What does Mesoamerica mean?

This is a question that gets brought up a lot. It’s important, no? If you’re in my Teotihuacan mini course right now, we’ve already covered part of this. But stay tuned! There are more fascinating factoids headed your way in this post!

I’m going to answer the question of Mesoamerica in two ways:

1. What does the word “Mesoamerica” mean?

… and

2. What does Mesoamerica refer to?

Let’s dive in!

1., What does the word “Mesoamerica” mean?

“Mesoamerica” is a Greek term composed of the prefix “Meso” (meaning Middle) and “America”, which… you should know. So, in plain English, this translates to “Middle America”.

This term was first used by Paul Kirchhoff, a German ethnologist, in the 1940s, and replaced “Middle America”, which was a bit too general.

But before you run off with that tidbit– you need to know that Middle America and Mesoamerica frequently refer to different things. Which brings me to our second point:

2. What does “Mesoamerica” refer to?

The term Mesoamerica differs from Middle America because it refers to a specific region encompassing parts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Middle America, in contrast, refers to a much larger region–it usually means roughly the same as Central America.

So let’s zoom in on Mesoamerica. I’ll use a graphic here from my Teotihuacan course for clarity.

Mesoamerica encompasses some of northern Mexico and all of the rest of the country to the south. It envelopes Belize and Guatemala and extends to Honduras and El Salvador. Kirchhoff created this distinction based off of cultural similarities between all of the different ethnic groups in the region.

You might be wondering, “But why are we giving a Greek name to this area? Don’t we know what the ancient Mesoamericans called it?”

And the truth is, we don’t know. We have names for individual towns and regions within what we call Mesoamerica, but we do not have any records of what the name was for the entire region– we don’t even know if Mesoamericans would have placed the “borders” of their world at the same places!

So, now you know how we came about with the name Mesoamerica. It’s definitely not a perfect fit, but it will work for now!

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