Paleoindian (?18,000-10,000 BC) - corresponds to the period of the initial population of the New World via the Bering Land Bridge towards the end of the Pleistocene ("Ice Age"). The early limits of this period are poorly understood and hotly debated. The end of this period is marked by dramatic climate changes, including global warming, the receding of glaciers at upper latitudes, and a worldwide rise in sea levels. These changes, as well as possible human exploitation, led to the extinction of Pleistocene megafauna--mammoths and mastodons first, followed by species like horses, giant beavers, and ground sloths. Archaeological sites are usually quarries for stone material, short-term camps, or butchering locations. The latter typically have evidence of big game kills. Typical artifacts of this period include fluted projectile points such as Clovis, Folsom, and Magellan ("fish-tail") styles.
Archaic (10,000 - ca. 3000 BC) - term used to refer to a period of mobile, band-level societies with economies based on small-game hunting, wild plant gathering, fishing, and shellfish collection. There is a continuation of the nomadic patterns of the Paleoindian period at first, but the Late Archaic sees the appearance of regular, seasonally-occupied sites. The trend for sedentism is most noticeable on the coasts, where sites with large shell middens indicate seasonal settlement. In general, the Archaic period is characterized by "incipient" or beginning agriculturalists. Experimentation with different plant foods increases through time, resulting in the domestication of species such as pumpkin, squash, avocado, chile peppers, amaranth, and early maize. Seasonally nomadic groups become more sedentary, with small "microband" groups coalescing into larger "macroband" organizations. Typical artifacts of this period include basketry, smaller projectile points, and early ground stone tools such as manos and metates.
Early Preclassic (begins ca. 3000 BC and ends ca. 1000 BC) - the term "Early Formative" is also frequently used for this period, which corresponds to the time during which permanent villages and later large chiefdoms appeared. The beginning of the Early Formative (3000-1000 BC) is signalled by the appearance of simple pottery vessels, typically in the form of tecomates, or gourd-shaped, rimless vessels. Village life is based primarily on agriculture, with special emphasis on the cultivation of maize, beans, and squash. Food storage becomes important, as does more efficient food processing in the form of manos and metates. Hunting remains important, as does shellfish collection on the coasts. Early pottery, in widespread use by 2400 BC, is decorated first with "plastic" decoration and later with slipping and painting. By at least 1700 BC, there is evidence for sophisticated pottery decoration in the Barra phase of coastal Chiapas. By 1600 BC, large houses, mica mirrors, and fancy figurines suggest the emergence of differences in wealth and social status. These provide the foundation for Olmec culture, which begins to flourish around 1150 BC on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Olmec culture represents the rise of chiefdom-level societies. It is characterized by elaborate stone sculpture, massive building projects, highly crafted artifacts of jade and other precious materials, and a distinctive art style that indicates the development of a powerful religious ideology. The most important Early Formative Olmec site is San Lorenzo.
Middle Preclassic (ca. 1000-400 BC) - this period,
also known as the "Middle Formative," is most important for the rise and spread
of religious traditions related to Olmec culture. The trend towards political
centralization that began in the Early Formative period continues, along with the other
traits that accompany increasing social complexity. The Olmec art style flourishes, with
elaborate expression in carved stone stelae, jade figurines, and pottery--all emphasizing
the "were-jaguar" and baby motifs. Although San Lorenzo is abandoned, apparently
as the result of conflict, other sites such as La Venta, Tres Zapotes, and Laguna de los
Cerros grow in size and importance. Trade in valuable minerals, such as jade and obsidian,
increases. Evidence for Olmec religious influence in artistic styles is found outside the
Gulf Coast "heartland" at sites like Chalcatzingo, Oxotitlan, and Juxtlahuaca
Cave. Long-distance contacts are evidenced by Olmec materials found as far away as El
Salvador and Costa Rica.
Late Preclassic (400 BC to ca. AD 100) - also known as
the "Late Formative," this period sees the beginnings of early state-level
societies in various parts of Mesoamerica. Increased population growth and sophisticated
local religious traditions lead to the appearance of important centers in the Valley of
Mexico, highland Chiapas, the Gulf Coast, and the Maya area.. In the Soconusco
region, complex iconography representing the growth of widespread mythological systems is
evident at sites like Izapa, in the Pacific foothills of Chiapas. Jade continues to
be favored as a sign of elite status, and jade caches at sites like Chacsinkin (Yucatán)
indicate that Olmec-style objects are being used by the Maya as well. Labor
intensive agriculture, such as the use of raised- (or drained-) fields along margins of
bajos and swamplands provides a stable subsistence base that nonetheless requires
coordination and constant attention.
