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4.1: Pre-Colonial and Post-Colonial Middle America (1 Day)

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  • Chapter Challenges
    • Define the differences between the rimland and the mainland.
    • Summarize the impact of European colonialism on Middle America.
    • Explain the differences between the Mayan and Aztec Empires and identify which the Spanish defeated.
    • Describe how the Spanish influenced urban development in Middle America.
    Learning Objectives

    WG.1B Trace the spatial diffusion of phenomena such as the Columbian Exchange or the diffusion of American popular culture and describe the effects on regions of contact

    WG/2A Describe the human and physical characteristics of the same regions at different periods of time to evaluate relationships between past events and current conditions

    WG.4C Explain the influence of climate on the distribution of biomes in different regions.

    WG.6A Locate and describe human and physical features that influence the size and distribution of settlements

    WG.6B Explain the processes that have caused changes in settlement patterns, including urbanization, transportation, access to and availability of resources, and economic activities

    WG.7B Examine the benefits and challenges of globalization, including connectivity, the standard of living, pandemics, and loss of local culture

    WG.8A Compare ways that humans depend on, adapt to, and modify the physical environment, including the influences of culture and technology

    TEKS and ELPS for Regional World Geography Unit 04--Latin America from TEKS Resource System

    Pre-Colonial and Post-Colonial Middle America

    Physical Geography

    Middle America has various types of physical landscapes, including volcanic islands and mountain ranges. Tectonic action at the edge of the Caribbean Plate has brought about volcanic activity. This activity has created many of the islands of the region as volcanoes rose above the ocean surface. The island of Montserrat is one such example. The volcano on this island has continued to erupt in recent years, showering the island with dust and ash and making habitation difficult.

    Many of the other low-lying islands, such as the Bahamas, were formed by coral reefs rising above the ocean surface. Tectonic plate activity not only has created volcanic islands but also is a constant source of earthquakes that continue to be a problem for the Caribbean community.

    The republics of Central America extend from Mexico to Colombia and form the final connection between North America and South America. The Isthmus of Panama, the narrowest point between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, serves as a land bridge between the continents. The backbone of Central America is mountainous, with many volcanoes located within its ranges. Much of the Caribbean and all of Central America are located south of the Tropic of Cancer and are dominated by tropical type A climates.

    The mountainous areas have varied climates, with cooler climates located at higher elevations. Mexico has extensive mountainous areas with two main ranges in the north and highlands in the south. There are no landlocked countries in this realm. The coastal areas are rich in natural resources and have been exploited for fishing and tourism.

    Rimland and Mainland

    Using a regional approach to the geography of a realm helps us compare and contrast a place’s features and characteristics. Location and the physical differences explain the division of Middle America into two geographic areas according to occupational activities and colonial dynamics. The rimland, which includes the Caribbean islands and the Caribbean coastal areas of Central America, and the mainland, which includes the interior of Mexico and Central America, are the two geographical areas.

    Colonialism thrived in the rimland because it consists mainly of islands and coastal areas that were accessible to European ships. Ships could easily sail into a cove or a bay to make port and claim the island for their home country. After an island or coastal area was claimed, there was a transformation of the area through plantation agriculture. On a plantation, local individuals were subjugated as servants or slaves.

    The land was planted with a single crop—usually sugarcane, tobacco, cotton, or fruit—grown for export profits. Most of these crops were not native to the Americas but were brought in during colonial times. European diseases killed vast numbers of local Amerindian laborers, so slaves were brought from Africa to do the work. Plantation agriculture in the rimland was successful because of the import of technology, slave labor, and raw materials, as well as the export of the harvest to Europe for profit.

    Plantation agriculture changed the rimland. The local groups were almost eliminated because of disease and colonial subjugation, and by the 1800s most of the population was of African descent. Native food crops gave way to cash crops for export. Marginal lands were plowed up and placed into the plantation system. The labor was usually seasonal because there was a high demand for labor at peak planting and harvest times. Plantations were generally owned by wealthy Europeans who may or may not have lived there.

    The mainland, consisting of Mexico and the interior of Central America, diverged from the rimland in both colonial dynamics and agricultural production. The interior lacked easy access to the sea that the rimland enjoyed. As a result, the hacienda style of land use developed. This Spanish innovation was aimed at land acquisition for social prestige and a comfortable lifestyle. Export profits were not the driving force behind the operation, though they may have existed. The Amerindians, who were poorly paid, if at all, were allowed to live on the haciendas, working their own plots for subsistence. African slaves were not prominent on the mainland.

