In the grey millennial morning of this twenty-first century, we know much more about the ancient Americans than previous generations could have imagined.
Archeologists and anthropologists have worked for two centuries transforming themselves from adventurers and grave-robbers into scientists. Painstakingly they have studied stones, bones and pottery; and, by their digging, analysis and interpretation, have uncovered facts and developed theories to explain and illustrate the sea of cultures which flowered here from Aztec to Zapotec.
They have built, criticised and refined a "master timeline" for the entire region of Mexico and Central America. Very roughly speaking it runs as follows:
Of course, lumping all the cultures of this civilization zone into one little package like that is misleading -- it lacks depth and detail -- but the simplification can be useful, giving you a very general background to the field.
Just remember, using that timeline is like taking one of your fingerprints and using that to draw a picture of your face as a child, as a youth, as an adult, and as an elder, all in one little smudge of ink. Confused? Good.
Furthermore, the entire Mesoamerican area is roughly divided into sub-areas: the Maya zones of Guatemala, Chiapas and Yucatan; the valleys and hills of Oaxaca; the Gulf Coast; Central Mexico; the West (Michoacan and Jalisco); and the northwest (Chihuahua and New Mexico/Pueblo) but that, too, is very simplified. Like using your footprints to draw a map of planet Earth. Heh heh hee.
NEVERTHELESS, and generally speaking, no matter how different the hundreds of individual languages, cultures, geographies and histories, the Mesoamerican civilization zone of Mexico and Central America is marked by several common factors shared by all ancient peoples here.
They all had the habit of building ceremonial/religious complexes at the centers of their towns, with large plazas and pyramid/mound temples and government palaces.
Beyond those few points of modern scholarly agreement, the official/academic discourse regarding ancient America has at times been civilized, sometimes bitter, often cooperative, occasionally obstructive, usually competitive, always informative. Ideas about the ancient Mesoamericans have swung radically back and forth.
For Example: During the first half of the 20th century, leading Mayanists said that the Maya were peace-loving time-worshipers ruled by stargazing priests who never sacrificed anybody.
We now know better -- the murals at Bonampak with bleeding fingernails, and the Maya writing deciphered at the end of the late 20th century, both have shown us that they, and other classical giants, had kings who made war on each other and practiced human sacrifice on dates to be determined (like wars) by planets (Go Venus!), sun and stars.
Further evidence of the change in our modern thought regarding these "mysterious" Maya: For many years it was believed that Maya writing discovered on stone and ceramic was a system of hieroglyphic picture texts. Recent decades of work have finally shown that it is a truly phonetic writing system which is so complex that it just looks like hieroglyphic symbols. Scholars can now decipher over 80 percent of the carved and painted texts.
Beginning in the 1990s, books have been published replete with the histories of generations of kings, detailing the struggles between the great cities like Calakmul, Tikal, Copan, Palenque, Yaxchilan and dozens of others. We now know that the classic Maya participated in constant ritual warfare, torture, and sacrifice, and mutilated themselves regularly to make offerings to the gods. It is furthermore now assumed that these customs were universal -- to one degree or another -- throughout the Mesoamerican civilization.
Among many writers, however, it is still "anthropological" gospel to say these practices were exagerated by early Spanish writers, or at least greatly expanded by later cultures whom the Spanish conquered, most notably the Culhua/Aztec tribute state or "empire" of 1300-1520. Spiritualists, metaphysicists and gnosticos -- to use a few of their self-adopted names -- generally prefer to focus on sacrifice as a metaphor for self-discipline, rather than a system of political and religious control exercised by a societal elite. Yet, in the final, scientific analysis, no one except the dreamers will deny that human sacrifice probably always existed, from the days of the Olmecs, through the Maya, and into Aztec times.
Whatever may be the facts regarding the expansion of this bloody custom in the "militaristic post-classic" period which led up to the Aztec conquests, the various and sundry cults of human sacrifice were all thoroughly suppressed by the Spanish conquerors, and only replaced with European forms of death for religious purposes such as burning and garotting for heresy against the Church. The actual eating of victims was stopped. At the same time, however, the popular tradition of non-lethal auto-sacrifice continued, with the accepted Catholic penitent practices of self-whipping, wearing thorns, carrying weights, crawling on bare knees all the way to the church, etcetera, etcetera being quickly embraced by the Mesoamericans, who were already familiar with the concept of penance in order to seek harmony between Earth and Heaven.
WARNING: Poet Babeling.
With regard to the physical remains from the ancient Americans, there are tens of thousands of archeological sites, and many of them -- both the famous, crowded sites, and little known, off-the-main-road sites -- are officially open to the public. The interested traveler can now visit numerous archeological zones maintained by the governments of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize. Some have been partly reconstructed, others still lie buried and asleep.
In Mexico, the INAH -- Instituto Nacional de Arqueología e Historia -- maintains an somewhat accessible listing at their website www.inah.gob.mx for online research. With a little study in city or university libraries or on-line, interested visitors to zonas arqueologicas can prepare for their visit and gain some understanding of those peoples who built the ruined cities, as well as an appreciation for the culture of their descendants who often live nearby and work in the industry of tourism. But you gotta study!
If you want to read up (in English) on the subject of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations vis-a-vis archeological discoveries, Michael Coe is good, and for more specialized information on the Maya, try David Stuart and the late, great Linda Schele. Enjoy.
Another excellent resource is the magazine Arqueología Mexicana published every two months from Mexico City and available in many bookstores across the country. The magazine is in Spanish but they are now including English translations of many of the articles in a section at the back of the magazine. One excellent regular feature is a touring guide to different sites or areas of interest.
All this is to say nothing of the VonDaniken school of thought that the American Indians could never have built any of these things and that therefore it all came from Atlantis, Mu, or Outer Space (or maybe Inner Space?). Heh. Or the Moronic Church who says they were all escaped lost (white) Jews who lost their wars to the secondary (brown) people, and wrote their story on golden tablets buried in a mound in New York State that can only be read with crystal glasses... well, like many European and/or north american white people, maybe they even think that Jesus was like blue-eyed with blond hair.
*Sigh* but of course it doesn't matter what color of Jew he was. His ministry and sacrifice are what matters, eh? Eh.
Ahem... (clear my throat make preaching noises)....
There is no doubt that some of these peoples were superb astronomers, mathematicians, and calendar makers. But just because they understood the movements and timings of planets, sun, and moon, does not necessarily mean that they came from outer space (or inner space, for that matter). No, no, just like the rest of us, they were all creatures evolved from corn dough and drops of blood from Quetzalcoatl's penis(?!?)... or should I say some dirt in Eden brought to life by Jehovah's breath... or should I say descended from Charles Darwin's simian ancestry... or... from stardust DNA ice-comets bombarding primordial Earth or... etcet....
hee hee heh... ji ji je....
Just what has this got to do with archeology anyway? Of the mind, my dear reader. 'Tis an archeology of the sociocultural mass-millennial mind, what? What. Now it's up to you to decide where to go from here....