empire-building. They conquered and subjugated neighboring tribes, demanding tributes of food, materials, silver and gold. They also demanded humans for their altars of sacrifice. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of people would be sacrificed in a single day. The victim would be held down upon the stone altar while the priest opened his (or her) chest with a razor-sharp obsidian knife and removed the still-beating heart, The body would then be rolled down the stairs of the temple to the plaza below. If the victim was worthy enough, he would be eaten as an honor. If not, he would be fed to the dogs.

Part 2: Click Here

Part 3: Click Here

Part 4: Click Here

Part 5: Click Here

Part 6: Click Here

 Steven Alexander is a former journalist and award-winning sports writer. He is retired and lives in Ajijic.

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