The United Mexican States (Estados Unidos Mexicanos) is a federal republic located between latitudes 14° and 33°N, and longitudes 86° and 119°W in the southern portion of North America. Covering almost 761,606 square miles (1,972,550 square kilometers), México is the sixth largest country in the Americas by total area and the 13th largest independent nation in the world with 2,317 square miles (6,000 km²) of islands in the Pacific Ocean (including the remote Guadalupe Island and the Revillagigedo Islands), Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, and Gulf of California. From its farthest land points, Mexico is a little over 2,000 miles (3,219 km) in length.
On its north, México shares a 1,952-mile (3,141 km) border with the United States. The meandering Río Bravo del Norte (known as the Rio Grande in the United States) defines the border from Ciudad Juárez east to the Gulf of Mexico. A series of natural and artificial markers delineate the United States-Mexican border west from Ciudad Juárez to the Pacific Ocean. Donald Trump made the construction of a border wall (on the U.S. side) an element of his 2016 presidential campaign. On its south, México shares a 541-mile (871 km) border with Guatemala and a 156-mile (251 km) border with Belize. The country is also bordered to the south and west by the Pacific Ocean, to the southeast by the Caribbean Sea and to the east by the Gulf of Mexico.
México is crossed from north to south by two mountain ranges known as Sierra Madre Oriental and Sierra Madre Occidental, which are the extension of the Rocky Mountains from northern North America. From east to west at the center, the country is crossed by the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt also known as the Sierra Nevada. A fourth mountain range, the Sierra Madre del Sur, runs from Michoacán to Oaxaca. As such, the majority of the Mexican central and northern territories are located at high altitudes, and the highest elevations are found at the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt: Pico de Orizaba (18,701 feet or 5,700 meters), Popocatepetl (17,920 feet or 5,462 meters) and Iztaccihuatl (17,343 feet or 5,286 meters) and the Nevado de Toluca (15,016 feet or 4,577 meters). Three major urban agglomerations are located in the valleys between these four elevations: Toluca, Greater Mexico City and Puebla.
With an estimated population of over 120 million, México is the eleventh most populous country and the most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world while being the second most populous country in Latin America. It is a federation comprising 31 states and a federal district that is also its capital and most populous city. Other metropolises include Guadalajara, Monterrey, Puebla, Tijuana, and León.
Pre-Columbian México was home to many advanced Mesoamerican civilizations, such as the Olmec, Toltec, Teotihuacan, Zapotec, Maya and Aztec before first contact with Europeans. In 1521, the Spanish Empire conquered and colonized the territory from its base in Mexico-Tenochtitlan, which was administered as the viceroyalty of New Spain. Three centuries later, this territory became México following recognition in 1821 after the colony’s Mexican War of Independence. The tumultuous post-independence period was characterized by economic instability and many political changes. The Mexican–American War (1846–48) led to the territorial cession of the extensive northern borderlands, one-third of its territory, to the United States. The Pastry War, the Franco-Mexican War, a civil war, two empires and a domestic dictatorship occurred through the nineteenth century. The dictatorship was overthrown in the Mexican Revolution of 1910, which culminated with the promulgation of the 1917 Constitution and the emergence of the country’s current political system. Due to its rich culture and history, México ranks first in the Americas and seventh in the world by number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Mēxihco is the Nahuatl term for the heartland of the Aztec Empire, namely, the Valley of México, and its people, the Mexica, and surrounding territories. This became the future State of México as a division of New Spain prior to independence. After New Spain won independence from Spain, representatives decided to name the new country after its capital, Mexico City. This was founded in 1524 on top of the ancient Mexica capital of México-Tenochtitlan.
It has been suggested that it is derived from Mextli or Mēxihtli, a secret name for the god of war and patron of the Mexica, Huitzilopochtli, in which case Mēxihco means “Place where Huitzilopochtli lives”. Another hypothesis suggests that Mēxihco derives from a portmanteau of the Nahuatl words for “Moon” (Mētztli) and navel (xīctli). This meaning (“Place at the Center of the Moon”) might refer to Tenochtitlan’s position in the middle of Lake Texcoco. The system of interconnected lakes, of which Texcoco formed the center, had the form of a rabbit, which the Mesoamericans pareidolically associated with the Moon. Still another hypothesis suggests that the word is derived from Mēctli, the goddess of maguey.
The name of the city-state was transliterated to Spanish as México with the phonetic value of the letter ‘x’ in Medieval Spanish, which represented the voiceless postalveolar fricative [ʃ]. This sound, as well as the voiced postalveolar fricative [ʒ], represented by a ‘j‘, evolved into a voiceless velar fricative [x] during the sixteenth century. This led to the use of the variant Méjico in many publications in Spanish, most notably in Spain, whereas in Mexico and most other Spanish–speaking countries México was the preferred spelling. In recent years the Real Academia Española, which regulates the Spanish language, determined that both variants are acceptable in Spanish but that the normative recommended spelling is México. The majority of publications in all Spanish-speaking countries now adhere to the new norm, even though the alternative variant is still occasionally used. In English, the ‘x‘ in México represents neither the original nor the current sound, but the consonant cluster [ks].
The official name of the country has changed as the form of government has changed. The deceleration of independence signed on November 6, 1813 by the deputies of the Congress of Anáhuac called the territory América Septentrional (Northern America). On two occasions (1821–1823 and 1863–1867), the country was known as Imperio Mexicano (Mexican Empire). All three federal constitutions (1824, 1857 and 1917, the current constitution) used the name Estados Unidos Mexicanos — or the variant Estados-Unidos Mexicanos, all of which have been translated as “United Mexican States”. The phrase República Mexicana, “Mexican Republic”, was used in the 1836 Constitutional Laws.
The earliest human artifacts in México are chips of stone tools found near campfire remains in the Valley of México and radiocarbon-dated to circa 10,000 years ago. México is the site of the domestication of maize, tomato and beans, which produced an agricultural surplus. This enabled the transition from paleo-Indian hunter-gatherers to sedentary agricultural villages beginning around 5000 BCE.
In the subsequent formative eras, maize cultivation and cultural traits such as a mythological and religious complex, and a vigesimal numeric system, were diffused from the Mexican cultures to the rest of the Mesoamerican culture area. In this period, villages became more dense in terms of population, becoming socially stratified with an artisan class, and developing into chiefdoms. The most powerful rulers had religious and political power, organizing construction of large ceremonial centers developed.
The earliest complex civilization in México was the Olmec culture, which flourished on the Gulf Coast from around 1500 BCE. Olmec cultural traits diffused through Mexico into other formative-era cultures in Chiapas, Oaxaca and the Valley of México. The formative period saw the spread of distinct religious and symbolic traditions, as well as artistic and architectural complexes. The formative-era of Mesoamerica is considered one of the six independent cradles of civilization.
In the subsequent pre-classical period, the Maya and Zapotec civilizations developed complex centers at Calakmul and Monte Albán, respectively. During this period the first true Mesoamerican writing systems were developed in the Epi-Olmec and the Zapotec cultures. The Mesoamerican writing tradition reached its height in the Classic Maya Hieroglyphic script.
