Early Latin America Cultures

Early Latin American Cultures

The “Mother Culture”

The Olmecs are believed to be the “mother culture” from which the Teotihuancanos, the Toltecs, the Mixtec, and the great Maya and Aztec Empires arose.  Whether the Olmecs, renown for their great carved stone heads, were indigenous there or if they migrated from Africa or elsewhere is not well understood, but they numbered in the thousands and had complex rituals, and political structures.  Their influence spread widely throughout Meso-America and across Central Mexico. Their influence is still evident in many areas of the Latin American Global Village.


Olmec Colossal Head Carving, weighing tons.


The Olmecs were in decline by 400 BC; and the classic Maya civilization had seen its best days when two competing colonial powers, Spain and Portugal arrived on the continent. The newcomers, in the 15th century, may not have been successful had they encountered a united people rather than a land rife with tribal conflicts and warfare. Even so, those populations developed completely independent from the Old World, and gave us tomatoes, corn, avocados, squash, chiles, chocolate and potatoes as you saw in the short film about Latin American Food Culture on the lesson page.

Teotihuacan (200 BC-800 AD), a later city, located near Mexico City is thought to be the “City of the Gods,” by most of the other cultures which developed after its fall.  The following introductory documentary film shows the beginnings of this great Old World city; and lets you in on some of the mysteries surrounding it.

Nearly all of the early cultures have evolved in some way from these early populations, including their deities, their rituals, their conquering methods, and their subsistence practices.  Each generation of peoples adds their own cultural footprint atop those that have gone before.

Many people think pyramids were a cultural aspect of only the early Egyptians, but the following 2nd documentary about Teotihuacan takes you inside an ancient pyramid of the Old World. You will  discover the “steel” of this population, which allowed them to build pyramids that are equally as sophisticated as those of the ancient Egyptians.  They used materials that are found in no other place in the world.  Mines were found where a special obsidian kind of glass were taken from deep inside the earth. Many tools, manufactured from this material were used for butchering animals and trading over hundreds of miles.  This was a huge boon to the economy of Teotihuacan and to all of Meso-America.

This lead us to wonder how the people lived their everyday life.  We don’t know for sure if they had a written language, but we do know that they had amazing art.  When cultures do no have a written language, then archaeologists find other ways to learn about the culture; and art and architecture is  prolific and profound in exhibiting cultural aspects.  This last video of Teotihuacan gives you the history of their artistic traditions and clues to its demise.

The Olmecs and the Teotihuacanos were just two of the early cultures found in this Global Village.  There were the Aztec, the Inca, Maya, and lesser known cultures like the Chinchorro, who lived in villages on the coast of Chile and mummified their dead.

As we mentioned the ancient pyramids of Egypt, we also think of mummified Kings.  But the Chinchorro people of Chile were making mummies of their dead at least 2,000 years before the Egyptians.  Not only that, the Chinchorros’ sacred rite of mummification was for everyone, regardless of age or status in the community, not just for kings or the elites.

Even with such complex cultures as part of Latin America’s history, colonialism (1492-1810) has perhaps shaped this Global Village more than anything else. Many of the native populations were nearly wiped out; and not just by the human conquerors.  Diseases such as smallpox, which natives had no immunity to, decimated populations more quickly than the military invaders.

Once the invaders came ashore, native cultures and languages were forbidden.  Since language is the most common and symbolic way that culture is transmitted from generation to generation, when it is forbidden, culture immediately begins to digress.  Lands were usurped, resources were taken, and self-sufficient peoples were forced into servitude.  New power structures replaced the old, with no regards for native peoples’ own ways of stratifying their societies.  There were no more powerful leaders, descended from deities and the natives had no rank or wealth status.

The conquerors brought their own language, their own religion, their own military, their own codes of law, and their own familiar family and community structures.  Native history was also a forbidden topic, except for a few people who were interested.  Even those few who were interested put their own spin on the history of their newly found subjects.  They did not recognize any of the cultural components of native peoples, whether it was language, art, or ancient codices or other forms of records.  The most significant interruption of native peoples was that the colonists did not come to the New World as learners.  They came only as teachers.  This was both unfortunate for them and those they subdued.

After three centuries of colonial rule, the languages of Spain and Portugal, along with Catholicism, still dominate this Global Village and its people.  The 21st century Latin American Global Village is today shared by many different ethnic groups:  Native Americans, Asians, Africans, Afro-Latinos, Anglos, and other peoples of mixed ancestries.  This makes it one of the most diverse regions of the world.  Unfortunately its history of changing, unstable and corrupt governments, has made it difficult for many of its peoples to access education and prosper economically.





















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