The Development of Complex Societies in Ancient Mexico
[ Paragraph 1 ] Between 9,000 and 4,000 years ago, most of Mexico was inhabited mainly by hunter-foragers who lived in small bands that moved with the seasons to exploit cactus fruits, deer herds, nuts, and the hundreds of other plant and
animal species in their range, depending on the season. Since these bands were small in size and never stayed in one place for a sufficient period of time to have much long-term effect on the plant and animal populations on which they subsisted, the hunter-foragers' overall impact on their environment was low. A few groups along the margins of the lake in the Valley of Mexico may have been sedentary villagers, as were some groups along the coasts, and their role in the domestication of plants and animals and the eventual spread of agriculture is unclear. Some researchers suggest, however, that by about 4,000 years ago, maize cob size had become large enough that people over large areas of the Mexican highlands could subsist mainly on maize.
[ Paragraph 2 ] The recent re-dating of some of the supposedly earliest domesticated maize in Mesoamerica (Ancient Mexico) to about 3500 B c. raises the possibility that initial agriculture evolved out of intensified foraging by groups of people who were relatively sedentary, perhaps living all or most of the year in one or a few places, and that they were perhaps even in the process of developing social differences (social hierarchy) that increased the intensity of their foraging. However maize was domesticated: and by whom, maize appears to have reached sufficient productivity to permit the village-farming way of life soon after about 2000 B.C., and agricultural communities appeared at about this time in many different areas.
[ Paragraph 3 ] From the hot, wet coastal lowlands to the arid Tehuacan Valley, the earliest villages were quite similar in size and contents. Almost all houses were built using the wattle-and-daub method-sticks, branches, and cane were woven in-and-out between vertical wall poles, then covered with a mud plaster, which was dried by the hot sun Houses, which were seldom larger than four by six meters, featured thatched roofs and tamped clay floors on which fine sand was scattered.
[ Paragraph 4 ] Most of the earliest farming communities were tiny hamlets-villages of ten to twelve houses that were home to about fifty to sixty people-but some communities were larger. Most houses that have been excavated have yielded the same remains, mainly grinding stones, storage pits, pieces of large ceramic storage jars, bones of cottontail rabbits, carbonized maize fragments, and broken pieces of ceramic charcoal braziers. In add it ion, ovens, middens, and graves are very common. While the proportion of plant and animal foods varied somewhat, all villages probably grew maize; beans, squash, peppers, and some other crops, and hunted deer and rabbits. Each village, or each extended family, may have had a specialist who did pressure flaking of stone (to make tools), leather-working, or a similar craft, and individual villages may have concentrated on specialties like salt production, feather-weaving, shell-working. and grinding stone manufacture.
[ Paragraph 5 ] As in Mesopotamia, China, and elsewhere, the background to the ong1ns of complex society in Mesoamerica was a great scatter of relatively simple agricultural villages in which the mechanics of producing a reliable, expandable food supply had been mastered. An early radical break with the simple village farming tradition of Mesoamerica occurred in the sweltering lowlands of the South Gulf Coast of Mexico. Here, beginning at about 1000 B C., people built massive clay pyramids and platforms, lived in small town groups of hundreds or even thousands, intensively farmed a variety of ecological zones, and produced what is one of the world's most valued examples of stone sculpture.
[ Paragraph 6 ] These people are known to us as the Olmec, a name derived from an ancient American word for rubber doubtless a reference to the rubber trees that grow in this area-but a name they themselves probably did not use. Some scholars have considered the possibility that the Olmec culture was the mother culture of all later complex societies in Mesoamerica and that the Olmec were directly responsible for transforming their neighbors by military, political religious, or economic means into complex societies. Other scholars, however, have argued convincingly that the Olmec represent only one of several largely independent cases of the evolution of social complexity in Mesoamerica.
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