Book Report

Mexico, from Olmec to Aztecs. Michael D. Coe

Mexico, from Olmec to Aztecs. Michael D. Coe and Rene Koontz. 7th edition, revised and expanded. Thames and Hudson (Amazon e-book).

Are you curious about daily life here in Mexico before Columbus and Cortez "discovered" the New World? If so, look for answers and visual images in this book. A wealth of information is contained in its ten chapters, introduction, and epilogue, index, bibliography, extensive resource list packed into 786 pages. I read it as an e-book. What an interesting and readable history lesson! This book tells the fascinating story of pre-Spanish Mexico, and we learn a little of what it was like to live in that time and place.

I'll focus on the earliest histories of Mesoamerica in this report, as less is known (at least to me), about these ancient people, but the book goes on to describe Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec cultures and history, and it focuses on the land between the western Mayan, and the northern frontier, all in that big cornucopia of land that is present day Mexico. There has been much more written about later periods, but I've read almost nothing about the nomadic hunters that preceded the Mayan and Aztec empires, and so, I found these descriptions and  pictures, along with the author’s  theories really interesting!

The Introduction paints the setting, giving us a picture of Mexico as it was then, and also describes the earliest hunter/gatherers, (during that period and until 700 BC), who were nomads and hunters following game, and who eventually became the first Mesoamerican farmers to begin to domesticate plants.

For thousands of years these early farmers were isolated by deserts from Southeastern and Southwestern America, as well as by myriads of different climates and geographies. In the area described in this book, there was also the barrier of many different cultures and languages. Many of these first hunters had arrived by following game down from North America; ancient hunters seeking bison and wooly mammoths. The climate was cooler then, and much more humid; and there were active volcanoes, swamps, and pine forests. Hunting was good so human populations expanded.

I also really enjoyed the sections describing how, when, and where the major food plants (still so very important, and commonly used in Mexico today), were first domesticated. This beginning of agriculture in Mexico also gradually paved the way for evolution from nomadic hunting/gathering societies, to the beginnings of Mexico's first villages.

Maize, beans, and squash were the first plants domesticated, and maize was (and still is), the most important cultivated food for Mexico. That’s corn, Bunkie.

 There are many legends about maize (thought to have evolved from tall grasses, and domesticated about 700 BC.) One such story is about the hero-god (Quetzalcoatl), who changed himself into an ant to search for the very first seed of grain deep inside a mountain, and who then grew it to feed his people.

Other chapters describe the variety of plants, long ago domesticated as food,  the making of pottery for cooking, (also used for art objects, including many crude and very obese clay female figures.)

The authors describe the connections of the hunters to the Aztec Indians who were then as far north as Nevada and California, and they also tell us that the only domesticated animals eaten at that time were turkeys (rarely), and of course, dogs. That would be Rover.

Michael Coe has written other titles, including Breaking the Mayan Code, the Maya, and the True History of Chocolate. I enjoyed this book, I do recommend it, (particularly for history buffs), and I would now also like to read his other books.

This e-book is available on I think it is a great read, and a resource about life in Mexico before Cortez and the Spanish conquest. Owner of El Caballo Blanco bookstore in Loreto.