    On the mainland, European colonialists would enter an area and stake claims to large portions of the land, often as much as millions of acres. Haciendas would eventually become the main landholding structure on the mainland of Mexico and many other regions of Middle America. In the hacienda system, the Amerindian people lost ownership of the land to the European colonial masters. Land ownership or the control of land has been a common point of conflict throughout the Americas where land transferred from local Amerindian ownership to colonial European ownership.


    The rimland was more accessible to European ships, and the mainland was more isolated from European activity.

    The plantation and hacienda eras are in the past. The abolition of slavery in the late 1800s as well as the cultural revolutions that occurred on the mainland challenged the plantation and hacienda systems and brought about land reform. Plantations were transformed into either multiple private plots or large corporate farms.

    The hacienda system was broken up, and most of the hacienda land was given back to the people, often in the form of an ejidos system. In an ejidos system, the community owns the land, but individuals can profit from it by sharing its resources. This system has created its own set of problems, and many of the communally owned lands are being transferred to private owners.

    The agricultural systems changed Middle America by altering both the systems of land use and the ethnicity of the population. The Caribbean Basin changed in ethnicity from being entirely Amerindian to being dominated by European colonizers, to having an African majority population. The mainland experienced the mixing of European culture with the Amerindian culture to form various types of mestizo groups with Hispanic, Latino, or Chicano identities.

    The European Invasion

    Though the southern region of the Americas has commonly been referred to as “Latin America,” this is a misnomer because Latin has never been the lingua franca of any of the countries in the Americas. The name of a given country does not always reflect its lingua franca. For example, people in Mexico do not speak a language called “Mexican”; they speak Spanish. Brazilians do not speak “Brazilian”; they speak Portuguese. Latin America is the geopolitical designation for Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean Islands.

    European colonialism impacted Middle America in more ways than language and religion. Before Christopher Columbus arrived from Europe, the Americas did not have animals such as horses, donkeys, sheep, chickens, and cattle. This meant there were no large animals for plowing fields or carrying heavy burdens. The concept of the wheel, which was so common in Europe, was not found in the Americas.

    Food crops were also different. The potato was an American food crop, as was corn, squash, beans, chili peppers, and tobacco. Europeans brought other food crops—either from Europe itself or from its colonies—such as coffee, wheat, barley, rice, citrus fruits, and sugarcane. Not only food crops were exchanged, but so were building methods, agricultural practices, and diseases.

    The Spanish invasion of Middle America following Columbus had devastating consequences for the Amerindian populations. It has been estimated that 15 to 20 million people lived in Middle America when the Europeans arrived. However, after a century of European colonialism, only about 2.5 million remained. Few of the Amerindians—such as the Arawak and the Carib on the islands of the Caribbean and the Maya and Aztec on the mainland—had immunity to European diseases such as measles, mumps, smallpox, and influenza.


    Tlatelolco Marketplace as depicted at Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago. The largest Aztec market was located in Tenochtitlan's neighboring town, Tlatelolco.

    Through warfare, disease, and enslavement, the local populations were decimated. Only a small number of people still claim Amerindian heritage in the Caribbean Basin, and some argue that these few are not indigenous to the Caribbean, but are descendants of slaves brought from South America by European colonialists.

    Columbus landed with his three ships on the island of Hispaniola in 1492. Hispaniola is now divided into the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. With the advantage of metal armor, weapons, and other advanced technology, the Spanish invaders quickly dominated the local people. Since Europe was going through a period of competition, warfare, and technological advancements, the same patterns carried forward to the New World.

    Amerindians were most often made servants of the Europeans, and resistance resulted in conflict, war, and often death. The Spanish conquistadors were looking for profits and sought gold, silver, and precious gems. This quest for gain pitted the European invaders against the local groups. The Roman Catholic religion was brought over from Europe and at times was imposed on the indigenous people with a “repent or perish” method of conversion.

    Many of the Caribbean islands have declared independence, but some remain crown colonies of their European colonizers with varying degrees of autonomy. Mexico achieved independence from Spain by 1821. Central American republics also gained independence in the 1820s. In 1823, the United States implemented the Monroe Doctrine, designed to deter the former European colonial powers from engaging in continued political activity in the Americas.

    Intervention in the United States has continued in various places in spite of the reduction in European activity in the region. In 1898, the United States engaged Spain in the Spanish-American War, in which Spain lost its colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and others to the United States. Puerto Rico continues to be under US jurisdiction and is not an independent country.

