Mesoamerica (Paul Kirchhoff)*

*’This article is a full reprint of the Enciclopedia de México, 1975’s Volume VIII special offprint’

“Mesoamerica”, originally published in 1943, was an attempt to identify what the peoples and cultures of a specific part of the American Continent shared in common, and that which set them apart from the rest. To accomplish this goal, I imposed upon myself the restriction to register only those cultural traits that belonged exclusively to those peoples, without trying to portray their whole cultural life. Due to a rigorous application of this principle, I do not mention in my work traits that are as fundamental and distinctive to the Mesoamerican civilization as the pyramid, nor do I analyze the configuration or organization of that civilization that is obviously more than the sum of its parts. Also missing is the division of this super-area into distinct cultural areas due to not only the presence or absence of specific “elements”, but also according to the degree of development and complexity that they have achieved, being the most typically Mesoamerican those most highly developed and complex. It is missing, finally, the historical depth imposed by the very aim of this paper, that is, to apply the same principles to previous ages, going step by step all the way back to the very origin of the Mesoamerican civilization.

I envisioned this paper as the first in a series of ensuing works dealing with these issues, expecting others to undertake the majority of those tasks as their own. As to this expectation, I was disappointed, nonetheless, since many have acknowledged the concept of “Mesoamerica”, but nobody, to my knowledge, either has made it the object of constructive critique nor has applied or systematically developed it. When a group of students of the National School of Anthropology and History took the initiative to republish this paper, I was hopeful again that a young researcher would follow the way I pointed to years ago.

Institute of History
National Autonomous University of Mexico

AMONG THE GEOGRAPHICAL CLASSIFICATIONS of the indigenous cultures of the Americas that encompass the whole Continent or, at least, that focus on a specific region from the perspective of the whole continent, we can tell apart two main categories.

The first incorporates one or another of the common subdivisions of the American Continent, based on either Political Geography or Biogeography. Most Americanists either simply divide the continent in North and South America or add between these two a third part, labeled either “Mexico and Central America” or, as some North American anthropologists do, Middle America. In the first case, in general, the accepted boundary between North and South America is the biogeographical dividing line that follows the course of the San Juan River, between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. As to the second case, “Mexico and Central America” includes all of the territory comprised between the northern border of the Mexican Republic and the eastern border of Panama; in Middle America the same region, excluding sometimes the northern part of Mexico, including some others the West Indies.

Both subdivisions, and their variants not discussed here, are severely lacking when used for either more than a simple geographical outline of the indigenous world’s cultural phenomena, or to establish the limits of research programs or publications. The biogeographical boundary between North and South America, although corresponding to a local border between regions with very distinct cultural characteristics, does not constitute a cultural boundary between North and South America. Since north of it the cultures of the Sumo and Misquito and even those of the Paya and Ficaque, are as “South American” as that of the Central American Chibcha. In fact, this adjective lacks a precise meaning, since in South America, whatever extension we are willing to consider for this term, there are cultures as different from each other as those of the Fuegos, the Carib and the Inca. On the other hand, the rest of Central America and Mexico’s cultures –with the exception of Northern Mexico-, do not show in any way “North American” characteristics but, on the contrary, they share more in common with some cultures of South America than with any of North America. Indeed, their similarities with certain North American cultural areas, like those of the Southeast and parts of the Southwest of the United States, for the most part refer to those traits that both share in common with certain cultural areas of South America.

The problems of the triple-subdivision mentioned are perhaps greater. Neither the set of republics of Mexico and Central America, nor any of the meanings of Middle America previously explained constitute for an anthropologist a region that emphasizes the other cultures of the Continent, and therefore deserve a separate study. In fact, those who adopt one or the other of these triple divisions, far from considering “Mexico and Central America” or Middle America as a cultural unit –opposed as such to North as well as to South America-, still recognize as basic the division between North and South America. They place some of the cultures in this region within North America and others within South America.

