30The rich and diverse remnants of Mesoamerica's ancient civilisations are one of the greatest lures for travellers to the region. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors at the end of the 15th century, Mesoamerica, the land south from central Mexico into Guatemala, Belize and Honduras, was home to some of the most advanced societies in the world at that time. The magnificent architecture and complex cultural belief systems of these once-great cultures endure to this day in the ruins of elaborate cities and ceremonial sites, and the strong traditions of their modern-day descendents. A visit here provides a fascinating insight into the life of the Aztecs and the Maya as well as the lesser-known Olmecs, Toltecs and Zapotecs.OlmecsThe Olmecs are believed to be the first of the great ancient cultures, dominating the region from about 1500 BC to 400 AD. There are no written records from the time so far less is known about their culture than that of the Aztecs or Maya, but the Olmecs are believed to be the forerunners of all later Mesoamerican civilisations. Their use of astronomical calendars and ritual ball games was adopted and much developed by subsequent cultures. Their most prominent legacy, however, is their artwork and in particular their monolithic sculptures of heads, some of which are up to three metres high. Carved in intricate detail, each bears a helmet of which no two are the same. It is believed the heads represented their powerful rulers as the Olmecs were an elitist, hierarchical society with an organised and probably oppressed workforce. Judging by the many mutilated sculptures from the period that have been found, it is thought the Olmec society met a violent end. Many examples of Olmec artwork can be seen in Mexico City's anthropological museum and in Veracruz, the centre of their empire.Maya lady, MexicoCopán, HondurasOlmec head, MexicoAncient civilisations of MesoamericaChichén Itzá, Mexico
www.audleytravel.com l 01993 838 638 l Ancient Civilisations of Mesoamerica 31MayaFamous for their art and architecture as well as their sophisticated written and mathematical systems, the Maya were one of the most significant civilisations of Mesoamerica. The height of their culture was from 300 to 900 AD when the great cities of Palenque, Uxmal and Chichén Itzá in Mexico, Tikal in Guatemala, Caracol in Belize and Copán in Honduras flourished. Visiting the remains of these vast cities with their elaborate pyramids is undoubtedly a highlight of any trip to the region, but possibly even more impressive are the Maya's precise astronomical calculations. They were obsessed with the passage of time and complex calendars ruled everything they did. The remains of their huge temples and ceremonial centres give a glimpse of their religious fervour and their belief in a pantheon of deities who influenced day to day living, demanded human sacrifices and presided over ritual ball games. Many theories exist about the collapse of the Maya empire including overpopulation, foreign invasion and drought, but whatever the reason, their legacy goes far beyond the vast empire they once ruled.Semana Santa, Antigua, GuatemalaAztec mural depicting ritual sacrificeTikal, GuatemalaAztecsThe last of the great civilisations were the Aztecs, the most formidable of Mesoamerica's cultures. They ruled from the 14th to the 16th centuries and developed impressive temples and pyramids such as those that can today be seen at Teotihuacán near Mexico City. An aggressive and imperialistic people, the Aztecs are known for their bloodthirsty sports and human sacrifices but they also produced elaborate pottery, jewellery and paintings. When the Spanish arrived in 1519, the two powerful cultures clashed and the Spanish, led by Hernán Cortés, won. They were aided by some of those hostile to the Aztecs such as the Tlaxcalans and Totonacs, as well as guns, horses, and most devastatingly, disease. The destruction of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan (the site of present-day Mexico City) heralded the fall of the empire. The Spanish then unified the various city states of the Aztecs under their own rule and set about exporting gold and importing Catholicism.TodayPresent day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras are littered with ruins, fascinating for their sheer scale and elaborate design as much as their rich archaeological history. With the aid of a good guide and a little imagination these sites offer a step back in time and an intriguing insight into some of the world's most beguiling ancient cultures. Imagine the vigorous (and often fatal) play in the ball courts, picture the lavish ceremonies of worship atop the temples and pyramids, and the omnipotent rulers bedecked in intricate jewellery and masks depicting the gods. Although all these empires collapsed or were conquered, their people did not disappear. Today, their descendants make up the majority of the population in the region. Over 95% of Guatemala's people are of Maya descent and between them they speak over 21 languages, while in Mexico 50 indigenous groups speak 60 languages. This diverse blend of faiths, languages and cultures has merged with fervent Catholicism to create a fascinating hybrid Christian culture underpinned by ancient beliefs, customs and traditions. The countless fiestas with their extravagant costumes, fireworks, masks, song and dance all hark back to their long lost ancestors, their deities and their rituals.When visiting this region you can climb the ancient pyramids, marvel at the monolithic heads and the extravagant art, mingle in the markets, join in the fiestas and admire the many colours and styles of the traditional dress, it's what Mesoamerica - now and then - is all about.