Chapter 4: Middle America

Middle America, the geographic realm between the United States and the continent of South America, consists of three main regions: the Caribbean, Mexico, and the Central American republics. Central America refers to the seven states south of Mexico: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.

The Caribbean region, the most culturally diverse of the three, consists of more than seven thousand islands that stretch from the Bahamas to Barbados.

Map of Middle America
Map of Middle America

Middle America has various types of physical landscapes, including volcanic islands and mountain ranges. Tectonic action at the edge of the Caribbean Plate has brought about volcanic activity, creating many of the islands of the region as volcanoes rose above the ocean surface. The island of Montserrat is one such example. The volcano on this island has continued to erupt in recent years, showering the island with dust and ash and making habitation difficult.

National Geographic Wild: A Volcanic Surprise | Caribbean’s Deadly Underworld

Many of the other low-lying islands, such as the Bahamas, were formed by coral reefs rising above the ocean surface. Tectonic plate activity not only has created volcanic islands but also is a constant source of earthquakes that continue to be a problem for the Caribbean community.

The backbone of Central America is mountainous, with many volcanoes located within its ranges. Much of the Caribbean and all of Central America are located south of the Tropic of Cancer and are dominated by tropical type A climates. The mountainous areas have varied climates, with cooler climates located at higher elevations. Mexico has extensive mountainous areas with two main ranges in the north and highlands in the south. There are no landlocked countries in this realm, and coastal areas have been exploited for fishing and tourism development.

Volcanoes in Mexico
Volcanoes in Mexico

Using a regional approach to the geography of a realm helps us compare and contrast a place’s features and characteristics. Location and the physical differences explain the division of Middle America into two geographic areas according to occupational activities and colonial dynamics: the rimland, which includes the Caribbean islands and the Caribbean coastal areas of Central America, and the mainland, which includes the interior of Mexico and Central America.

Colonialism thrived in the rimland because it consists mainly of islands and coastal areas that were accessible to European ships. Ships could easily sail into a cove or bay to make port and claim the island for their home country. After an island or coastal area was claimed, there was unimpeded transformation of the area through plantation agriculture. On a plantation, local individuals were subjugated as servants or slaves. The land was planted with a single crop—usually sugarcane, tobacco, cotton, or fruit—grown for export profits. Most of these crops were not native to the Americas but were brought in during colonial times. European diseases killed vast numbers of local Amerindian laborers, so slaves were brought from Africa to do the work.

 Sugar cane cutters in Jamaica in 1838
Sugar cane cutters in Jamaica in 1838

The mainland, consisting of Mexico and the interior of Central America, diverged from the rimland in terms of both colonial dynamics and agricultural production. The interior lacked the easy access to the sea that the rimland enjoyed. As a result, the hacienda-style of land use developed. This Spanish innovation was aimed at land acquisition for social prestige and a comfortable lifestyle. Export profits were not the driving force behind the operation, though they may have existed. The indigenous workers, who were poorly paid if at all, were allowed to live on the haciendas, working their own plots for subsistence. African slaves were not prominent in the mainland.

The plantation and hacienda eras are in the past. The abolition of slavery in the later 1800s and the cultural revolutions that occurred on the mainland challenged the plantation and hacienda systems and brought about land reform. Plantations were transformed into either multiple private plots or large corporate farms. The hacienda system was broken up, and most of the hacienda land was given back to the people, often in the form of an ejidos system, in which the community owns the land but individuals can profit from it by sharing its resources. The ejidos system has created its own set of problems, and many of the communally owned lands are being transferred to private owners.

An ejido is an area of communal land used for agriculture in which community members have usufruct rights rather than ownership rights to land, which in Mexico is held by the Mexican state.

The Spanish invasion of Middle America following Columbus had devastating consequences for the indigenous populations. It has been estimated that fifteen to twenty million people lived in Middle America when the Europeans arrived, but after a century of European colonialism, only about 2.5 million remained. Few of the indigenous peoples—such as the Arawak and the Carib on the islands of the Caribbean and the Maya and Aztec on the mainland—had immunities to European diseases such as measles, mumps, smallpox, and influenza. Through warfare, disease, and enslavement, the local populations were decimated. Only a small number of people still claim Amerindian heritage in the Caribbean Basin, and some argue that these few are not indigenous to the Caribbean but are descendants of slaves brought from South America by European colonialists.

Though the region of Mexico has been inhabited for thousands of years, one of the earliest cultures to develop into a civilization with large cities was the Olmec, which was believed to be the precursor to the later Mayan Empire.  The Maya established a vast civilization after the Olmec, and Mayan stone structures remain as major tourist attractions. The classical era of the Mayan civilization lasted from 300 to 900 CE and was centered in the Yucatán Peninsula region of Mexico, Belize, and Central America. Guatemala was once a large part of this vast empire, and Mayan ruins are found as far south as Honduras. During the classical era, the Maya built some of the most magnificent cities and stone pyramids in the Western Hemisphere. The city-states of the empire functioned through a sophisticated religious hierarchy. The Mayan civilization made advancements in mathematics, astronomy, engineering, and architecture. They developed an accurate calendar based on the seasons and the solar system. The extent of their immense knowledge is still being discovered. The descendants of the Maya people still exist today, but their empire does not.

Ancient Maya 101 | National Geographic

The Toltec, who controlled central Mexico briefly, came to power after the classical Mayan era. They also took control of portions of the old Mayan Empire from the north. The Aztec federation replaced the Toltec and Maya as the dominant civilization in southern Mexico. The Aztec, who expanded outward from their base in central Mexico, built the largest and greatest city in the Americas of the time, Tenochtitlán, with an estimated population of one hundred thousand. Tenochtitlán was located at the present site of Mexico City. The Aztec rose to dominance in the fourteenth century and were still in power when the Europeans arrived.

Ask History: What Happened to the Aztecs? | History

After the voyages of Columbus, the Spanish conquistadors came to the New World in search of gold, riches, and profits, bringing their Roman Catholic religion with them. Zealous church members sought to convert the “heathens” to their religion. 

The local Amerindian descendants of the Maya and the Aztec still live in the region, and there are dozens of other Amerindian groups in Mexico with their own languages, histories, and cultures.

Key Takeaways:

✎ Middle America consists of 3 regions: the Caribbean, Mexico, and the Central American republics.
✎ Middle America is divided into the rimland and the mainland.
✎ The rimland had plantations and the mainland had a hacienda style of land use.
✎ The Spanish invasion of Middle America following Columbus had devastating consequences for the indigenous populations.
✎ Two dominant civilizations in Middle America were the Maya and Aztecs.
✎ Descendants of the Maya, Aztecs, and other Amerindian groups still live in the region with their own languages and cultures.

Next: 4.1 Mexico

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Image and additional information credits:

Middle America region
By Uwe Dedering – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11221296
Rimland and Mainland map
https://open.lib.umn.edu/worldgeography/chapter/5-1-introducing-the-realm/
Sugar cane cutters in Jamaica
By Unknown – http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/261996, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62377660
Ejido
By Eduardo Robles Pacheco from Tapachula, Chiapas., México – En el ejido Cuauhtémoc (28), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38271769
Ejido information
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ejido
Volcanoes in Mexico
By Lyn Topinka, USGS – Archived source link; base map from CIA, 2003; volcanoes from Simkin and Siebert, 1994, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45000

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