The second type of geographic classification groups the indigenous American cultures in five large areas:

1. The gatherers, hunters and fishers of North America.
2. The lesser farmers of North America.
3. The higher farmers (“high civilizations”).
4. The lesser farmers of South America.
5. The gatherer-hunters of South America.

Anthropologists who adopt this kind of division –that, like the preceding, has many variants not discussed here-, recognize as an exception, implicitly or explicitly, the inclusion of individual groups or sometimes entire cultural areas within the zone of the so called higher farmers. We cannot think of these groups or cultural areas as higher farmers, neither in terms of their general cultural level, nor in terms of their crops and farming techniques. In the same way, gatherer-hunters are sometimes included within the zones of lesser farmers.

Their inclusion within the zones of higher culture is justified by the fact that, in spite of their lower level, they share a significant number of cultural traits with the other cultures of the zone in which they are included. Which is either due to their staying behind with respect to the more advanced and preserving this way part of the old common culture, or due to recent cultural diffusions. This way of thinking safeguards the cultural areas’ individuality (in the sense of an array of groups with a culture not only superficially but essentially alike), and at the same time, it allows us to group them in “superareas” and divide them in “subareas”. Inside the zone of lesser farmers of North America, the “Southeast” and the “Southwest” (in the sense of The Greater Southwest or “The arid North America”) are such superareas. Inside the zone of higher farmers, we can outline a “Mesoamerican” superarea, and it is our intention in this article to study its geographic boundaries, ethnic composition and cultural characteristics at the time of the conquest.

The basis for this work is a series of studies of distribution initiated by the International Committee for the Study of Cultural Distributions in America, created by the XXVII International Congress of Americanists. Even when these studies are still far from completed, it is already possible to present some general guidelines in order to establish new problems. This objective of the article explains the absence of critical notes and bibliography.

Geographic boundaries and ethnic composition.

Based on the cited research, we can establish that, at the time of the conquest, a series of tribes that we can group in the following five classifications were part of Mesoamerica:

1. Tribes that speak languages not yet classified, like the Tarascan, Cuitlatec, Lencan, etc.
2. All of the tribes of the Mayan, Zoquean and Totonac linguistic families. According to some researches, the languages of these three families, to which perhaps Huave should be added, comprise a group that could be called Zoque-Mayan or Macro-Mayance.
3. All but two of the tribes of the Otomí, Chochopolocan and Mixtecan families that seem to form, together with the Chorotega-Manguean family, a group called Oto-Manguean; and all of the tribes of the Trique, Zapotec and Chinantecan families that others consider related to the preceding group, comprising a larger group called Macro-Otomanguean.
4. All of the tribes of the Nahua family and a series of other tribes related to Uto-Aztecan, among them Cora and Huichol, whose family group is not yet defined.
5. All of the tribes of the Tlappanecan-Subtiaba and Tequisistecan that belong to Sapir’s Hokan group.

An analysis of the ethnic composition of Mesoamerica, at the time of the conquest, demonstrates the following:

a. Of all the linguistic families that are part of Mesoamerica, only one, the Otomí, has some members (the Pame and Jonaz that are possibly subgroups of the same group) that do not belong in this cultural array.
b. Two linguistic groups, consisting of some of these families, the Zoque-Mayan and the Macro-Otomanguean, in case its existence is confirmed, would be confined entirely within Mesoamerica.
c. Tribes of these two groups, and also of the Nahua family, possibly as a result of migration, reach the farthest geographical margins of Mesoamerica, on the North (of the Zoque-Mayan group, the Huaxtecan; of Macro-Otomanguean, the Otomí; and of the Nahua family, the Caxcan and the Mexican) and the South (of the Zoque-Mayan group, the Chol-Ch’orti; of the Macro-Otomanguean, the Chorotega; and of the Nahua family, the Nicarao).

This all demonstrates the condition of Mesoamerica as a region whose inhabitants, both the very early immigrants and those relatively recent, were bound by a common history that placed them as a group in front of other tribes of the continent, leaving their migratory movements confined, as a general rule, inside its geographical limits once they were within Mesoamerica’s influence. In some cases, tribes from different linguistic families or groups participated together in these migrations.