In central México, the height of the classic period saw the ascendancy of Teotihuacan, which formed a military and commercial empire whose political influence stretched south into the Maya area as well as north. Teotihuacan, with a population of more than 150,000 people, had some of the largest pyramidal structures in the pre-Columbian Americas. After the collapse of Teotihuacán around 600 CE, competition ensued between several important political centers in central México such as Xochicalco and Cholula. At this time, during the Epi-Classic, Nahua peoples began moving south into Mesoamerica from the North, and became politically and culturally dominant in central Mexico, as they displaced speakers of Oto-Manguean languages.
The Nahua peoples began to enter central México in the sixth century AD. By the twelfth century, they had established their center at Azcapotzalco, the city of the Tepanecs.
The Mexica people arrived in the Valley of México in 1248 AD. They had migrated from the deserts north of the Rio Grande over a period traditionally said to have been 100 years. They may have thought of themselves as the heirs to the prestigious civilizations that had preceded them.
Alexander von Humboldt originated the modern usage of “Aztec” as a collective term applied to all the people linked by trade, custom, religion, and language to the Mexica state and Ēxcān Tlahtōlōyān, the Triple Alliance. In 1843, with the publication of the work of William H. Prescott, it was adopted by most of the world, including nineteenth-century Mexican scholars who considered it a way to distinguish present-day Mexicans from pre-conquest Mexicans. This usage has been the subject of debate since the late twentieth century.
What the Aztec initially lacked in political power, they made up for them with ambition and military skill. In 1325, they established the biggest city in the world at that time, Tenochtitlan.
In 1428, the Aztec led a war against their rulers from the city of Azcapotzalco, which had subjugated most of the Valley of México’s peoples. The revolt was successful, and the Aztecs became the rulers of central México as the leaders of the Triple Alliance. The alliance was composed of the city-states of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan.
The Aztec empire was an informal or hegemonic empire because it did not exert supreme authority over the conquered lands; it was satisfied with the payment of tributes from them. It was a discontinuous empire because not all dominated territories were connected; for example, the southern peripheral zones of Xoconochco were not in direct contact with the center. The hegemonic nature of the Aztec empire was demonstrated by their restoration of local rulers to their former position after their city-state was conquered. The Aztec did not interfere in local affairs, as long as the tributes were paid.
Aztec religion was based on the belief in the continual need for regular offering of human blood to keep their deities beneficent; to meet this need, the Aztec sacrificed thousands of people. This belief is thought to have been common throughout Nahuatl people. To acquire captives in times of peace, the Aztec resorted to a form of ritual warfare called flower war. The Tlaxcalteca, among other Nahuatl nations, were forced into such wars.
At their peak, 350,000 Aztec presided over a wealthy tribute-empire comprising 10 million people, almost half of Mexico’s estimated population of 24 million. Their empire stretched from ocean to ocean, and extended into Central America. The westward expansion of the empire was halted by a devastating military defeat at the hands of the Purepecha (who possessed weapons made of copper).
The empire relied upon a system of taxation of goods and services, which were collected through an elaborate bureaucracy of tax collectors, courts, civil servants, and local officials who were installed as loyalists to the Triple Alliance.
The postal system of México began with the Aztecs, who operated a system of messengers.
By 1519, the Aztec capital, México-Tenochtitlan, the site of modern-day México City, was one of the largest cities in the world, with an estimated population between 200,000 and 300,000.
The first mainland explorations by the Spanish were followed by a phase of inland expeditions and conquest. The Spanish crown extended the Reconquista effort, completed in Spain in 1492, to non-Catholic people in new territories. In 1502 on the coast of present-day Colombia, near the Gulf of Urabá, Spanish explorers led by Vasco Núñez de Balboa explored and conquered the area near the Atrato River.
The conquest was of the Chibcha-speaking nations, mainly the Muisca and Tairona indigenous people that lived here. The Spanish founded San Sebastian de Uraba in 1509—abandoned within the year, and in 1510 the first permanent Spanish mainland settlement in America, Santa María la Antigua del Darién.
The first Europeans to arrive in what is modern day México were the survivors of a Spanish shipwreck in 1511. Only two managed to survive — Gerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero —until further contact was made with Spanish explorers years later. On February 8, 1517, an expedition led by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba left the harbor of Santiago de Cuba to explore the shores of southern México.
During the course of this expedition many of Hernández’ men were killed, most during a battle near the town of Champotón against a Maya army. He himself was injured, and died a few days shortly after his return to Cuba. This was the Europeans’ first encounter with an advanced civilization in the Americas, with solidly built buildings and a complex social organization which they recognized as being comparable to those of the Old World.
The Spanish first learned of México during the Juan de Grijalva expedition of 1518. The natives kept “repeating: Colua, Colua, and México, México, but we [explorers] did not know what Colua or México meant”, until encountering Montezuma’s governor at the mouth of the Rio de las Banderas.
The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire began in February 1519 when Hernán Cortés arrived at the port in present day Verarcuz with approximately 500 conquistadores. After taking control of that city on April 22, 1519, he moved on to the Aztec capital. In his search for gold and other riches, Cortés decided to invade and conquer the Aztec empire.
In general the “Spanish conquest of México” denotes the conquest of the central region of Mesoamerica where the Aztec Empire was based. The fall of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1521 was a decisive event, but Spaniards conquered other regions of Mexico, such as Yucatán, extended long after Spaniards consolidated control of central Mexico. The Spanish conquest of Yucatán is the much longer campaign, from 1551 to 1697, against the Maya peoples of the Maya civilization in the Yucatán Peninsula of present-day México and northern Central America.
When the Spaniards arrived, the ruler of the Aztec empire was Moctezuma II, who was later killed. His successor and brother Cuitláhuac took control of the Aztec empire, but was among the first to fall from the first smallpox epidemic in the area a short time later. Unintentionally introduced by Spanish conquerors, among whom smallpox was endemic, the infectious disease ravaged Mesoamerica in the 1520s. The indigenous peoples, who had no immunity to it, eventually died in the millions. A third of all the natives of the Valley of México succumbed to it within six months of Spaniards arrival.
Severely weakened, the Aztec empire was easily defeated by Cortés and his forces on his second return with the help of state of Tlaxcala whose population estimate was 300,000. The native population declined 80–90% by 1600 to 1–2.5 million. Any population estimate of pre-Columbian México is bound to be a guess but 8–12 million is often suggested for the area encompassed by the modern nation. The deaths caused by smallpox are believed to have triggered a rapid growth of Christianity in México and the Americas. At first, the Aztecs believed the epidemic was a punishment from an angry god, but they later accepted their fate and no longer resisted the Spanish rule. Many of the surviving Aztecs believed that smallpox could be credited to the superiority of the Christian god, which resulted in their acceptance of Catholicism and yielding to the Spanish rule throughout México.
Tenochtitlan was almost completely destroyed by fire and cannon shots. Those Aztecs who survived were forbidden to live in the city and the surrounding isles, and they went to live in Tlatelolco. Cortés imprisoned the royal families of the valley. To prevent another revolt, he personally tortured and killed Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec Emperor; Coanacoch, the King of Texcoco, and Tetlepanquetzal, King of Tlacopan.
The Spanish had no intention to turn over Tenochtitlan to the Tlaxcalteca. While Tlaxcalteca troops continued to help the Spaniards, and Tlaxcala received better treatment than other indigenous nations, the Spanish eventually disowned the treaty. Forty years after the conquest, the Tlaxcalteca had to pay the same tribute as any other indigenous community.
The fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521 marked the beginning of a 300-year-long colonial era during which México was known as Nueva España (New Spain). México City was systematically rebuilt by Cortés on the ruins of Tenochtitlan. The Kingdom of New Spain was created from the remnants of the Aztec hegemonic empire. Subsequent enlargements, such as the conquest of the Tarascan state, resulted in the creation of the Viceroyalty of New Spain in 1535. The Viceroyalty at its greatest extent included the territories of modern México, Central America as far south as Costa Rica, and the western United States. The Viceregal capital México City also administrated the Spanish West Indies (The Caribbean), the Spanish East Indies (The Philippines) and Spanish Florida.
The indigenous population stabilized around one to one and a half million individuals in the seventeenth century from the most commonly accepted five to ten million pre-contact population. During the three hundred years of the colonial era, México received some 400,000 to half a million Europeans, 200,000 to 250,000 Africans and 40,000 to 120,000 Asians. The eighteenth century saw a great increase in the percentage of mestizos.
The rich deposits of silver, particularly in Zacatecas and Guanajuato, resulted in silver extraction dominating the economy of New Spain. Taxes on silver production became a major source of income for Spain. Other important industries were the haciendas (functioning under the encomienda and repartimiento systems) and mercantile activities in the main cities and ports. Wealth created during the colonial era spurred the development of New Spanish Baroque.
As a result of its trade links with Asia, the rest of the Americas, Africa and Europe and the profound effect of New World silver, central México was one of the first regions to be incorporated into a globalized economy. Being at the crossroads of trade, people and cultures, México City has been called the “first world city”. The Nao de China (Manila Galleons) operated for two and a half centuries and connected New Spain with Asia. From Veracruz, goods would be taken to Atlantic ports in the Americas and Spain. Veracruz was also the main port of entry in mainland New Spain for European goods and immigrants and African slaves. The Camino Real de Tierra Adentro connected México City with the interior of New Spain.
As a colony, México was part of the much larger Viceroyalty of New Spain, which included Cuba, Puerto Rico, Central America as far south as Costa Rica, the southwestern United States as well as Florida, and the Philippines. Hernán Cortés had conquered the great empire of the Aztecs and established New Spain as the largest and most important Spanish colony. During the sixteenth century, Spain focused on conquering areas with dense populations that had produced Pre-Columbian civilizations, because such populations were a disciplined labor force and a population to catechize. Territories populated by nomadic peoples were harder to conquer, and although the Spanish explored much of North America, seeking the fabled “El Dorado”, they made no concerted effort to settle the northern desert regions in what is now the United States until the establishment of Santa Fe in 1598.
Colonial law with native origins but with Spanish historical precedents was introduced, creating a balance between local jurisdiction (the Cabildos) and the Crown’s, whereby upper administrative offices were closed to natives, even those of pure Spanish blood. Administration was based on a racial separation of the population among the Republics of Spaniards, Indians and Mestizos, autonomous and directly dependent on the king. The population of New Spain was divided into four main groups, or classes. The group a person belonged to was determined by racial background and birthplace. The most powerful group was the Spaniards, people born in Spain and sent across the Atlantic to rule the colony. Only Spaniards could hold high-level jobs in the colonial government.
The second group, called creoles (criollos), were people of Spanish background but born in México. Many creoles were prosperous landowners and merchants. But even the wealthiest creoles had little say in government.
The third group, the mestizos, were people who had some Spanish ancestors and some Indian ancestors. The word mestizo means “mixed”. Mestizos had a much lower position and were looked down upon by both the Spaniards and the creoles, who held the racist belief that people of pure European background were superior to everyone else.
The poorest, most marginalized group in New Spain was the Indians, descendants of pre-Columbian peoples. They had less power and endured harsher conditions than other groups. Indians were forced to work as laborers on the ranches and farms (called haciendas) of the Spaniards and creoles.
In addition to the four main groups, there were also some black Africans in colonial Mexico. These black African were imported as laborers and shared the low status of the Indians. They made up about 4% to 5% of the population, and their mixed-race descendants, called mulattoes, eventually grew to represent about 9%.
From an economic point of view, New Spain was administered principally for the benefit of the Empire and its military and defensive efforts. México provided more than half of the Empire taxes and supported the administration of all North and Central America. Competition with the metropolis was discouraged; for example cultivation of grapes and olives, introduced by Cortés himself, was banned out of fear that these crops would compete with Spain’s.
To protect the country from the attacks by English, French and Dutch pirates, as well as the Crown’s revenue, only two ports were open to foreign trade — Veracruz on the Atlantic and Acapulco on the Pacific. Pirates attacked, plundered and ravaged several cities like Campeche (1557), Veracruz (1568) and Alvarado (1667).
Education was encouraged by the Crown from the very beginning, and México boasts the first primary school (Texcoco, 1523), first university, the University of México (1551) and the first printing press (1524) in the Americas. Indigenous languages were studied mainly by the religious orders during the first centuries, and became official languages in the so-called Republic of Indians, only to be outlawed and ignored after independence by the prevailing Spanish-speaking creoles.
Hernán Cortés continued using the postal system of messengers started by the Aztecs after the 1521 conquest. After 1579, the right to operate the posts was farmed out to members of the nobility, who were known as Correo Mayor de la Nueva España. The most important part of their operation was the route between Mexico City and Veracruz.
In 1742, the administrator of posts in Madrid was ordered to improve the Mexican postal system, resulting in the 1745 establishment of a weekly post between Mexico City and Oaxaca. This was followed in 1748 by a monthly service to Guatemala. In 1765, the Spanish crown bought back the rights to the postal service, effectively “nationalizing” the posts.
During the Colonial period and continuing up to the introduction of adhesive stamps, letters were typically sent collect, the postage to be paid by the recipient upon arrival. The covers, or envelopes in which the letters were sent, were stamped by hand with the name of the originating town, and typically with a number representing the charge for postage, e.g., 3 for 3 reales. Occasionally, mail was sent postage pre-paid, in which case the envelope would be marked Franca or Franco or Franqueado.
According to The Pre-Stamp Markings of Mexico by Otto Yag and John K. Bash (1965), some handstamps date to the 1720s and the earliest known stamped postmark on a dated cover is a Veracruz mark from 1736. Most post offices, principal and branch, had handstamps during the late colonial period.
Covers from the colonial period up until the third quarter of the 1800s typically showed only the addressee’s name and city; a street address was not written. These letters were not delivered to the addressee. Instead, the letters would be held at the local post office and advertised on posted lists or in newspapers. Many of the recipients were well known businessmen or politicians. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, larger cities employed postmen to deliver the mail.
México produced important cultural achievements during the colonial period, like the literature of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Ruiz de Alarcón, as well as cathedrals, civil monuments, forts and colonial cities such as Puebla, Mexico City, Querétaro, Zacatecas and others.
The syncretism between indigenous and Spanish cultures gave rise to many Mexican cultural traits like tequila (first distilled in the sixteenth century), jarabe and charreria (in the seventeenth century, mariachi (eighteenth century), and the highly prized Mexican cuisine, the fruit of the mixture of European and indigenous ingredients and techniques.
The creoles, mestizos, and Indians often disagreed, but all resented the small minority of Spaniards who had all the political power. By the early 1800s, many native-born Mexicans believed that Mexico should become independent of Spain, following the example of the United States.
