Although many languages were spoken throughout Mesoamerica and each city-state had its own political and social organization, all Mesoamerican peoples had a variety of cultural features in common. This was due in large measure to the influence of two early civilizations, the Olmec and the Zapotec.

This exhibit focuses on the practice in many cultures of creating códices as written records of history, calendric cycles, almanacs, religious ceremonies, and auguries. Writing systems varied among cultures, but each included one or more of the following types of glyphs (small representative images):

The Maya are believed to be the only Mesoamerican culture to have developed a phonetic writing system; they also discovered the concept of zero before it was known in Europe. One system of mathematical notation was used widely. Mesoamerican peoples also shared a conception of time as being cyclical and circular, as well as the same calendric system. The calendar was inextricably tied to religion as the reflection of the patterns of time, the cycle of ceremonies, the record of divine influence, and the source for auguries. Mesoamericans also shared a cosmology of several realms of heaven and several underworlds, between which the Earth is suspended.

Each culture had its own gods, but several were found throughout the region, although sometimes known by other names (notably Quetzalcóatl). For the Mesoamericans, the universe hinged on a balance between opposing forces: life and death, light and dark, and other dualities. Keeping these forces in balance, and feeding the gods to ensure their survival, required rituals conducted by priests and rulers. Many such rituals included sacrifice: self-sacrifice in bloodletting, human sacrifice, and offerings of animals and food. These sacrifices served at times to allow the rulers and priests to communicate with the sacred realms, sometimes assisted by hallucinogens.

Finally, a ritual ball game associated with the gods, and sometimes featuring a sacrificial element, was played throughout Mesoamerica.

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