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Natives, Middle American

Natives, Middle American or Mesoamerican, aboriginal peoples living in the area between present-day United States and South America. Although most of Mexico is geographically considered part of North America and although there have been cultural contacts between Mexican groups and the Pueblo of the SW United States, the cultural development of most of Mexico belongs, in fact, to that of Middle America. In the southern portion of the valley of Mexico and in the jungle region of Yucatán, ancient Mexico reached its highest cultural achievements. The Maya had links with the Chorotega of Nicaragua and Honduras, and these in turn had contacts with the Chibcha of Colombia, thus establishing a Central American cultural chain between the civilizations of Mexico and those of the Andean region. Highly developed civilizations flourished in Mexico after the domestication of corn and the rise of agricultural communities; the Olmec, the Maya, and the cultures of the central plateau, Teotihuacán, Toltec, Mixtec, Zapotec and Aztec, developed architecture, agriculture, the use of stone—and sometimes of metal—to a high, often remarkable, degree. The Quiché and the Cakchiquel flourished in Guatemala; besides these and the Chorotega, the southern tip of Central America did not produce as highly developed civilizations as the rest of Middle America. Today many of the Native Americans of Panama, Nicaragua, and Honduras, such as the San Blas, the Mosquito (see Mosquito Coast), and the Lenca of Honduras, bear the imprint of Carib ancestry or influence. The Mexican Native Americans after the Spanish conquest in the 16th cent. retained their ancestral mode of life in some regions, but they were mostly a subjugated group until the 20th cent. Native American artisans did make notable contributions to the early development of the arts, notably in painting and architecture, but the Native Americans were mostly used as laborers under the encomienda and the repartimiento, and thousands eventually became the victims of peonage. It was not until after the revolution of 1910 and the indianismo movement of Emiliano Zapata that efforts were made, notably by the Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas, with regard to the economic and social development of the Native American. Today the descendants of the above-mentioned Native American groups, as well as such peoples as the Huastec, the Tarascan, the Yaqui, and the Tarahumara, constitute a powerful cultural and economic element of Mexican life.

See J. A. Graham, comp., Ancient Mesoamerica (1966); D. Z. Stone, Pre-Columbian Man Finds Central America (1972); M. P. Weaver, The Aztecs, Maya, and their Predecessors (1972).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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