Magazine article New Internationalist

Simply: A Brief History of Mexico

Magazine article New Internationalist

Simply: A Brief History of Mexico

Article excerpt


The first inhabitants of the Americas are thought to have crossed the Bering Straits from Asia around 50,000 BC. The earliest evidence of human life in central Mexico dates from about 20,000 BC, and the first signs of civilization appear in about 1,500 BC. Olmec cities were built in the jungles of the Gulf coast, and although little evidence of them remains the Olmecs were the first people in the Western hemisphere to work on hieroglyphic and numeric systems.


In the Valley of Mexico Teotihuacan (a name later given to it by the Aztecs meaning 'the place where people became gods') became the first truly urban society in the Western hemisphere from about 300 AD. The huge pyramids of the Sun and Moon that remain today testify to an urban society ruled by a religious elite whose influence spread over a wide area. The gods Tlaloc (rain and fertility) and Quezalcoatl (the plumed serpent that brought civilization) made their first appearance. To the south the great Mayan centres in the lowlands of present - day Guatemala and Honduras reached their peak at about the same time and perfected an extraordinarily accurate calendar. But Teotihuacan was abandoned in mysterious circumstances around 750 AD, and the Mayan centres were also in decline by 800 AD.


Wandering tribes known as Chichemec - which implies 'barbarian' - arrived in the Valley of Mexico from about 900 AD and began to construct cultures based on what remained of their predecessors'. The Toltecs were followed by the Aztecs, who arrived at the end of the twelfth century but did not begin to construct the great city of Tenochtitlan until 1345. Shifting alliances and constant warfare eventually gave the Aztecs control over much of central Mexico, although the Mixtecs in Oaxaca were not subjected until just before the arrival of the Spanish. The Maya were never conquered.


A Spanish expedition led by Hernan Cortes landed on the Gulf coast near Veracruz on 21 April 1519 with just 500 men, fighting dogs and horses. Cortes promptly burned the boats that had carried them from Spain to prevent his men from returning. In less than three years they were to establish control over most of Mexico. Their biggest asset was their ability to forge alliances with warring factions within the Aztec empire. They used gunpowder for surprise effect. The single - mindedness of their purpose (to enrich themselves with gold) and novelties such as the gunpowder helped to intimidate their opponents. Moctezuma was killed, probably by his own people, but fierce resistance continued under his successor Cuauhtemoc until Tenochtitlan finally fell to Spanish control on 13 August 1521.


Quickly the Spanish monarchy established control over what it called Nueva Espana (New Spain) and ruled for 300 years through a series of viceroys. The total population of Mexico fell from an estimated 25 million at the time of the Conquest to just six million at the start of the nineteenth century, of which no more than half were indigenous peoples. Many thousands were massacred by the Spanish, but most fell victim to European diseases against which they had no immunity. The Catholic Church enforced mass conversions and became the most powerful and wealthy institution in the colony. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.