Inspired by the American and French Revolutions, Mexican insurgents saw an opportunity in 1808 as the king abdicated in Madrid and Spain was overwhelmed by war and occupation. The rebellion began as an idealistic peasants’ and miners’ movement led by a local Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla who issued “The Cry of Dolores” on September 16, 1810, in the small town of Dolores, Guanajuato. The first insurgent group was formed by Hidalgo, the Spanish viceregal army captain Ignacio Allende, the militia captain Juan Aldama and “La Corregidora” Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez. Shouting “Independence and death to the Spaniards!” the insurgents marched with a very large, poorly organized army. It was routed by the Spanish and Hidalgo was executed. Hidalgo and some of his soldiers were captured and executed by firing squad in Chihuahua, on July 31, 1811. Following his death, the leadership was assumed by priest José María Morelos, who occupied key southern cities and was more successful in his quest for republicanism and independence.
In 1813, the Congress of Chilpancingo was convened and, on November 6, signed the “Solemn Act of the Declaration of Independence of Northern America”. Spain’s monarchy was restored in 1814 after Napoleon’s defeat. It fought back, capturing Morelos and executing him on December 22, 1815. The scattered insurgents formed guerrilla bands.
In subsequent years, the insurgency was near collapse, but in 1820 Viceroy Juan Ruiz de Apodaca sent an army under the criollo general Agustín de Iturbide against the troops of Vicente Guerrero. Instead, Iturbide approached Guerrero to join forces, and on August 24, 1821, representatives of the Spanish Crown and Iturbide signed the “Treaty of Córdoba” and the “Declaration of Independence of the Mexican Empire”, which recognized the independence of México under the terms of the “Plan of Iguala”. After independence, Mexican politics was chaotic. The presidency changed hands 75 times in the next 55 years (1821–76).
Agustín de Iturbide became constitutional emperor of the First Mexican Empire in 1822. A revolt against him in 1823 established the United Mexican States. In 1824, a Republican Constitution was drafted and Guadalupe Victoria became the first president of the newly born country. In 1829, president Guerrero abolished slavery. The first decades of the post-independence period were marked by economic instability, which led to the Pastry War in 1836. There was constant strife between liberales, supporters of a federal form of government, and conservadores, who proposed a hierarchical form of government.
During this period, the frontier borderlands to the north became quite isolated from the government in México City, and its monopolistic economic policies caused suffering. With limited trade, the people had difficulty meeting tax payments and resented the central government’s actions in collecting customs. Resentment built up from California to Texas. Both the mission system and the presidios had collapsed after the Spanish withdrew from the colony, causing great disruption especially in Alta California and New México. The people in the borderlands had to raise local militias to protect themselves from hostile Native Americans. These areas developed in different directions from the center of the country.
In the 1820s, both the British and French began packet service to Veracruz. A British postal agent operated at Veracruz 1825–1874 and at Tampico from around 1840 to 1876. While both were supplied with British stamps, only the Tampico stamps were used (obliterator C76). The British service ran continuously until 1914, while French service ended in 1835, was restored in 1862 as the Ligne de Mexico and continued until 1939. Next to the Mexican, British and French post offices and agents, Mexico had a good number of forwarding agents, most of which operated in the nineteenth century.
Wanting to stabilize and develop the frontier, México encouraged immigration into present-day Texas, as they were unable to persuade people from central México to move into those areas. They allowed for religious freedom for the new settlers, who were primarily Protestant English speakers from the United States. Within several years, the Anglos far outnumbered the Tejano in the area. Itinerant traders traveled through the area, working by free market principles. The Tejano grew more separate from the government and due to its neglect, many supported the idea of independence and joined movements to that end, collaborating with the English-speaking Americans.
General Antonio López de Santa Anna, a centralist and two-time dictator, approved the Siete Leyes in 1836, a radical amendment that institutionalized the centralized form of government. When he suspended the 1824 Constitution, civil war spread across the country. Three new governments declared independence: the Republic of Texas, the Republic of the Rio Grande and the Republic of Yucatán.
The 1846 United States annexation of the Republic of Texas and subsequent American military incursion into territory that was part of Coahuila (also claimed by Texas) instigated the Mexican–American War. The war was settled in 1848 via the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. México was forced to give up more than one-third of its land to the U.S., including Alta California, Santa Fe de Nuevo México and the territory claimed by Texas. A much smaller transfer of territory in what is today southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico — known as the Gadsden Purchase — occurred in 1854.
The Caste War of Yucatán, the Maya uprising that began in 1847, was one of the most successful modern Native American revolts. Maya rebels, or Cruzob, maintained relatively independent enclaves in the peninsula until the 1930s.
President Don Ignacio Comonfort, authorized the prepayment of postage using adhesive stamps by decree of February 21, 1856. New regulations were drawn up and were supposed to be published on July 15, but problems with the engraving delayed this until July 31. On August 1, 1856, México issued its first postage stamps. The design, a portrait of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the parish priest who led an unsuccessful bid for Mexican independence in 1810, reflected the reform politics of the Comonfort government. The stamps were somewhat crudely engraved and imperforate. Five values were issued from 1856-1859; ½ real, 1 real, 2 reales, 4 reales, and 8 reales (Scott #1-5). The 1-real and 2-reales stamps were printed in sheets of 60 with wide spacing between the stamps and in sheets of 190 or 200 with narrow spacing. The stamps usually, but not always, had district overprints with the name of the district post office which were added as an anti-theft device. These overprints came into use in 1856 and continued officially until the end of 1883.
The Mexican postal system divided the country into about 50 “districts”, each of which had a main office and a number of suboffices. The district office ordered stamps from México City, they would be shipped by stagecoach unoverprinted, and then the district office would handstamp each stamp with the name of the district. The overprinted stamps would then both be sold directly to postal customers, and shipped to suboffices. In theory, only overprinted stamps were valid for postage, but given the error potential of applying the marking to each individual stamp, a small number of unoverprinted uses are known. Also, some offices failed to comply with orders and simply sold their stamps unoverprinted.
In 1864, the system was refined by shipping the stamps from México City with an invoice number and year already overprinted.
Sometimes the district office’s overprint included a number designating the suboffice for which the stamps were intended, and occasionally suboffices applied their own handstamps. Larger offices had several different designs of handstamp in use; México City used five different devices to handstamp the stamps of 1856, each with a different appearance, while the districts of Guadalajara, Guanajuato, Puebla, Querétaro, and San Luis Potosí each had three devices.
The color of the district name was almost always black, but red, blue, and violet overprints are known. For a period in 1858, the postmaster of Zacatecas, who had fled the city for Aguascalientes to escape the fighting during the Reform War, but had left his handstamp, wrote in “Zacatecas” by hand.
For many years, philatelists were mystified by the overprints, until Samuel Chapman, a British businessman living in México, took an interest and researched the postal archives. His 1926 book, Postage Stamps of Mexico 1856-1868, includes extensive detail on the shipments to the various districts. Many of the overprints are rare, and command high prices among specialists in Mexican stamps. They have also been forged.
Dissatisfaction with Santa Anna’s return to power led to the liberal “Plan of Ayutla”, initiating an era known as La Reforma. The new Constitution drafted in 1857 established a secular state, federalism as the form of government, and several freedoms. As the conservadores refused to recognize it, the Reform War began in 1858, during which both groups had their own governments. The war ended in 1861 with victory by the Liberals, led by president Benito Juárez, who was an ethnic Zapotec.