    The Maya and the Aztec

    The region of Mexico has been inhabited for thousands of years. One of the earliest cultures to develop into a civilization with large cities was the Olmec. The Olmec flourished in the south-central regions of Mexico from 1200 B.C.E. to about 400 B.C.E. Anthropologists call this region of Mexico and northern Central America, Mesoamerica. It is considered to be the region’s cultural hearth because it was home to early human civilizations.

    The Maya established a vast civilization after the Olmec. Mayan stone structures still remain, which attract thousands of tourists every year. The classical era of the Mayan civilization lasted from 300 to 900 C.E. and was centered in the Yucatán Peninsula region of Mexico and Central America. Guatemala was once a large part of this vast empire, and Mayan ruins are found as far south as Honduras. During the classical era, the Maya built some of the most magnificent cities and stone pyramids in the Western Hemisphere.

    The city-states of the empire functioned through a sophisticated religious hierarchy. The Mayan civilization made advancements in mathematics, astronomy, engineering, and architecture. They developed an accurate calendar based on the seasons and the solar system. The extent of their knowledge is still being discovered. The descendants of the Maya people exist today, but their empire does not.


    The classical Mayan era lasted from 300 to 900 C.E. Many magnificent cities were built with stone and remain today as major tourist attractions.


    Model of the Aztec City of Tenochtitlan at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

    The Toltec, who briefly controlled central Mexico, came to power after the classical Mayan era. They also took control of portions of the old Mayan Empire from the north. The Aztec federation replaced the Toltec and Maya as the dominant civilization in southern Mexico. The Aztec, who expanded outward from their base in central Mexico, built the largest and greatest city in the Americans of the time known as Tenochtitlán. This city is estimated to have had a population of 100,000 people. Tenochtitlán was located at the present site of Mexico City, and it was from there that the Aztec expanded into the south and east to create an empire.

    The Aztec federation was a regional power that subjugated other groups and required taxes and tributes from them. Though they borrowed ideas and innovations from earlier groups such as the Maya, they made great strides in agriculture and urban development. The Aztecs rose to dominance in the 14th century and were still in power when the Europeans arrived.

    Spanish Conquest of 1519–21

    After the voyages of Columbus, the Spanish conquistadors came to the New World in search of gold, riches, and profits. They also brought their Roman Catholic religion with them. These Catholic adherents also converted the Amerindians, usually by force. One such conquistador was Hernán Cortés as well as his 508 soldiers, who landed on the shores of the Yucatán in 1519. They made their way west toward the Aztec Empire.

    The wealth and power of the Aztecs attracted conquistadors such as Cortés, whose goal was to conquer. Even with metal armor, steel swords, sixteen horses, and a few cannons, Cortés and his men did not challenge the Aztecs directly. The Aztec leader Montezuma II originally thought Cortés and his men were legendary “White Gods” returning to recover the empire. Cortés defeated the Aztecs by uniting the people that the Aztecs had subjugated and joining with them to fight the Aztecs. The Spanish conquest of the Aztec federation was complete by 1521.

    The Spanish invasion of Middle America had devastating consequences for the Amerindian populations. It is estimated that there were between 15 and 25 million indigenous people in Middle America before the Europeans arrived. After a century of European colonialism, there were only about 2.5 million left. Cortés defeated the Amerindians by killing the learned classes of the religious clergy, priestly orders, and those in authority. The local peasants and workers survived.

    The Spanish destroyed the knowledge base of the Maya and Aztec people. Their knowledge of astronomy, their advanced calendar, and their engineering technology were lost. Only through anthropology, archaeology, and the relearning of the culture can we fully understand the expanse of these early empires. The local descendants of the Maya and the Aztec still live in the region, and there are dozens of other indigenous groups in Mexico with their own languages, histories, and cultures.

    The Spanish Colonial City

    As the Spanish established urban centers in the New World, they structured each town after the Spanish pattern, with a plaza in the center. Around the plaza on one side was the Roman Catholic church. On the other sides of the plaza were government offices and stores. Residential homes filled in around them. This pattern can still be seen in almost all the cities built by the Spanish in Middle and South America. The Catholic Church was a cultural force responsible for shaping and molding the Amerindian societies.

    In Spain, the cultural norm was to develop urban centers wherever administration or military support was needed. Spanish colonizers followed a similar pattern in laying out the new urban centers in their colonies. Extending out from the city center (where the town plaza, government buildings, and church were located) was a commercial district that was the backbone of this model. Expanding out on each side of the spine was a wealthy residential district for the upper social classes, complete with office complexes, shopping districts, and upper-scale markets.


    The Spanish colonial urban pattern had a plaza in the center of the city with government buildings around the square and a Catholic church on one side.

