Where and what is Mesoamerica?

Following our last post about where North America begins, today I want to react to a google query, that brought a visitor here: “Is Mesoamerica part of North or South America?” I want to answer this question today. It’s obviously important here to know what we speak about, when we use North, Central and South America. Although the last article dealt with the question what should be considered North America, it never gave a definition. For this Article today, I want to define it, so everyone knows what we are talking about and can extrapolate own explanations.

Definitions

In case we divide the Americas in two continents, North America stretches until the Isthmus of Panama. That’s pretty obvious. I marked it in red on this picture.

You have to love Google for the pictures.

If we want to add Central America as a geographic region, we do it at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Central America therefore lies between the isthmuses of Tehuantepec and Panama. I marked both in the next picture.

Thanks again, Google

The circumstance of Mexico being separated by this line, doesn’t make Mexico a Central American Country. It’s situated in North America with the majority of its landmass – and also historically and politically it makes a lot of sense, to put it there.

Let’s use this second definition for the answer to our question. This way, we can make more accurate descriptions.

Where or what is Mesoamerica?

Now to the question where Mesoamerica is situated and also what it is at all. The greek word Meso means Middle, which would make Mesoamerica Middle America. This is however already a used term, which sometimes refers to Central America. But Mesoamerica is different from Central America. Mesoamerica is not a geographically shaped region, but identifiable by cultural and historical factors. Also it stretches far out the Central American regions into northern Mexico.

On this map, we can see that Mesoamerica is refering to a region up to the North of Mexico. In the South-West it also covers the nowadays states of Belize, Guatemala and El Salvador. Please remember, that it is a cultural region, defined by the spread of different indigenous tribes and cultures. Therefore, we can also separate Mesoamerica in smaller cultural regions. In the South for example we can find the Maya region, which stretches roughly to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Conclusion

Mesoamerica is definitely in North America and definitely not in South America. By our second definition, it is also partially in the geographical region of Central America. It is itself however not a geographical term, but a cultural, historical one, shaped by the expansion of the pre-columbian cultures.

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6 Responses to Where and what is Mesoamerica?

  1. Matthias Gorissen says:

    Nice attempt at clarification, but you have mixed up several different categories. All systems of classification are arbitrary to a certain degree, but if you would like to dissect the Americas into three rather than two entities, you would have to insert Middle America as the (only recently build – in geological terms) landbridge between North and South America. That’s from Tehuantepec to the Isthmus of Panama. That’s the language of physical geography, which still leaves up about the northern two thirds of Mexico in North America. Many people don’t realize this, because they make a cultural distinction between Latin and Anglo America. And, all these boundaries are fleeting – in the 18th century, California was clearly Latin American.

    Central America is a term from cultural geography – it refers to the five states which formed a short-lived political union in the mid nineteenth century. This excludes all of Mexico, Belize (then a British colony – not even part of Latin America), and present-day Panama (back then a part Colombia).

    Mesoamerica is a term mainly used by cultural anthropologists and archaeologists. It was originnally defined by Paul Kirchhoff in 1943 as a region with (roughly) 20 similar cultural traits, such as agriculture, a common calendar, the ballgame, a numerical system based up 20, and so on. Kirchhoff had to rely on historical data from the 16th century, since hardly any archaeological information was available in his days.

    By his defintion, Mesoamerica is pretty much non-existant these days, since almost all of the defining traits have been lost over the past few centuries. The have been attempts to re-define Mesoamerica on an archaeological basis (Rosemary Joyce et al.), but this amounts to the same thing, logically – a number of traits, which all have been lost.

    Perhaps one day, I could do some work one a Mennonite community in Northern Belize, or an Intercafe in Puerto Vallarta, run by a family of Chinese immigrants, and I could still call this Mesoamerican Studies. How has declared, that this must have to do with Indians? Wasn’t it always a meeting-ground between cultures? But no-one has ever proposed a viable definition of Mesoamerica along these lines. In fact, we don’t know what is.

    I really like your blog, but please check your sources more carefully.

  2. judugrovee says:

    Hello Matthias,

    Thank you very much for your comment. You are absolutely right about the arbitrary, sometimes quite temporal definitions. I am aware of that and indeed I think they are the problem here, again. I would like to react to some of your points; also to clarify some of the sources issues.