In 1861, the Hidalgo stamps were reissued in new colors on variously colored paper (Scott #6-12). As in the first issue they were issued both with and without district overprints, but in lower numbers. In 1864, México issued with a stamp with a finely engraved image of Hidalgo printed by the American Bank Note Company in New York by order of President Juárez. The stamps were perforated and issued in four values: 1 real, 2 reales, 4 reales and 1 peso (Scott #14-17), and were issued both with and without district overprints. Although they were intended for general use, they were soon replaced by the first issue of the Second Mexican Empire and are known to have been used only in Monterrey and Saltillo. Used copies are rare and expensive.
Between January 6 and 8, 1862, French troops invaded México, supported by Mexican monarchists, many of whom were part of the nobility, ultimately capturing México City on July 10, 1863. The French proclaimed a Catholic Empire in México and installed the Habsburg Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria as Emperor of the Second Mexican Empire. Maximilian arrived in México on May 28 or 29. 1864, with his consort, Charlotte of Belgium.
On May 15, 1864, the regency replaced the existing stamps with the Eagle stamps depicting the coat of arms of México, an eagle killing a snake. A crown was added to the eagle to indicate the monarchy and the spelling was changed from “Mejico” to “México.” The stamps were engraved and issued imperforate. Five values were initially issued; ½ real, 1 real, 2 reales, 4 reales and 8 reales, to which a 3 centavo. was added in 1865 (Scott #18-25). The stamps were shipped from Mexico City to the district offices where the district name usually would be added to validate the stamps. Starting in July 1864, the stamps were overprinted with the year and an invoice number prior to shipment to the districts. The various overprints were made in different sizes and based on such variations, specialists have distinguished five separate issues, referred to as “1st” through “5th” period eagles. This issue is very popular with collectors and detailed studies have been made of the issue, including information obtained from surviving postal records.
On August 1, 1866, the regency issued a new set of stamps depicting a profile bust of Emperor Maximilian. This issue was lithographed, rather poorly, and issued imperforate. The regency had previously changed the official currency under which one peso equaled 8 reales to a decimal system in which one peso equaled 100 centavos. In making the conversion, postal rates were rounded up, for example, the rate of one real being equal to 12.5 centavos was rounded up to 13 centavos. The stamps, as a result, were issued in values of 7 centavos, 13 centavos, 25 centavos, and 50 centavos (Scott #26-30). These stamps were issued with the year and invoice number and with or without the district name, but some issued in exchange for Eagle stamps were issued only with the Mexico City district name.
On October 16, 1866, the lithographed Maximilians were replaced with a finely engraved version of the same design and values (Scott #31-34). The lithographed printings had a round period after the value numerals while the engraved printings had a square period. These were issued imperforate and with year and invoice number, with or without district name.
Maximilian’s Empire was never in control of the entire country and was in constant battle with Republican forces led by the ousted president Benito Juárez. The conservadores switched sides and joined the liberales. Juárez eventually set up a government in exile in Chihuahua. Parts of the country not in control of the regency would not use stamps bearing Maximilian’s image and issued a few provisional stamps. More commonly those areas reverted to using pre-stamp postal markings with “franco” stamps. These stampless covers issued after the advent of adhesive stamps are known to philatelists of Mexico as “Sellos Negro“, or “Black (hand)stamps”.
Republican forces continued their opposition and the French ultimately evacuated México City on February 5, 1867. Maximilian was captured in Querétaro on May 15, 1867, and executed on June 19. The republic was restored, President Juárez returned to power, and the 1857 Constitution reinstated as the supreme law of the nation. As a provisional measure, remainders of the 1861 Hidalgo issue were overprinted with Mexico handstamped in Gothic letters (Scott #35-45). Gothic overprints also were added to new printings of the 2 and 4 reales stamps. Some of these stamps are extremely rare and expensive.
On September 8, 1868, México issued a new Hidalgo design, referred to by collectors as the “Full Faced Hidalgo”. The stamps were lithographed and issued both with and without perforations in denominations of 6 centavos, 12 centavos, 25 centavos, 50 centavos, and 100 centavos. Two issues have been identified, the first with the numbers thinner and without a period (Scott #46-57); the second issue with thicker numbers followed by a period (Scott #58-70). There also are a multitude of minor variants and plate flaws. Four kinds of perforations are found on the perforated stamps: serrate, square, pin, and regular. The narrow spacings between stamps was inadequate for some of these perforation types.
In early 1872, it was announced that new stamps would soon be issued. When they were not ready on time, a number of the Full Faced Hidalgo stamps which had been demonetized and returned to México City were re-issued overprinted with the word Anotado, meaning “accounted for” (Scott #71-80). These stamps were only used briefly until the new stamps were available. The new Hidalgo stamps were issued on April 2, 1872, lithographed and issued both imperforate and perforated, in values of 6 centavos, 12 centavos, 25 centavos, 50 centavos, and 100 centavos (Scott #81-104). This issue has been less popular with collectors and has been called “the nadir of Mexican stamp design.”
During this period, some stamps were bisected or cut in half, and sometimes cut into three-quarters, quarters (quadrisected) and eighths pieces and used as postage for the proportionate value of a full stamp.
The 1872 Hidalgo issue marked the end of the earlier period of Mexican stamp production with mostly crude designs and poor printing, and with a distinct Mexican character. On Cinco de Mayo, 1874, the first stamps of a new Hidalgo issue were issued (Scott #105-111). These stamps were printed in New York by the American Bank Note Company and were professionally engraved on steel plates, with intricate machine turned designs like those on paper currency. In design and execution, this “Bank Note” issue closely resembles contemporary stamps manufactured by United States bank note companies for other Latin American countries such as Argentina and Brazil as well as the United States. Late in 1877, the printing plates were sent to México City, and thereafter the stamps were printed in México (Scott #112-122). There are a great number of varieties of this issue with differences in the overprints and type of paper and watermarks.
Porfirio Díaz, a republican general during the French intervention, was elected the 29th president in 1876. The 1880 election was won by Manuel González Flores.
In 1879, México joined the Universal Postal Union which required standard rates for international mail, that were actually lower than México’s domestic rates. México accordingly released a new issue depicting Juárez for exclusive use on international mail (Scott #123-130). District overprints continued through 1883 after which they were no longer required.
Díaz was reelected president in 1884 and ruled until 1911. The period, known as the Porfiriato, was characterized by economic stability and growth, significant foreign investment and influence, investments in the arts and sciences and an expansion of the railroad network and telecommunications. The period was concurrent with the Gilded Age in the United States and Belle Époque in France and was also marked by economic inequality and political repression.
Díaz ruled with a group of confidants that became known as the científicos (“scientists”). The most influential cientifco was Secretary of Finance José Yves Limantour. The Porfirian regime was influenced by positivism. They rejected theology and idealism in favor of scientific methods being applied towards national development. Various iconic buildings and monuments were initiated by Díaz, including the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Palacio de Correos de México, Monumento a la Independencia and the Palacio Legislativo (which became the Monumento a la Revolución).
In 1895, México issued a series of stamps depicting various methods of delivering mail, including a letter carrier, a mail coach and a mail train. Philatelists call this the “Mulitas” issue (little mules), after the four and 12 centavos stamps depicting a mule carrying a pack of mail followed by a mailman on horse (Scott #242-291). This issue has a great number of variants, including different perforations and watermarks, and is assigned 50 major (and many minor) catalog numbers in the Scott catalogue.
