A brief history of Mexico

For millennia, Mexico has been one of the world's cultural hotbeds. The history of Mexico saw numerous civilizations rise and fall before Cortés conquered the country in 1519.

Since then, Mexico has given the world some of its greatest artists and art forms, from Diego Rivera's stately murals to sequined mariachi musicians.

To be sure, there has almost always been rampant violent crime, chronic poverty, and corruption ranging from petty but pervasive mordidas ("bites," or demands for small bribes), to officials who subvert the system at the highest levels.

But in this deeply patriotic country, there are few who would not declare themselves proud to be Mexican, and few outsiders could disagree that they have a lot to be proud of.

The History of Mexico before Cortés

The history of Mexico is extremely long, bloody and colourful.

The accepted academic belief is that human beings first came to Mexico about 20,000 years ago, less than a millennium after humanity discovered the Americas via the Bering land bridge.

A succession of urban and agricultural societies started around 1200 BC, with the emergence of the Olmec civilization.

The Olmecs thrived until around 600 BC., in the areas around Veracruz and Tabasco.

In 300 BC, the history of Mexico saw the Zapotecs starting their next great civilization further south, in what is now the state of Oaxaca.

Numerous other Mexican civilizations including the people who built the amazing--but today utterly mysterious--temple city of Teotihuacán (AD 250-600), and the Toltecs, who founded impressive temples at Xochicalco and Tula.

Mayan & Aztec place in Mexican History

Over the last two thousand years, the two largest groups of indigenous people in Mexico have been the Maya and the Aztecs.

Even today there are some Mayan communities where Spanish is not widely spoken, and up until the last half century, much the same could be said of many rural Aztec villages.

The Maya came first.

Starting around 250, they built fantastic pyramids on the Yucatan Peninsula, including the famous archaeological site of Chichen Itza.

Their homeland, sometimes called the "Mayan Riviera" because of its proximity to the Caribbean coast, stretches from the Yucatan, southward through the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, straight through the nation of Guatemala, where the Maya form a majority of the population.

Further north, in what is today central Mexico, the largest group of indigenous people is the Aztecs.

In the early 14th century, the Aztecs swept down from their homeland in the northwest, possibly as far north as the present-day United States.

The site they chose for their capital, Tenochtitlán, was actually a lake with a number of small islands, leaving their mark on the history of Mexico which exists to this day.

According to myth, there they saw an omen: an eagle grasping a snake in its beak-the image on the present-day Mexican flag. And this site is the site of Mexico City, and can still visited today.

Cortés Wrecks Three Millennia of Civilization, and Lays the Foundation of Present-day Mexico

In 1519, Hernan Cortés defied the orders of his superiors, launching the first European conquest on the American mainland.

Since 1492, Spain had limited its American conquest to the Caribbean islands, and other European nations had only explored the continent.

In perhaps the most audacious move in the political and military history of the world, Cortés landed near Veracruz with a small Spanish force, changing the course of the history of Mexico.

He quickly recruited 6000 locals from enemies of the Aztecs, yet who had never even heard of a European before, then marched on Tenochtitlán, a city larger than any in Spain at the time.

In perhaps the most tragic political or military miscalculation in world history, the Aztec emperor Montezuma welcomed the Spaniards into his palace.

Montezuma, a scholarly and religious man, thought the Spaniards might be heralding the return of the god Quetzacoatl.

Aztec religious texts prophesized that Quetzacoatl would return from the east - the same direction from which the Spaniards had come - in the year 1519.

The Spaniards promptly took Montezuma hostage. The Aztecs fought back fiercely, even driving the Spaniards from Tenochtitlán.

But they were soon defeated--not so much by the Spaniards and their allies, but by smallpox.

Historians now agree that, more than any other factor, smallpox and a few other communicable diseases, such as chickenpox, made possible the European conquest of the Americas.

Where it not for the European's imported diseases, the history of Mexico may no doubt have followed a different course.

The History of Colonial Mexico

The Spaniards renamed Tenochtitlán Mexico City.

Using the capital as their base, they conquered the other peoples of present-day Mexico.

Between 1519 and 1605, the indigenous population of Mexico fell from an estimated 25 million, to about one million.

Indigenous people were made the lowest caste of the new Mexican colonial society, and were often simply slaves who were worked to death.

Even today, people of predominantly indigenous ancestry, who comprise about 30% of the population, are heavily represented among the poor, and are among the worst represented in the country's institutions.

African slaves shared the bottom of the social ladder. There were never as many African slaves in Mexico as in other countries of the Americas. Today, many of the small proportion of Mexicans of African ancestry live near the Caribbean coast.

Next above the indigenous people were the mestizos, people of mixed indigenous and European (and sometimes African) heritage, who were not enslaved, but not given great wealth or power, either.

Today, mestizos comprise roughly 60% of Mexico's population, and a much larger majority in the major cities.

Then and today, Mexicans of predominantly European ancestry, called criollos during the colonial era, and today comprising about 20% of the population (much less in major cities) have made up the majority of the local elite.

You only have to watch one of Mexico's famous telenovelas, the escapist television dramas, to be struck with how light-skinned Mexico's rich and powerful tend to be.

In colonial times, people born in Spain, though a miniscule part of Mexico's population, were the most elite group.

Tensions between them and the criollos, some of whom were quite wealthy, helped to spark Mexico's war for independence from Spain.

This spark inflamed another significant change in direction of the course of the history of Mexico.

The History of Mexico after Independence from Spain.

More information on Mexico
Learn Spanish in Mexico | Info on Mexico | Mexican Flag | Map of Mexico |
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