Formative Era

The Formative period in ancient Mesoamerican history, dating from 2000 BC to AD 200 and also known as the Pre-Classic era, sees the establishment of all the key socio-political structures, symbols, technologies and religious ideas that define the subsequent ages of the Mesoamerican tradition. In essence, Mesoamerica defines itself. Scholars have divided it into three distinct (if unimaginatively titled) phases: The Early Formative (2000 BC-1200 BC), the Middle Formative (1200 BC-400 BC) and the Late Formative (400 BC-AD 200).

Early Formative

At the dawn of the Formative era, 2000 BC, simple agricultural villages flourished in Mesoamerica's valleys and mountains, bereft of complex social structures and organized along purely egalitarian lines. No longer the tribal nomads, these early peoples were at the mercy of nature's forces. The success - or failure - of their harvests depended entirely upon environmental and climatic conditions. Shamanism flourished.

The ancient shaman was an intermediary between the worlds. Healer, counsellor and diviner, the shaman's knowledge included the use of medicinal herbs, sacred songs and healing rites. More than this, he was acquainted with the unseen otherworld of spiritual - and natural - forces. He knew the secret language of the wind, the rain and the sun and he knew how to ask favours from them. Shamanism continues to be practised across Mesoamerica. The maize plant plays a central role in the cosmic hierarchy.

The evolution of maize was accompanied by another major milestone in the evolution of Mesoamerican civilization: the use of fired ceramics. The earliest reliably dated pottery of the region belongs to a tradition called Ocos. Ocos pottery originated from the Pacific coast of Chiapas and Guatemala, but has also been found across the continent from Veracruz to Honduras. It seems that trade and communication between settlements was already widespread at this time. Clay was utilized for the production of food storage vessels, as well as the production of figurines. The hordes of 'pretty lady' dolls unearthed at Tlatilco in Mexico City indicate a preoccupation with fertility, if the accepted interpretation of their oversized thighs is correct. Other figurines have a playful aspect and depict day-to-day scenes like women nursing babies. Yet others reveal an embryonic fascination with deformity with little hunchbacks and dwarves. Clay vessels used in human burials were also uncovered at Tlatilco, indicating a ceremonial aspect to death had probably developed.

Towards the end of the Formative era, around 1200 BC, chiefdoms emerged with increasingly complex social structures including craft specialization and simple stratification. Surveys in Oaxaca have revealed large residences probably belonging to the chief, as well as public ceremonial buildings. Similar research in coastal Chiapas - the heart of Ocos culture - also reveals the emergence of such chiefdoms.

Middle Formative

The Middle Formative era of Mesoamerican development, 1200 BC to 400 BC, was dominated by the Olmec. The Olmec constructed the most advanced and powerful polities of their time, although relatively little is known of these ingenious and mysterious people. They are generally attributed with developing the first Mesoamerican calendars, as well as written glyphs. They spoke a Mixe-Zoquean language that survives only in highland Oaxaca and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Olmec culture originated on Mexico's Gulf coast but came to dominate much of Mesoamerica. The site of San Lorenzo in Veracruz dates to 1500 BC, when it was settled as a simple farming village. Just 150 years later, San Lorenzo had developed a level of socio-political complexity sufficient for an elite to mobilize a sizeable labour force, evidenced by the large-scale landscape and public works projects uncovered there. Little is known about Olmec leaders, except they were believed to be imbued with divine powers.

Subsequently, by 1150 BC, San Lorenzo had acquired all the features that distinguish Olmec civilization - giant stone heads, monumental public architecture, Mesoamerica's first known ball court, a wealth of ceramic figurines, vessels and iconographic motifs. Many of these features - monumental architecture and ball courts especially - would become chief characteristics of Mesoamerican civilization as a whole.

By 900 BC, San Lorenzo was in decline and eclipsed by the polity of La Venta, where archaeological finds include elite residences, monumental architecture, tombs, offerings and mosaic masks. By the end of the Middle Formative, around 400 BC, La Venta and its contemporary Olmec polities - Laguna de los Cerros and Tres Zapotes - were in irrevocable decline. The widespread influence of Olmec culture was drawing to a close, soon to disappear.

For many years, scholars believed that Olmec culture was the colonial master of many contemporaneous cultures, as well as the originator and 'mother culture' of all subsequent Mesoamerican developments. This is no longer believed to be the case.

Many styles and symbols once thought to be classically Olmec have been discovered in great quantities at contemporaneous sites, sometimes in quantities far greater than those in the Olmec heartland. Scholars now believe that such cultures flourished alongside the dominant Olmec polities, were heavily influenced by them, but were not necessarily subordinate to them. Shared stylistic features are now often called 'X-Complex' rather then Olmec style.

Such contemporaneous cultures were not as powerful or advanced as the Olmec, but were reasonably complex nonetheless, belonging to a network of chiefdoms that traded goods and shared a common system of emblems. Their societies were stratified into elite and commoners. The elite had access to luxury trade goods, lived in larger homes and were buried in more elaborate tombs.

In the valley of Oaxaca, the polity of San José Mogote was the centre of power and economic activity for a host of secondary and tertiary centres - the former possessed public architecture, the latter were simple agricultural villages. In Chalcatzingo in Morelos, a large civic-ceremonial precinct is strongly reminiscent of Olmec monumental art. Some argue that this site traded closely with the gulf coast Olmec, emulated their style and may even have had marriage ties to it.

In the Mayan lowlands, development was rapid from the Middle Formative period, but seems to have occurred without much Olmec influence. Very few Olmec items have been identified in the earliest Mayan settlement of Petén and they did not participate in the same trade networks as the Chalcatzingo and Oaxaca chiefdoms.

Late Formative

As Chalcatzingo, La Venta and other Middle Formative polities collapsed during the last two centuries BC, the vast metropolises of Cuicuilco and Teotihuacán - both located in central Mexico - emerged as dominant centres of Mesoamerican power. Both had huge temple complexes and buildings of truly monumental proportions. In the first century AD, Cuicuilco was destroyed under a volcanic eruption, leaving its enormous circular pyramid visible under 6 m of rock. Teotihuacán became the prevailing regional force.

Further south, a confederation of Oaxaca valley chiefdoms constructed the mountain-top city of Monte Albán (Blanton). Its population grew and a successful market system developed. Soon Monte Albán became the capital of the Zapotec state and a major urban centre. It would dominate the region, often violently, for several hundred years more.

The Mayan lowlands also saw significant developments during the close of the formative era, around AD 200. In construction projects reminiscent of mighty Teotihuacán, the Maya built giant civic-ceremonial architecture, including the enormous platforms and pyramids of El Mirador in Guatemala. They practised intensive agriculture, allowing their populations to flourish, and reclaimed land from the marshes. Labour for these projects was believed to have been centrally directed, that is, under orders from a well-established elite.

From a scattering of simple agricultural settlements, Mesoamerica had evolved a burgeoning network of city-states. Village shamans were now priests, belonging to an elite social order who guarded the secrets of time. Complex and often bloody rituals were the staple diet of the gods, who dwelled among mortals as princes and kings. Slaves, artisans and warriors toiled beneath them. Giant stone pyramids, symbols of earthly and spiritual power, had risen across the continent. The stage was set for Mesoamerica's golden age ...

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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