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San Lorenzo and La Venta: 1200 - 400 BC

The first civilization in central and north America develops in about 1200 BC in the coastal regions of the southern part of the Gulf of Mexico. Known as the Olmec civilization, its early site is at San Lorenzo.

From about 900 BC the capital city of the Olmecs moves further east along the Gulf coast to La Venta, an island site in the Tonalá River. For the next 500 years La Venta is the cultural centre of a large region, trading with much of central America. The Olmec traditions of sculpture and of temple architecture, developed over eight centuries, will influence all the subsequent civilizations of the region.

The most characteristic sculptures of San Lorenzo and La Venta are astonishing creations. They are massive stone heads, more than two metres in height, of square-jawed and fat-lipped warriors, usually wearing helmets with ear flaps.

The chunky and uncompromising quality of these images will remain typical of much of the religious art of Mesoamerica, particularly in the region around Mexico City. It can be seen in the rain-god masks of Teotihuacan (about 2000 years ago), in the vast standing warriors at Tula (about 1000 years ago) and in the brutally severe monumental sculpture of the Aztecs (500 years ago).

The first American monuments: from 1200 BC

In both the centres of Olmec civilization, at San Lorenzo and then La Venta, numerous large clay platforms are raised. At their top there are believed to have been temples, or perhaps sometimes palaces, built of wood. The concept of climbing up to a place of religious significance becomes the central theme of pre-Columbian architecture.

Its natural conclusion is the pyramid, with steps by which priests and pilgrims climb to the top (unlike the smooth-sided tomb pyramids of Egypt). La Venta initiates this long American tradition too. One of its pyramids is more than 30 metres high.

The Olmec temple complexes set the pattern for societies in America over the next 2000 years. The pyramids, with their temples and palaces, dominate the surrounding dwellings as powerfully as the priestly rulers and their rituals dominate the local community.

It is also probable that the Olmecs engage in a custom which remains characteristic of all the early civilizations of America - the ritual of human sacrifice, reaching its grisly peak in the ceremonies of the Aztecs.

The Zapotecs and Monte Alban: from 400 BC

The Zapotecs are among the first people to develop the Olmec culture in other regions. From about 400 BC at Monte Alban, to the west of the Olmec heartland, they establish a ceremonial centre with stone temple platforms.

Monte Alban eventually becomes the main city of this part of southern Mexico. Pyramids, an astronomical observatory and other cult buildings and monuments (including America's earliest carved inscriptions) are ranged in a temple district along the top of a ridge. In terraces on the slopes below there is a town of some 30,000 people. The Zapotecs thrive on this site for more than 1000 years, finally abandoning it in about AD 700.

Teotihuacan and Tikal: early centuries AD

Around the beginning of the Christian era two regions of central America begin to develop more advanced civilizations, still based on a priestly cult and on temple pyramids.

The dominant city in the northern highlands is Teotihuacan. It eventually covers eight square miles, with a great central avenue running for some two miles. At its north end is the massive Pyramid of the Moon. To one side of the avenue is the even larger Pyramid of the Sun (66 metres high). The sculptures on an early pyramid in Teotihuacan introduce Quetzalcoatl, the most important god of ancient Mesoamerica. His image is a snake's head with a necklace of feathers (the plumed serpent).

The other classic civilization of Mesoamerica is that of the Maya, developing in what is now the eastern part of Mexico and the neighbouring regions of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and western Honduras. Much of this region is jungle. The inaccessibility of the great centres of Maya culture (of which the largest is Tikal) means that they outlast all rivals, surviving a succession of violent changes in the civilization of central Mexico.

The first of these changes is the sudden collapse of Teotihuacan in about AD 650. It is not known for certain which invaders overrun this greatest city of ancient America. But the next people to establish themselves as rulers of the valley of Mexico, in the 10th century, are the Toltecs.

The Toltecs: 10th - 12th century

At some time after the collapse of Teotihuacan in the 7th century, migrants from the north move into the valley of Mexico. They are the Toltecs, who by the middle of the 10th century are dominating the region from a capital city at Tula. In an otherwise traditional complex of pyramid temples in the Mesoamerican style, Tula introduces one new element - the vast stone statues of warriors surmounting the main pyramid.