Protoclassic (AD 100 - 200) - The term
"Protoclassic" is often used to refer to a short period of time that follows the
Late Preclassic. It corresponds to a period of experimentation with early writing
systems and Long Count dates. It is also during this time that the first polychrome
ceramics appear. This period is best thought of as transitional between the Late
Preclassic and the Early Classic in the Maya area (to the north, in Central Mexico, it's
actually the beginning of the Classic period). There is increasing evidence that,
like the later Epiclassic period, the "Protoclassic" was characterized by major
shifts in the power of individual ritual centers. Many of the prominent Late
Preclassic centers, most nobably El Mirador, go into decline and are eventually
abandoned. Some scholars have even begun talking about this period as a time of
"collapse" similar to what followed the Late Classic period.
Early Classic (AD 200 - 600) - Perhaps the most
significant phenomenon of the Early Classic period is the rise of Teotihuacan civilization
in central Mexico. The city of Teotihuacan, believed by many to be the center of the
universe, had begun to rise to prominence around AD 100. The period between AD 200
and 600 witnessed the city's growth to perhaps as many as 250,000 people.
Teotihuacan was characterized by centrally planned ceremonial architecture built on a
large grid. One of the most important ritual structures was the Feathered Serpent
Pyramid, which became the focus of periodic festivals and celebrations of military
victories. Teotihuacan belief and symbol systems had a profound influence on most of
the other Mesoamerican cultures of this time.
Late Classic (AD 600 - 900) - The beginning of the Late
Classic period is marked by major upheavals in central Mexico. Between AD 600 and
700, the center of Teotihuacan suffers from a dramatic decline, with repercussions
throughout Mesoamerica. The city loses most of its population, either through
warfare, disease, or abandonment. This is not an end to Teotihuacan's influence,
which persists for several centuries through peoples descended from Teotihuacan lineages.
Epiclassic (AD 800 - 1000) - term used to refer to the
events that characterize the transition between the end of the Late Classic period and the
beginning of the Postclassic. Among the important markers of this period is evidence
for the "collapse" of Classic Maya culture in the southern lowlands, including
frequent images of warfare and sacrifice. At the sites of Dos Pilas, Aguateca, and
Punta de Chimino in the Petexbatún region of Guatemala there is evidence for defensive
fortifications in respons to large-scale warfare as well as significant environmental
degradation. By contrast, in the northern lowlands (the Yucatán Peninsula), this
period sees the flourishing of Maya culture at sites like Uxmal, Sayil, and Chichén
Itzá. Here, the Epiclassic period is marked by increasing evidence for contact with
cultures from the Gulf Coast and Central Mexico.
Early Postclassic (AD 1000-1300) - The Early Postclassic is best known for the rise of Toltec culture, which actually had its origins in the Epiclassic period. The dominant center of Toltec culture was at Tula, in the state of Hidalgo, north of the Valley of Mexico. Centers like Cholula remained important foci of ritual activity, although they also appear to have suffered from periodic military conflicts. It is during this time that we see the flourishing of several of the noble lineages mentioned in Mixtec codices, whose genealogies and histories are recorded in these screenfold books.
Late Postclassic (AD 1300-1519) - term
used to refer to the last period of occupation prior to the arrival of Cortes and the
Spanish Conquest. The most prominent culture of the Late Postclassic period is that
of the Aztecs, who used military and ideological force to dominate a large part of ancient
Mexico. The group commonly referred to as the Aztecs was actually multiethnic,
established as the result of an alliance between the Mexica and the inhabitants of Texcoco
and Tlacopan after the defeat of the Tepanec kingdom based at Aztcapotzalco.. The
Aztec twin cities of Tenochtitlán and Tlatelolco, located on an island in Lake Texcoco,
became the center of the Aztec Empire. The Aztecs had a highly centralized, tribute
state based on the extraction of labor and goods from conquered populations.