The Olmec first appeared along the Atlantic coast (in what is now the state of Tabasco) in the period 1500900 BC. The Olmecs were the first Mesoamerican culture to produce an identifiable artistic and cultural style, and may also have been the society that invented writing in Mesoamerica. By the Middle Preclassic Period (900300 BC), Olmec artistic styles had been adopted as far away as the Valley of Mexico and Costa Rica.
As a colony, Mexico 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. Hernn Corts had conquered the great empire of the Aztecs and established New Spain as the largest and most important Spanish colony. During the 16th 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 end of 16th century (Santa Fe, 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, were people of Spanish background but born in Mexico. 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 marginalised 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. Mexico 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 Cortez 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 tradeVeracruz 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 Mexico boasts the first primary school (Texcoco, 1523), first university, the University of Mexico(1551) and the first printing press (1524) of 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.
Mexico produced important cultural achievements during the colonial period, like the literature of Sor Juana Ins de la Cruz and Ruiz de Alarcn, as well as cathedrals, civil monuments, forts and colonial cities such as Puebla, Mexico City, Quertaro, Zacatecas and others, today part of Unesco's World Heritage.
The syncretism between indigenous and Spanish cultures gave rise to many of nowadays Mexican staple and world-famous cultural traits like tequila (since the 16th century), mariachi (18th), jarabe (17th), charros (17th) and the highly prized Mexican cuisine, 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. The man who finally touched off the revolt against Spain was the Catholic priest Father Miguel Hidalgo Y Costilla. He is remembered today as the Father of Mexican Independence.