The materials used by Mesoamerican cultures serve as a sample of the way of life of the Olmec, Mayan and Aztec tribes, civilizations that lived between 1500 BC and 1500 ADThese cultures existed in what is now known as Mexico and in parts of Central America, including Honduras, Belize, Guatemala and some regions of Nicaragua.
Materials used in different Mesoamerican cultures
The Olmec people were the first culture to find an art and architecture style focused on the pre-classical period. Their settlements were located along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, where forest areas were cleared for the construction of farms and mounds of land used for a political and religious purpose.
Most of the city lived in wooden and thatched houses, distributed by the ceremonial centers.
The most visible form of legacy left by this civilization is the stone heads that they created. These were built on basalt and showed unique facial features, which is why they are believed to be portraits of their rulers.
These can reach more than 3 meters and weigh up to 8 tons. The stones with which they were built were transported from locations up to 80 kilometers away. Jade and ceramics were also popular materials, as was wood.
Some examples of works are found very well preserved in the swamps of El Manatí.
Teotihuacán became the first urban center in Mesoamerica, reaching a size of 23 square kilometers at the peak of development from 350 to 650.
Its population was about 200,000, making it the largest city in the world at the time. This center prospered thanks to the thriving market for obsidian and farms cultivated in the region’s fertile soil.
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In 750, the ceremonial center suffered a fire and society in general went into decline from there for reasons still unknown. The ceremonial center was maintained thanks to the Aztecs, who preserved it until 1500.
Teotihuacán culture used jade, basalt and andesite to create detailed masks. These were specially polished and details such as eyes, created with shells or obsidian were added.
The masks were also created in clay and used to decorate statues. The pottery was made with orange clay decorated with stucco, which was in great demand throughout the region. The statues representing their gods, could be up to 3.2 meters high and made of basaltic lava.
Mayan culture reached its peak during the classical period, when impressive advances were achieved. During that period, between 50 and 950, the construction of the imposing cities of Chichen Itza and Uxmal was abandoned.
During this period, there were significant advances in mathematics, astronomy, architecture and visual arts.
Mayan art is considered one of the most sophisticated and beautiful in the region and includes everything from small pieces carved in obsidian to the great pyramids. The painting consisted of drawing and filling in paper and plaster, carvings in wood and stone and clay and stucco models.
The technical process of metal machining was also highly developed, but as the material was not very abundant in the area, its use was restricted to ornamentals.
The materials used for the Mayan construction were usually some types of stones found in the area surrounding the city.
The best known of these materials is limestone, which is abundant in all settlements of this culture. Quarries were found outside their cities, which were the source of the building blocks.
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The Mayan people also used mortar in their construction projects. This was done by burning limestone in a very technical process. This material was used to complete the facades of the buildings, to cover the floors and make sculptures.
The Aztec Empire, with its capital at Tenochtitlan, dominated most of Mesoamerica between 1400 and 1600 AD In this city, where Mexico City is now located, the most impressive pieces of architecture and art were found.
After the Spanish conquest, this place was looted, demolished and its materials used for the construction of the modern city.
The Aztecs were skilled builders and craftsmen, who used chisels, hard stones and obsidian sheets as materials. However, in the most recent construction of Tenochtitlán, the Aztecs began to concentrate on the solidity of the buildings due to the low subsoil of the buildings.
Tezontle, which is a strong but light volcanic rock, was widely used. This was very popular because it was very easy to cut and its texture and color were impressive. It was also used in the construction of monumental buildings to fill its walls and cover its roofs.
Most of the materials used by the Aztecs were found in the region or purchased in exchange.
Fragments of stone, plaster, marinade and lemon for making stucco were also commonly used. On the outskirts of Tenochtitlán, people used wood such as pine and oak to make wooden beams and doors.
Other works of art were created in materials such as carnelite, pearls, amethyst, rock crystal, obsidian, shells and jade.
Turquoise was one of the favorite materials to cover sculptures and masks. One of the most appreciated elements was the exotic feathers, especially the green plumage of the Quetzal bird. These were cut into small pieces and used to create mosaics, shields, suits and hats.