The History of the Native Peoples of the Americas/Mesoamerican Cultures/Maps
Understanding the geopraphy of a region is very important in history. Physical features such as mountains, vallies, lakes and rivers all have a significant impact on a people's way of life. This section will provide useful maps of the region, as well as a detailed analysis of its geographical properties.
A Physical Approach
As history progresses, political boundaries change constantly. Nations are created and destroyed. They gain and lose territory, come together and split apart. However, the physical features of the world have mostly remained the same for years. If Argentina and Chile got into a border dispute, the Andes would still be in the same place. This is why this book approaches ancient geograpghy from a physical approach, rather than a political one. This way, landmarks will always be in the same place and will not change for thousands of years. (Note that landmarks do in fact change constantly as well, but since the rate of this change is quite literally geological, it is considered negligable for purposes of human history.)
Let's look at some basics. The map to the right shows the area covered by Mesoamerica. As you can see, it is a relatively thin area of land between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico that connects North and South America. The climate there is hot and dry, becoming more tropical as we move farther south.
Regions and their Topography
Mesoamerica is divided into eight distinct regions: North of Mexico, West, Center, Gulf, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Maya, and Centroamerica. The Olmecs primarily inhabited the upper Gulf Region, with the Zapotecs to their South in the Oaxaca Region. The Mayans can be found in the Maya Region (the region got its name for obvious reasons), with the Aztecs dwelling to their west, covering a vast amount of land. The Tarascans lay even further west, on the far reaches of Mesoamerica. On the westernmost portion of this region lay the city of Teotihuacán, inhabited by the Teotihuacanos. Turning the other direction, the Chichimeca culture can be found in the region North of Mexico.
There is extensive topographic variation in Mesoamerica, ranging from the high peaks circumscribing the Valley of Mexico and within the central Sierra Madre mountains to the low flatlands of the northern Yucatán Peninsula. The tallest mountain in Mesoamerica is Pico de Orizaba, a dormant volcano located on the border of Puebla and Veracruz. Its peak elevation is 5,636 m (18,490 ft).
The Sierra Madre mountains, which consist of a number of smaller ranges, run from northern Mesoamerica south through Costa Rica. The chain is historically volcanic. In central and southern Mexico, a portion of the Sierra Madre chain is known as the Eje Volcánico Transversal, or the Trans-Mexican volcanic belt. There are 83 inactive and active volcanoes within the Sierra Madre range, including 11 in Mexico, 37 in Guatemala, 23 in El Salvador, 25 in Nicaragua, and three in northwestern Costa Rica. According to the Michigan Technological University , 16 of these are still active. The tallest active volcano is Popocatépetl at 5,452 m (17,887 ft). This volcano, which retains its Nahuatl name, is located 70 km (43 mi) southeast of Mexico City. Other volcanoes of note include Tacana on the Mexico–Guatemala border, Tajumulco and Santamaría in Guatemala, Izalco in El Salvador, Momotombo in Nicaragua, and Arenal in Costa Rica.
One important topographic feature is the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a low plateau that breaks up the Sierra Madre chain between the Sierra Madre del Sur to the north and the Sierra Madre de Chiapas to the south. At its highest point, the Isthmus is 224 m (735 ft) above mean sea level. This area also represents the shortest distance between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean in Mexico. The distance between the two coasts is roughly 200 km (120 mi). Although the northern side of the Isthmus is swampy and covered with dense jungle, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, as the lowest and most level point within the Sierra Madre mountain chain, was nonetheless a main transportation, communication, and economic route within Mesoamerica.
Bodies of water
Outside of the northern Maya lowlands, rivers are common throughout Mesoamerica. A number of the more important ones served as loci of human occupation in the area. The longest river in Mesoamerica is the Usumacinta, which forms in Guatemala at the convergence of the Salinas or Chixoy and La Pasion River and runs north for 970 km (600 mi)—480 km (300 mi) of which are navigable—eventually draining into the Gulf of Mexico. Other rivers of note include the Rio Grande de Santiago, the Grijalva River, the Motagua River, the Ulúa River, and the Hondo River. The northern Maya lowlands, especially the north portion of the Yucatán peninsula, are notable for its nearly complete lack of rivers (largely due to its absolute lack of topographic variation). Additionally, no lakes exist in the northern peninsula. The main source of water in this area is aquifers that are accessed through natural surface openings called cenotes.
With an area of 8,264 km2 (3,191 sq mi), Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in Mesoamerica. Lake Chapala is Mexico’s largest freshwater lake, but Lake Texcoco is perhaps most well known as the location upon which Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec Empire, was founded. Lake Petén Itzá, in northern Guatemala, is notable as the location at which the last independent Maya city, Tayasal (or Noh Petén), held out until 1697. Other large lakes include Lake Atitlán, Lake Izabal, Lake Güija, Lemoa, and Lake Managua.