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Jay I. Kislak Foundation Maya Collections


Precolumbian Mesoamerica comprises the modern territory of Mexico (excluding its northern states), Guatemala, adjacent Belize, western Honduras, and all of El Salvador. Within Mesoamerica, we define three major areas of high civilization: the "Mexican Highlands" to the northwest, the "Maya Lowlands" to the southeast, plus an intervening area called the "Coastal Lowlands." The latter zone is a long tropical rain forest corridor straddling the Gulf Coast of Mexico (today the state of Veracruz) as well as the southern Pacific Coast of Chiapas, Guatemala, and El Salvador - those Atlantic and Pacific coasts being joined by the low Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

At the center of this region, on the Gulf side of the isthmus, Mesoamerica's first civilization arose: the Olmec (1200-500 B.C.), at such precocious ceremonial centers as San Lorenzo and La Venta. The ancient Olmecs ultimately influenced all of Mesoamerica.

Chronologically, we divide Mesoamerican history into a "Preclassic" period (1500 B.C.-A.D. 200), a "Classic" period (A.D. 200-900), and a "Postclassic" period (ca. A.D.900-1500). Each of these has its subdivisions, though all authorities do not agree on precise divisions. Some academics prefer to call the Preclassic "Formative." These divisions were originally predicated upon the Classic Maya inscribed calendrical dates, which were extensively recorded on stone stelae from the third century to the ninth century A.D. in the central Peten.

Author information: Justin Kerr, Lee Parsons

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