A Brief History of Mexico


A Brief History of Mexico


The Beginnings


The first traces of human presence in what is now called Mexico date back more than 30,000 years. We know little about these early inhabitants because these groups of hunter-gatherers left no written records. The first major civilization in this territory was the Olmec civilization, which flourished between 1200 and 500 BCE and spread throughout Mesoamerica. Here too, the state of knowledge about them is rather basic, but we know that they had a form of writing and statehood and mastered advanced agricultural techniques that allowed their growth.


Following the decline of the Olmec civilization, other civilizations took over and divided the territory: Teotihuacan and the Toltecs in the Valley of Mexico, and the Mayans in the Yucatán Peninsula. These civilizations had varied relationships, ranging from commercial collaboration to war, depending on the time.


In 1325, the Aztecs, also known as Mexica, founded Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the capital of the most powerful and extensive state that had ever existed in what was not yet a unified country.


The Conquistadors and New Spain


Everything changed in 1519 with the arrival of the conquistadors led by Hernán Cortés. With decisive help from many tribes who were enemies of the Aztecs, they conquered the territory occupied by the Aztecs, and Mexico-Tenochtitlan fell into their hands in 1521. This marked the beginning of the colonization war of what the Spaniards would call New Spain, which would eventually cover a much larger territory than present-day Mexico (including vast portions of what is now the southern United States).


It was this three-century-long domination of Spain over Mexico that gave rise to what constitutes today its undeniably mixed identity. The missionaries sent by the Crown had little difficulty converting the indigenous populations, but Catholicism as it developed in Mexico (and Latin America as a whole) evolved in a way that is distinct from its European counterpart and retains traces of pre-Hispanic worship.


The indigenous population declined significantly due to the forced labor they were subjected to (the discovery of very important silver mines and the production of sugar cane and coffee for the Old World played a significant role) as well as epidemics. However, not all tribes were treated the same; those that had helped the conquistadors fared much better.




At the beginning of the 19th century, New Spain was no longer exactly under Castilian rule. The Napoleonic Wars had placed Joseph Bonaparte, the Emperor’s brother, on the Spanish throne. It was initially in reaction to this occupation, which they deemed unworthy, that the population rebelled, demanding the return of King Ferdinand VII. At that time, the population was divided between the Creoles, descendants of Spaniards born in America, the mestizos, and the indigenous people who made up half of the population. In 1810, a popular army led by the priest Miguel Hidalgo attempted to reclaim the country from the Spanish troops who occupied it on behalf of the French. This attempt failed but sparked the Mexican people's desire for self-determination.


Between September and November 1813, the Congress of Chilpancingo was held, at the end of which Mexican independence was declared. However, Spain did not recognize it until 1836, long after the proclamation of the Mexican Empire in 1821 and the ratification of a constitution in 1824. The independence fighters were fighting to maintain Catholicism as the sole religion of Mexico, showing the success of the country's evangelization over three centuries of occupation, and for the end of Spanish privileges in favor of the mestizos.