México’s Indigenous Groups Before the Spanish Colonization

Last year was tough on everyone, we couldn’t go out and after a few months the boredom got to us. We had to find some hobbies, and while some took to gardening or built a whole business from their kitchen counter, I started watching documentaries. After watching 4 or 5 dealing with the Maya and their hidden treasures, I started to wonder what else was there? We often hear about the Aztecs and the Maya but there are so many indigenous groups still present in Mexico today that don’t identify with those cultures, so I turned to Google. 

Before the colonization of the Americas, the area that we now know as Mexico was inhabited by many indigenous tribes, each with their own traditions and languages. When the Spanish took control, the sum of their forms of oppression, the unknown diseases they brought with them, and the war destroyed many of the indigenous peoples. A large number of those who did not die gradually incorporated elements of Spanish culture, such as the Catholic religion, for example, and were forced to speak the Spanish language. As a result, many of the original features of the indigenous tribes have now been lost, despite the many efforts made to revive the sense of pride in Mexican indigenous culture since the Independence of Mexico, and even more so since the Revolution.

Photo Credit: Pixabay 


The Olmecs are probably the oldest civilization in Central America, a culture that began before 1000 BC. Their civilization was quite simple and relied heavily on agriculture. It was divided into two sectors: the elite, who lived in the cities, and the common people, who lived in rural areas. The huge stone heads they left behind are believed to be portraits of their kings, immortalized in stone, although much is still unknown about the Olmecs, for example how and why their tribe disappeared around 300 BC. Their culture, however, did not die completely: many other tribes incorporated aspects of the Olmec culture.

Photo Credit: fenarq


One of the best known Mexican indigenous groups is the one formed by the Aztecs.  Said group is actually made up of many individual tribes, mainly Nahuatl-speaking, who recognize their origin in the mythical place of Aztlán. The most powerful group of the Aztecs was the Mexica, who apparently moved to the Valley of Mexico after their god, Huitzilopochtli, ordered them to change their location in the 13th century.  Another 16 indigenous tribes are believed to have migrated from their homeland to this area of ​​Mexico where the Aztec Empire was located.

Being one of the last indigenous peoples to arrive in the Valley of Mexico, the Mexica found that all the good land was already occupied. They were forced to keep searching for their own place until they finally found a small island in a lake in the valley, which would later become the famous Aztec settlement of Tenochtitlán. The Mexica became experts in the development of their country of origin, which helped them to elevate their position in the social and political ladder of the Aztec Empire, as well as intermarriage with other tribes.

Photo Credit: Discover Oaxaca Tours


But if we go further south towards Oaxaca and go back hundreds of years, the Zapotec civilization was the dominant one. Starting in the 6th century BC, their civilization continued to develop until the Spanish conquest in the 15th century, so their empire existed for much longer than that of the Aztecs or Olmecs. Their civilization was centered around the Zapotec capital of Monte Albán, known to have been very advanced for its time.

There was not a single Zapotec language, but a variety of dialects, with their own written and spoken forms. Many have survived to this day due to the many Zapotec communities living in the state of Oaxaca, as well as other parts of Mexico. Benito Juárez, the first indigenous president of Mexico, boasted of his full Zapotec ancestry. The Zapotecs’ survival is probably due to the fact that, upon learning of the Aztecs’ defeat at the hands of the Spanish, the natives sought a peaceful alliance with the newcomers rather than trying to fight against them.

Photo Credit: tulum.com


The Mayan civilization began around 2000 BC, although it is not clear where. It is believed that the first settlements were installed along the Pacific coast, in the current state of Chiapas. What is known is that this empire extended from the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico to the south of El Salvador. The Mayan civilization has 4 clearly marked periods in time from the Preclassic Period that goes from the beginning of the Mayan civilization to around 200 AD. The next period is the Classic (250-900 AD), followed by a collapse and large-scale abandonment of cities. Finally, the Postclassic period (from the 10th to the 16th century) encompasses the decline of the Mayan civilization and the final surrender to the Spanish conquerors.

The Maya were a hierarchical people composed of city-states with their rulers.  Despite the fact that there were established trade routes between the cities and the relations between them were fluid, it seems that war was frequent between them. Often this war was linked to political control and resources, and as the population increased, the level of violence increased. Nobody knows why Mayan society collapsed at the end of the first millennium, some think it was due to overpopulation, others think it was due to a drought. Most likely, it was a combination of environmental and non-environmental factors that caused the collapse and abandonment of many cities.

While many large cities disappeared, in Yucatán some survived and continued to prosper, such as Chichén-Itzá. These cities would remain until they received the Spanish conquerors in the 16th century. One last note about the Maya is that they were extremely advanced for their time, sometimes dwarfing their European counterparts in science and mathematics. We must not forget that they were using zero 800 years before the Europeans and the calendar they used remains as valid today as 2,000 years ago.

According to recent studies there are 68 distinct indigenous groups still residing in México, 16,933,283 people that make up 15.1% of México’s population. There are 68 indigenous languages and 364 counted dialect variations being spoken in the country. But even if these people are our closest ties to our indigenous ancestry and we should look up to them as keepers of our cultural identity, they continue to be the most vulnerable in terms of the inequality they endure. It is about time that we start to learn, and teach our kids, more about who we were before we were colonized and start to look out for these people that make our home country the beautiful place it is. 

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