Late in the 10th century the Toltecs expand their empire to the north, capturing the Mayan city of Chichén Itzá and establishing a regime sometimes described as Toltec-Maya. The Temple of the Warriors at Chichén Itzá echoes the prototype at Tula.

The Toltecs lose control of their empire during the 12th century, when both Tula and Chichén Itzá are destroyed. But the Toltecs are not immediately replaced by another ruling dynasty in central Mexico. Instead the region lapses into a prolonged period of chaos and anarchy.

Not until the 14th century does a migrant tribe create a base, at what is now Mexico City, from which they will establish the last and the most powerful of the Indian empires of central America. They are the Aztecs.

The Aztecs and Mexico City: 14th century

The Aztecs are a tribe, according to their own legends, from Aztlan somewhere in the north of modern Mexico. From this place, which they leave in about the 12th century AD, there derives the name Aztecs by which they are known to western historians. Their own name for themselves is the Mexica, which subsequently provides the European names for Mexico City and Mexico.

After two centuries of migration and warfare, the Aztecs finally settle within the area now covered by Mexico City. They choose an uninhabited island in Lake Tetzcoco. This is either in the year 1325 or, more probably, 1345. (The difference in date depends on how the Mesoamerican 52-year calendar cycle is integrated with the chronology of the Christian era). They call their settlement Tenochtitlan.

Their prospects in this place, where they are surrounded by enemy tribes, seem as unpromising as those of the Venetians on their bleak lagoon islands a few centuries earlier. Like Venice, against all the odds, Tenochtitlan becames the centre of a widespread empire and it does so much more rapidly, stretching across central America within a century. But unlike Venice, this is not an empire of trade. It is based on the Aztecs' ferocious cult of war.

Aztec sun rituals: 15th - 16th century

The patron deity of the Aztecs is Huitzilopochtli, god of war and symbol of the sun. This is a lethal combination. Every day the young warrior uses the weapon of sunlight to drive from the sky the creatures of darkness - the stars and the moon. Every evening he dies and they return. For the next day's fight he needs strength. His diet is human blood.

The need of the Aztecs to supply Huitzilopochtli chimes well with their own imperial ambitions. As they extend their empire, they gather in more captives for the sacrifice. As the sacrifices become more numerous and more frequent, there is an ever-growing need for war. And reports of the blood-drenched ceremonies strike terror into the enemy hearts required for sacrifice.

A temple at the top of a great pyramid at Tenochtitlan (now an archaeological site in Mexico City) is the location for the sacrifices. When the pyramid is enlarged in 1487, the ceremony of re-dedication involves so much bloodshed that the line of victims stretches far out of the city and the slaughter lasts four days. The god favours the hearts, which are torn from the bodies as his offering.

Festivals and sacrifice are almost continuous in the Aztec ceremonial year. Many other gods, in addition to Huitzilopochtli, have their share of the victims.

Each February children are sacrificed to maize gods on the mountain tops. In March prisoners fight to the death in gladiatorial contests, after which priests dress up in their skins. In April a maize goddess receives her share of children. In June there are sacrifices to the salt goddess. And so it goes on. It has been calculated that the annual harvest of victims, mainly to Huitzilopochtli, rises from about 10,000 a year to a figure closer to 50,000 shortly before the arrival of the Spaniards.

The most important gods, apart from Huitzilopochtli, are the rain god Tlaloc (who has a temple beside Huitzilopochtli's on top of the great pyramid in Tenochtitlan) and Quetzalcoatl, god of fertility and the arts.

Quetzalcoatl: 10th - 16th century

Human sacrifice plays relatively little part in the cult of Quetzalcoatl, but the god himself has an extraordinary role in American history. The reason is that he merges in Aztec legend with a historical figure from the Mesoamerican past.

A Toltec king, the founder of Tula in about 950, is a priest of Quetzalcoatl and becomes known by the god's name. This king, described as fair-skinned and bearded, is exiled by his enemies; but he vows that he will return in the year 'One Reed' of the 52-year calendar cycle. In 1519, a 'One Reed' year, a fair-skinned stranger lands on the east coast. The Aztecs welcome him as Quetzalcoatl. He is the Spanish conquistador Cortes.

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