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By Lynn V. Foster

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Their cities often were constructed as cosmograms, or replicas of places of creation—pyramids represented the sacred ancestral mountains and the place where corn was born; the small temple interiors represented caves or entrances to the Underworld, places where rulers communicated with the gods. Like the Bible, the creation myths of Mesoamerica explained the genesis of the world and prescribed correct social and political behavior. Irreverence would result, not in hell, but in the destruction of the maize world, by earthquake according to the Aztecs.

Perhaps they felt no surprise in seeing Spanish ships on the horizon during just such a katun period. Many centuries before, according to their books of the Chilam Balam, the great city of Chichén Itzá had been abandoned during the same cycle of time. All was determined by the “divine mandate” of the ever recurring calendrical cycles. Knowing when to expect the worst and when to perform rituals and sacrifice to avert calamity was essential. For the learned ones, the priests, there was no distinction between astronomy and astrology.

The possible causes of these various collapses have been the subject of considerable archaeological study. Near the Gulf coast, cities, which may have been very large, have been rediscovered in the 1990s. At the same time, the Pacific coast is being more closely examined for sites and cultural affiliation. Excavations in these areas will surely change archaeologists’ understanding of Mesoamerica. For now, it is only the better excavated and better understood cities that can be described. As a sample of the diverse settings and cultures of Mesoamerica, it is worth examining some of the most important: Teotihuacán, the Maya, and Monte Albán.

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