In spite of having its fate firmly joined to that of Mesoamerica -due to having many close and not so close linguistic relatives outside Mesoamerica, or due to its traditions relating to one or more migrations from the North- the Nahua family proves to have a historical role inside our zone that is very different from those of the linguistic families listed under number 2. These, like those not yet classified, seem to be without linguistic relatives within a reasonable distance from Mesoamerica. This leads us to believe that both the latter and the former –that is, among others, the Maya, Zoquean, Totonac, Tarascan, Cuitlatec, families-, not only reside from long ago within the territory occupied by the Mesoamerican cultural array, but may have played an important role in its very process of formation.


The Macro-Otomanguean group, or at least its Oto-Manguean sub-group, made up of the Otomí, Chocho-Popolocan, Chorotega and maybe the Mixtec, families, despite its distribution within the Mesoamerican territory, does not seem to have equally deep roots or to have played a role as equally important in the formation of Mesoamerica as the Zoque-Mayan group. It seems more likely that it entered the Mesoamerican area of influence after it was already in existence as a cultural array. Tribes of these families seem not only curiously associated to those of the Nahua family in its geographic distribution (almost like those of the Arawak and Carib in South America and the Caribbean), but in several cases there are historical traditions regarding common migrations. Like those of the Toltecs in Nahuatl with Otomí language (according to Sahagún), or with Mazatec, Popolocan and Otomí (according to the Toltec-Chichimec history), and of the Nicarao with the Chorotega (according to Torquemada). Besides, on the one hand, there are traditions regarding a migration of the Otomí coming from the Northwest (according to Ixtlilxochitl) and, on the other, the fact that the Pame and Jonaz live to this date outside of the Mesoamerican territory, directly to the North.

The numerical and geographical isolation that at the time of the conquest the Tlappanecan-Subtiaba and Tequisistecan families showed, suggests that the role they played in the history of Mesoamerica was either never too important, or it dates back to a very distant past; unless they are considered relatively recent immigrants into an already formed Mesoamerica.

A fair assessment of the role of every group or linguistic family in the history of Mesoamerica presupposes first to undertake similar studies for different pre-Columbian periods besides the completion of already started studies on cultural distribution at the time of the conquest. It would also solve the problem of determining its origin in time as a cultural super-area and determining its geographical extension and its cultural foci at different periods. Then, to utilize both types of previous studies to classify Mesoamerica in sub-areas that will vary in number and extension at different periods. Last, more excavations in regions that at the time of the conquest belonged outside Mesoamerica, but during previous periods were part of it, as we know about a large area of Northern Mexico, inhabited at the time of the conquest by groups with lower culture.

What we can already assert at this time is that the northern boundary of Mesoamerica was different from the southern boundary in its larger degree of mobility and insecurity, alternating periods of expansion to the North with others of withdrawal to the South. The latter are due in part to invasions of lower culture groups located to the north of Mesoamerica.

This difference between the northern and southern boundaries, as well as those existing among several sections of each of them, are due at least in part, to the fact that Mesoamerica is the last link to the North in the chain of higher farmers. Indeed, only a short extension of the southern boundary was neighboring another area of higher farmers (the Chibcha) at the time of the conquest, while, along the rest of this boundary, its neighbors were lower farmers (the Ficaque and Paya and the Sumo and Misquito). Along the northern boundary, circumstances were even more unfavorable since, with the exception of two quite short sections, one in Sinaloa and another insignificant on the Gulf coast where its neighbors were lower farmers, Mesoamerica was directly adjacent to gatherer-hunters.

