From the stone cities of the Maya to the might of the Aztecs, from its conquest by Spain to its rise as a modern nation, Mexico boasts a rich history and cultural heritage spanning more than 10,000 years. This detailed timeline of Mexican history explores such themes as the early civilizations that left their mark on the region's landscape and society, the 300-year period of colonial rule, the struggle for independence in the early 1800s and the country's rebuilding in the 20th century.
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A country rich in history, tradition and culture, Mexico is made up of 31 states and one federal district.
The Maya Empire, located in what is now Guatemala, reached its peak around the sixth century A.D.
At the height of their power in the 15th and early 16th centuries, the Aztecs ruled over a large empire in Mesoamerica (now south-central Mexico).
A celebration of Mexican heritage, Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican army's victory over France at the Battle of Puebla in 1862.
- From Ancient Mesoamerica to the Toltecs
- Rise and Fall of the Aztecs
- Hidalgo, Santa Anna and War
- Road to Revolution
From Ancient Mesoamerica to the Toltecs
c. 8000 B.C.
The first human experiments with plant cultivation begin in the New World during the early post-Pleistocene period. Squash is one of the earliest crops. This agricultural development process, which continues slowly over thousands of years, will form the basis of the first villages of Mesoamerica (including Mexico and Central America).
The first major Mesoamerican civilization--the Olmecs--grows out of the early villages, beginning in the southern region of what is now Mexico. This period is marked by the effective cultivation of crops such as corn (maize), beans, chile peppers and cotton; the emergence of pottery, fine art and graphic symbols used to record Olmec history, society and culture; and the establishment of larger cities such as San Lorenzo (about 1200-900 B.C.) and La Venta (about 900-400 B.C.).
In the late Formative (or Pre-Classic) period, Olmec hegemony gives way to a number of other regional groups, including the Maya, Zapotec, Totonac, and Teotihuacán civilizations, all of which share a common Olmec heritage.
The Mayan civilization, centered in the Yucatán peninsula, becomes one of the most dominant of the area’s regional groups, reaching its peak around the sixth century A.D., during the Classic period of Mesoamerican history. The Mayas excelled at pottery, hieroglyph writing, calendar-making and mathematics, and left an astonishing amount of great architecture; the ruins can still be seen today. By 600 A.D., the Mayan alliance with the Teotihuacán, a commercially advanced society in north-central Mexico, had spread its influence over much of Mesoamerica.
With Teotihuacán and Mayan dominance beginning to wane, a number of upstart states begin to compete for power. The warlike Toltec, who migrated from north of Teotihuacán, become the most successful, establishing their empire in the central valley of Mexico by the 10th century. The rise of the Toltecs, who used their powerful armies to subjugate neighboring societies, is said to have marked the beginning of militarism in Mesoamerican society.
The early Post-Classic period begins with the dominant Toltecs headquartered in their capital of Tula (also known as Tollan). Over the next 300 years, internal conflict combined with the influx of new invaders from the north weaken Toltec civilization, until by 1200 (the late Post-Classic period) the Toltecs are vanquished by the Chichimecha, a collection of rugged tribes of undetermined origin (probably near Mexico’s northern frontier) who claim the great Toltec cities as their own.
Rise and Fall of the Aztecs
The nomadic Chichimecha tribe of the Mexica, more commonly known as the Aztecs, arrive in Mexico’s central valley, then called the Valley of Anahuac, after a long migration from their northern homeland. Following the prophecy of one of their gods, Huitzilopochtli, they found a settlement, Tenochtitlán, on the marshy land near Lake Texcoco. By the early 15th century, the Aztecs and their first emperor, Itzcoatl, form a three-way alliance with the city-states of Texcoco and Tlatelóco (now Tacuba) and establish joint control over the region.
The mighty Aztecs conquer their chief rivals in the city of Azcapotzalco and emerge as the dominant force in central Mexico. They develop an intricate social, political, religious and commercial organization, with an economy driven by bustling markets such as Tenochtitlán’s Tlatelolco, visited by some 50,000 people on major market days. Early forms of currency include cacao beans and lengths of woven cloth. The Aztec civilization is also highly developed socially, intellectually and artistically. Their language, Nahuatl, is the dominant language in central Mexico by mid-1350s, although numerous other languages are spoken. Distinctive examples of the Aztec artistic style include exquisitely feathered tapestries, headdresses and other attire; finely worked ceramics; gold, silver and copperware; and precious stones, particularly jade and turquoise. In the great cities of the Aztec empire, magnificent temples and palaces and imposing stone statues decorating most street corners, plazas and landmarks all embody the civilization’s unfailing devotion to its many gods.
Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, the first European to visit Mexican territory, arrives in the Yucatán from Cuba with three ships and about 100 men. Members of the local native population clash with the Spanish explorers, killing some 50 of them and capturing several more. Córdoba’s reports on his return to Cuba prompt the Spanish governor there, Diego Velásquez, to send a larger force back to Mexico, under the command of Hernán Cortés. Like most of the first European visitors to the New World, Cortés is driven by the desire to find a route to Asia and its immense riches in spices and other resources.
Cortés sets sail from Cuba with 11 ships, more than 450 soldiers and a large number of supplies, including 16 horses. Upon arriving in Yucatán, the Spaniards take control of the town of Tabasco, where they begin learning of the great Aztec civilization, now ruled by Moctezuma II. Defying the authority of Velasquéz, Cortés founds the city of Veracruz, on the Gulf of Mexico directly east of Mexico City. With an entourage of 400 (including several captive members of the native population, notably a woman known as Malinche, who serves as a translator and becomes Cortés’s mistress) Cortés begins his famous march inward into Mexico, using the strength of his forces to form an important alliance with the Tlascalans, enemies of the Aztecs.
Cortés and his men arrive in Tenochtitlán; they are welcomed as honored guests by Moctezuma and his people due to the Spaniard’s resemblance to Quetzalcoatl, a legendary light-skinned god-king whose return was prophesied in Aztec legend. Taking Moctezuma hostage, Cortés is able to gain control of Tenochtitlán.
August 13, 1521
After a bloody series of conflicts--involving the Aztecs, the Tlascalans and other native allies of the Spaniards, and a Spanish force sent by Velásquez to contain Cortés--Cortés finally defeats the forces of Montezuma’s nephew, Cuauhtémoc (who became emperor after his uncle was killed in 1520) to complete his conquest of Tenochtitlán. His victory marks the fall of the once-mighty Aztec empire. Cortés razes the Aztec capital and builds Mexico City on its ruins; it quickly becomes the premier European center in the New World.
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