In a relatively narrow stretch of land between central Mexico and Cost Rica, a series of extraordinary civilisations came and went, building great cities in parallel to those of the near and far east. For as long as 3,000 years before written record of Europeans setting foot upon the Americas, humanity developed a covergent set of ideals under societies such as the Incas, the Aztecs, and Zapotecs. This is Mesoamerica – the heart of new world civilisation.

A string of civilisations flourished here: although the names Aztec, Olmec, and Maya may be at least slightly familiar, there were more mysterious others, such as Teotihuacan, the Mixtec, Huastec, Totonac, Tarascan, and Toltec.

Ancient mesoamerica remains enigmatic, not least because civilisations across the continents of Africa, Europe, and Asia, were all able to interract to some degree throughout their time of human habitation, and influence one another, not least along the famous Silk Road. However, although there are clues and suggestions of some limited interraction between the Old World and New World civilisations – for example, the presence of cocaine in Egyptian mummies – there seems to have been very little cultural exchange. Thus Ancient Mesoamerica has little direct impact on Western societies excepting through our awe and imagination.

Of course, the reverse is not true – when a few hundred Conquistadors with firearms, landed upon a continent only as technologically advanced in warfare as the bow and arrow, they were able to conquer the entire Inca civilisation by strength or arms and terror. With a period of aggressive conversion to Christianity following, in less than two centuries most of what was known about Mesoamerican traditions was already lost.

Today our main insight into Mesoamerican societies is in the monuments they left behind, which testify to organisation and ingenuity, while what few scraps of lore are collected and added to from the carvings upon newly discovered jungle temples.

FEATURE: Roman Religion

Explore the core beliefs of Roman Religion, beyond the mythology, in our section Roman Religion.