Izapan Civilization Dominates Mesoamerica Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Izapan civilization became the heart of a phenomenal cultural development, including early writing and calendrical customs; its Late Preclassic period stylistic impact was felt across the length and breadth of Mesoamerica.

Summary of Event

The ancient settlement of Izapa, Chiapas, Mexico, established and maintained one of the earliest and longest-lived periods of civic-ceremonial and urban development known anywhere in Mesoamerica. Established in the Early Preclassic (c. 2000-900 b.c.e.), or the period identified with the Formative era of Mesoamerican urban cultures, the site reached its zenith of construction, monumental elaboration, and pan-Mesoamerican influence by the Late Preclassic (c. 300 b.c.e. to 250 c.e.). The Izapan artistic tradition—marked by very elaborately carved bas-relief panels and a stela-altar complex (an altar placed before a stela carved with scenes from mythological narratives)—in turn peaked at 150 b.c.e. Despite this extraordinary period of urban development, culminating with the construction of some eighty platform mounds, the site remained viable and active in agricultural and commercial pursuits well into that period associated with the rise of the Mexica Aztec state c. 1400 c.e. Throughout the course of its history, Izapa and the civilization of which it was a part remained vigorous as the direct result of its near-total monopoly of the Soconusco and Pacific coastal Guatemalan cacao trade. Positioned as it was near the Pacific coastal piedmont, Izapa apparently drew its wealth, and thereby its cultural and commercial longevity, from its role as both intermediary and source for the exchange of the highly valued cacao plant and its byproduct, chocolate.

In addition to its strategic location for the exploitation of the cacao plant, Izapa was situated at a key commercial crossroads for overland transport and seaborne commercial interactions between Mesoamerica more generally, and the Guatemalan highlands and Pacific coastal piedmont more specifically. The cultural, commercial, and ritual importance of the cacao bean was clearly enhanced by virtue of its role as the basis of the primordial drink of the elite class and its widespread use as a form of currency throughout Mesoamerica. So important was the cacao plant that the early Preclassic Olmec civilization (c. 400 b.c.e.) left its stamp on the region and the much later Postclassic Mexica Aztec (c. 1375-1521 c.e.) launched imperial incursions and conquests in the region of Soconusco and Pacific coastal Guatemala for the purposes of usurping commercial and political control of this prime cacao-growing region. Combined with the fact that chocolate consumption is now dated to as early as 600 b.c.e., it now appears that the development of Izapan civilization parallels the origins and development of the cacao industry in Mesoamerica more generally.

Perhaps the most distinctive and culturally significant legacy of Izapan civilization was the development of a system of iconographic, glyphic, and calendrical forms of notation and computation in the early first century c.e. Although the original systems of notation and calendrical computation used by Izapan peoples are attributed to the Preclassic era Olmec peoples of the Gulf Coast regions of Veracruz and Tabasco, Mexico, their early use by Izapan peoples poses many questions regarding the relationships of these two groups. Clearly, the very early use of glyph-based forms of record keeping and the recording of secular narratives and dynastic histories at the core sites of Izapa, Mexico, and Abaj Takalik and El Baúl, Guatemala, have focused scholarly attention on the origins of what became a widespread pattern of monument making and civic-ceremonial embellishment through the use of glyphic texts.

Although clearly influenced by the culture and art forms of the Olmec civilization, Izapan civilization nevertheless produced some of the earliest indigenous iconographic conventions later found in Maya cities of the Guatemalan highlands, Peten lowlands, and beyond. Among the civic ceremonial elements that first make their appearance in Izapan urban centers—such as Izapa, Abaj Takalik, and Kaminaljuyú—are the early appearance of the stela-altar complex, sculpted images of the World Tree like that of Palenque, monolithic toad and frog altars or platforms like those of the later Maya site of Quirigua, sky and earth band iconographic elements, and a number of deities held prominent by the later Maya, including the gods labeled by archaeologists G1, G2, and K—the latter being the ubiquitous manikin scepter of Maya lords. In the case of the World Tree and the sky and earth bands, these are among the earliest such representations to be found anywhere in the Maya region.