At the time of the conquest, the last tribes of Mesoamerican culture along the southern boundary (that more or less extends from the Montagua River mouth to the Gulf of Nicoya, going through Lake Nicaragua) were the Chol-Ch’orti, the Lenca (and maybe the Matagalpa), the Subtiaba, the Nicarao and the Chorotega-Mangue. The northern boundary more or less extends from the Panuco River to the Sinaloa, going through the Lerma. Here, the last tribes of Mesoamerican culture were the Huaxtecs, the Mexicans of Meztitlan, the Otomí and Mazahua, the Tarascans, the Coca, the Tecuexes, the Caxcans, part of the Zacatecs (there were Zacatecs that were gatherer-hunters), the Tepehuans, the Acaxee and the Moacrito. While the more southern tribes, the Subtiaba, the Nicarao, and the Chorotega-Mangue, are as unmistakably Mesoamerican that there is no doubt about including them into this super-area. Such doubts can arise regarding the Lenca, on the one hand, and regarding many tribes located between Lake Chapala and the Sinaloa River, on the other since, in both cases, we witness a cultural level significantly lower than the one typical of the tribes more distinctively Mesoamerican. In spite of their lower cultural level (which is also found among some tribes and even cultural areas within Mesoamerican territory), we include these tribes into Mesoamerica because of a high number of cultural features that are markedly Mesoamerican and, in most cases, reach precisely up to the referenced boundaries. For instance, elements like the farming of chili pepper, sweet potato and fruit trees; the domestication of ducks and “barkless dogs”, metallurgy, the rubber ball game, and others reach up to the northwestern boundary (read ahead); that is, elements that Mesoamerica has in common with other more southern cultures and that reach their northern boundary here.

Cultural Characteristics

In distribution studies undertaken by the International Committee for the Study of Cultural Distributions in America to clarify the problem of Mesoamerica, studies that at the same time take advantage of all previous research done by other authors, we have found three major distribution groups.

I. Elements that are exclusively or at least distinctively Mesoamerican.
II. Elements common to Mesoamerica and other American cultural super-areas.
III. Elements notably absent from Mesoamerica.


According to our purpose in this first discussion about Mesoamerica’s issues, we prefer to put together into one list elements that are exclusively found in Mesoamerica and those that even when they can be sometimes found elsewhere, nonetheless seem distinctively Mesoamerican. As for the latter, we are not only referring to cases in which we can find Mesoamerican elements among some tribes outside but adjacent to Mesoamerica’s boundaries (like the rubber ball game among some Northern Mexico gatherer-hunters). In those cases diffusion cannot be denied, but also to cases like that of the Pawnee of North America or that of the coast of Ecuador and northern Peru, where there are groups of elements so distinctively Mesoamerican that cannot be explained except as resulting from cultural diffusion.

On the other hand, we are including in this list only a few elements that are at the same time exclusive to Mesoamerica and rare within it, since the existence of most of them entails that of others that are more general.

We consider Mesoamerican elements the following:

Sowing stick in a specific form (coa); farm building by reclaiming land from the lakes (chinampas); farming of chia and its use in drinks and for oil used as patina on paintings; farming of maguey for aguamiel; syrup, pulque and paper; cacao farming; grinding of corn cooked with ash or slaked lime.

Clay bullets, clay labrets and other clay novelties; polishing of obsidian; pyrite mirrors; copper tubes to drill stones; usage of rabbit hair to decorate weaves; wooden swords with obsidian or flint blades around the edges (macuahuitl); cotton quilted corselettes (ichcahuipilli); double-handled shields.

Turbans; sandals with heal guard; one-piece whole warrior outfits.

Stepped pyramids; stucco floors; patios with rings for the ball game.

Hieroglyphic writing; signs for numbers and their relative value according to their position; folding-screen books; historical chronicles and maps.

Years made up of 18 months of 20 days each, plus 5 additional days; combination of 20 signs and 13 numbers to make a period of 260 days; combination of these two previous periods to make a 52-year cycle; holidays at the end of specific periods; bad and good omen days; name giving according to the day of birth.

