Cultures Rise and Fall on the Mesoamerica Timeline

Chronology of the Mesoamerican Cultures

Ruins of Mesoamerican cultures on a sunny day.

Arian Zwegers / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

This Mesoamerica timeline is built on the standard periodization used in Mesoamerican archaeology and upon which specialists generally agree. The term Mesoamerica literally means "Middle America" and it typically refers to the geographic region between the southern border of the United States to the Isthmus of Panama, including Mexico and Central America.

However, Mesoamerica was and is dynamic, and never a single unified block of cultures and styles. Different regions had different chronologies, and regional terminologies exist and are touched upon in their specific areas below. Archaeological sites listed below are examples for each period, a handful of the many more that could be listed, and they often were inhabited across time periods.

Hunter-Gatherer Periods

Preclovis Period (?25,000–10,000 BCE): There are a handful of sites in Mesoamerica that are tentatively associated with the broad-scale hunter-gatherers known as Pre-Clovis, but they are all problematic and none appear to meet enough criteria to consider them unequivocally valid. Pre-Clovis lifeways are thought to have been based on broad-based hunter-forager-fisher strategies. Possible preclovis sites include Valsequillo, Tlapacoya, El Cedral, El Bosque, Loltun Cave.

Paleoindian Period (ca 10,000–7000 BCE): The first fully-attested human inhabitants of Mesoamerica were hunter-gatherer groups belonging to the Clovis period. Clovis points and related points found throughout Mesoamerica are generally associated with big game hunting. A handful of sites also include fish-tail points such as Fells Cave points, a type found more commonly in South American Paleoindian sites. Paleoindian sites in Mesoamerica include El Fin del Mundo, Santa Isabel Iztapan, Guilá Naquitz, Los Grifos, Cueva del Diablo.

Archaic Period (7000–2500 BCE):. After the extinction of large-bodied mammals, many new technologies were invented, including maize domestication, developed by Archaic hunter-gatherers by 6000 BCE.

Other innovative strategies included the construction of durable buildings such as pit houses, intensive techniques of cultivation and resource exploitation, new industries including ceramics, weaving, storage, and prismatic blades. The first sedentism appears about the same time as maize, and over time more and more people gave up mobile hunter-gatherer life for a village life and agriculture. People made smaller and more refined stone tools, and on the coasts, began to rely more on marine resources. Sites include Coxcatlán, Guilá Naquitz, Gheo Shih, Chantuto, Santa Marta cave, and Pulltrouser Swamp.

Pre-Classic / Formative Periods

The Pre-Classic or Formative period is so named because it was originally thought to be when the basic characteristics of the classic civilizations such as the Maya began to form. The major innovation was the shift to permanent sedentism and village life based on horticulture and full-time agriculture. This period also saw the first theocratic village societies, fertility cults, economic specialization, long-distance exchange, ancestor worship, and social stratification. The period also saw the development of three distinct areas: central Mesoamerica where village farming arose in the coastal and highland areas; Aridamerica to the north, where traditional hunter-forager ways persisted; and the Intermediate area to the southeast, where Chibchan speakers kept loose ties to South American cultures.

Early Preclassic/Early Formative Period (2500–900 BCE): The major innovations of the Early Formative period include the increase in pottery use, transition from village life to a more complex social and political organization, and elaborate architecture. Early Preclassic sites include those in Oaxaca (San José Mogote; Chiapas: Paso de la Amada, Chiapa de Corzo), Central Mexico (Tlatilco, Chalcatzingo), Olmec area ( San Lorenzo), Western Mexico (El Opeño), Maya area (Nakbé, Cerros), and Southeastern Mesoamerica (Usulután).

Middle Preclassic/Middle Formative Period (900–300 BCE): Increasing social inequalities is a hallmark of the Middle Formative, with elite groups having a closer connection to the wider distribution of luxury items, as well as the ability to finance public architecture and stone monuments such as ball courts, palaces, sweat baths, permanent irrigation systems, and tombs. Essential and recognizable pan-Mesoamerican elements began during this period, such as bird-serpents and controlled marketplaces; and murals, monuments, and portable art speak to political and social changes.

Middle Preclassic sites include those in the Olmec area (La Venta, Tres Zapotes), Central Mexico (Tlatilco, Cuicuilco), Oaxaca (Monte Alban), Chiapas (Chiapa de Corzo, Izapa), Maya area (Nakbé, Mirador, Uaxactun, Kaminaljuyu, Copan), West Mexico (El Opeño, Capacha), Southeastern Mesoamerica (Usulután).

Late Preclassic/Late Formative Period (300 BCE–200/250 CE): This period saw an enormous population increase along with the emergence of regional centers and the rise of regional state societies. In the Maya area, this period is marked by the construction of massive architecture decorated with giant stucco masks; the Olmec may have had three or more city-states at its maximum. The Late Preclassic also saw the first evidence of a particular pan-Mesoamerican view of the universe as a quadripartite, multi-layered cosmos, with shared creation myths and a pantheon of deities.

Examples of Late Preclassic sites include those in Oaxaca (Monte Alban), Central Mexico (Cuicuilco, Teotihuacan), in the Maya area (Mirador, Abaj Takalik, Kaminaljuyú, Calakmul, Tikal, Uaxactun, Lamanai, Cerros), in Chiapas (Chiapa de Corzo, Izapa), in Western Mexico (El Opeño), and in Southeastern Mesoamerica (Usulután).

