Mesoamerica Classic Period

Mesoamerica Classic Period

The Classic Period in Mesoamerican history is divided into the Early (250–600 c.e.), Late (600–800), and Terminal Classic (800–900/1100). Four major culture areas reached florescence during this period: the central highlands, dominated by Teotihuacán until its fall in 650.

The Oaxaca Valley, dominated by Monte Albán until its fall around 900; along the gulf coast among the Classic Veracruz, which reached its apogee around 900; and four distinct Maya zones, most of whose city-states collapsed by the late 800s.

The overall trajectory of this period was characterized by incremental and continuous social and cultural development, economic expansion, and state formation in all four culture areas, growing organically out of Preclassic developments, followed (except in the case of Classic Veracruz) by the sudden and calamitous collapses of states and empires marking the end of the Classic —demises whose underlying causes remain a subject of research and debate among scholars.

The Central Highlands and Teotihuacan

Called the "City of the Gods" by the Aztec centuries after its abandonment, the colossal city of Teotihuacán remains shrouded in mystery. Its inhabitants left many monuments, carvings, murals, and other artistic creations, but only a few glyphs and no readable texts comparable to the writings of the Maya. We do not even know what they called themselves.

What is clear is that the city’s ruling elite oversaw a city of some 150,000 – 200,000 people—making it one of the largest urban concentrations in the world at that time—and an empire that spanned most of Mesoamerica outside the Oaxaca Valley and the Maya zones to the south and east.

For centuries the dominant power in the Valley of Mexico, the empire of Teotihuacán extended its economic and ideological reach north as far as the present-day U.S. Southwest, west to the Pacific coast, east to the Gulf of Mexico, and south as far as Honduras.

Teotihuacán’s influence in Mesoamerica was of three principal types: political-military, economic, and ideological-religious. Politically and militarily the city directly ruled most of the central highlands, including the densely populated Valley of Mexico, which saw its population increase by a factor of 40 in the 10 centuries from 900 b.c.e. to 100 c.e.

In towns and districts directly ruled by the empire’s armies, labor drafts and exacted tribute were combined with the construction (or reconstruction) of new towns and urban centers in styles imitative of the colossal city. Economically the empire established and maintained extensive trade and exchange networks throughout Mesoamerica.

Teotihuacán-style merchant residences show this as far south as Guatemala and by a wide variety of identifiable exchange items spread over a large area (such as green-tinted obsidian unearthed at sites in Honduras from the Teotihuacán-controlled Pachuca quarry).

It was in the ideological or spiritual realm that the city-empire exercised its greatest power. In particular, its cult of Quetzalcoatl (the Feathered Serpent), already a pan-Mesoamerican deity, became increasingly important throughout much of Mesoamerica. So too did its practice of ritual human sacrifice, probably derived from the Olmecs, Maya, Monte Albán, or other antecedent cultures.

The dispersal of these and other religious myths, symbols, and practices from Teotihuacán to the central highlands and beyond, as well as the persistence of these myths and practices in the centuries following the city’s demise, demonstrate the tremendous ideological influence wielded by the empire and its ruling elite.

The Classic Veracruz

What caused Teotihuacán’s fall is unknown, though a combination of ecological crises and invasions from the north are the likeliest reasons. What is known is that around 650 c.e. parts of the city were burned and desecrated and most of the city itself abandoned.

The resultant power vacuum in the central highlands led to the formation of numerous lesser states, most notably Cholula and Cacaxtla in contemporary Puebla, and Xochicalco in Morelos. Along the Gulf of Mexico coastal region, the Classic Veracruz, most commonly associated with the urban complex of El Tajín, emerged as perhaps the most powerful polity north of the Maya zones.

Noted especially for its many ball courts—the ball game, or ollama, comprising another pan-Mesoamerican cultural tradition closely associated with warfare and ritual human sacrifice and steeped in religious symbolism—El Tajín reached its florescence around 900 c.e. All of these states exhibited a heightened emphasis on militarism that would characterize the later Postclassic Period.

The Oaxaca Valley and Monte Alban

In the Valley of Oaxaca the highly militarized Zapotec state of Monte Albán came to dominate the surrounding region through conquest, colonization, and alliances with lesser powers. During the period of Teotihuacán’s dominance Monte Albán and Teotihuacán enjoyed good diplomatic relations, evidenced in part by carved monuments at Monte Albán depicting ambassadorial meetings and by neighborhoods within Teotihuacán that housed Zapotec merchants.

In Monte Albán, too, a hereditary class of kings and priests whose legitimacy was divinely sanctioned dominated a rigidly hierarchical social order held together by war, threats of war, and an elaborate corpus of religious beliefs and practices, including ritual sacrifice of captive war victims.

Monte Albán reached the zenith of its power around 400 c.e., after which numerous of its vassal towns and districts wrested their autonomy from the hilltop city, which subsequently underwent a period of gradual decline. By 800 parts of the city were no longer inhabited or used, though the site and surrounding districts were occupied well into the Postclassic.

The Maya

The most remarkable cultural achievements of the Classic Period took place among the Maya. In virtually every field of human endeavor—writing, mathematics, astronomy, calendrics, warfare, architecture, agriculture, water-control technologies, and many others — the Classic Maya bequeathed an astounding legacy.

Comprised of a shifting mosaic of city-states that never unified under a single political umbrella, the history of the Classic Maya is conventionally divided into the Early (250–600 c.e.) and Late Classic (600–900), with a political reorganization in Yucatán, originating largely from outside the region and enduring until around 1100.

Scholars also divide the Maya area into four principal geographic zones:
  1. The Pacific coastal plain and piedmont, which merge into 
  2. The northern highlands in contemporary Guatemala and Chiapas, which merge into 
  3. The southern and central lowlands, or Petén, and further north into 
  4. The northern or Yucatán lowlands.

While economic, social, cultural, and political developments in each of these zones followed distinct trajectories, it is also the case that Classic Period developments in the Maya region as a whole exhibited a range of shared features and attributes that need to be understood within both pan-Maya and pan-Mesoamerican contexts.