Tlatilco was one village of several spread around the great lake that once formed the center of what is today Mexico City. Tlatilco figurines are wonderful small ceramic figures, often of women, found in Central Mexico from 1500-1200 B.C.E. Some of the motifs found on other Tlatilco ceramics, such as ducks and fish, would have come directly from their lakeside surroundings.
The Olmecs lived in the low-lying Gulf Coast of what is now Mexico about 1200-400 B.C.E. at sites such as San Lorenzo and La Venta. These and the other Olmec centers included many of the features that would be associated with later civilizations in Central America including the Mexica (Aztecs) and Maya. Alongside impressive architecture, there is evidence of a ceremonial ball game and complex astrological calendars.
Teotihuacan culture is best known to us from the vast and ancient abandoned city north of what is now Mexico City. Here are massive pyramids, broad avenues, and complex urban planning that structured the lives of tens of thousands of inhabitants for centuries. Archaeologists are piecing together information from the architecture but also from burials, murals, sculpture and masks to try to better understand the place that the later Aztecs called , the City of the Gods.
The earliest Maya civilization began around 1800 B.C.E., and by 250 C.E. it was was one of the most sophisticated in the Americas. It extended from southeastern Mexico across modern-day Guatemala, Belize and the western parts of Honduras and El Salvador. The Maya developed a sophisticated writing system and used an elaborate calendar system. Their cities were renowned for their dramatic stepped pyramids. There are about six million Maya today.
The Aztec (or Mexica as they called themselves) were a small and obscure tribe when they settled in the Valley of Mexico and founded their capital, Tenochtitlan, in 1345. At the beginning of the sixteenth century Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) was one of the largest cities in the world and the Mexica empire stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and into Guatemala and Nicaragua. Hernán Cortés and his small Spanish army arrived in 1519 and overthrew the Mexica ruler Moctezuma Xocoyotzin.