Pre-Columbian culture and society


The Mesoamerican pantheon of gods, each with their own identity and purpose, played a vital role in the everyday affairs of the people. Many of these gods originated with the Olmecs and metamorphosed through various guises with subsequent cultures. By the Classic period, a complete pantheon of gods had emerged, recognized and followed throughout the whole country, albeit under a variety of names. Most corresponded to natural forces, agriculture or warfare, although in some cultures their numbers were so vast as to embrace almost every aspect of the natural universe.

Across all groups there existed a supreme god and ruler of the sky (Itzamná in Mayan tradition; Ometecuhtli among the Aztec), who together with his wife, the creation goddess, begat all other gods. Quetzalcoatl (known as Kukulcán by the Maya) was a ubiquitous and very ancient feathered-serpent deity particularly revered by the Aztecs and Toltecs. The rain god was the most important of the nature gods and had a vital role overseeing the seasonal cycles of agriculture and fertility. Known variously as Tlaloc or Chac, he was considered the centre of the universe as well as the benefactor, creator and father of agriculture. Death, a god who continues to play an important role in Mexico's spiritual life, is often depicted across cultures with a fleshless skull.

There were many lesser deities but most power was controlled by a few leading players. The gods were not generally gentle or charitable beings - they bestowed favours in return for exacting food tributes, incense and blood sacrifice. The Aztecs were extremely devout and performed religious rituals for every daily activity, each of which was undertaken only after consulting the relevant gods. From deciding when to plant the harvest, to regulating marriages, baptisms and naming ceremonies, and even over when and where to trade, hunt and fish - the gods oversaw all human activity. It was the role of the priests, and later of the secular leaders, to interpret the gods' wishes. Aztec rulers in particular exploited the control the gods exerted over peoples' lives by claiming divine descendency.

The Aztec pantheon was incredibly complex with over 200 gods, including some that had been adopted from both contemporary neighbours and ancestral cultures. Many had numerous identities and most ceremonial rituals were devoted to several deities simultaneously. The concept of duality in the gods was also common and ceramic masks found in Tlatilco in the Valley of Mexico, dating from 1400 BC, show dualistic features. This belief, therefore, ran throughout the most ancient epochs of Mexican history. Many deities seemed to have operated in pairs, sometimes embodying opposing elements. For instance, Quetzalcoatl is both the double and enemy of Tezcatlipoca (smoking mirror), and both are described as gods of creation.


Much like their contemporary counterparts, ancient Mexican markets were important centres of social activity where people gathered to trade goods, gossip, news and other staples of daily life. Tenochtitlán's market at Tlatelolco saw 25,000 visitors daily - a number that doubled during a special market every fifth day. Gold, silver, jade, feathers, fowl, game, fresh produce, medicinal herbs and crafts were just some of the offerings that so dazzled the conquistadors when they first laid eyes on them. Cacao beans were used a currency. Market traders were distinguished from long-distance traders, called
by the Aztecs, who were held in considerably higher regard. It is likely that the pochteca were an ancient class of peoples who peddled centuries of influence throughout Mesoamerica's cultural development.

One could only become
through inheritance. Among the Aztecs they were an organized body of peoples with their own courts and laws, as well as administrative representation closely allied to the nobility. They played vital roles in important public ceremonies and travelled to far off trade centres in order to acquire rare precious stones, crafts and exotic feathers. Sometimes this would involve journeying into enemy territory, for which they would wear disguises. Although highly esteemed,
could not rise from their social rank, nor trade outside of legally defined areas. As such, they were not capitalist in their practises.


War is known to have been widespread between Mexican peoples from pre-Classic times onwards, and was probably a feature of life before then too. The classic era Mayan murals at Bonampak reveal a taste for bloodthirsty conflict and some scholars believe that pervasive inter-state warfare may be part of the reason for the general Mayan collapse. War was no less prominent in the post-classic era when militarism, rather than religion, became the chief engine of human activity.

The Aztecs, especially, were proponents of imperialistic aggression, and widely feared for their formidable skills on the battlefield. Their military was extensive and well-organized along a hierarchy of ranks. The Tlatoani, or emperor, was chief-in-command. Elite societies also existed where only the most exceptional could partake, but generally, warriors belonged to either eagle or jaguar cults, and wore battle costumes to reflect this. Some costumes were especially elaborate with feathers, jewellery, cloaks, headgear and shields emblazoned with emblems, such as a high-ranking soldier might possess, along with the scars of battle and ritual mutilation.

A typical long-distance campaign might have involved 200,000 Aztec warriors armed with slings and obsidian clubs. A unique class of warrior priests would accompany them, whose duty was to carry sacred idols and conduct human sacrifices on the battlefield. For militaristic expansion was not the only motivation for war. Human blood was deemed necessary for the restoration of cosmic harmony and fertility and thus in constant demand. To a certain extent, this need was fulfilled by the ritualistic 'flower wars', where rival states agreed to do battle for the purposes of acquiring fresh sacrificial victims.

The ball game

Since the earliest days of the Olmecs, Mexican peoples believed in a threshold linking life and death, the Earth and the Underworld. This threshold was symbolised by the ritual ball game. In this team event, in many ways similar to basketball, players would try to throw a solid rubber ball through large stone rings at either end of a specially constructed court. More than mere sport, however, the ball game players stood on the edge of the world, quite literally, as losers were often sacrificed as offerings to the gods.

Ball courts have been found in sites throughout Mesoamerica, but the oldest and most numerous have been found in the Olmec region of the gulf coast. At least nine courts have been found at El Tajín, the classic site in northern Veracruz. Some of these are up to 60-m long, L-shaped, with two facing stone walls, often elaborately decorated with bas-relief murals depicting the ceremonially dressed players. Due to the large number of ball courts found in this region, it is considered that the game probably originated here. The largest ball court in all Mesoamerica, however, is at Chichén Itzá. It was built after the Toltecs took over the city in the 13th century and its facing walls measuring some 82 m in length, 8.2 m in height.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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