Ritual use of paper and rubber; sacrifice of quails; specific forms of human sacrifice (burning alive of men; dancing wearing the victim’s skin); specific forms of self-sacrifice (drawing blood from the tongue, ears, legs, sexual organs); the flying man game; 13 as ritual number; a series of deities (Tlaloc, for instance); the concept of several underworlds and a difficult trip to them; drinking of water used to wash a dead relative.

Specialized or subdivided markets according to specialties; merchants doubling as spies; military orders (eagle and tiger knights); wars to obtain sacrificial victims.


The group of elements common to Mesoamerica and other American cultural super-areas1 is divided in several subgroups for which representative examples are given, with the caveat that mentioning an element for a specific super-area does not mean it will be found in every one of its comprising areas:

a) Southeast, Southwest, Mesoamerica, Chibcha, Andes, Amazonia: farming, ceramics.
b) Southeast, Southwest, Mesoamerica, Chibcha, Andes, Northwest Amazonia: farming of corn, beans, and squash.
c) Southeast, Mesoamerica, Chibcha, Andes: human sacrifice.
d) Southeast, Mesoamerica, Chibcha, Andes, Northwest Amazonia: potato farming; blowpipe, headhunting (head trophies).
e) Southeast, Mesoamerica, Chibcha, Amazonia: cannibalism.
f) Southeast, Mesoamerica, Andes, Northwest Amazonia: confession.

g) Southwest, Mesoamerica, Chibcha, Andes: men in charge of farming; stone or mud buildings; sandals.

h) Southwest, Mesoamerica, Chibcha, Andes, Northwest Amazonia: cotton farming.

i) Mesoamerica, Chibcha, Andes: terrace farming; hanging bridges; gourd purses. Some elements in this group, perhaps most of them, are known in Mesoamerica only through its southern part.
j) Mesoamerica, Chibcha, Andes. Northwest Amazonia: cultivation of sweet yucca and chili pepper (ají), pineapple, avocado, papaya, zapote, different varieties of plums or jobos (Spondias); fattened barkless dog, duck; interweaved shields, pikes, metalurgy; cobbled roads; markets. These elements, contrasting those of the previous group, reach, with the exception of the interweaved shields and pikes, to Mesoamerica’s northern limit.
k) Mesoamerica, Andes: calupulli-ayllu-type clans; extraction of the heart of men that were still alive; sprinkling of sanctuaries with sacrificed victim’s blood.

Plus a significant number of elements common to higher farmers of Mesoamerica and to lesser farmers of the Amazonia:

l) Mesoamerica, Amazonia: wicker winnowing fan; flat dishes made of clay to bake bread (comal); game with rubber balls that cannot be touched with the hands; wooden drum with tabs. It is noteworthy that the elements in this group that reach up to the northern and southern borders of Mesoamerica are not known to the Ficaque, Paya, Sumo and Misquito tribes that are directly adjacent to it and that are lesser farmers like those of the Amazonia.

Finally, an even more striking group of elements that Mesoamerica shares in common with peoples that are not even farmers:

m) Mesoamerica, gatherer-hunters: underground oven; steam bath.

The elements that Mesoamerica, super-area of higher-farmers, shares in common with other higher and lesser farmers or both at the same time, poses a series of very important questions regarding the formation of the Mesoamerican culture within the group of farming-based American cultures and, at the same time, regarding the existing relations among higher farmers. The division that we made of these elements into several groups is intended to contribute to better enunciate these problems. It does not seem possible to reach definitive conclusions before completing the distribution studies initiated by the Committee referenced before.

It is a remarkable fact that Mesoamerica, an area of higher farmers within which no non-farming tribe survives, shares specific elements –absent among the higher and lesser farmers of South America- with other American gatherer-hunters on its North American area that are directly adjacent to its Northern boundary while, from those of South America it is separated by other higher and lesser farmers.
The fact that these features reach up to Mesoamerica’s southern boundary without surpassing it has an effect in separating Mesoamerica from other large areas of higher farmers, and from the lesser farmers of South America (with which, on the other hand, it shares significant features). But it is necessary to keep in mind that these gatherer-hunter’s characteristic elements are not and cannot be essential and constituting of Mesoamerican culture although, undeniably, lend it a “flavor” different from other higher farmer areas, especially those elements that, like the steam bath, have been intimately tied to Mesoamerican culture. While it is true that these elements come to their North American distribution end on the southern boundary of Mesoamerica, we cannot refer to them as “North American” since they are also found among the gatherer-hunters of South America, unless we are also willing to give the latter the same epithet.