In 1899, a definitive stamp series depicting the Mexican coat of arms with the eagle and snake for the lower values and images of Mexican landmarks such as the National Cathedral for the higher values (Scott #294-303). The authorities had been dissatisfied with the quality of the locally produced Mulitas issue, and had this finely engraved issue manufactured by Bradbury Wilkinson and Company in London. This was followed in 1910 with an issue commemorating México’s centenary of independence and depicting important Mexican patriots and historical events such as the Declaration of Independence (Scott #310-320).
President Díaz announced in 1908 that he would retire in 1911, resulting in the development of new coalitions. But then he ran for reelection anyway and in a show of U.S. support, Díaz and William Howard Taft planned a summit in El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, for October 16, 1909, an historic first meeting between a Mexican and a U.S. president and also the first time an American president would cross the border into Mexico. Both sides agreed that the disputed Chamizal strip connecting El Paso to Ciudad Juárez would be considered neutral territory with no flags present during the summit, but the meeting focused attention on this territory and resulted in assassination threats and other serious security concerns.
On the day of the summit, Frederick Russell Burnham, the celebrated scout, and Private C.R. Moore, a Texas Ranger, discovered a man holding a concealed palm pistol standing at the El Paso Chamber of Commerce building along the procession route, and they disarmed the assassin within only a few feet of Díaz and Taft. Both presidents were unharmed and the summit was held. Díaz was re-elected in 1910, but alleged electoral fraud forced him into exile in France and sparked the 1910 Mexican Revolution, initially led by Francisco I. Madero.
Madero was elected president but overthrown and murdered in a coup d’état two years later directed by conservative general Victoriano Huerta. That event re-ignited the civil war, involving figures such as Francisco Villa and Emiliano Zapata, who formed their own forces. A third force, the constitutional army led by Venustiano Carranza managed to bring an end to the war, and radically amended the 1857 Constitution to include many of the social premises and demands of the revolutionaries into what was eventually called the 1917 Constitution. It is estimated that the war killed 900,000 of the 1910 population of 15 million.
Philatelically, this period resulted in numerous provisional and local stamps issued by the factions in control of different areas of the country. For example, in 1913-1914, the state of Sonora, controlled by the Madero forces, issued a series of typeset provisional issues, known as the “white” issue and the “green seal” issue. The state of Oaxaca, maintaining a neutral position, similarly issued provisionals in 1915.
In addition to the locals and provisionals, a great variety of overprints and surcharges were added to stocks of existing stamps by the powers then in control. Although many of these were printed on the stamps, they are commonly known by Mexican philatelists as “gomigrafos” or rubber stamps. Among the best known of these overprints are the “GCM” monograms, standing for Gobierno Constitutionalista Mexicano (Constitutional Mexican Government). Varieties of this overprint were first used by the Conventionalists supported by Villa, and later by the Constitutionalists and known as the Carranza overprints.
Despite great disruption caused by the civil wars, opportunists took advantage of the strong interest in stamp collecting by producing for the philatelic market a number of forgeries of both the local issues as well as the overprints. In addition, many of the covers from this period were manufactured for collectors with the assistance of postal authorities and did not represent ordinary postal use. The great complexity of the stamp issues of this period has been studied by philatelists in recent years, most notably by Nicholas Follansbee in The Stamps of the Mexican Revolution 1913-1916 (1996).
Assassinated in 1920, Carranza was succeeded by another revolutionary hero, Álvaro Obregón, who in turn was succeeded by Plutarco Elías Calles. Obregón was reelected in 1928 but assassinated before he could assume power. Although this period is usually referred to as the Mexican Revolution, it might also be termed a civil war since president Díaz (1909) narrowly escaped assassination and presidents Francisco I. Madero (1913), Venustiano Carranza (1920), Álvaro Obregón (1928), and former revolutionary leaders Emiliano Zapata (1919) and Pancho Villa (1923) all were assassinated during this period.
In 1929, Calles founded the National Revolutionary Party (PNR), later renamed the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and started a period known as the Maximato, which ended with the election of Lázaro Cárdenas, who implemented many economic and social reforms. This included the Mexican oil expropriation in March 1938, which nationalized the U.S. and Anglo-Dutch oil company known as the Mexican Eagle Petroleum Company. This movement would result in the creation of the state-owned Mexican oil company known as Pemex. This sparked a diplomatic crisis with the countries whose citizens had lost businesses by Cárdenas’ radical measure, but since then the company has played an important role in the economic development of México.
Stamps produced in the two decade period from 1917 to the mid thirties retained a conservative character similar to those of other countries including the United States. The stamps were engraved and had a standard format consisting of a frame with inscriptions surrounding a portrait of an historically important person, building or scene. In the mid-1930s, this staid format slowly began to change into a more varied concept with a more contemporary look. In 1934, a series of stamps was issued depicting ancient and contemporary Indians engaged in activities such as making pottery (Scott #698-706). The frames of each stamp differed noticeably and the central image sometimes crossed over onto the frame. The lettering began to take on a more modern aspect also, such as a distinct Art Deco font on the 1935 stamp illustrating Zapata (Scott #723).
In 1934-1935, México issued a series of airmail stamps depicting Aztec gods and symbols (Scott #C65-C73). The lettering on many of these was in a strong Art Deco style, and one stamp, the 5 centavos, was a borderless image of Aztec symbols mixed with wings, unlike any stamps México had previously issued. The appearance of Mexican stamps took an abrupt and major change with the 1938 issue commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Plan of Guadalupe (Scott #737-739). This issue had a thoroughly “modern art” look with drawings in a contemporary Mexican muralist style, surrounded by bold, modern lettering. These stamps were only the second issue to be printed by photogravure, which thereafter became a common method for production of Mexican stamps.
A number of stamps were printed in the early 1940s with drawings or paintings of images in a bold, Mexican Art Deco style, in a large square format with a common appearance. Many of these were the artwork of Francisco Eppens Helguera, a Mexican artist whose images were used on numerous Mexican stamps in the late 1930s through the early 1950s. Eppens also created the small, but iconic, 1939 postal tax stamp depicting a man attacked by a giant mosquito, issued to raise funds to combat malaria; its use was obligatory on all mail (Scott #RA14). Beginning in the 1940s, México issued a great variety of stamps in different styles and sizes (often large), typically depicting persons, places, objects or events connected with the country and its history.
From 1950 to 1975, México issued a series of small format definitive stamps with similar basic design for surface mail (Scott #856-867 for the initial release with many subsequent catalogue numbers assigned). Although this series is known by philatelists as the “Architecture and Archaeology” series, it in fact included some other subjects such as the centennial of the Mexican constitution. Many of stamps in this series were reprinted over the years, with differences in color, perforation and paper types.
The “Architecture and Archaeology” series also included a number of larger format airmail stamps (1950–1976) with common design, although some specialists treat the two series separately. The airmail series had even more varieties than the surface mail stamps, some of which are fairly rare, selling for over $100 each. Some of the later issues in this series were printed on light-active paper, coated with optical brighteners causing it to fluoresce under ultraviolet light, or which had phosphorescent tagging added. These coatings were used for security purposes and to facilitate high speed machine sorting.
