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ANT200H5 Study Guide - Olmec Colossal Heads, Maya Script, Cenote

Course Code
Chris Watts

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November 21, 2011
Lecture 9: Complex Society in Mesoamerica
Mesoamerica- central America. Talking about countries like Mexico,
Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras
Associated with Maya and Aztec
Maya associated with Lowlands
Aztec- group limited to highlands particularly in Valley of Mexico
Highland vs. Lowland Mesoamerica
oSierra Madre Mountains- range of mountains. Highland region.
Foundation for the Valley of Mexico
oValley of Mexico is where see many of the major sites associated with
the Aztecs
oMaya were found in Mesoamerican Lowlands (Yucatán peninsula and
adjacent regions to south)
Aztec and Maya- really talking about the end products of a lengthy cultural
development continuum
Number of developments in the Mexican highlands including valley of mexico
that give rise to Aztec
In the highlands those characteristics give rise to the Maya
Major Cultural Traditions and Sites in Mesoamerica
oMultiple developmental centers
Olmec are thought to be a mother culture by some for many of the traditions
see in Mesoamerica. One of the earliest evidences of complexity that see in
the region
General Environmental Context
Highalnds: mountains, lakes and deep river valleys
oBackdrop for inter-regional exchange
oOrigins of food production
Corn, bean, squash
See earliest evidence for their domestication in this region
Maize and bean and squash went on to become major staples in
the diets of Mesoamericans
oA lot of the agriculture see in the region associated with alluvial
terraces next to the rivers
Lowlands: tropical forests (south) and scrublands (north)
oVirtual absence of large rivers and alluvial plains
Groups not tethered to any one large river system
Very few large rivers anywhere in Mayan lowlands
Broad, deep, limestone plain. Very porous so any water that
does fall tends to seep into the group and disappear. Doesn’t
stay on surface, doesn’t form large river systems that go into
Need water for horticulture and agriculture
oUse of cenotes and, occasionally, canals for potable water

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Cenotes- depressions in the limestone plain- sinkholes where
groundwater/freshwater tends to well up can be a few meters
under land level
The Yucatan is dotted with these
Cenotes also ceremonial sites during certain time periods so
sometimes find burials near them
Canals- irrigation for feeding crops
Both areas display marked differences in flora, fauna and climate
oLowlands tropical forest- species of plants and animals not the same as
those available to highland groups
oClimate radically different. More humid in lowland
oSome highland enviro quite rugged. Not a lot of forest growth and stuff
oDistinct topography depending where you are
No domesticated animals
oSo don’t have patterns of transhumance like in Indus valley
oUnlike other societies we’ve been talking about
oNo milk, transport or draft animals
Wouldn’t expect draft animals to pull carts from one community
to another even though there were roads
“slash and burn” horticulture
oParticularly in the lowlands
oForests cleared through burning; crop rotations (fallow)
oMaya had this technique down pat. Would do this, stay for a couple
years, then move and let that part of the jungle regenerate over the
next 15ish years
oLeft stuff fallow for lengthy periods of time
oIf farmed continuously for a while, the productivity would have
decreased drastically
oThis slash and burn only good for short periods of time, then need to
move on and repeat
Maize, bean and squash and ramón nut (breadnut) naturally occurring nut,
particularly in the lowlands. Debate about how important it actually was.
Rabbit, deer, fish, shellfish (particularly along the Gulf coast. Like mussels,
clams, etc. would have been crucial to the Olmec along the Gulf Coast)
The Olmec (1500-500 BC)
Earliest evidence for political complexity. Complexity beyond the chiefdom
level we’ve been talking about
Sophisticated artistic tradition. Many of the artistic stuff in the Maya and
Aztec had its origins in the Olmec
Two major ceremonial sites: San Lorenzo and La Venta
Southern Gulf Coast
Lowland, heavily forested environment
La Venta (ca. 900-400 BC)
Complex of mounds, platforms, pyramids, plazas ca. 5km^2
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