    Surrounding the central business district (CBD) and the spine of most cities in Middle and South America are concentric zones of residential districts for the lower, working, and middle classes and the poor. The first zone, the zone of maturity, has well-established middle-class residential neighborhoods with city services. The second concentric zone, the zone of transition, has working-class districts mixed with areas with makeshift housing and without city services.

    The outer zone, the zone of periphery, is where the expansion of the city occurs, with makeshift housing and squatter settlements. This zone has little or no city services and functions as an informal economy. This outer zone often branches into the city, with slums known as favelas or barrios that provide the working poor access to the city without benefits. Impoverished immigrants that arrive in the city from the rural areas often end up in the city’s outer periphery to eke out a living in some of the worst living conditions in the world.

    Cities in this Spanish model grow by having the outer ring progress to the point where eventually solid construction takes hold and city services are extended to accommodate the residents. When this ring reaches maturity, a new ring of squatter settlements emerges to form a new outer ring of the city. This development pattern is repeated, and the city continues to expand outward.

    Nowadays, the urban centers of Middle and South America are expanding at rapid rates. It is difficult to provide public services to the outer limits of many of the cities. The barrios or favelas become isolated communities, often complete with crime bosses and gang activities that replace municipal security.


    Spanish-American City Structure According to the Ford-Griffin Model.

    Key Takeaways
    • Haciendas were located chiefly in the mainland.
    • Plantations were located mainly in the rimland.
    • Both the hacienda and the plantation structures of agriculture altered the ethnic makeup of their respective regions.
    • The rimland had an African labor base.
    • The mainland had an indigenous labor base.
    • In their quest for wealth, Spanish conquistadors destroyed the Aztec Empire and colonized the Middle American mainland.
    • Much historical knowledge was lost with the demise of the learned class of the Aztec Empire.
    • Europeans introduced many new food crops and domesticated animals to the Americas and in turn, brought newly discovered agricultural products from America back to Europe.
    • The Spanish introduced the same style of urban planning to the Americas that was common in Spain.
    • Many cities in Middle and South America were patterned after Spanish models.

    Vocabulary Terms

    Chapter 4.1 Pre-Colonial and Post-Colonial Middle America
    colonialism The policy of maintaining colonies as a source of raw materials and new markets. Practiced during old and new imperialism
    colonization The actions or process of conquering another country or nation of people.
    Columbian Exchange The exchange of animals, plants, and diseases between America, Africa, and Europe following the voyage of Christopher Columbus. Trade from the Old World (Europe) to the new World (North and South America) and back.
    Old Imperialism A European policy of conquest that occurs in the 15th through 18th centuries in Africa, India, the Americas, and parts of Asia. The motives were the same for most areas, the establishment of lucrative trade routes. Various European countries dominated these trades routes and one time or another, and some countries, such as Great Britain and Spain, came to dominate entire countries.
    Latin America The Geopolitical designation for Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean Islands.
    Latin American Revolutions Political revolutions in various Latin American countries beginning in the late 18th century. These revolutions were aimed at overthrowing the European powers that controlled these nations. Many were successful, but few achieved the success of the American Revolution.
    Missionary A person who spreads the teachings of a religion.

    Applying Knowledge

    Interactive Notebook Activities

    1. Define the differences between the rimland and the mainland.
    2. Summarize the impact of European colonialism on Middle America.
    3. Explain the differences between the Mayan and Aztec Empires and identify which the Spanish defeated.
    4. Describe how the Spanish influenced urban development in Middle America.

    Discussion and Study Questions

    1. What are the three main regions of Middle America?
    2. What are the main distinctions between the mainland and the rimland?
    3. What are the differences between a hacienda and a plantation?
    4. What happened to the plantations and haciendas established during the colonial era?
    5. Why is Middle America often referred to as a part of “Latin America”?
    6. Who were the Aztec and the Maya, and when did their empires flourish? What happened to these empires?
    7. What are some ways that European colonialism affected this realm?
    8. What features were found at the center of town in the Spanish urban model?
    9. How did the Spanish organize the structure of their colonial cities?
    10. How does the Ford-Griffin Model illustrate the development of the Spanish-American city?

    Real-World Geography Exercise

    Using Google Maps, locate the places on the list below. Using scholarly resources on the Internet, research environmental problems happening in each one of the locations. Choose one for which you would like to help, and create a SWAY or PowerPoint presentation to persuade your audience to take action to help. Find facts, maps, photos, videos, and any other material necessary to create a powerful presentation.