The stamps were mostly printed by photogravure, but lithography reappeared and became common for a number of issues beginning in 1992. México’s stamps were printed in one or two colors until the stamps commemorating the 1968 Summer Olympics held in México City in 1968, which were the first multicolored stamps issued by México.
These stamp issues included several series of stamps with common design elements which were added to over a period of time, especially as inflation increased postal rates.
From 1975 to 1993, México issued a series of definitive regular and airmail stamps in a uniform style depicting a great variety of products México exports, such as beef, bicycles. tomatoes and chemicals, each stamp bearing the Exporta logo (Scott #1109-1138, plus additional later catalogue numbers). The series was added to over the years, and there are a great number of variants of papers, sizes, colors, watermarks, and plate flaws. A number of the stamps had burelage printed on their surface. Specialists have also identified 14 different weights and grades of paper used on the stamps. As a result of the collecting challenges, the Exporta issue has received a great deal of attention by collectors and is the most popular modern series.
Between 1940 and 1980, México remained a poor country but experienced substantial economic growth that some historians call the “Mexican miracle”. Although the economy continued to flourish for some, social inequality remained a factor of discontent. Moreover, the PRI rule became increasingly authoritarian and at times oppressive in what is now referred to as “México’s dirty war”.
Electoral reforms and high oil prices followed the administration of Luis Echeverría. Mismanagement of these revenues led to inflation and exacerbated the 1982 Crisis. That year, oil prices plunged, interest rates soared, and the government defaulted on its debt. President Miguel de la Madrid resorted to currency devaluations which in turn sparked inflation.
In the 1980s, the first cracks emerged in PRI’s monopolistic position. In Baja California, Ernesto Ruffo Appel was elected as governor. In 1988, alleged electoral fraud prevented the leftist candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas from winning the national presidential elections, giving Carlos Salinas de Gortari the presidency and leading to massive protests in México City.
Salinas embarked on a program of neoliberal reforms which fixed the exchange rate, controlled inflation and culminated with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which came into effect on January 1, 1994. The same day, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) started a two-week-long armed rebellion against the federal government, and has continued as a non-violent opposition movement against neoliberalism and globalization.
In 1994, Salinas was succeeded by Ernesto Zedillo, followed by the Mexican peso crisis and a $50 billion IMF bailout. Major macroeconomic reforms were started by President Zedillo, and the economy rapidly recovered and growth peaked at almost 7% by the end of 1999.
In 2000, after 71 years, the PRI lost a presidential election to Vicente Fox of the opposition National Action Party (PAN). In the 2006 presidential election, Felipe Calderón from the PAN was declared the winner, with a very narrow margin over leftist politician Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). López Obrador, however, contested the election and pledged to create an “alternative government”.
After twelve years, in 2012, the PRI won the Presidency again with the election of Enrique Peña Nieto, the governor of the State of Mexico from 2005–2011. However, he won with only a plurality of about 38%, and did not have a legislative majority.
Scott #948 was released in 1963, a reprint of the original Scott #862 in the same color of red orange but with a different watermark (diagonal GOBIERNO MEXICANO and eagle in circle on the 1951 issue — listed by Scott as Watermark 279 — and multiple MEX with eagle in circle on the 1963 reissue, Wmk. 350). Printed using photogravure and perforated 14, this entry in the “Architecture and Archaeology” series depicts one of the famed colossal stone heads (“La Venta Monument 1”) of the Olmec civilization which lived in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, in the present-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco. The Olmecs were the first major civilization in Guatemala and Mexico following a progressive development in Soconusco and modern southwestern pacific lowlands of Guatemala.
The population of the Olmecs flourished during Mesoamerica’s formative period, dating roughly from as early as 1500 BCE to about 400 BCE. Pre-Olmec cultures had flourished in the area since about 2500 BCE, but by 1600–1500 BCE, early Olmec culture had emerged, centered on the San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán site near the coast in southeast Veracruz. They were the first Mesoamerican civilization, and laid many of the foundations for the civilizations that followed. Among other “firsts”, the Olmec appeared to practice ritual bloodletting and played the Mesoamerican ballgame, hallmarks of nearly all subsequent Mesoamerican societies. The aspect of the Olmecs most familiar now is their artwork, particularly the aptly named “colossal heads”. The Olmec civilization was first defined through artifacts which collectors purchased on the pre-Columbian art market in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Olmec artworks are considered among ancient America’s most striking.
Rising from the sedentary agriculturalists of the Gulf Lowlands as early as 1600 BCE in the Early Formative period, the Olmecs held sway in the Olmec heartland, an area on the southern Gulf of Mexico coastal plain, in Veracruz and Tabasco. Roughly 124 miles (200 kilometers) long and 50 miles (80 km) wide, with the Coatzalcoalcos River system running through the middle, the heartland is home to the major Olmec sites of La Venta, San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, Laguna de los Cerros, and Tres Zapotes.
By no later than 1200 BCE, San Lorenzo had emerged as the most prominent Olmec center. While a layer of occupation at La Venta dates to 1200 BCE, La Venta did not reach its apogee until the decline of San Lorenzo, after 900 BCE. After 500 years of pre-eminence, La Venta was all but abandoned by the beginning of the fourth century BCE. Located on an island in a coastal swamp overlooking the then-active Río Palma, La Venta probably controlled a region between the Mezcalapa and Coatzacoalcos rivers.
Unlike later Maya or Aztec cities, La Venta was built from earth and clay — there was little locally abundant stone for the construction. Large basalt stones were brought in from the Tuxtla Mountains, but these were used nearly exclusively for monuments including the colossal heads, the “altars” (actually thrones), and various stelae. For example, the basalt columns that surround Complex A were quarried from Punta Roca Partida, on the Gulf coast north of the San Andres Tuxtla volcano. Many of the site’s monuments are now on display in the archaeological museum and park in the city of Villahermosa, Tabasco.
The discovery of a colossal head at Tres Zapotes in the nineteenth century spurred the first archaeological investigations of Olmec culture by Matthew Stirling in 1938. Seventeen confirmed examples are known from four sites within the Olmec heartland. Most colossal heads were sculpted from spherical boulders but two from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán were re-carved from massive stone thrones. An additional monument, at Takalik Abaj in Guatemala, is a throne that may have been carved from a colossal head. This is the only known example from outside the Olmec heartland.
Dating the monuments remains difficult because of the movement of many from their original contexts prior to archaeological investigation. Most have been dated to the Early Preclassic period (1500–1000 BC) with some to the Middle Preclassic (1000–400 BC) period. The smallest weigh six tons, while the largest is variously estimated to weigh 40 to 50 tons, although it was abandoned and left unfinished close to the source of its stone.
All of the Olmec colossal heads depict mature men with flat noses and fleshy cheeks; the eyes tend to be slightly crossed. The general physical characteristics of the heads are of a type that is still common among people in the Olmec region in modern times. The backs of the heads are often flat, as if the monuments were originally placed against a wall. All examples wear distinctive headdresses that probably represent cloth or animal hide originals. Some examples have a tied knot at the back of the head, and some are decorated with feathers. A head from La Venta is decorated with the head of a bird. There are similarities between the headdresses on some of the heads that has led to speculation that specific headdresses may represent different dynasties, or perhaps identify specific rulers. Most of the heads wear large earspools inserted into the ear lobes.