To be able to reach the southern end of South America, throughout the region recently inhabited by higher and lesser farmers, these traits must have travelled before the formation not only of Mesoamerica and the other higher farmer areas, but before the beginning of cultivation itself, disappearing later in specific regions.2 Their presence in Mesoamerica and absence from other farmer areas of South America, allows for either of two explanations: they either disappeared only inside the farmers region (lesser and higher) located to the south of Mesoamerica, but not within the latter, or disappeared on both regions initially, to be later reintroduced into Mesoamerica from the north by new invading gatherer-hunters. In any event, the existence of these elements through Mesoamerica’s southern boundary, demonstrates with different arguments what has been stated through previous paragraphs: the fact that Mesoamerica is no doubt a cultural array that has had its own history beginning a long time ago that is common to all its inhabitants, even as to those traits that are not an essential part of it. This is true even if it does not afford Mesoamerica a “North American” character nor enables us to trace an ethnographic border between North and South America to coincide with our southern Mesoamerican boundary.


The elements in the third group, whose distribution relates to the issue of Mesoamerica, are those whose absence in Mesoamerica is characteristic. This group is divided into several subgroups:

a) Southeast, Chibcha: ear’s edge ornament.
b) Southeast, Southwest, Chibcha, Northwest Amazonia: matrilineal clans.
c)Southeast, Southwest (gatherer-hunters of Nuevo Leon), Chibcha, Northwestern Amazonia: drinking of ground bones of deceased relatives.
d) Southeast (Sinaloa-Sonora), Chibcha, Amazonia: poisoned weapons.

This type of distribution, to which others should probably be added, leads us to think that we are dealing with elements that were once present in Mesoamerica, whether only in the territory that later became Mesoamerica or inside the Mesoamerican cultural array itself. The custom of drinking a deceased relative’s ground bones is especially indicative, and within Mesoamerica it seems to correspond to a custom that can be perhaps interpreted as a more evolved phase that took its place: the custom of drinking the water used to wash a deceased relative.

Some cultural traits of South American farmers that reach up to Mesoamerica’s southern boundary, without surpassing it, draw a distinction from the previous:

e) Chibcha, Andes: cultivation of coca.
f) Chibcha, Andes, Amazonia: palm tree farming.

Distribution of these two groups of elements leads us to think that they were never part of Mesoamerican culture.



Illustration 1. Museum of Man, Paris, 1934. Paul Kirchhoff (left) and Henri Lehmann examining North American buffalo hide paintings. (Kind courtesy of Dr. Johanna Faulhaber)


Doctor Paul Kirchhoff (1900-1972) in 1962.

  1. For this first discussion we recognize, in a completely tentative way, the following super-areas (the names of higher farmer cultures are in italics): Southwest (of North America, in the sense of “The Great Southwest” or “Arid North America”, that is, including both farmers and gatherer-hunters). Southeast (of North America). Chibcha (excluding those with Andean cultural affinities like the Muisca). Andes (including the arid coast of South America). Amazonia (including all of the tropical forest of South America and the West Indies, but excluding the tropical forest Chibcha. []
  2. We only know of one case of steam bath usage among the gatherer-hunters of South America. The second South American case, still not quoted in comparative papers and that must be the result of a different and very recent diffusion from a Mesoamerica already existing as a cultural array, is found among the higher farmers of the Ecuadorean coast. Unfortunately, there are no details about the steam bath in this latter case, so that we do not know if it presents the structural characteristics that distinguish the Mesoamerican steam bath from that of the more northerly tribes. []

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