    • Atlantic Ocean
    • Bahamas
    • Baja Peninsula
    • Caribbean Sea
    • Central America
    • Greater Antilles
    • Gulf of Mexico
    • Isthmus of Panama
    • Lesser Antilles
    • Mainland
    • Pacific Ocean
    • Rimland
    • Yucatán Peninsula

    Mapping Exercise

    Mapping Our World ESRI ARGIS Online Module 6 Lesson 1

    The Wealth of Nations: In this activity, students will use maps of percentages of GDP in the three sectors to explore patterns of development around the world. Students will also examine two other economic indicators — energy use and GDP per capita — and compare the maps of GDP in economic sectors to the maps of GDP per capita and energy use. Students will evaluate whether or not the economic sector criteria are good indicators of a country’s economic status.

    Student Answer Doc-download

    Student Assessment Doc-download

    Teacher Materials-download

    Videos for Geography Enrichment

    Helpful Websites for the Study of Geography

    Canadian Encyclopedia is an encyclopedia funded by the Canadian government covering all branches of knowledge. Their scholarly collection includes interactive materials.

    CIA World Factbook provides information on the people, history, government, economy, energy, geography, communications, transportation, military, and transnational issues for the world's entities. is a US government website where you can find federal legislation, past and present, as well as information about the US legal system.

    Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is a government agency website that provides current news, resources, topics of interest, information about drugs, careers in the DEA, and a tip hotline.

    Library of Congress is the largest library in the world and provides manuscripts, files, information, pictures, and videos.

    NASA Earth Observatory (NEO)  is a US government agency website that allows users to search for and retrieve satellite images of Earth.

    National Archives is a US government website that provides historical documents, photos, records, publications, and educator resources.

    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) is a US government agency website that provides weather-related information and ocean research.

    National Map is a website by the United States Geological Survey and other federal, state, and local agencies that deliver topographic information for the United States.

    NationMaster is a massive central data source and a handy way to graphically compare nations. 

    Real-Time World Air Quality Index is a website that measures most locations in the world for air pollution in real time.

    StateMaster  is a unique statistical database, which allows you to research and compare a multitude of different data on US states.

    United Nations (UN) is an international organization founded in 1945 and made up of 193 member states. The UN maintains international peace and security, protects human rights, delivers humanitarian aid, promotes sustainable development, and upholds international law.

    United States Census Bureau is a US government agency that provides a population clock, data, surveys, statistics, a library with information and infographics, news about the economy, and much more.

    United States Geological Survey (USGS) is a US government agency website that provides scientific information about the natural hazards that threaten lives, the natural resources we rely on, the health of our ecosystems and environment, and the impacts of climate and land-use change. is a US government website that provides the latest presidential news, information about the budget, policy, defense, and many more topics.

    World Health Organization (WHO) is under the United Nations and provides leadership on matters critical to health, shapes the research agenda on health, and monitors the health situation and assessing health trends around the world. Their website provides information on the state of health around the world, outbreaks, current health news, and more.

    World Trade Organization (WTO) is an intergovernmental organization that regulates international trade. The website provides information on the history of the multilateral trading system, featured videos, news and events, trade topics, and more.

    The Toltec, who briefly controlled central Mexico, came to power after the classical Mayan era. They also took control of portions of the old Mayan Empire from the north. The Aztec federation replaced the Toltec and Maya as the dominant civilization in southern Mexico. The Aztec, who expanded outward from their base in central Mexico, built the largest and greatest city in the Americans of the time known as Tenochtitlán. This city is estimated to have had a population of 100,000 people. Tenochtitlán was located at the present site of Mexico City, and it was from there that the Aztec expanded into the south and east to create an empire.

    Image Reference Attributions
    3553678-1529589462-09-44-rimland.jpg [Figure 1] Credit:
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0
    3553678-1529591692-64-35-512px-Tlatelolco_Marketplace.jpg [Figure 2] Credit: Joe Ravi [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0
    3553678-1529589992-27-7-Uxmal_Pyramid_of_the_Magician.jpg [Figure 3] Credit: By Sybz [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0
    3553678-1529590212-93-9-512px-TenochtitlanModel.jpg [Figure 4] Credit: By Thelmadatter [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0
    3553678-1529590449-8-73-f9c537ec6e8bcd1c4a5e7549113765aa.jpg [Figure 5] Credit: Photo by R. Berglee – CC BY-NC-SA.
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0
    3553678-1529590607-84-33-8907ef9b8ac7394592bfe9193c41bd06.jpg [Figure 6] Credit:
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0
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