Classic Period

During the Classic period in Mesoamerica, complex societies increased dramatically and split into a large number of polities that varied greatly in scale, population, and complexity; all of them were agrarian and tied into the regional exchange networks. The simplest were located in the Maya lowlands, where city-states were organized on a feudal basis, with political control involving a complex system of interrelationships between royal families. Monte Alban was at the center of a conquest state that dominated most of the southern highlands of Mexico, organized around an emerging and vital craft production and distribution system. The Gulf Coast region was organized in about the same fashion, based on the long-distance exchange of obsidian. Teotihuacan was the largest and most complex of the regional powers, with a population of between 125,000 to 150,000, dominating the central region, and maintaining a palace-centric social structure.

Early Classic Period (200/250–600 CE): The early Classic saw the apogee of Teotihuacan in the valley of Mexico, one of the largest metropolis of the ancient world. Regional centers began to diffuse outward, along with widespread Teotihuacan-Maya political and economic connections, and centralized authority. In the Maya area, this period saw the erection of stone monuments (called stelae) with inscriptions about kings' lives and events. Early Classic sites are in Central Mexico (Teotihuacan, Cholula), the Maya area (Tikal, Uaxactun, Calakmul, Copan, Kaminaljuyu, Naranjo, Palenque, Caracol), Zapotec region (Monte Alban), and western Mexico (Teuchitlán).

Late Classic (600–800/900 CE): The beginning of this period is characterized by the ca. 700 CE collapse of Teotihuacan in Central Mexico and the political fragmentation and high competition among many Maya sites. The end of this period saw the disintegration of political networks and a sharp decline in population levels in the southern Maya lowlands by about 900 CE. Far from a total "collapse," however, many centers in the northern Maya lowlands and other areas of Mesoamerica continued to flourish afterward. Late Classic sites include the Gulf Coast (El Tajin), the Maya area (Tikal, Palenque, Toniná, Dos Pilas, Uxmal, Yaxchilán, Piedras Negras, Quiriguá, Copan), Oaxaca (Monte Alban), Central Mexico (Cholula).

Terminal Classic (as it is called in the Maya area) or Epiclassic (in central Mexico) (650/700–1000 CE): This period attested a political reorganization in the Maya lowlands with a new prominence of the Northern Lowland of northern Yucatan. New architectural styles show evidence of a strong economic and ideological connections between central Mexico and northern Maya Lowlands. Important Terminal Classic sites are in Central Mexico (Cacaxtla, Xochicalco, Tula), the Maya area (Seibal, Lamanai, Uxmal, Chichen Itzá, Sayil), the Gulf Coast (El Tajin).


The Postclassic Period is that period roughly between the fall of the Classic period cultures and the Spanish conquest. The Classic period saw larger states and empires replaced by small polities of a central town or city and its hinterland, ruled by kings and a small hereditary elite based at palaces, a marketplace, and one or more temples.

Early Postclassic (900/1000–1250): The Early Postclassic saw an intensification of trade and strong cultural connections between the northern Maya area and Central Mexico. There was also a flourishing of a constellation of small competing kingdoms, that competition expressed by warfare-related themes in arts. Some scholars refer to the Early Postclassic as the Toltec period, because one likely dominant kingdom was based at Tula. Sites are located in Central Mexico (Tula, Cholula), Maya area (Tulum, Chichen Itzá, Mayapan, Ek Balam), Oaxaca (Tilantongo, Tututepec, Zaachila), and the Gulf Coast (El Tajin).

Late Postclassic (1250–1521): The Late Postclassic period is traditionally bracketed by the emergence of the Aztec/Mexica empire and its destruction by the Spanish conquest. The period saw increased militarization of competing empires across Mesoamerica, most of which fell to and became tributary states of the Aztecs, with the exception of the Tarascans/Purépecha of Western Mexico. Sites in Central Mexico are (Mexico-Tenochtitlan, Cholula, Tepoztlan), in the Gulf Coast (Cempoala), in Oaxaca (Yagul, Mitla), in the Maya region (Mayapan, Tayasal, Utatlan, Mixco Viejo), and in West Mexico (Tzintzuntzan).

Colonial Period 1521–1821

The Colonial period began with the fall of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and the surrender of Cuauhtemoc to Hernan Cortes in 1521; and the fall of central America including the Kiche Maya to Pedro de Alvardo in 1524. Mesoamerica was now administered as a Spanish colony.

The pre-European Mesoamerican cultures sustained a huge blow with the invasion and conquest of Mesoamerica by Spaniards in the early 16th century. The conquistadors and their religious community of friars brought new political, economic, and religious institutions and new technologies including the introduction of European plants and animals. Diseases were also introduced, diseases that decimated some populations and transformed all of the societies.

But in Hispania, some pre-Columbian cultural traits were retained and others modified, many introduced traits were adopted and adapted to fit into existing and sustained native cultures.

The Colonial period ended when after more than 10 years of armed struggle, the Creoles (Spaniards born in the Americas) declared independence from Spain.


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Carrasco, David (Editor). "The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures." Hardcover. Oxford Univ Pr (Sd), November 2000.

Evans, Susan Toby (Editor). "Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia." Special -Reference, David L. Webster (Editor), 1st Edition, Kindle Edition, Routledge, November 27, 2000.

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Maestri, Nicoletta. "Cultures Rise and Fall on the Mesoamerica Timeline." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Maestri, Nicoletta. (2021, February 16). Cultures Rise and Fall on the Mesoamerica Timeline. Retrieved from Maestri, Nicoletta. "Cultures Rise and Fall on the Mesoamerica Timeline." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).