First settlers

The first Mesoamerican peoples were nomadic hunter-gatherers possessing simple stone technologies and an appetite for mammoth. Scholars are divided over exactly when they first set foot upon American soil. It is believed that they appeared during the last ice age, also known as the Pleistocene epoch, at around 40000 BC, give or take 10,000 years.

At that time, much of the earth's water was locked up as ice and sea levels were much lower than today. What is now known as the Bering Strait - a narrow, icy body of water between northwest Canada and Russia - was then exposed land as the subcontinent of Beringea. This intercontinental bridge saw the earliest settlers migrate from Asia, wave after wave, who pursued their prey into the vast continents of the Americas.

At the end of the ice age, around 9000 BC, dramatic climatic shifts signalled profound changes in vegetation and habitat. Glaciers melted, Beringea flooded and the valleys of Mesoamerica flourished with green vegetation. A brief era of Clovis culture ensued, a culture renowned for - but not solely sustained by - its mammoth hunting. The remains of mammoths and ancient stone tools have been discovered at Santa Isabel Iztapan in the Valley of Mexico, dating to 9000 BC; and at Tepexpan, where a woman was found alongside a mammoth, dating to 8000 BC.

As the earth's melting progressed, human populations grew and environmental changes intensified, the megafauna - the giant prehistoric beasts - could no longer sustain themselves. They simply died out. The Mesoamerican peoples reverted to their traditional diet of grubs, fruits and small mammals, especially mice. Much of this humble early existence was dominated by the search for food.

No event was more critical in the emergence of Mesoamerican civilization than the domestication of plants, especially maize. This took place between 8000 and 2000 BC in an era known as the archaic or proto-agricultural. Much of our knowledge of this era is owed to the work of Richard MacNeish, who discovered beans and gourds in Tamaulipas, as well as chillies, avocado, squash and amaranth in the Tehuacán valley.

The earliest remains of maize, or sweetcorn, were also found in the Tehuacán valley, dating to 5000 BC. They indicate a crop that is far evolved from its wild ancestor, teosinte - a maize-like plant with tiny, edible fruits. The evolution from teosinte into domestic maize was not an accidental affair. The ancients were not unfamiliar with the concept of genetic engineering and relied on methods of selective breeding to produce a plant with an increasingly greater yield and larger type of fruit.

It took thousands of years to develop a maize plant productive enough to support a wholly sedentary lifestyle. But by 5000 BC, maize could be grown and stored in large quantities. It soon became the staple diet of the Mesoamerican peoples, for when served with beans in the form of tortillas, maize provides all the protein and nutrition necessary for survival. Prior to this, the early Mesoamericans lacked any sizeable domestic animals (only dogs and turkeys were on the menu) and were forced to subsist on traditional hunting and gathering. By 2000 BC agricultural villages were firmly established throughout Mesoamerica.

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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