Ultimately, the Izapan tradition made its mark across the length and breadth of Mesoamerica and the Maya regions of Central America. Any search of the literature on Mesoamerica will make clear that Izapan’s iconographic forms and cult themes were adopted throughout the Maya region, Oaxaca, and as far afield as the Mexican Gulf Coast culture areas of El Tajin, Veracruz, and highland central Mexico. Specific cult motifs attributed to Izapan civilization include trophy heads, scroll-eyed dragon masks, U-shaped symbols, descending sky deities, the so-called long-lipped god, and a veritable array of weaponry. The general narrative style and preponderance of relief carvings comprising both violent and elaborate compositions serves as a hallmark of the Izapan tradition. Despite the very early narrative style, the compositions of the type-site of Izapa in particular appear to focus on supernatural and secular themes such as those reflected in bas-relief images depicting acts of violence and warfare. The monuments of Abaj Takalik, on the other hand, depict rulers and other elite personages carved in bas-relief panels or on stelae replete with historical narratives. This latter combination of portrait narratives and dynastic texts was adopted directly by the Early Classic Maya. Moreover, this same narrative tradition, with probable Mixe-Zoquean and Isthmian-Izapan affinities, makes a reappearance in the elaborately carved monument known as Stela I from La Mojarra, Veracruz. Bearing dates of 143 and 156 c.e., the monument incorporates the Mixe-Zoquean glyphic script that is now generally accepted to have been the narrative tradition of the Isthmian or Izapan peoples of Pacific coastal Guatemala. As such, scholars now argue that, while Izapan civilization evolved from the earlier Miraflores and Olmec prototypes, Izapan iconographic conventions set the standard for later Maya dynastic reckoning and monument building.

Some of the earliest dated—albeit undeciphered—monuments and glyphs thus far recorded in Mesoamerica have been recovered from Izapan sites of the Pacific coastal lowlands and Guatemalan highlands dating between 35 b.c.e. and 36 c.e. However, this early use of both glyphic and calendrical notation on Izapan monuments nevertheless emerged subsequent to the appearance of Olmec and Olmecoid traits and cultural patterns of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and Pacific coastal Guatemala. Moreover, archaeological findings by Mary Pohl, Kevin Pope, and Christopher von Nagy provide indications for a growing body of evidence pertaining to the Olmec origin of Mesoamerican writing and calendar systems. Recent findings from the Preclassic Olmec site of La Venta, Veracruz, clearly antedate the Izapan developments; a cylinder seal and carved greenstone plaque bearing glyphs date as far back as 650 b.c.e. If the evidence for an Olmec origin of the Mixe-Zoquean glyphic and calendrical system is ultimately substantiated in other Olmec contexts as well, then age-old questions regarding the very early dates found at some Izapan settlements would prove moot.


The ultimate significance of Izapan civilization lies in its pioneering development of Late Preclassic narrative traditions and monumental works of art and sculpture devoted to the reckoning of dynastic succession in glyphic and calendrical contexts. This early formula ultimately served as the prototype for the emergence of the later Maya narrative tradition and stela and altar groupings of the Early Classic era (c. 300-600 c.e.). According to art historian Mary Ellen Miller, whereas iconographic and thematic conventions established at the site of Izapa contributed directly to the evolution of the mythic imagery of the Early Classic Maya, the works of the contemporary Izapan site of Abaj Takalik fostered the prototypes and iconographic conventions and forms that served later innovations in Maya historical portraiture. So pronounced was the influence of Izapan civilization on the earliest Maya civic-ceremonial pattern that archaeologist Michael Coe has characterized the primary distinction between the Early and Late Classic Maya as the displacement of the “strong Izapan element” evident in the Early Classic by the Teotihuacán pattern so evident in the Late Classic.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coe, Michael D. Breaking the Maya Code. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992. An intricately detailed and groundbreaking study of the history of decipherment of the Maya glyphic writing system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coe, Michael D. The Maya. 6th ed. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1999. A classic and well- illustrated overview of the rise and fall of Maya civilization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hassig, Ross. War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. A general overview of warfare in ancient Mesoamerica, with a discussion regarding the social dynamics of war and conflict during the Preclassic era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hunter, C. Bruce. A Guide to Ancient Maya Ruins. 2d ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1986. A popular guide to the archaeological zones of the Maya region, including both Mexico and Central America.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lowe, Gareth W., Thomas A. Lee, Jr., and Eduardo Martínez Espinoza. Izapa: An Introduction to the Ruins and Monuments. Provo, Utah: New World Archaeological Foundation, 1982. The most complete published study on the archaeological and art historical evidence from the cultural type-site of Izapa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marcus, Joyce. Mesoamerican Writing Systems: Propaganda, Myth, and History in Four Ancient Civilizations. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992. A comprehensive and detailed overview of Mesoamerican writing systems as seen from the vantage point of four early civilizations, including those of the Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Aztec.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Mary Ellen. The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec. 3d ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001. A general overview of the art and art history of ancient Mesoamerica spanning the Preclassic through Postclassic periods of Mesoamerican cultural history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pohl, Mary E. D., Kevin O. Pope, and Christopher von Nagy. “Olmec Origins of Mesoamerican Writing.” Science 298 (December 6, 2002). This article reports the recovery of a radiocarbon-dated cache that included a very early glyph-inscribed cylinder seal and carved greenstone plaque from the Olmec site of La Venta, Veracruz.

Categories: History