There is evidence of human existence in Mexico since 20,000 years BC. In Tepéxpan to the North of the Valley of Mexico, the remains of a human corpse were found beside those of a mammoth. Using the Carbon 14 test, these remains were dated at approximately 10,000 years BC. Agriculture began to manifest itself from the year 3,000 BC.
The American continent was isolated during many centuries, which explains the originality of its civilisation. Northern Mexico was populated by peoples who lived from hunting and collecting in a desert or semi-desert geographical environment. The South was populated by agricultural societies.
Even though in the vast Mesoamerica region (a term used by scholars to designate peoples which occupied the central area of Mexico down to Guatemala and Honduras to the South), many different peoples with their own ethnic and linguistic differences coexisted, they had a cultural homogeneity, for instance they cultivated corn, they have a singular structure of government, they used the 365 day calendar, they built pyramids, they used similar rituals and worshiped the same gods and goddesses of the sky, of nature, of fertility and of war. The same concept of cosmic duality - the beginning and the end - appears in the religion and art of all Mesoamerican cultures. The most evident example of this cosmic duality is the god Quetzalcoatl (or Kukulkán in the Mayan area) which is represented by a feathered serpent (earth and sky).
While there were many native cultures in Mexico, these are six that are considered to be the most influential. Each developed in a different epoch of the history of ancient Mexico:
Mexico's first-established culture, had far-reaching influence; later groups are known to have borrowed heavily from the Olmecs. The Olmec culture is quite mysterious, since we know almost nothing about where they came from, or why they disappeared.
This city-state of Teotihuacán located on the central highland of Mexico covered an area of 22.5 sq. km. and its population reached 200,000 inhabitants by the year 350 AD (probably the largest city in the world at the time). Being the most highly urbanized centre in the New World, its religious, political and economical influence covered almost all the Mesoamerican territory.
The Toltecs occupied the northern regions of the Valley of Mexico. They built Tula, one of Mexico's most impressive ancient cities. They strongly influenced later Mayan and Aztec cultures.
Their achievements are noteworthy. They controlled a huge empire, created complex systems of mathematics and astrology and were also skills traders. They were master architects and engineers, and had a highly ornamented architecture. Of all the indigenous cultures, they are considered to have been the most influential; every other Pre-Columbian culture is thought to have borrowed from them.
The Zapotec and Mixtec
The Zapotec and Mixtec cultures developed in the Valley of Oaxaca. They were superlative builders and artists; they created magnificent temples, pottery, and metal work. Remarkably, these two ancient cultures still survive today. Descendants of both ancient Zapotecs and Mixtecs inhabit today the State of Oaxaca.
During the Pre-Classic Period, from 2,000 BC to 500 AD, When the civilisation of Mexico arose. Nomadic natives became settlers. Many advances in art and the sciences were made. Agricultural methods improved and the population increased. Rural villages became towns and ceremonial centres began growing in importance. The best example of this period: the City of La Venta of the Olmec culture.
The Classic Period dates from 500 BC to 800 AD, and was a time of great social change. Urban centres became more powerful than rural ones. Outstanding advances in architecture were made. It was a true renaissance period for art and learning. Best examples of this period: Teotihuacán, Monte Albán, El Tajín, Palenque, Cobá, Labná, Bonampak, Dzibilchaltún, Kabáh, Sayil, Chichén Itzá.
The Post-Classic Period dates from 800 AD to 1521 AD, and it's notable because of the increasing emphasis on military rule. It was a time of great change for several important ceremonial centres and cities. Some went into decline, some died, and others grew in power and influence. Best examples of this period: Cholula, Xochicalco, Tula, Tenayuca, Tenochtitlán (the Aztec City), Yagul, Uxmal and Mitla.
The geography of Mexico is incredibly diverse, thus the people of each region developed their own civilisation at different times due to a variety of influences, both natural and cultural. So it should be no surprise that Mexico's artistic history is wildly eclectic. Still there is a subtle consistency in the outlook on life that binds it all together.
During the colonial period, Mexico was called "New Spain", and it covered three centuries of its history: from the 13th of August of 1521, the date of the conquest of Tenochtitlán by the Spanish, until 1821 when the Independence movement was consummated.
From 1521 Hernán Cortés governed as Head of the Army. In 1535 don Antonio de Mendoza was appointed by Emperor Charles V, the first Viceroy of New Spain. He established the precedent of good government due to his honesty and great initiative, although this was not always the case. He was succeeded by 63 viceroys in the space of 284 years, the most noteworthy of these being Juan Vicente de Güemes-Pacheco, Second Count of Revillagigedo, who governed from 1789 to 1794.
While Hernán Cortés consummated the conquest, the Franciscan and Dominican monks brought Christianity and European civilisation and culture to the country. In 1523 Friar Pedro de Gante founded the first school for the indigenous population, the School of San José, where languages and arts were taught. The construction of the first Cathedral of the American Continent began in Mexico City in 1530.
The first Casa de Moneda (Royal Mint), was opened in Mexico city, and the first printing house was established in Mexico City in 1539.
Friar Bartolomé de las Casas is known for protecting indigenous peoples. His efforts culminated with the New Laws of 1542 that abolished slavery and recognised human rights and their right to property.
In 1551 the first university of the American mainland was opened in Mexico City.
The European artistic tradition introduced to a land which possessed its own culture and artistic heritage produced the colonial Art of New Spain, which can be admired in the: Colonial Cities.
