Classic period

This transition led to the start of the Classic period, around AD 200, which was marked by the growth of powerful urbanized empires, and the creative peak of the arts and science.

Zapotecs and Mixtecs

As Olmec influence was fading, 500 km or so to the west, in the Oaxaca Valley, the ceremonial centre of Monte Albán was being built. It was an impressive site composed of pyramids, plazas and temples, strategically placed on a levelled hilltop overlooking the valley floor. Hieroglyphs carved into the stonework here are evidence of some of the earliest texts found in the region, as well as glyphs representing the 52-year cycle, known as the Calendar Round, used as the standard system throughout the Mesoamerican world. The Zapotec people had occupied the site since its construction, and remained there throughout the Classic period, during which time architectural influence from the Teotihuacán culture was apparent. After about AD 500 however, the site fell into decline, and in its later years was occupied by the Mixtec culture, which had merged with the Zapotecs by the time of the Spanish Conquest.


The Classic period reached its crowning glory with the construction of the great planned city of Teotihuacán, near present-day Mexico City, in the Valley of Mexico, described by Michael D Coe (Professor of Anthropology at Yale University and author of many books on the pre-Columbian cultures) as the “most important site in the whole of Mexico”.

Teotihuacán was also the largest city in the pre-Columbian New World, covering more than 21 sq km, with a population of up to 200,000, which, by AD 600, made it the sixth largest city in the world. The dominant constructions at Teotihuacán are the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, overlooking the enormous Avenue of the Dead. The site is also filled with finely constructed temples, palaces and residential compounds. Besides their superb architecture, the Teotihuacán culture were also highly skilled artists, producing many beautiful murals, ceramics, and sculptures.

How Teotihuacán grew to be such a powerful and prosperous city remains largely a mystery. Examples of Teotihuacán-style artefacts have been found as far afield as Tikal and Kaminaljuyú in Guatemala, and to the NW at Chametla near present-day Mazatlán, some 1400 km from Teotihuacán, evidence that it must have benefited from long- distance trade links.

Nevertheless, after thriving for almost 1000 years, the culture dramatically collapsed around AD 600. The centre of the city was destroyed around AD 700, after which time all evidence of their regional influence suddenly disappeared. The invaders may have been the Totonac culture from Veracruz, or possibly the Totomí, a semi-barbaric culture from the north of Mexico.


At around the same time that the Olmec and Teotihuacán civilizations were making their dramatic stage exits in the early Classic, the Maya were reaching the peak of their own magnificent dynasty. Although the heart of their culture lay outside of Mexico, the inclusion of the Mayas in this history is a reflection of the enormous influence they had throughout much of the country during and long after their days in power.

Maya-speaking people are thought to have inhabited a wide band of territory encompassing El Salvador, Guatemala, most of southeast Mexico and parts of western Honduras. As with other early Mexican cultures, the origins of the Maya is unknown, but remains of early fishing and hunting groups has been found in their westernmost territory, dating from 3000-2000 BC.

The Maya came into contact with the advanced pre-Classic cultures, particularly the Olmecs and Teotihuacán, from whom they learnt new skills and ideas. Agricultural developments allowed the growth of larger cities, especially around the Maya Lowlands of Guatemala, which became their heartland and the site of some of their greatest ceremonial centres: Tikal, Kaminaljuyú and El Mirador. The chief Maya sites in Mexico were Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán, as well as Palenque and Bonampak in Chiapas.

The architectural achievements of the Maya were exemplified in the superb temples, palaces and pyramids of their urban capitals. Again, they learnt from their predecessors, emulating Teotihuacán in the massive scale of their most important constructions. All these buildings were decorated with highly artistic sculptures, murals, and glyphs.

Mayan society became increasingly hierarchical as their cities grew larger, with power concentrated in the hands of a hereditary elite. By the end of the Classic at the peak of the Maya civilization, there may have been as many as 14 million citizens living in the Maya heartland, with powerful urban centres across Mesoamerica, from Copán in Honduras, through Guatemala, Belize and to the Yucatán Peninsula. These centres never united into an organized empire however. Each was a separate city-state which, while sharing a common cultural background with its neighbour, was also often antagonistic, competing for power.

How did the Maya become such an advanced civilization? Their interaction with other Mesoamerican cultures - and probably with seafarers from South America - could quite easily have stimulated their growth. Theories of transatlantic contacts have long been proposed, but to date not one item made in the Old World has ever been found in a Mesoamerican site. However, many fascinating cultural similarities between Asian and Mayan cultures have been pointed out, including symbols used in both cultures' calendars. This is not to suggest that Old World cultures were at the roots of the New World civilizations, but some of the New World cultures may have come into contact with peoples from the East and from whom they could have adopted selective ideas.

Around AD 900, disaster struck, causing the abandonment of all the Mayan ceremonial centres. The cause of this sudden collapse, described by Michael Coe as “one of the most profound social and demographic catastrophes of all human history”, remains unknown. Theories include famine brought on by drought, internal uprising, and massacre by invading foreign tribes. Whatever the truth, the downfall of the Maya marked the end of the Classic, and with it the end of the era of great imperial urban cultures in Mexico.

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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