All of the heads are realistic, unidealized and frank descriptions of the men. It is likely that they were portraits of living (or recently deceased) rulers well known to the sculptors. Each head is distinct and naturalistic, displaying individualized features. They were once thought to represent ballplayers although this theory is no longer widely held; it is possible, however, that they represent rulers equipped for the Mesoamerican ballgame. Facial expressions depicted on the heads vary from stern through placid to smiling. The most naturalistic Olmec art is the earliest, appearing suddenly without surviving antecedents, with a tendency towards more stylized sculpture as time progressed. Some surviving examples of wooden sculpture recovered from El Manatí demonstrate that the Olmecs are likely to have created many more perishable sculptures than works sculpted from stone.
In the late nineteenth century, José Melgar y Serrano described a colossal head as having “Ethiopian” features and speculations that the Olmec had African origins resurfaced in 1960 in the work of Alfonso Medellín Zenil and in the 1970s in the writings of Ivan van Sertima. Such speculation is not taken seriously by Mesoamerican scholars such as Richard Diehl and Ann Cyphers.
Although all the colossal heads are broadly similar, there are distinct stylistic differences in their execution. One of the heads from San Lorenzo bears traces of plaster and red paint, suggesting that the heads were originally brightly decorated. Heads did not just represent individual Olmec rulers; they also incorporated the very concept of rulership itself.
The production of each colossal head must have been carefully planned, given the effort required to ensure the necessary resources were available; it seems likely that only the more powerful Olmec rulers were able to mobilize such resources. The workforce would have included sculptors, laborers, overseers, boatmen, woodworkers and other artisans producing the tools to make and move the monument, in addition to the support needed to feed and otherwise attend to these workers. The seasonal and agricultural cycles and river levels needed to have been taken into account to plan the production of the monument and the whole project may well have taken years from beginning to end.
Archaeological investigation of Olmec basalt workshops suggest that the colossal heads were first roughly shaped using direct percussion to chip away both large and small flakes of stone. The sculpture was then refined by retouching the surface using hammerstones, which were generally rounded cobbles that could be of the same basalt as the monument itself, although this was not always the case. Abrasives were found in association with workshops at San Lorenzo, indicating their use in the finishing of fine detail. Olmec colossal heads were fashioned as in-the-round monuments with varying levels of relief on the same work; they tended to feature higher relief on the face and lower relief on the earspools and headdresses. Monument 20 at San Lorenzo is an extensively damaged throne with a figure emerging from a niche. Its sides were broken away and it was dragged to another location before being abandoned. It is possible that this damage was caused by the initial stages of re-carving the monument into a colossal head but that the work was never completed.
All seventeen of the confirmed heads in the Olmec heartland were sculpted from basalt mined in the Sierra de los Tuxtlas mountains of Veracruz. Most were formed from coarse grained dark grey basalt known as Cerro Cintepec basalt after a volcano in the range. Investigators have proposed that large Cerro Cintepec basalt boulders found on the southeastern slopes of the mountains are the source of the stone for the monuments. These boulders are found in an area affected by large lahars (volcanic mudslides) that carried substantial blocks of stone down the mountain slopes, which suggests that the Olmecs did not need to quarry the raw material for sculpting the heads. Roughly spherical boulders were carefully selected to mimic the shape of a human head. The stone for the San Lorenzo and La Venta heads was transported a considerable distance from the source. The La Cobata head was found on El Vigia hill in the Sierra de los Tuxtlas and the stone from Tres Zapotes Colossal Head 1 and Nestepe Colossal Head 1 (also known as Tres Zapotes Monuments A and Q) came from the same hill.
The boulders were transported over 93 miles 150 km) from the source of the stone. The exact method of transportation of such large masses of rock are unknown, especially since the Olmecs lacked beasts of burden and functional wheels, and they were likely to have used water transport whenever possible. Coastal currents of the Gulf of Mexico and in river estuaries might have made the waterborne transport of monuments weighing 20 tons or more impractical. Two badly damaged Olmec sculptures depict rectangular stone blocks bound with ropes. A largely destroyed human figure rides upon each block, with their legs hanging over the side. These sculptures may well depict Olmec rulers overseeing the transport of the stone that would be fashioned into their monuments.
When transport over land was necessary, the Olmecs are likely to have used causeways, ramps and roads to facilitate moving the heads. The regional terrain offers significant obstacles such as swamps and floodplains; avoiding these would have necessitated crossing undulating hill country. The construction of temporary causeways using the suitable and plentiful floodplain soils would have allowed a direct route across the floodplains to the San Lorenzo Plateau. Earth structures such as mounds, platforms and causeways upon the plateau demonstrate that the Olmec possessed the necessary knowledge and could commit the resources to build large-scale earthworks.
The flat backs of many of the colossal heads represented the flat bases of the monumental thrones from which they were reworked. Only four of the seventeen heartland heads do not have flattened backs, indicating the possibility that the majority were reworked monuments. Alternatively, the backs of many of these massive monuments may have been flattened to ease their transport, providing a stable form for hauling the monuments with ropes. Two heads from San Lorenzo have traces of niches that are characteristic of monumental Olmec thrones and so were definitely reworked from earlier monuments.
Scott #862 and #948 depict the colossal stone head designated as La Venta Monument 1. Three of the La Venta heads were found in a line running east-west in the northern Complex I; all three faced northwards, away from the city center. The other head was found in Complex B to the south of the Great Pyramid, in a plaza that included a number of other sculptures. The latter, the first of the La Venta heads to be discovered, was found during archaeological exploration of La Venta in 1925; the other three remained unknown to archaeologists until a local boy guided Matthew Stirling to them while he was excavating the first head in 1940. They were located 0.56 miles (0.9 km) to the north of Monument 1.
La Venta Monument 1 is speculated to have been the portrait of La Venta’s final ruler. Monument 1 measures 7.9 feet (2.41 meters) high by 6.8 feet (2.08 meters) wide by 6.4 feet (1.95 meters) deep; it weighs 24 tons. The front of the headdress is decorated with three motifs that apparently represent the claws or fangs of an animal. Above these symbols is an angular U-shaped decoration descending from the scalp. On each side of the monument a strap descends from the headdress, passing in front of the ear. Each ear has a prominent ear ornament that descends from the earlobe to the base of the monument. The features are those of a mature man, with wrinkles around the mouth, eyes and nose.
Monument 1 is the best preserved head at La Venta but has suffered from erosion, particularly at the back. The head was first described by Franz Blom and Oliver La Farge who investigated the La Venta remains on behalf of Tulane University in 1925. When discovered it was half-buried; its massive size meant that the discoverers were unable to excavate it completely. Matthew Stirling fully excavated the monument in 1940, after clearing the thick vegetation that had covered it in the intervening years. Monument 1 has been moved to the Parque-Museo La Venta in Villahermosa. The head was found in its original context; associated finds have been radiocarbon dated to between 1000 and 600 BC.
On January 12, 2009, at least three people, including two Mexicans and one American, entered the Parque-Museo La Venta in Villahermosa and damaged just under 30 archaeological pieces, including the four La Venta colossal heads. The vandals were all members of an evangelical church and appeared to have been carrying out a supposed pre-Columbian ritual, during which salts, grape juice, and oil were thrown on the heads. It was estimated that 300,000 pesos (US $21,900) would be needed to repair the damage, and the restoration process would last four months. The three vandals were released soon after their arrest after paying 330,000 pesos each.