The first viceregal architecture was of a military character. The construction of convents was controlled by the friars themselves based on memory and the illustrations they brought with them. The convent walls were painted by indigenous artists who copied from European pictures. The indigenous techniques in ceramics, textiles, lacquer and featherwork persisted but the native subjects were replaced by European ones.
In the XVII Century, the Spaniards born in Mexico, called "criollos", began to become conscious of a Mexican identity. European elements continued to be incorporated in the arts becoming something different in Mexico, giving rise to the exuberant Mexican Baroque style.
The XVIII Century marks the height of the Mexican colonial period with the Baroque and ultra Baroque styles, which include the churrigueresco, the rococo, the popular and other styles.
The foundation of the Royal and Pontifical Art Academy of San Carlos in 1783 marked the end of the barroc and introduced the neo-classic style.
The Modern period began with the War of Independence (1810-1821). The priest Miguel Hidalgo initiated a revolt against the Spanish rule on the 16th of September, 1810. This date is Mexico's National Day.
In 1821 the first independent government was established and in 1822 Agustín de Iturbide was proclaimed Emperor of Mexico.
In 1824, the Congress adopted a Constitution instituting a Federal Republic under the first President of Mexico, Guadalupe Victoria. During his government England and the United States of America recognised the country's independence, noble titles and slavery were abolished, and different measures were taken to develop a more democratic society. In 1827 the first treaty of friendship and trade was signed between Mexico and the Kingdom of Denmark.
In 1836 Texas declared its independence from Mexico, provoking a war between Mexico and the United States. In 1847 Mexico was defeated and lost half of its original territory: the states which are presently known as California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
In 1859 president Benito Juárez issued the Laws of Reform which established the separation of the Church and the State.
In 1862 the French Emperor Napoleon III intervened militarily in Mexico: an empire was established from 1864 to 1867, under the Austrian prince Maximilian of Hapsburg.
On the 5th of May 1862, General Ignacio Zaragoza, named Major General of the Army by the government of Juárez, obtained victory in the Battle of Puebla against the French.
In 1867 Benito Juárez re-established the Republic, and while in power died in 1872.
In 1887 one of Benito Juárez's generals, Porfirio Díaz became President. He was reelected in 1864 and remained in power until 1911 when he was taken from power due to the Revolution which initiated in 1910.
The Mexican Revolution
During the government of Porfirio Díaz internal peace was established under his dictatorial rule and economic development started, foreign investment was encouraged with the aim of exploiting raw materials and promoting industrial development. However, the social unrest and the political opposition to the regime of Porfirio Díaz triggered the Mexican Revolution.
Francisco I. Madero was elected as the new President but was assassinated in 1911. With his assassination the Mexican Revolution started. Various factions lead by Emiliano Zapata in the south, Francisco Villa in the north and others, took up arms against dictator Victoriano Huerta, who had ordered the murder of Madero and Vice President Pino Suarez.
Under the new leadership of Venustiano Carranza, the Constitution was approved in 1917, which was one of the most advanced of its time due to its high social content.
In 1929 former President General Plutarco Elías Calles created the National Revolutionary Party (PNR) which was restructured several times and became the Institutional Revolutionary Party in 1946. In 1938 the President of the Republic, General Lázaro Cárdenas restructured the party with the name Party of the Mexican Revolution (PRM) made up of four sections: workers, rural, popular and military. In 1946 the President Manuel Avila Camacho reorganised the party once again under the name of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which excluded the military section.
Other relevant dates in contemporary history are the following:
In 1938 President Lázaro Cárdenas declared the expropriation of oil companies and concessions ceased.
In 1939 the National Action Party was created by Manuel Goméz Morín, at the present time the main political parties represented at Congress are: Institutional Revolutionary Party; National Action Party; Peoples’ Socialist Party; Mexican Democratic Party; Revolutionary Democratic Party; The Cardenista Front Party for National Reconstruction; Authentic Party of the Mexican Revolution; The Labour Party; the Green Ecologist Party of Mexico.
In 1942 Mexico entered the Second World War against Germany, Italy and Japan.
In 1945 Mexico signed the Charter of San Francisco, being one of the founding members of the United Nations Organisation. At the initiative of Mexico, the Treaty of Tlatelolco was signed in 1967, being the first treaty of its kind which prohibits nuclear weapons in a geographic region, in this case in Latin America.
In 1989, the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) was formed.
Thanks to the political stability of the accelerated economic and social development which Mexico has experienced during the first half of the twentieth century, the country has gone from being at the turn of the century a principally agricultural economy to become the 13th most important economy in the world. Various recent changes in the economic policies have had a great impact in the process of modernisation of the national economy; in 1986 Mexico entered the GATT and in 1994 signed with the United States and Canada the North American Free Trade Agreement. The former has been accompanied by a wide program of structural reforms, privatisations and deregulations.
With Free Trade Agreements policies, Mexico is looking for modernisation, but at the same time wishes to preserve its cultural heritage. Today, many of the motifs and themes of the Mexican culture are simply modern interpretations of the ancient traditions. They are prized because of the feeling, and the soul that the Mexican artist puts into each piece his hands create. Traditional arts and crafts such as pottery, silverware, lacquers, woodcrafts and masks shown up roots that go back to Pre-Colombian times.
For Additional Information:
- Mexico's historical figures listed in chronological order
- List of all the Mexican Presidents
- History Channel overview of various sections of Mexican history
Migrants from Guatemala cross a stream into southern Mexico
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