    This blog tries to reach interested people from all over the world and it tries to be comprehensible for all of them. Such a blog will necessarily reach points where readability and comprehensibility need a sacrifice in completeness and terminological preciseness – quite the opposite of my scientific papers. Still I use sources, of course, even if the finally used information is more popular and less specific. One example for that is the usage of “Central America”: both the Encyclopedia Britannica and Merriam Webster know the physiographical usage of Central America (as some scholars described it); BE considers it to be a subcontinent in the continental model. There is also the politic-geographical usage, of course (e.g. usage 2 in MW Is how you described it). I wanted to raise awareness for the complexity of the categorical problem in the linked article and I have had the feeling, that I presented it as an acute problem, while I might have actually failed. Both articles have however to be considered a unity.

    Then there is of course popular reality. This is where I want to pick up the readers. This resulted in me using “central” instead of “middle”, because 1. I wanted to distance the term from “meso”, and 2. both are often used synonymously (that is something which I didn’t want to support). Also a matter of popular reality was the original reason for the article: the question “Where is mesoamerica?” The question implicates it to be existent, the question is real and there should be a reaction. There the readers need to be picked up while I try to explain the historical and cultural factors. I am afraid however that I didn’t succeed in doing that completely, as your reaction shows.

    Part of this might be due to the special fact, that we kind of stretch time in this blog. To revive certain aspects of pre-Columbian times, we extend Mesoamerica into our time and see it as an actual region. This was not the first article that makes use of this mechanism. Still, it is certainly not a terminologically correct usage, but merely a romantic-nostalgic, literary touch.

    Like this, it’s obvious that tcmam can’t provide more than a certain completeness and preciseness. And it was in fact the careful handling of the sources, which lead me to not go too deep into the topic and discussion, but to pursue a certain terminological hygiene, which rests on popular sources, while maintaining the briefness, which is needed for an interesting and general comprehensible article.

    Still you are absolutely right: sources have to be handled with care. Additionally I will try however to give a deeper overview of such topics in the future. If there is anything else to critisize in your opinion in the future, please comment on it. Only like that we can improve.

    And we definitely need comments like yours, for which I want to thank again very much. :)

    Judugrovee

  3. yaxkuk says:

    good job. i wish my students would have read this website instead of others to answer their take home exam question what is mesoamerica, middle america, and central america. In case some day they do. I would clarify that the easiest is Central America which in origin is a politically defined concept based on the Central American States as Matthias noted. since the collapse of that political state the term has become geographic as the between region of North and South America — yet it is still fundamentally a political geography as it is indeed defined by the borders of the contemporary Central American nation states. It thus include Panama and Belize but excludes Mexico and Colombia — as well as the entire Caribbean!

    Meanwhile, Middle America is a region defined by cultural-geographic criteria, not political. It references in its historical usage the diverse yet nonetheless somewhat related Indigenous cultures of this “between” geographic region. Thus, this term references cultures and groups from Panama, even Columbia, up through Northern Mexico, perhaps one could even argue that it would include the greater southwest (Aztlan homeland!). These cultures are diverse and some do not share much cultural traits in common, others in fact DO.

    One such family of cultures that share a series of traits have been defined as the Mesoamerican Civilization. Just like Western Civilization is a family of sometimes quite DIVERSE cultures and civilization, so Mesoamerica is a family of different civilizations, cultures, societies, and histories that nonetheless SHARE a series of traits. What disturbs me about the way the web misinforms everyone about Mesoamerica is that it is equated with Middle America, when in fact it is a smaller region of cultures & civilizations within that larger region. Sometimes the idea of Mesoamerica is so reduced to just focus on the Maya, when its major regions include Central Valley of MExico, Oaxaca, Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, the Yucatan Peninsula, the western parts of Honduras and much of El Salvador. It extends in somewhat debatable manner further south into Costa Rica but NOT in a spatially contiguous way. Thus, notice how all the maps of Mesomerica stop at the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador.

    It should also be noted that there is an entirely DIFFERENT concept of Middle America that is completely defined with the cultural-social mentality of US North Americans. In this imaginary geography the terms is fairly synonymous with the “Midwest”.

    One student answered his question stating that Mesoamerican Civilization started about 100,000 years ago when the people crossed the Bearing STraight and fleed south into the region today.

    Cheers.

  4. hailey says:

    k thank u so much i am 14 and i swear i don’t have a brain

  5. Jean says:

    Thank you for your article. Regardless of pedantic terms and classifications ‘expected’ by one reader, I believe you covered the subject well for the medium used. I found your article using a google search to find out where the ballgame was played. Considering the various histories of items like the pottery wheel, we often forget that trade brings new ideas to far reaching reagions. The misconception that all citizens of these ancient cultures were born, raised and died within a 1 mile radius is not acceptable to even the lowest neophyte of archeology.

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