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that were whipped into a chocolate drinkformed the basis of commerce. The motherof Mesoamerican cultures was the Olmeccivilization.Flourishing along the hot Gulf Coast of Mexico from about 1200 to about 400 BCE, the Olmec produced a numberof major works of art, architecture, pottery, and sculpture. Most recognizable are their giant head sculptures andthe pyramid in La Venta. The Olmec built aqueducts to transport water into their cities and irrigate their fields.They grew maize, squash, beans, and tomatoes. They also bred small domesticated dogs which, along with fish,provided their protein. Although no one knows what happened to the Olmec after about 400 BCE, in part becausethe jungle reclaimed many of their cities, their culture was the base upon which the Maya and the Aztec built. Itwas the Olmec who worshipped a rain god, a maize god, and the feathered serpent so important in the futurepantheons of the Aztecs (who called him Quetzalcoatl) and the Maya (to whom he was Kukulkan). The Olmecalso developed a system of trade throughout Mesoamerica, giving rise to an elite class.
The Olmec carved heads from giant boulders thatranged from four to eleven feet in height and couldweigh up to fifty tons. All these figures have flatnoses, slightly crossed eyes, and large lips. Thesephysical features can be seen today in some of thepeoples indigenous to the area.THE MAYAAfter the decline of the Olmec, a city rose in the fertile centralhighlands of Mesoamerica. One of the largest population centersin pre-Columbian America and home to more than 100,000people at its height in about 500 CE, Teotihuacan was locatedabout thirty miles northeast of modern Mexico City. The ethnicityof this settlement’s inhabitants is debated; some scholars believeit was a multiethnic city. Large-scale agriculture and the resultantabundance of food allowed time for people to develop specialtrades and skills other than farming. Builders constructed overtwenty-two hundred apartment compounds for multiple families,as well as more than a hundred temples. Among these were thePyramid of the Sun (which is two hundred feet high) and thePyramid of the Moon (one hundred and fifty feet high). Near theTemple of the Feathered Serpent, graves have been uncoveredthat suggest humans were sacrificed for religious purposes. Thecity was also the center for trade, which extended to settlementson Mesoamerica’s Gulf Coast.The Maya were one Mesoamerican culture that had strong ties toTeotihuacan. The Maya’s architectural and mathematicalcontributions were significant. Flourishing from roughly 2000 BCEto 900 CE in what is now Mexico, Belize, Honduras, andGuatemala, the Maya perfected the calendar and writtenlanguage the Olmec had begun. They devised a writtenmathematical system to record crop yields and the size of thepopulation, and to assist in trade. Surrounded by farms relying onprimitive agriculture, they built the city-states of Copan, Tikal, andChichen Itza along their major trade routes, as well as temples,statues of gods, pyramids, and astronomical observatories.